By Darl Black

During the late fall cool down on northern natural lakes and man-made reservoirs, my most efficient and effective way to get a limit of walleyes is to pull a blade on them. More specifically, a Heddon Sonar blade bait.

Before going forward, let’s be sure we understand some terms. Mention blade bait to a Southern bass angler and he imagines you are talking about a spinnerbait. Mention blade bait to a Yankee and he immediately knows you are talking about a compact vibrating lure comprised of a thin teardrop-shaped body with a spot of lead molded to the bottom.

So that everyone is on the same page, when I say “blade bait” I’m referring to the most recognizable blade bait in the North: the Sonar – the lure not the fish-finding electronics. Although, a case can be made that the Sonar blade bait is a great fish-finding lure in the fall and winter! Got it?

The Heddon Sonar, the original blade bait, made its debut in the 1950s and was described as a multi-species “adjustable action” lure with three different line-ties. The description on the original package implied this was a trolling lure. Over time, some fishermen discovered the potential of this lure for deepwater gamefish during the coldwater period – especially for walleyes. During the 1980s and 1990s, small regional manufacturers sprung up offering slightly redesigned blade baits and today there may be more than a dozen different manufactures of blade baits around the country. But the granddaddy of them all, the Heddon Sonar, remains at the head of the class wherever walleyes go on a blade bite.
With water temperatures dropping from the low 50s through the 40s, lake-bound walleyes typically follow baitfish schools to deepwater drop-offs or the edges of major creek channels --sometimes they spread out on a deep flat or shelf. Walleye schools concentrate in areas where bait is plentiful and feed ravenously on the preyfish off and on during the day. Anglers use fish-finding electronic sonar to survey key structures to locate baitfish schools and thel larger marks that indicate walleyes. Then, it’s a matter of dropping your lure to them.

I was introduced to vertical jigging by Chub Hornstein about 35 years ago on Pymatuning Lake in northwestern Pennsylvania. Back then Chub used one lure exclusively for walleye during the late fall -- a 1/4-ounce Sonar in Perch or Shad color. He would position the boat directly over the suspect marks on a flasher-style depthfinder and drop a Sonar (the lure, not a depthfinder) to them.   

Using a pumping motion on the rod, he swept the blade upward and then dropped it back. If fish were in a feeding mood, walleyes smashed the blades like it was their last meal and it didn’t take long to fill out a six-fish limit. Other times when walleyes were in a neutral feeding mood, the vibrating bait would trigger the occasional bite and it might take a couple hours to catch a limit.

I soon discovered that a blade bait was effective on many species of fish in a variety of lakes. It became a lure I never left home without during the late fall into winter. On shallow-water Pymatuning, late fall walleyes are typically in depths from 15 to 22 feet. However on other lakes I’ve caught walleye, perch, white bass and crappies on blades to depths of almost 40 feet during the coldwater period.

In the three decades since my first blade experience, flashers and paper graphs have been replaced by down-scan and side-scan sonar, but the No. 1 walleye presentation among Pymatuning anglers in November and early December remains the blade bait. The Heddon Sonar is found in every tackle shop around the lake.
Regardless of the depth or whether you call it popping, pumping or yo-yoing, the simple lift-and-drop technique is critical to an angler’s cold-water arsenal. However, it takes practice to develop the right cadence for working a blade straight down.

Start with a medium-power fast-action rod spooled with 10- or 12-lb test. Next, the blade should be attached to the line by means of a round-bend duo-lock snap. Never tie direct or use a cheap angled snap. To reduce the line twist (which is guaranteed when vertically jigging with a blade bait), tie a quality swivel inline about 12 to 15 inches above the blade.

Free-spool the blade to the lake bottom, engage the reel and take up slack as you lower the rod tip almost to water level. Pull the rod tip upward – do not rip it. Stop upward movement as soon as you can detect vibrations from the blade. The rod tip will likely have moved between 12 and 18 inches.

Lower the rod tip at about the same speed as the lure is falling back to the bottom; do not let slack line form between rod and lure, but at the same time do not tight-line the bait to the bottom – this is why some anglers refer to this as lift-and-sit rather than lift-and-drop, because you are basically sitting the blade back down. When the lure touches bottom, pause for a couple of seconds and lift it again.

Sometimes you will detect the tick when a walleye hits the blade on the drop; other times you may not know you have a fish on the line until you go to lift the bait again. What you do next is critical.

A hard snapping hookset with a blade is the sure way to lose a fish. Instead, as soon as a fish is detected on the lift, start reeling like crazy and sweeping the rod upward. Maintain steady pressure on the fish while holding rod tip high.

Sometimes a more aggressive lift may trigger a bite – perhaps moving the rod tip over 24 inches. But do not rip or snap the bait, which can lead to the hooks tangling with the line. Be gentle.

From the lakes of western New York through northwestern western Pennsylvania and into eastern Ohio, I continue to pull a blade on late fall walleyes.