By Jason Haberstroh
Nightcrawlers still maintain an important role for walleye fishermen and women. I went through a phase when I was too cool for crawlers. Now, at least a couple dozen nightcrawlers get stowed away in my cooler when I head out walleye fishing.
I do like to toss swimbaits and crankbaits for walleyes, and some days I do pretty well. Other times, not so much.
During summer, nightcrawlers just might be the premier bait for catching walleyes – at least they tend to be the most consistent fish attractors. Several basic crawler rigs work for me, depending mainly on wind conditions and water clarity.
Generally, I drift when walleye fishing with crawlers. Walleyes follow bait, move on and off and up and down structure, and into and out of cover. Often, they’re not easy to pinpoint, and if schooling fish are found, the hot catching may not last long.
Drifting efficiently covers water to find walleyes scattered on weed flats or multiple zones of an extended reef, or edge, not uncommon on large reservoirs.
Aside from jigs, my drifting rigs are stripped-down versions of popular crawler harnesses used for trolling. Much simpler, I branch out from a foundational Carolina-style setup: slip sinker, barrel swivel, leader, hook.
When the drift is slow, especially in clear water, the rig is a simple one. I like threading a whole nightcrawler on a No. 1 light-wire hook. There’s lots of tail below the hook bend, but the worm maintains an authentic look.
Weights are typically ⅛-ounce or 1⁄16-ounce if I’m lazily dragging a presentation through shallow flats. This provides for a natural, unobtrusive offering to walleyes in a neutral mood or following to study a bait before biting.
I sometimes slip one or two BB-sized orange, red, or chartreuse beads above the hook when in weeds or during lowlight hours. More and bigger beads are added as the breeze strengthens. Seasonal and light conditions being equal, walleyes tend to have a proportional aggression to wind speed.
Up to pre-whitecap stage, I move to a straightforward bead arrangement above a nightcrawler – same hook, heavier sinker. However, upping to pea-sized beads catches the eyes of feeding walleyes. I set at least one bead up to a couple-inch stack of assorted beads leading the crawler. Sometimes uniform color arrangements of beads produce fish, sometimes alternating colors do.
When wind reaches whitecap stage, spinner rigs and painted lead jig heads get the call. When waves are rolling, though a bit uncomfortable, walleye fishing can be at its peak. Offshore reefs and humps attract fish en masse during these times, even at midday, full sunshine. Roller-speed drifting grants a thump and flash to even larger blades on spinner rigs, which are basically bead rigs with an added clevis and spinner.
Because walleyes can be wildly aggressive at these times, baits are flaunted, flared at the bounds of the brightest dyes and paints. Actually, they may go beyond that limit in the sun’s rays. Sparks and reflections emitted by a spinner rig calls sharp-eyed fish from a distance, then upon closing, their lateral line tickles from blade thump. A crawler seals the deal.
My standard blades are little Colorados about the size of a fingernail, in reflective silver and gold. Beads do the coloring.
Brightly colored jig heads also stand out as options in stout wind. The brisk drift speed coinciding with the boat’s rocking from trough to crest provides with movement enticing to feeding walleyes.
An angler can manually work a jig, but when the wind eliminates that task, no one complains. A pinched crawler pushed up a ¼- to 3⁄8-ounce jig head usually gets applied here.
The shortened crawler promotes a rhythmical motion of the presentation and entices slashing walleyes to chomp above the hook bend. Feel a hit? Set the hook and most of the time a walleye comes attached.
Work jigs be manually. I actually do this in an anchored position. I like to find a productive zone, anchor, then fan-cast and bop a ¼-ounce jig head and half worm back to the boat.
At dusk, weedlines are prime locations to intercept incoming walleyes. I’ll also drop-shot with a plain crawler here. I drift these bands 7- to 9-feet deep using a long – at least 2 feet – leader with a floater and nipped nightcrawler.
I think the buoyancy keeps it from grinding into the lake floor, which is all it takes to stay noticeable and fairly debris-free when fishing for walleyes that are roaming weed edges.