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How to Dial in Your Walleye Trolling Lure Selection

“When the weather is sunny, use silver lures, and when the weather is cloudy, use gold lures. If that doesn’t work, do the opposite.” Old Angling Myth

Ah, to have such a simple choice: Silver or gold? The characters who coined the myth clearly didn’t have the wide gamut of options we have nowadays. In addition to color, add in shapes, sounds, sizes, actions, running depths and more, and the number of possible meals on the menu is almost mind-boggling. Still, we all have our ways to decide what to snap on the end of our lines.

Play with Your Pets

Photos by Ron Boggs.


All of us have “pet plugs” in our tackle trays – baits we’ve learned to trust from trial and error in past walleye fishing adventures. Whether those pets are what grandpa taught us to use or just lures that once caught our fancy at the bait shop, every avid angler has some of these baits. Anybody can see your pet lures from 10 feet away – worn diving lip, pockmarked from walleye teeth and scratched from fish gouging the hooks into the lure body. A good pet lure should look like a farm dog that’s been on a 3-day runner!

Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s wrong to play favorites when you could be trying a more scientific approach. Fishing is an inexact science which often rewards those who play their hunches, even when no science backs the choice. Just look how popular Fire Tiger and Wonderbread colors are for walleye fishing. There isn’t a minnow on earth that looks like either color.

Generally, old favorite pet plugs are well worth dragging behind the boat simply because we have the confidence to fish them hard and correctly. And they’ve already proven themselves as consistent and productive, so why not? And since most states with walleye populations allow multiple rods per angler, we have the opportunity to choose more than just our old favorites. No doubt, even the most consistent lure in the box has days when it can’t buy a fish. So, we all end up making choices as we try to dial in the bite.

Traditional Crankbait Decisions

Inexact as fishing science may be, the consensus opinion is to try to match the profile of the primary forage in the water you are fishing. Long thin lures like Smithwick Rogues, Bandit Shallow Walleye and Deep Walleye models and Bomber Long As are prime options when fishing waters where alewives, smelt, cisco or other long thin forage fish are prevalent. When the forage is more compact and deeper bodied, such as perch, shad and crayfish, the idea is to select lures with a shape and size that’s closer to those food sources. Lures like the Cotton Cordell Wally Diver, Bomber 7A and Deep Flat A, Bandit 300 and Rebel Crawfish all have a long history of success across the walleye states.

In the past, matching the profile and size of forage species also tended to mean trying to match the natural color of the forage, but if look at the selection of colors available from modern crankbait manufacturers, natural colors are just a segment of the walleye color wheel.

Color Categories

Boats aren’t built large enough to hold all the crankbait color choices we could stock. So how should we narrow our color focus to a reasonable number of tackle boxes? I like to lump colors into categories to ease the selection process. The goal is to experiment with various categories of color to see if you should further refine your lures with more choices within a category. Ideally, you can tinker with colors so that multiple rods in your set are on fire!

  • Natural Colors mentioned above tend to “match the hatch” and look like the primary forage species. To this add drab colors like browns, blacks, dark purples, army green, etc. These are colors designed to blend in and appear natural. Walleyes have enhanced vision with oversized eyes. They don’t necessarily need to be shocked by the view of your lure. Subtle looks get bit too!
  • Shiny and Flashy options like silver, gold, copper, nickel, prism, hologram and other finishes that glint in the sunlight give walleye a “wink” as they flash by in your trolling spread. The old myth at the beginning of this article narrows options down to just silver and gold. Broadened to include any flashy finish, this category is as tried and true as the natural colors.
  • Hot Colors could be called “walleye colors” if we judge by popularity. I’m referring to colors like chartreuse, orange, pink, green or any color that’s bright and/or fluorescent. Lots of variations on these colors dominate the pegs in the walleye section of the tackle store: Fire Tiger, Red Crawfish patterns, orange belly with most any other color, Citrus Shad, Hot Pink and even Hot Purple. These staples of the walleye game need to be part of your walleye arsenal.
  • Beacons are highly visible, not unlike the high visibility of the hot colors discussed above. The difference is beacons do their damage with fairly subtle colors that just happen to radiate in the water, even in murky water. White, yellow, pearl, glow-in-the-dark and even luminescent. The Bandit Generator has slots to insert small light sticks, which makes for a great beacon effect in murky or stained water.
  • Triggers are currently the rage in the walleye game. Triggers are lures intended to shock walleyes into impulse strikes, and they include some of the previous color categories. These crankbaits don’t look like anything of this world, but the fish eat ‘em up! Bandit, Bomber and Smithwick are three lure companies that have taken the trigger idea and run with it. Check out the full online selection of Bandit Walleye Shallow/Deep, Bomber Long A and Smithwick Rogue, and you’ll find lures with eyespots down the sides (or no eyespots), multi-color combos with unusual pairings of colors, hot stripes where no forage fish has stripes, bold color bands…None of these triggering color patterns makes logical sense, but walleyes aren’t required to follow human logic!

