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JEFF KNAPP: Walleyes will chase soft plastics

by JEFF KNAPP sports@indianagazette.net on November 12, 2013 10:40 AM

My partner Tom Ference flipped his crawfish-imitating soft plastic jig into a quiet, bank-side pool of the Allegheny River. A moment later he had a strong tap. Following a hookset and a strong but short battle, a nice walleye was in the net.

On a list of walleye food sources, crawfish are probably down the list a ways. According to traditional thinking, walleyes eat minnows, nightcrawlers and leeches; and to score on walleyes, you need to fish live baits within such a framework. My experience, though, indicates that walleyes, river-dwelling ones in particular, respond well to soft plastic baits that mimic a variety of natural forage.

A bit later in the day, while the Steelers battled the Bills at a windy Heinz Field, we continued our efforts on an equally windy Allegheny River. The last of the stubborn oak leaves were driven to the water’s surface, complicating things. I was fishing a Texas-rigged tube jig when another walleye in the 22-inch range inhaled it. I once heard Al Lindner, widely acknowledged walleye fishing guru, say walleyes rarely hit tube jigs. Maybe that’s true in Minnesota, but in western Pennsylvania they do. Over the years I’ve taken many river walleyes on tubes, including the ones I caught on Sunday’s trip.

What tubes represent to a gamefish is somewhat of a guess. It probably depends on the situation in which they are being fished. In most instances, though, the nod typically goes to crawfish.

Thin-bodied tubes like Canyon Plastic’s original Gitzit and Bass Pro Shops’ Tender Tube, are ideal cold water tube baits. At this time of year the fish are lethargic. The water temperature during this trip was 46 degrees. Thin tubes collapse easier than thicker versions — which exposes the hook — resulting in more consistent hooksets during late-fall fishing.

For baits like tubes, as well as crawfish profiles like Zoom’s Speed Craw, and worm shapes like Yamamoto Senkos, I prefer to fish them on Texas rigs rather than a classic open jighead. The Texas rig, which employees a slip sinker and medium- to wide-gap hook, slides over most bottom obstructions, making it much more snap-free. I can’t recall any hang-ups on the Texas rig during this trip.

As the day wound down, we did a drift along a rocky bank near the boat ramp. While the T-rigged tube had accounted for a couple nice walleyes along with several big smallmouth bass, I opted for a smaller plastic bait, a Chilly Willy made by Winco‘s Custom Lures in eastern Pennsylvania. The Chilly Willy is a finesse-sized grub, about 2οΎ½ inches in length. It is often effective for catching smallmouth bass when they are in a somewhat subdued mood. So it was smallmouth bass I had in mind as a worked the bank as the boat drifted along.

We’d just passed a shoreline laydown when my leadhead jig-rigged Chilly Willy received a sharp tap. Rather than the smallmouth I’d expected to see, though, a 23-inch walleye was soon sloshing on the surface.

So the day revealed a couple things: one, walleyes respond well to soft plastic baits, including non-traditional offerings such as crawfish profiles, tubes and tiny grubs; and two, cooling water combined with higher flows moves walleyes into areas where they are easier to contact. More specifically, this means protected pockets out of the river’s main flow. Also, come late fall walleyes will be mixed with smallmouth bass; it’s common to catch both species fishing the same area with the same baits.

Since flows are typically low during the summertime, the free-flowing portion of the Allegheny, those areas upriver of East Brady, are best fished from canoes, kayaks or jet drive boats. Come fall, though, flows often increase, allowing navigation via traditional propeller-driven boats. Currently the river is at such a level. Folks interested in pursuing a few late-fall walleyes should find conditions favorable.

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