Today’s angler can still find the old “Five-o-Diamonds” spoon that his grandfather stocked in his tackle box. Some things never change.
Walk through a tackle shop today, though, and one sees pegs filled with a plethora of artificial lures that make sense. They are far better imitations of real forage than the lures Grandpa used. However, despite life-like shapes and scent-enhancement, artificials will never exactly replicate live-bait in terms of action. Action, the key characteristic of life, despite research and development in labs and lakes near you, has not been replicated to perfection. Sure, Mimic Minnows and Shad Raps catch limits of fish too and are convenient to use. The difference between these lures, however, and the bait in the tanks and in the refrigerators (over in the corner) is obvious. The lures on the pegs are deceased!
Anglers are certainly buying and using more artificial bait than ever before… for a variety of species, including walleyes. Personally however, whether I’m fishing for a few eaters with my family or competing in a walleye tournament, live-bait is the real deal… and in most cases, cannot be beat.
Ever wonder what professional guides use for bait to put walleyes in the boat on a daily basis?
National Fishing Hall of Fame legendary guide, Tom Neustrom, fishes walleye factories, Lake Winnie and Leech Lake, along with numerous smaller lakes in north-central Minnesota. While a Northland Fire-Ball Jig and minnow combination is his go-to presentation for much of the season, he rarely hits the water without leeches and crawlers loaded in his Lund. Neustrom catches roughly 70% of his walleyes on live-bait and incorporates special products from the Frabill company to keep it alive and healthy. The Aqua-Life Bait Station, for example, keeps minnows sassy and saves on the bait bill.
Mille Lacs, Minnesota guide, Tony Roach, spends in excess of 100 days per year in his office . . . also a Lund, guiding customers to walleyes. Live-bait accounts for approximately 80% of the walleyes landed by Roach and company. Drifting around midlake structure with Roach Rigs and leeches is a winning combination on Mille Lacs.
Al Maas has guided on Minnesota’s Leech Lake for over 40 years and is a member of the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame. Of all the walleyes that come aboard his Ranger, Al reported that about 90% fall for live-bait. That percentage has remained consistent for Maas over the years. Northland Mr. Walleye Crawler Hauler spinners, adorned with nightcrawlers, are killer on midsummer Leech Lake walleyes.
Another guide with an affinity for live-bait is Marv Koep. The Minnesota Hall of Fame angler operated famous Koep’s Bait Shop in Nisswa, MN for many years. Koep made a living selling bait to anglers and keeping area guides supplied with bait. He has since sold the shop but continues to guide some regular customers. On the ends of their lines? Minnows, usually. Koep has a reputation of being a no-nonsense guide who often targets walleyes but entices a variety of species simultaneously. Whether using jigs or live-bait rigs, he has long been a fan of the redtail chub as it puts walleyes, pike and bass on the hooks of his clients. For these veteran guides, some things never change.
The smells, sounds and sights inside a baitshop never change either. Upon entrance into my neighborhood shop, Taber’s Bait in Bemidji, MN, a big whiff of mixed aromas from minnow water and crawler flats kicks the olfactory sense into “walleye drive”! The sound of gurgling aerators, the “pfffff” of the oxygen hose, as owner, Ron Bostic bags yet another dozen shiners and gives up-to-the-minute fishing reports– sweet music to an angler with a day off.
Like shops across the country, live-bait is Bostic’s business. Ron is often in the back, grading minnows and cleaning tanks as he tries to balance inventory with demand. He emerges from the back when the door alarm goes off indicating that a customer has entered the building. He towels his hands dry and says, “What can I getcha?” In addition to bait, anglers can expect Ron to give them a pulse on the local bite, whether they want it or not. Most want it. Ron talks to guides and hardcore anglers daily and is an angler himself, getting out when time allows. Hours? Let’s just say, “early bird sells the worm.” He often extends his store hours, both early and late, during busy weekends.
Local anglers expect Taber’s to have redtail, shiner, sucker, and fathead minnows on hand, in addition to leeches of various sizes, and crawlers, too. Bostic does not see the demand for live-bait dropping off. In fact, he sees the opposite trend. “People continue to want quality bait and they want a variety of bait,” says Ron.
In most natural lakes and rivers, live-bait remains the most effective year-round presentation for catching walleyes, and most fish species for that matter. When I was a kid, my dad let me have a token Five-o-Diamonds spoon in my tackle box. I rarely used it however. I was taught to put a lively worm, leech or minnow on the jig below my bobber. Dad knew that was my best chance for action. It was and still is.