Though the air temperature was in the upper 30s when my friend Sid met me at the boat ramp during the late morning, several consecutive cold nights in the low teens had put a lot of ice in the Allegheny River. It took a few minutes to clear the frozen surface from in front of the ramp, and once we were afloat the river’s surface was choked with crushed ice.
Not ones to let common sense discourage us from the task at hand, we forged forward, idling upriver a few hundred yards to a deep hole, where luckily, the surface was a bit more open.
We fished the edge of the hole with jig-and-minnow combinations with no success. The slow current swept us downriver onto a shallow flat. Setting down my jig rod a picked up one rigged with a Rapala Deep X-Rap, a minnow-shaped bait that dives 4 to 6 feet and remains suspended in the water column, neither sinking nor rising.
While I held the boat steady in the current with the trolling motor, the lure, which was around 50 feet below the boat, maintained a steady easy-to-capture look. That is until a chunky 21-inch walleye pounced on it.
In my experience, minnow-shaped jerkbaits aren’t the best option for taking numbers of walleyes at this time of year. But the ones they catch tend to be quality-sized fish. I can’t recall ever catching a sub-legal river walleye during the cold-water period. One of the largest to find its way to my boat, a 12-pounder taken by Dave Lehman, came on a suspending jerkbait during a late-November day.
In ultra-cold water — the surface temperature was 31 degrees during the trip of last week described at the outset — walleyes aren’t going to move far for a lure. But put it in their face, at a snail’s pace, and the results can be surprisingly positive.
In the rivers of the upper Midwest, which tend to have a much more even bottom that the up-and-down contours of our rivers, walleye anglers score well by trolling slowly upriver through deep holes, trailing a minnow-shaped bait on a three-way rig. Typically, the lure is an original Rapala minnow, with the three-way rig weighted down with a 3- to 5-ounce bell sinker. Trolling speed is just enough to keep the boat moving upriver.
Minnow-shaped baits are also effective walleye baits once the water warms. For years, trolling Rapala-style lures after dark in Keystone Lake was a top tactic. The fish were often suspended well off the bottom, feeding on emerald shiners. Though I’ve lost much of my zest for after-hours fishing, I suspect, given the number of shiners and rainbow smelt roaming the open waters of Keystone, that this tactic remains effective.
In Pymatuning Lake, where alewife have become a preferred food fish for the lake’s abundant walleye population, the top tactic that last few years has been casting minnow baits from the evening twilight period well into the darkness. Alewife make evening migrations into the shallows during the spring and early summer, with walleyes in tow. Suspending minnowbaits with a hint of blue or purple, suggesting an alewife, have been responsible for the taking of many of my ’eyes.
On the Allegheny, when the water warms in May and June, most of the walleyes we catch are taken from the base of heavy riffle areas. Suspending minnowbaits are one of the top two presentations (soft swimbaits are the other).
Regardless of where walleyes swim, chances are that at some time of the year minnowbaits will be among the top options to take them.