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Follow the Leader
By Jason Mitchell
The idea that walleye may indeed follow a lure for a significant distance before striking surprises many anglers. Many anglers have this mental picture that fish just lash out and strike a lure as the lure appears, like an ambush. While there is no doubt that plenty of ambushing is going on under water, walleyes in particular will often follow a lure for a surprisingly long time before striking.

Jason with a very nice Devils Lake walleye There are situations where walleye have a tendency to follow or lurk behind the lure with what seems like a nonchalant attitude where they could just as well take the bait or leave it. We have watched schools of fish follow a crank bait for thirty yards or more, shadowing the bait nipping at the heals until something tweaks the restraint of one of the fish. Usually, this trigger might be a stop or pump to the lure to cause something irregular or perhaps the lure bounces off a rock

Some slight trigger might be all that is needed to turn followers into takers. This may explain some of the effectiveness with planer boards while trolling. The board may give the lure just a little bit more action; more starts and stops than a rod hanging out of a rod holder. Because of this tendency for fish to snap on something irregular like a sudden stop or stall in the bait or a change in speed, many of the best trollers are always holding at least one rod, giving the lure more action.

This challenge to turn followers into takers can indeed be a challenge at any time of the year. Cold fronts or weather changes can just put the fish into a mood where they aren’t lashing out at baits. Fishing pressure can also crop down the intensity of a bite. From our experience however, this following tendency is most apparent in the spring when the water is cool and many of the fish are shallow. Anglers who can consistently convert a high percentage of following fish into fish that chomp are going to catch many more fish come spring.

People often assume that shallow fish are fish that are eating. Yes, but there is much more to shallow fish than just finding something to eat. Early in the season, these fish may get active once a day, late afternoon or early evening after the sun warms the water a few degrees. The bite becomes a guessing game of timing. Hit a good spot too early and not see a fish, hit the same spot an hour later after the water temperature jumps a few degrees and the fish are on the bite. When the fish are really on the bite, the reality is that it doesn’t really matter how you go about your day, you are going to probably catch a few fish.

The key to really catching fish is figuring out ways to turn fish when they aren’t really on. What we have found is that we can catch many more of these turned off fish by making longer casts. Back the boat off the spot and make longer casts. I dare say that a longer cast catches three times as many fish as a short cast when the fish are in a funk and aren’t snapping. What is a long cast? I would say the distance of a basket ball court. Longer casts catch many more fish early in the season or whenever fish are turned off and the reason is simple. When the fish aren’t snapping at the baits, you are generally dealing with a bunch of followers. Fish that just want to follow your crankbait or jig. Longer casts give these fish more time to eat before you run out of room at the boat. Often, the change of direction as a lure begins to rise towards the rod tip is a very powerful trigger so be ready as you finish your retrieve. A few stalls or pops as the lure raises towards the boat often snaps the restraint of following fish for us. So don’t reel the lure all the way to the rod tip.

To back the boat off the spot and fish the area effectively by casting, you need to use baits that will cast well. On Devils Lake the past few years, one of our better baits that cast well is a Salmo 8F Perch. We have caught a lot of big walleye on this bait. Other classics include the Countdown Rapala, Husky Jerks, Rattling Rogues, jigs with Powerbait and swim baits. Lighter line can also aid with casting as does a longer rod. Depending on your height and arm length, a seven or seven foot medium light action rod is great for getting that whipping action necessary to launch baits into the upper deck. We have designed a couple of rods that excel for pitching crankbaits and jigs into still water. These rods are the Jason Mitchell Elite Series JMSS70MLX and the JMSS76MLXF. We built these rods out of a hard to find graphite that is of superior quality which makes the rod unusually light to hold and helps with the fatigue of fishing all day.

When walleye fishing this spring, be aware of the fact that turned off fish don’t lash out at baits or ambush but follow and nip. When you encounter situations that turn down active fish, back off and be conscience of what is happening under water with how fish are attacking your lure or bait. These slight adjustments can often help you catch fish before or after the prime window of opportunity is over.

Editors Note: the author Jason Mitchell is a legendary guide on North Dakota’s Devils Lake and designer of a lineup of high quality walleye fishing rods called the Jason Mitchell Elite Series Rods, www.jasonmitchellrods.com.

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