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Casting Early Season Walleye Techniques with TFO Ambassador Burnie Haney

Walleye season in New York State opens on May 2nd; so we decided to have upstate New York TFO Ambassador and walleye expert Burnie Haney go over some tips and techniques to help you make the most of your walleye fishing season.

Burnie discusses what works best for him for Eastern Basin Lake Ontario walleye, but a lot of these skills can be applied towards walleye fishing tactics anywhere.

Casting Early Season Walleye

Depending of your approach and exactly where you are looking for walleye, it can be either feast or famine. However, one thing is for certain once you get dialed in it can also be non-stop rod action. Undoubtedly trolling will reign supreme in the larger bodies of water like the great lakes,, but if you have the patience and temperament for it, casting is a very productive method as well and for the purposes of this writing I’m going to focus on casting techniques with artificial lures only, the gear used, how I rig it and what areas to look for.

I make no guarantees these methods will produce 100% of the time, but I can say if you apply what you’re about to read I feel confident you too will put a few more walleye in the net this season, so let’s start off with gear.

Rods & Reels

For my spinning rod applications, I use the TFO Professional Walleye WS 704-1. This is a one-piece 7’ rod (fast action- medium power) rated for 6-12 lb. line and 1/4 – 3/4 oz. lures. With this rod, I can present jigs, jerkbaits, squarebills and finesse swimbaits. I usually run 8 lb. braid on this rod and depending on water conditions and sunlight penetration I’ll sometimes use a fluorocarbon leader of 36-48”. I use a size 20 or 30 spinning reel with this rod.

For my casting rod applications, I use the TFO Professional Walleye WC 764-1. This is a one piece 7’6” rod (fast action-medium power) rated for 6-12 lb. line and 1/4 -3/4 oz lures. With this rod I can present, jigs, squarebills & diving crank baits, swimbaits, in-line spinner rigs and finesse umbrella rigs. I fish 8-15 lb. braid on this rod and again I will use a fluorocarbon leader if conditions dictate. I usually have a Daiwa Tatula reel 6.3:1 on this rod, but sometimes I will drop down to a 5.4:1 depending on the exact presentation.

Line

When most folks talk about walleye fishing in gin clear water, you will oftentimes hear how you must use light line (4-6 lb. test), small hooks, leaches, worms, minnows, on a jig or a slip bobber. You will not hear me argue about that, but remember, we’re talking about artificial lures only and in most cases that’s horizontal moving baits. When fishing moving baits for these big water walleyes, I seem to do best fishing with braided line. I think in part that is due to the fact I’m making super long casts and braided line provides me the ability to get a hook point into the fish quickly as I feel the strike, while monofilament line impedes my ability for good hooksets at long distances. The other nice thing about braided line is it allows you to put more line on the spool which translates into longer smoother casts.

Just a tip – When you are spooling up with braid be sure to put about 10-12 yards of mono on the spool first because this helps prevent the braid from slipping on the spool. Also try to use mono that is smaller in diameter; it does two things for you: 1) Helps the braid lay flat on the spool; and 2) Prevents it from biting down into the grooves of mono below when under pressure.

Leader

Cortland’s Top Secret tippet is hard to beat. I like this stuff because it offers a line that’s approximately 1/2 the diameter of most other fluorocarbons out there. As an example, the diameter of their 12.9 lb. tippet is equal to 6 lb. mono. It’s a bit pricey, but then again you get what you pay for.

 

Spinning Rod Presentations

My first choice for early season walleye is either a jerkbait or a jig tipped with some Berkley Gulp or a Keitech Swimbait. The jerkbait is usually a Lucky Craft Pointer 78 or 100 in perch or baitfish colors and the jigs routinely replicate the same forage base, with the addition of a football head jig dressed with Keitech 3.3 Fat Swing Impact (to mimic a goby).