Make Sound Decisions

An often-overlooked variable in the walleye equation is the importance of sound emanating from your crankbait. Sure, we all notice that most crankbaits contain rattles. But just as color categories can factor into your lure selection, sound qualities also should be considered when dialing in your crankbaits. You can assess your crankbaits in the simplest semi-scientific way. Just hold a lure in your hand while loosely gripping it so the hooks aren’t rattling and SHAKE. Listen closely. Does it make a heavy thunking sound? Maybe a bunch of BBs rattling? Maybe mostly a click? You’ll even find a few silent crankbaits.

I’d be ducking the truth and hiding if I didn’t mention a couple noteworthy examples of sound variation. BOOYAH reintroduced the silent XCS Series crankbait, which is a bass-targeted square-bill for fishing the shallows. This is an overlooked walleye option. We tend to fish long thin stickbaits in the shallows. Yet shorter cranks with a sneaky silent approach are often the ticket for skittish walleyes in the shallows.

Another important sound option that BOOYAH builds is the One Knocker – a unique lipless crankbait. And though lipless crankbaits typically aren’t trolling lures, it’s worth mentioning here due to the explosion of lipless crankbait fishing throughout walleye country, often as a follow-up to finding sunken humps while trolling and following-up by casting lipless cranks to the humps. The BOOYAH One Knocker has a single large tungsten sound pellet that thuds from side to side. This is a tremendous option for walleyes when they get too sound sensitive to tolerate the loud scream of traditional lipless crankbaits like the BOOYAH Hard Knocker. I’ve even caught walleyes in water just above freezing with the One Knocker. It’s won me over to become my go-to lipless option for walleyes.

Build a Box

It’s difficult to dial in what is working best when the bite is off. How can you choose one lure over another when nothing is getting bit? That’s why it’s important to do more experimenting when the bite is really rocking. That way you aren’t making decisions based on a bite or two. During the hot bite, the boat talk is stuff like, “that’s three on the blue Bomber and three on the clear Bandit. I trust those two lures.” When the boat talk surrounds the great catch, that’s the time to experiment!

This is one reason the guides and “regulars” are able to eek out some good fish even when the bite isn’t so hot. They’ve built a stable of trusted lures to choose from. So instead of a pet plug or two, they’ve got a couple dozen they trust. Even during a tough bite, SOMETHING in those trusted baits should produce.

Back in my tournament days I would “build a box” during pre-fishing. Any crankbait that caught three fish was taken off the line and put in a tackle box just for the tourney. The accompanying picture is of the box I built for a top 5 finish in a major national tourney. You’ll note that I narrowed down to a bunch of colors of Bomber Long A (24A size) plus one Cotton Cordell Wally Diver. By tourney time I had a nice selection of colors (including clear) to allow me to adapt to varying fishing during the tourney. And every lure had already caught a minimum of three walleye so my trust level was high.

After a lifetime of fishing for walleye, I have various boxes of proven lures for my favorite waters. Plus, boxes from major tournaments. So, my boxes are built from the Columbia River out West, through the Missouri River reservoir zone and out to the big fisheries of the Great Lakes. No guarantee those boxes will ever produce again, but they sure have been consistent fun so far!

I recommend building a box any time the bite is hot. After three fish on any one lure, pull it out of the lineup and mark it. That lure is proven for that water body and may come in handy some day when the bite isn’t so hot. So instead of catching 15 on one lure, you want to catch three fish on each of five lures! That’s building a box to ensure your success the next trip!

About the Author:

Ron Boggs once held four Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame Catch and Release records for walleye, including all-tackle and three line-class records. (Three were caught on a Bomber 25A.) He wrote a widely published and detailed article on how he caught his record fish, and all were broken the following year.

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