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Elsewhere in the country, many people think of warm living rooms when the snow flies but here in Montana, we get ready for a long, cold haul chasing fish. But any creature will make drastic changes when the cold weather arrives, and fish are no exception. We have to, therefore, adapt our approach.
One effective tactic that I have used for many years fishing the winter walleye is the use of simple crankbaits. The beauty of a crankbait is the simplicity of the lures themselves. Simply match the pattern to common prey for the walleye you are fishing, and your chances will improve.
In other articles, I have always preached that a successful angler learns the science behind his sport, and when the seasons change this cannot be more important. The changes in the walleye themselves as well as the changes in food, temperature and cover make fishing for them quite different.
Walleye, as with most species of fish are opportunistic predators that will choose the easier meal over the meal they have to work for, especially in winter when resources are not as abundant as summer. Because of this, try to opt for crankbaits that imitate prey that is lame or injured.
One common issue that I have fallen prey to is the “spinning wheels” factor of a crankbait. That long plastic lip on a Rapala looks good and gets it diving deep. But do not forget crankbaits that have no lip or paddle at all, they make for some of the best winter crankbaits you can buy.
The long plastic lip of a crankbait is great for steady stability and diving action but sometimes you want the action to be unique. I sometimes like baits with no lip because I can manipulate their action better when fishing them by jigging and getting creative.
Another factor that can go unnoticed is the amount of light in the atmosphere. Here in Montana, wintertime means a little less light than the rest of the year. Because of this, there is not as much light underwater.
The best way to get around this is the glow lures and baits but even the glow lures can be too dim. I carry a high lumen flashlight and hit the lure in the palm of your hand for a minute or two. That lure will shine insanely bright for a good while and be very visible to fish.
There are a few different crankbaits that I like, and they are not all the same, but they all have their unique uses and designs. I selected these to try and offer you a wide variety of options. Here are 5 of the best walleye crankbaits to pack with you for the winter.
A crankbait with a great action is important for successfully fishing walleye. The Hornet reminds you that the small lures work just as well (if not better) than the larger baits.
The thing I love about this bait is the color options as well as the reflective patterns they offer. Winter is typically darker and more overcast so try to lean towards those “disco-ball” baits to really make them stand out.
Typically, you do not have to get carried away with the pattern of the lure itself. A simple reflective gray works well but always try to match the pattern of what the walleye are eating. Here in Montana, the walleye has a steady diet of perch due to their smaller size so you will find me fishing winter walleye with a perch pattern or some sort of green and orange pattern.
Try this little guy across any current, dragging diagonally against the current or behind your vessel for a well-rounded trolling bait. Try a few different color options to see what works.
Strike King Red Eye Shad
One thing that I love about the Strike King Red Eye is the crankbait itself has no lip to force it to dive. This gives the lure a natural action in the water that is more believable, in my opinion.
Try using this bait in a cross-current situation to make the action seem even more sporadic. The Red Eye is available in many colors and patterns that can be used year-round as well for different species.
Try to have a few different patterns to see what works better in your area, because what works here may not work there. I really like the size of these baits as well and enjoy that they stow easily and take up less room.
Berkley Shad Crank Bait
I think most anglers have heard of these guys or they may even own a few, I know I do. The Berkley Shad is a classic that offers a quite simple design. This lure comes available in many different patterns so you can easily match the bait to your style of fishing.
This bait is great to use year-round but try the silver patterns in winter for great walleye fishing. Try it in a slow retrieval setting because it does not take much force to make it dance the way it is supposed to.
As mentioned previously, the Berkley shad comes in a variety of colors and patterns but as with the other baits we have discussed, try to opt for reflective patterns for winter fishing. The Berkley shad dives rapidly making it great for getting to the depth you need to fish in a hurry. Try it in a river or stream setting.
The Rapala Shad is a great all-around lure that can make a huge difference in your winter walleye fishing. The thing I like about Rapala is the fact that it operates well at a variety of speeds.
Sometimes trolling speeds need to increase to accommodate the bait and lures you are using. The Rapala shads can handle that increased speed fine. Another great feature of the Rapala Shad is the huge array of patterns and variants in which it is available.
One thing that I like to do with this to imitate a lame or sick fish is notch the lip of the lure slightly to give it a little more stagger to its action. To do this, simply take a small file and sand down a small indent into the top of the lip on either the left or the right side. This small indent will make it travel slightly different in the water.
The benefit of doing this is to make your crankbait more natural-appearing and stand out as prey. Always remember that walleye and nearly every species of game fish are opportunistic feeders and will take an easy meal any day of the week.
Cotton Cordell Walley Diver
The Wally Diver performs as its name suggests and excels at reaching depths fast which optimizes your fishing time. The other factor is that walleye simply love them. Try this behind a boat or vessel trolling for excellent fishing but be mindful of how much line you let out or you will drag the bottom.
This bait is available in a variety of colors and patterns like the other brands we discussed but offers a different style and look. This lure was designed with walleye in mind and its deep diving action is for getting down in the holes where walleye love to be.
One thing that I have noticed here in Montana is that the walleye tends to strike when your bait is on its “downward path”. With crankbaits that are strong divers, try cranking it in spurts to make it look more believable.
The Wally is a great lure for use any time of year but it is a great option for winter walleye. This outstanding lure can be used for just about any sports fish, actually. Try grabbing a few colors to try out so you can see what works best for you.
Getting the Most Out of Your Crankbaits
Crankbaits wear over time and they can be expensive. So, here are a few rules that I follow with my lures that help protect them. I highly recommend that you give these tips a try:
- Thoroughly dry crankbaits before storing
- Do not store two crankbaits together – keep them separate
- Set hooks into a piece of foam pool noodle while in storage
- Keep crankbaits clean of debris when stored
A crankbait is a great choice for winter walleye and for any winter fish for that matter. I have 4 tiers to my tackle box that I take with me every time I go out and the top compartment is all crankbaits.
Many anglers know that these lures work, but they will only work if you know which to use and how to use it. You will find that there are maybe a few different ways to use a crankbait than just what is printed on the box it came in.
Be willing to learn what works in your area and to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. Learn the prey and match it the way a fly fisherman matches a mayfly and you will be on the fish easily. Enjoy the water and be safe!
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