Jerkbaits are routinely fished in the 5 – 10 ft. zone adjacent to weed edges along shoals and rock rubble shorelines with the standard cast, crank it down three or four quick turns, let it sit (pause) for 5-10 seconds, reel up the slack line, give it one or two light taps, pause and repeat that cadence all the way back to the boat. If I notice walleye following the jerkbait back to the boat but not striking, then a follow up cast with the swimbait on a 1/8 or 3/16 oz jighead on a steady retrieve usually gets that fish to bite.

Another great technique for scrubbing up reluctant walleye that are holding tight on a rock rubble bottom is the football head jig. Here in Eastern Basin of Lake Ontario the round goby has become a staple in darn near every fish’s diet and walleye are no exception. To imitate this tasty nugget, I use a 3/8 or 1/2 oz. football head with a Keitech 3.3 Fat Swing Impact (Green Pumpkin or Tennessee Shad). I am looking in just a tad deeper in that 15 – 30 ft zone, still near or adjacent to rocky shoals and a hard bottom is a must. Cast it out, let it fall all the way to the bottom, reel up the slack line and move the bait by sweeping the rod across your front from 9 to 3 or vice versa or by employing a slow steady crank of the reel. The key element to this presentation is maintaining good bottom contact throughout the retrieve.

The bite’s not subtle and you will know without a doubt when they take it, but you must keep your rod in the proper position to set the hook. I’ve enjoyed my best success dragging the football head by avoiding vertical rod movements and employing the aforementioned horizontal rod movements which keeps me in good position to quickly snap the rod tip for a solid hook set at any point throughout the retrieve.

Casting Rod Presentations

I typically employ presentations more akin to power fishing for bass. I use squarebills & medium diving crankbaits, Keitech 3.3 or 3.8 Fat Swing Impact Swimbaits on 1/4 – 1/2 oz. jig heads depending on depth which is usually in the 5 -20 ft zone. The other techniques that serve me well are the umbrella rig and the weight forward in-line spinner both presentations can be fished from 7 – 20 ft with equal success and allow you to cover massive amounts of water as your search for the active biters.

I will fish all these presentations on the same line, 15 lb. Cortland Masterbraid tied direct to the lure except for the single swimbaits. For the single swimbaits I use a 36-48” section of the Top Secret tippet material connecting the braid to fluorocarbon with Lefty Kreh knot and I’m fishing those on a slower speed reel 5.5:1 when fishing in 10- 20 ft. The slower speed reel helps keep the swimbait in the slightly deeper strike zone.

The squarebills are exceptional and drawing and trigging strikes from walleye that are feeding in the 5 – 8 ft zone, again we’re targeting shoals on the main lake or looking at the mouths of creeks off of the mainlake with scattered weeds and rock rubble or rock humps nearby. The other lure that is a great search bait in the 7- 20 ft. zone is a weight forward in-line spinner, like an Erie Deerie or South Bend’s Walleye Wonder. Traditional walleye angling has you dressing them with a night crawler or minnow, but I’ve found using rubber worms works very well and my two top choices are the Zoom Trick Worm in 4” or 6” (green pumpkin or green pumpkin with a chartreuse tail) and the Gambler Floating Worm (bubblegum yellow). Why bubblegum/yellow because they hit it and they hit it hard.

Crazy as that sounds these rubber worms work great. Think of it this way, once you cast out and begin the retrieve the night crawler stretch out behind the spinner, well the rubber worms look just the same on the retrieve. Other than scent the only way a walleye can tell the difference is to bite it and that is exactly what happens. It is a lot easier to rig and I get four to five fish on each rubber worm before it is so torn up that I must replace it.

With the squarebill, the single swimbait and the weight forward in-line spinner I get the most bites employing a steady retrieve. If I find the fish aren’t holding over or near the rock rubble on the shoals, but they are positioned more toward slightly deeper open water adjacent to the shoals then I employ a countdown method with the weight forward in-line spinner or I use the umbrella rig or the medium diving crankbaits, again a steady retrieve works best for me.

