What is the best bait for walleye fishing? That’s a question that comes up many times when anglers are just starting to learn about these often times misunderstood fish. If you are new to walleye fishing or you love to use live bait for walleyes, then you want to consider several elements for choosing the best bait. Items like water temperature, time of year, and structure situation should be identified before deciding what live baits will likely produce and which ones might not be great choices.
Water temperature is a big key for using live bait. You’ll find fathead minnows or shiners are going to be the best bait for walleyes early in the year during the day. The water will be in the 50 degree range or colder for this time of year. Leeches will ball up in cold water and they won’t wiggle and swim around properly. When the water is over 50 degrees we find leeches start to produce very well, especially at night during walleye opener. Keep that leech a foot off the bottom below a lighted slip bobber for maximum success during your walleye opener.
Night crawlers work very well in the spring time particularly after some heavy rains. Rain gets crawlers moving around and many get washed into the lakes and rivers. So try live bait rigging crawlers around inlets or other low spots where good amounts of rain fall drain into the lake or river. This is the first crack walleyes get at a juicy crawler for the year and they don’t waste the opportunity.
As the water warms up and weeds begin to come up you’ll find leeches become the best bait of choice. Warmer water can start to make it difficult to keep minnows alive too. Fatheads are easier to keep alive compared to shiners. Leeches are naturally found around weeds, so it’s no wonder this type of live bait produces so well when set below a slip bobber around some emerging weeds in May or June. Leeches also seem to work better when you’re fishing around sunken timber. Again, it’s a case of using the right bait for the habitat. At the same time, we can go out into an 18 or 20 foot mud basin in a natural lake and find crawlers outproduce leeches. In this instance, night crawlers do a wonderful job of emulating emerging insects – especially if you run them behind a bottom bouncer and spinner.
As the water cools off in fall and we find walleyes feeding more around rocky structure we find large shiners, chubs, or fathead minnows begin to come in again as the best bait to use for walleyes. Some lakes remain fickle, with these you’ll want to experiment with night crawlers along side a minnow of some sort to see what the fish prefer. On the Mississippi river you’ll find willow cats on the wing dams produce when nothing else will during the late summer and early fall period. A willow cat is like a baby bullhead, watch out for the spines on these fish – they will make your hand sore should you get “stung.”
These are not hard and fast rules – the walleyes don’t have any at all! And, there are literally hundreds of variations we can use to refine our live bait rigging skills to catch more walleyes. Use the above suggestions as guidelines and be aware of the structure type you’re fishing and whether minnows, leaches, or crawlers are going to be the best bait for walleye fishing. Start with two of the most highly probably baits and see what the walleyes are in the mood for that day.