- Mar 9, 2023
How to Fish Blade Baits & Jigging Spoons to Catch Early-Season Walleyes
Jigging heavy metal lures, including blade baits and jigging spoons, can help you catch more walleyes early in the year.
The term “Heavy Metal” might make your ears buzz with retro recall, with hazy visions of poofy hair, stacked speakers and spandex. There’s nothing I can do to erase those tarnished flashbacks, but I can help redefine “Heavy Metal” to what it means in a walleye fishing boat.
With Northern U.S. and Canadian walleye anglers just coming off the ice fishing spree, Heavy Metal is the term for the upsized open-water versions of those mostly-metal baits we’ve been jigging all winter. Essentially, I’m referring to larger sizes of the time-tested Heddon Sonar blade bait, as well as jigging spoons, all bumped heavier and longer than what we’ve done through the ice.
My first exposure to the Heddon Sonar came decades ago when the late Bud Riser, publisher of the long-gone Walleye Magazine, brought a box of Sonars from Lake Erie to show us Montana cowboys about metal lures. Wow! Those Heddon Sonars in the 1/2-ounce model worked on pretty much every lake Riser fished them. Those of us privy to his trip through our region learned quickly that metal is a great walleye option.
A few years after Riser’s visit, but still many years ago, I was serving as the emcee for a number of walleye tournaments on the mid-Columbia River along the Washington and Oregon border. And I kept handing tournament checks to a duo who were well-known to fish exclusively with the Heddon Sonar blade bait. That duo, Phil Caldwell and Wally Mosier, nearly killed the Columbia River circuit by DOMINATING events and demoralizing much of the field. As I recall, they finished in the money 21 out of 24 events while outright winning more than half those tourneys! And they did it fishing ONLY with the Heddon Sonar!
As a fish-happy walleye writer I had to know more, so I invited myself along for a day of fishing with them. Very educational. Here are some of the lessons:
1. You want the most action possible with the least movement of the lure. That means hooking the Sonar in the front of the three line-tie eyes – unless the fish demand a change. This isn’t so much to get more vibrating action but to get strong vibes even with soft, subtle jigging strokes.
2. In tournaments, the Sonar duo always started with differing approaches. One partner fished with bigger jigging strokes while the other employed a very subtle motion. Both worked mostly vertically unless casting behind boulders or into pockets in the rocky reefs. They recommended letting the walleye tell you which jigging approach to use each day or even each hour. When one partner began outfishing the other, the other guy switched it up and copied the approach of his partner.
3. Bounce-back-time from each touch of the bottom is highly important. Sometimes walleye prefer you to pause at the bottom of your jig stroke—waiting on bottom where the fish will pin it. Sometimes they prefer that you quickly start another stroke. This is slightly different than the normal adjustments we all make to test for the best cadence for jigging. This is more about the duration of the pause on bottom in order to get more walleyes to bite. Feels like a risky approach – pausing on bottom with a pair of sticky treble hooks. But the Heddon Sonar fishes shockingly snag-free in rocky zones.
4. Don’t presume the Sonar is only for aggressive fish or only for times when the bite is on. In that era, Mosier and Caldwell were masters at catching fish on Sonars when the bite was bad and other anglers were struggling. Over the years, I’ve managed to get “off bite” walleye to commit with tiny jigging strokes of just a couple inches. The key is to move the bait only enough to feel a single vibration. Note that the Sonar vibes HARD and is very easy to feel, even in deep water. So, when you see fish on your electronics but can’t get them to bite, try soft jigging a Sonar!
5. Bait is not needed. Though anglers fishing through the ice commonly “sweeten” their Sonars with a small bit of bait, in open water you’ll want to maximize the action by avoiding vibration-dampening bait. The key for Mosier and Caldwell was always the action and vibration.
Before getting too deep with the Sonar game, this is a good time to bring up the importance of jigging spoons, both for their action and for their success when baited or bare.
Anglers working deep submerged timber reach for jigging spoons as a normal course of action across the country. Whether you are on Lake McConaughy in Nebraska or any of the big Missouri River reservoirs of the high plains and Midwest, when you find fish holding in treetops, it’s time to break out the spoons. This is particularly effective in combination with live-action sonar used in the down mode. It’s almost like ice fishing, but you use the top of the trees as the effective bottom to minimize snags.
Conveniently, jigging spoons offer the option to fish ‘em bare so your jigging action is the primary trigger OR with a bit of bait, encouraging you to slow down and let the walleyes decide they want to hit. Small minnows and cut bait are the top choices for enhancing a spoon, but don’t overlook crawlers.
If the goal is plentiful tumbling flash, you’ll generally get more action without the bait than with it. And don’t let the ice fishing norms for spoon action get you into a rut. Spoons have a tremendous range of action choices. Play around a bit just under the surface beside the boat so you can watch and learn the best methods to create action with any particular spoon. I’ve had my best success with a fairly aggressive flip at the upside of my jigging stroke to turn the spoon on its side for wide tumbling drop. Of course, you can also tone it down with a simple straight lift and tight-line drop so the spoon does no flipping or tumbling.
Not all spoons react the same way. The thick oval shape of the Bomber Slab Spoon has less tumbling action and is a fairly “tame” way to drop bait to walleyes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Cotton Cordell C.C. Spoon has a sharply raked leading edge which knifes hard to the side when flipped on the upstroke. It darts! And that random darting action on the upswing is a trigger for walleyes.
The longish shape of the War Eagle Jigging Spoon creates an action that falls somewhere in between the subtle Slab Spoon and the darting C.C. Spoon. In addition to the great color choices with War Eagle spoons, the built-in factory swivel is much appreciated. Jigging spoons are notorious for twisting line while tumbling.
Although spoons from your ice fishing box can work, typically your open water spoon game will be played with heavier metal. Half-ounce through 3/4-ounce spoons are the norm. And for both Heddon Sonars and jigging spoons, start first with chrome or silver generic minnow imitators and branch into other favored colors for your local walleyes. Heddon has really upped their color choices for Sonars the past few years with popular walleye colors like purple, pink, and chartreuse. And don’t neglect those reflective Sonar Flash colors with bright prism tape. That can provide a real boost some days.
- TIMBER – Submerged timber is custom-made for jigging spoons and live-action sonar.
- BRIDGES – Bridge abutments are the peanut butter to the Heddon Sonar jelly. Doesn’t matter what species you seek. If they use bridge abutments to rest in current breaks, there really isn’t a better option than a Heddon Sonar.
- REEFS & ROCKY HUMPS – Both heavy metal approaches can work on reefs and humps. Fished vertically, jigging spoons and blade baits are surprisingly snag-resistant. That’s partly due to the fact that you can fish ‘em a bit faster than other bottom-oriented approaches, allowing you to pop out of snags before they happen. If you haven’t tried it, you are in for a treat the first time you cast a Sonar at a rock hump. That half-ounce weight is easy to feel and works great with aggressive snapping jig strokes. Make sure to check the setting of your drag before the first cast!
- VERTICAL WALLS & SHARP DROPS – Heavy metal spoons and blade baits sink quickly into the fish zone and present a highly visible target with lots of attractive vibration. Try a short snap-snap-snap rapid-fire ripping action with almost no drop at all followed by an extended pause. Basically, with the lure tight to the wall you call ‘em in with the snapping and then pause for the strike.
My eardrums are so happy that the fishing version of Heavy Metal is not amplified. And I can assure you that what’s left of my hair isn’t poofy…but aren’t those outdoor performance polyester garments almost like spandex? (smashes guitar jigging rod on the stage deck).