For the open water umbrella rig presentation, I am dressing the rig with Keitech 3.3 Fat Swing Impacts on 1/8 & 1/4 oz. jigheads. Simply casting out, counting it down to the desired depth and employing a steady retrieve all the way back to the boat. I try to keep the presentation at the depth I saw the fish on the graph or just slightly higher. This presentation replicates a school of bait fish and while some anglers have mixed emotions about using a multi-hook presentation like this, I can say the umbrella rig is a great choice and often times overlooked presentation for walleye that are feeding on open water baitfish.

If you think what you just read sounds a bit like power fishing for bass, then you are right. I would also ask you to keep an open mind, because these big water walleyes are predators. They are not as shy or skittish as their inland lake or small river cousins, these fish roam in good numbers and when they move up on or near the shoals to feed, they do so with abandon.

The current New York State record walleye is 18 lb. 02 oz. and these Eastern Basin fish average between 4.5 – 8 lbs. with a solid 10 lb. (+) fish showing up on most daily trips.

Good luck out there, enjoy the fishery, take a few for the table and do not forget to free the fighter because it might just be that next record catch for some lucky angler.

Photos by Oliver Sutro

About The Author

Burnie Haney is a TFO Ambassador from upstate New York. He sits on the New York State Jefferson County Sports Fishery Advisory Board, serves as the Jefferson County Sportsman Representative to the NY Department of Environmental Conservation Region 6 Fish and Wildlife Management Board, he holds two International Game Fish Association (IGFA) line class records and one IGFA All Tackle Length record and he’s set three fly fishing line class records with the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin. You can find out more about Burnie here.

Squarebills for Smallmouth

Editor’s Note: This submission comes from TFO ambassador Burnie Haney, who offers some interesting strategy for smallmouth bass.

Oftentimes in our conversations about smallies the topic of topwater plugs, jerkbaits or the drop shot get the most attention, and yes, they all catch fish. However, one technique that isn’t talked about as much is casting squarebill crankbaits for smallies. In many regions of the country bass anglers are well-versed in casting squarebills in and around wood or over rock rubble for largemouth, but there are also many anglers who have yet to pick up a squarebill when they’re specifically targeting smallies. Below are a few squarebill presentations I’ve used over the past 15 years when I’m out chasing Great Lakes smallies and clear-water smallies in general.

Safety Considerations

Smallies are a fish with big attitude, and they get pissed off when you hook em, which is why I like them so much. And once you get them in the net or in the boat, they’ll show you just how sassy they can be. For this very reason I have a couple recommendations that can better prepare you for this close encounter. Wear a quality pair of polarized sunglasses; this allows you to see where and how well the fish is hooked as you get it near the boat, and should the fish throw the lure as you attempt to land it, the glasses prevent a treble hook from hitting you in the eye.

Another handy item is a good set of needle nose pliers or a hook-out device. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than trying to pop out a treble hook and it finds the flesh on your thumb or finger with a pissed off smallie still attached to the other end. Now I realize that may sound weird to some folks and you could be thinking if treble hooked baits are that dangerous why throw them at all? I can only say I throw them because they flat out catch fish and that’s what I’m all about. So being prepared for a hook in the hand should the unthinkable occur isn’t all together a bad thing, either. Now having said that, if you use the needle nose pliers, you’ll greatly reduce your odds of getting hooked in the hand.

Rigging Up & The Presentation

I do most of my squarebill fishing with the TPM CB 7105-1, 7-10 MH power rod. I keep two of these rods rigged, one with a 6.3:1 reel and the other with a 5.1:1 reel. Both reels are spooled with 8-pound. Cortland Master Braid (Moss Green). I set the drag so the line slips just a tad on the hookset. What I most enjoy about this setup is it lets me make 35 yard casts or longer which is super important whenever I’m chasing clear-water smallies and the rods moderate action doubles as a good shock absorber on the strike while the braided line provides rock-solid, long-distance hooksets.

As for the two different retrieve speeds, during low light conditions I’ll use the 5.1:1 reel and once the sun gets up good I prefer the 6.3:1. If I notice multiple fish are chasing the hooked fish back to the boat, then I may pull out an 8.3:1 reel and turn-on-the-burn. I’ve found with clear-water smallies you can use speed as a trigger, especially so when you’re around a bunch of actively feeding fish. It seems to make them more aggressive as they race each other to get to the bait first.

