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Playing the "Weighting Game"
Part 1 - Live Bait Rigs

By Keith Kavajecz & Gary Parsons

Playing the "Waiting Game" … that’s what it feels like we’ve been doing all winter … waiting for the ice to be gone and the walleye bite to begin. Well now the winter season is done and it’s time to begin looking for open water in the pursuit of fast walleye action. But as we enter another fishing season, there’s another game we need to be prepared for if we’re going to consistently score walleyes … the "Weighting Game". So many of the tactics employed in walleye fishing require the use of some sort of weighting system … jigs, split-shot, slip sinkers, bottom bouncers, Snap Weights, in-line weights, and lead core line all have a place and time that they’re most productive. The key is to know what system will work best in any given situation. We could write a book covering all the aspects of weighting systems, but here’s an overview of the basics for choosing weighting systems by application.

Many anglers wouldn’t think of jigs as a weighting system, but in reality a jig is simply a lead weight connected directly to a hook … about as basic a weighting system as you’re likely to get. While jigs come in a wide array of styles and designs, for the most part they all do the same thing … carry the bait down to where the fish are. The key to being successful with jigs is using them in the right situations. Jigs are best when the bait needs to be presented with precision, on or near the bottom. This can be done by vertical jigging, or by pitching small jigs to shallow structure. In most cases you want to use the lightest weight jig possible to maintain bottom contact.

Besides the bait used to tip the jig hook, other factors that attract walleyes to jigs include the jig’s color and the action the angler imparts to the jig. One of the newest trends in jig color is holographic finishes like those found on the Bass Pro line of XPS Walleye Jigs. These types of finishes combine both color and flash for real "eye-catching" appeal. When you need to put the bait right on a fish’s nose, few presentations work better than a jig.

Walleyes are notorious for being finicky at times, and when that’s the scenario you’re facing, a slip-sinker live bait rig is tough to beat. Situations like when fish are relating fairly tight to structure such as points, humps or a channel edge, and seem to want live bait presented slow and with finesse are ideal for the slip-sinker rig. The bait, be it a minnow, leech or crawler, is allowed to swim freely on a light hook and leader with the sinker, separated from the leader by a swivel, keeping the presentation down in the strike zone. When a walleye takes the bait, the angler can free spool line allowing the fish to move off and get the hook well into its mouth before the line is tightened and a sweeping hookset drives the point home.

One variable in live bait rigging is the length of leader used. Standard leader length is usually around 24 inches, but if you’re fishing very clear water and moving very slowly to tempt biters concentrated in a small area, it’s not unusual to use a leader of 4 to six feet or even more. A slip-sinker rig like Northland Tackle’s Roach Rig is designed with a moveable "sinker stop" which allows the angler to adjust leader length quickly and easily without retying the entire rig. Fine tune your slip-sinker rig to get just the right weight sinker and leader length and there are few presentations deadlier on finicky walleyes.

Another form of live bait rig that fits into the category of "ultra-finesse" would be the split-shot rig. This is fishing at its most basic … a hook, line and sinker. It’s a great rig to use for fishing bait in sparse shallow weeds, or over rocky bottoms where a heavier sinker would snag up instantly. Pinch the shot onto the line 12 to 18 inches up from the hook, choosing a split-shot just heavy enough to get the bait barely ticking the bottom. The split-shot rig can be cast and slowly worked back to the boat, or it’s deadly on a slow drift.

Up to now the weighting systems we’ve covered are primarily for slow, methodical presentations. But there are times when covering water will not only put your bait in front of more fish, but trip the trigger of many that may ignore a slower moving presentation. No doubt, one of the most versatile and productive weighting systems any walleye angler can stock in his arsenal are bottom bouncers. Bouncers are basically an inverted "L" shaped piece of wire with a lead weight molded on the longer of the two arms.

Typical bouncer weights run from 1 to 2 ounces, but they are made in a wide range of weights from 1/4 ounce models for finesse bouncer presentations to 4 or 5 ounce models for fishing quickly in deep water. The design of the bottom bouncer helps make them relatively snag resistant, one reason they have grown in popularity especially for anglers fishing large reservoirs and rivers where rocks and timber tend to eat lesser presentations. Bouncers can be run with a plain snell and live bait for ultra-slow trolling in deep water or drifting mid-depth flats. However, the more popular presentation is to dress the bouncer with an in-line spinner tipped with a nightcrawler and trolled over structure at speeds in the ¾ to 1.5 mph range. Match your bouncer weight to the depth and speed you’re fishing so that the bouncer runs at about a 45 degree angle from the rod tip and the bottom arm of the bouncer is just ticking bottom. Then it’s merely a matter of covering water until a fish grabs hold.

One adaptation of the bouncer that is really catching on in walleye circles is the use of sliding bottom bouncers. Marrying the best traits of the time-tested slip-sinker with the versatility and effectiveness of the bottom bouncer, slip bouncers like Northland Tackle’s Rock-Runner Slip Bouncer are proving to be "The" live bait weighting system on walleye waters everywhere. The beauty of such a system is the ability for the angler to fish a piece of structure with a finesse presentation, but do so quicker and more snag-free than would be possible with a conventional slip-sinker rig. Once fish are contacted, the angler can instantly switch gears and fish much like he would with a slip-sinker rig, hovering over the fish, feeding line once a fish hits before sweeping the hook home. Once you get the hang of fishing bottom bouncers, fixed or sliding, you’ll quickly learn why they are walleye fishing’s most versatile weighting system.

Many trolling presentations used for walleyes utilize various weighting systems too. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll cover the different methods of adding weight to your trolling set-ups to help you dial in your baits to the perfect depth and get you hooked up with more walleyes.

Editors Note: If you have questions or comments on this or other articles from Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz, visit their website