Most of my clear-water squarebill fishing for smallies is focused in 3 to 7 feet of water in and around slate shoals or rock rubble areas. And if the area has some scattered vertical vegetation near it, that’s even better. What works for me is firing a cast out employing a steady retrieve trying to contact the hardbottom area. When the lure contacts the tops of any perimeter vegetation, the braided line is great because a hard snap of the rod tip will make the lure explode out into open water, which can stimulate a strike from a following fish.

Early in the season when the water temps are 58-65 degrees, I usually start with a 1.5 squarebill. As the summer progresses and the water warms into the mid-70s to 80-degree range and the bait (baitfish and crayfish) get bigger, I’ll use the 2.5 squarebill more, but even then I usually start my day with the 1.5 and I’ll let the fish tell me what size they prefer.

I use Lucky Craft squarebills; keep in mind there are many brands available and for this style of fishing getting the bait to deflect off the hard-bottom area is what triggers the most strikes. I recommend you find a squarebill bait that you like best then try it out on different size lines and retrieve speeds until you find it regularly bumping bottom. Once you get that dialed in then it’s just a matter of locating what areas of your lake or river are holding the actively feeding smallies.

I try to keep my color choices simple. I’ll use a Mad Craw (Red Craw) early in the spring, switch up to a Chameleon Brown Craw in the warmer summer months and mix in a Perch or Shad imitator as the season progresses. Day in and day out those four colors will usually get you bit anywhere you go.

Remember with squarebills seeking hard-bottom areas that provide deflection opportunities with a steady retrieve is usually the best option, but on some days, they’ll also work along the weed lines with a stop-and-go retrieve. Let the fish tell you how they want it and don’t forget speed as a trigger anytime you’re around a group of feeding smallies because their competitive nature can get the better of them resulting in more hook ups for you.

Good luck and be sure to post photos of those catches. Comments, questions about fishing for smallmouth? Feel free to comment on one of our social media pages.

Tips on How to Fish for Ice-Out Bass

Editor’s Note: This post comes from TFO Ambassador Burnie Haney. Enjoy.

When we talk about ice out bass fishing in the northeast, we’re talking cold water, and believe me, it’s specialty fishing. In short, you must really want to do it, or there’s no point in reading any further. Now, for those of you still with me, we’re going to review what to wear, where to find these fish and review five lures and setups that will help get you bit during this cold-water period.

Dress for the Conditions

First and foremost, remember the acronym C.O.L.D.  Wear Clean clothes, don’t Overheat, dress in Layers and try to stay Dry. Don’t forget you can always take layers off if you get too hot during the trip, but if you don’t have enough on it’s hard to stay warm. Also, nothing will end an ice-out trip faster than wet clothes or cold hands or feet. I prefer to use finger-tip wool gloves that allow me to feel my line, yet they cover 90-percent of the exposed skin, and they still provide warmth if they do get moist or wet from casting. The other required items are a quality set of waterproof boots, a cap with a bill and a nice wool cap to wear over it along to keep your head warm, along with a pair of polarized glasses.

Where to Start

I’ve had my best success starting my search in the northwest corners on most ponds, lakes or reservoirs. This area of water usually warms the fastest after the ice out, and if you can find good hard cover, it’s a big-time bonus. Oftentimes the bass will be relating to deep water structural elements (rock piles, ledges, humps or the ends of secondary points) nearest spawning flats they intend to use in the next 60-90 days. I’ve found using my side-imagining unit I can quickly identify these areas and see if any fish are present. Remember, these fish have had a lid over them for the past 4-6 months and once the water opens, they’re going to feed in anticipation of the annul spawn that’s just around the corner.

As far as the ideal depth, it’s a relative thing depending on how deep your lakes are and where you’re fishing, but I’ve found most often that starting in the 15 to 20-foot zone adjacent to spawning flats is a reliable zone. Once I identify where the fish are holding, I scout around that general area looking for the migration routes out of the deeper water onto the spawning flat. It might be a slight rock vein or old road bed, perhaps a ridge that climbs up onto the flat or maybe a ditch or cut that comes out of the deeper water up onto the flat or one of last year’s submerged weed beds.

Not to over simplify it, but I’ve always treated this cold to warm-water migration much the same as when I go anywhere; I usually have a target destination, and I arrive there by traveling known routes along the path of least resistance. Think of the points, ledges, ditches, cuts or weed beds as sidewalks, not unlike if you or I were going to a store or restaurant. We don’t park our car hop out and then wander around the parking lot; instead, don’t we usually select a route, walk straight to the building open the door and go inside? Well, it’s generally the same thing for the bass; they’re looking to feed up so rather than meander all over the water column they too will take an easily identifiable path to get to the prime areas. In this situation. it’s food and a bit warmer water.

Once you’ve located these migration routes, then it’s just a matter of monitoring them as the water continues to warm, and the fish begin to use them more and more. Once the fish get up onto the flats, horizontal baits will produce the most fish, with the quality fish usually coming on vertical baits that fall and stay right in front of fish’s face.

Five Lures to Consider

For those deep-water fish, it’s hard to beat a blade bait like a Silver Buddy or a Heddon Sonar (3/8 or ½ oz). For this presentation I like to use the TFO GTS Bass C735-1, 7’3 MH rod paired with a 6.3:1 reel spooled with 12 to 15-pound fluorocarbon. It’s a good vertical presentation that allows you to cover water quickly and generate a bite that you can duplicate in similar areas of the lake. I start the presentation with a long cast toward the fish holding area and work it back to the boat hopping it along the bottom with short 12-15-inch pops of the rod tip. On the lift, you’ll feel a violent vibration, and on the fall, just follow the lure back down with your rod tip. Usually the hits occur on the drop, so be a line watcher, but sometimes they strike just as you lift the blade up off the bottom. If that doesn’t generate a strike, then try changing the length of your hop, either go shorter or possibly a tad longer.

Another great deep-water presentation is rigging some Berkley gulp minnow on a VMC Mooneye Jig, position your boat directly over the fish and keep the bait about a foot above where you mark them on the graph. I know this sounds goofy, but don’t work the bait. Instead rely on the natural motion of the boat on the waves to give it the slightest amount of movement. Until I tried this technique, I didn’t believe it, but this do-nothing method will get you bit. For this presentation I use the TFO GTS Bass S734-1, 7’3 M rod paired with a 5.1:1 spinning reel spooled with 8-pound Cortland Master Braid and about a three-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. And for the jig I start with a 3/8 oz. head and might drop down to ¼ oz.

As the fish start moving into that 8-10-foot zone, it’s a good bet the Jerkbait will do most of the heavy lifting on any given day. Remember those weed beds we talked about earlier, this is where the suspending jerkbait rules. Baitfish are still in and around those weed beds, and the suspending jerkbait gets right in their face and just sits there daring them to bite it and most often they will. Again, we’re talking cold water, so you’ll need to keep your movements slow and subtle. I start with a long cast, give it about six or seven cranks to get the bait down, then give it a slight twitch and let it sit for an eight count. Reel up any slack line give the bait one or two light twitches and again let it set. If this doesn’t generate a strike, then I’ll increase the pause from the eight count to maybe 15. However if I find I’m generating follows but no strikes, then I usually drop down in lure size, and that seems to work. There are a ton of jerkbaits to choose from, and I happen to like Lucky Craft, so that’s what I use. However, having said that the most important thing is depth control and the lure’s ability to stay where it is in the water column once you stop the retrieve. For this presentation I use the TFO GTS Bass 695-1, 6’9” MH rod paired with a 7.3.1 reel spooled with 10-pound fluorocarbon.

As the fish start to occupy areas shallower than 6 feet, I’ve enjoyed good success with a Boot tail swimbait in the 2.8 – 3.3 sizes. There are a bunch out there to choose, but I prefer the Keitech Swing Impact or Fat Swing Impact. I’ve found keeping it simple works best for me, so I use three basic colors — Silver Flash, Blue Gill Flash and Tennessee Shad. I rig these swimbaits on 1/8 or ¼ oz jig head (size 1 hook) and fish them on a slow, steady retrieve. For this presentation I use the TFO TFG PSC 703-1, 7’ ML rod paired with a 5.1:1 spinning reel spooled with Cortland Master Braid and a 36” section of 8-pound fluorocarbon leader.

Another nice dual-purpose bait this time of year is the Swimjig. I use Strike King 3/8 oz Tour Grade in three colors, white, green pumpkin and black/blue. For the trailer I use a Zoom Twin Tail (Fat Albert) matching the jig colors. This is a great search bait for scouring the flats and if you see following fish, simply let the lure fall to the bottom, and the fish will usually nose down on it. As they go to it just give it a short twitch and they’ll hit it and if not just start a normal retrieve and they’ll usually grab it. The other nice thing about the swim jig is if you come across a weed bed you can pitch or flip it in there and work the cover the same as you would with a standard jig & pig.  For this presentation I use the TFO GTS Bass 736-1, 7’ 3” H rod paired with a 6.3:1 reel spooled with 20-pound Cortland Master Braid with a 48” section of 16-pound fluorocarbon leader.

I think if you dress accordingly and give these lures and setups a try, that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how many bites you can generate when chasing ice-out bass.

In closing, remember cold-water conditions are no joke and require a clear head. Take a cell phone with you and let someone know where you’re going and how long you’ll be out and be sure to let them know when you’re safely off the water.

 

Good luck and be sure to post those fish catches on one of our social pages. Questions, comments about ice-out bass, let us know those thoughts as well.

A Few Tips for the Hearty Smallmouth Bass Angler

Editor’s Note: This week, we turn to TFO Ambassador Burnie Haney for a few tips on fishing for late-fall smallmouth bass. Enjoy.

When the water drops below 50 degrees, it’s the best time to down-size your presentation for consistent rod action throughout the day. In central and northern New York, our waters are running 46, 47 degrees, and when other power presentations fail to produce, light line and small baits will get you bit day in and day out.

This past Friday my bass tournament teammate (Mike Cusano) and I fished Oneida Lake with the TFO Professional Series TFG PSS 703-1 paired with 5.1:1 spinning reels loaded with 4 or 6-pound test to present 2.8 and 3-inch Keitech swimbaits on 1/8 or 3/16-ounce jig heads.

Our best presentation was a long-distance cast with a slow steady retrieve. We wanted our baits to imitate the small size forage base of perch and shad, and these little swimbaits baits work perfectly for this application.

Often times in tournament fishing we hear anglers talk about employing a stop-and-go retrieve to help generate strikes. However, when it comes to cold water bassin’ I believe a slow steady retrieve works best especially for smallmouth. My theory: Since the water is colder, the fish usually react a bit slower. If they can find forage in open water that’s slowing passing by, they’re going to hit it nine times out of ten rather than let it go.

We employed this presentation with good results on a recent Friday and knew we could duplicate it on Sunday in the 2018 Brian Rayle Go Anywhere Tournament on Oneida Lake. During the tournament we landed 35 bass and 20 perch, with our five best bass weighing 21.31 pounds, which beat the second-place team by more than a 2-pound margin.

A lot of anglers put their boats away once the late fall hunting starts, and when they do, they leave behind some of the best smallmouth bass fishing of the season.

So the moral of this story is the next time you find yourself surrounded by cold-water smallmouth bass, in gin clear water, make sure you have a TFO Professional Series TFG PSS 703-1 rod paired with a 5.1:1 reel loaded with 4-6 lb. test and a handful of small swimbaits with 1/8 or 3/16th oz. jig heads.

Trust me on this one, you’ll be glad you’re properly geared up to enjoy all-day rod action.

Additional thoughts on smallmouth tactics? Let us know on one of our social media pages.