walleye fishing

Dirty Little Secret of the Walleye World

“20% of the water has 80% of the fish.” 

Anyone who’s been in this game long enough knows all too well the truth behind this fable. Some might even argue it’s 90/10 or even 95/5. But how many of us understand the origins of this principle? If you don’t, worry not. I’ll give you the quick down and dirty. 

Vilfredo Pareto was an economist that understood the distribution of cause and effect. He argued 80% of everything is rooted in 20% of origins. In other words, the majority of anything significant is caused by a small minority. The Pareto Principle, as it later became known, became a popular concept among economists and general academia. Examples of his theory include land ownership, where 80% of a population lives on 20% of the land or wealth, where 80% of the affluence is enjoyed by 20% of the people. It even works in academics, where 80% of top honors are achieved by 20% or less of the students. And believe it or not, this translates well to our angling world. Do you know any wise old timers who live and breathe Pareto’s principle? I know plenty of them!

It’s an interesting concept, and if you pay close attention, you can see it at work all around you. Try it some time. Throw a handful of jigs into the air and see where they land. I’ll bet your results will be consistent with Pareto’s theory. In any case, and assuming the theory has stood the test of time, we have to ask how to apply this so called “distribution law” to the angling world? I have a helpful suggestion!

I started fishing when I was 4. Our family had a place in a small resort community called Shore Acres.  The resort has been sold off, however the lake it sat on (Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota) remains one of the premiere walleye fishing destinations in the upper Midwest. Since that faithful day, a long, long time ago, when I wet my first line, I have landed tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of walleyes  I tell you this not to brag but to illustrate that a mind-boggling number of those fish have been hooked using one simple, time-tested technique–a plain jig and minnow.  If I’d recorded the lure I used for each catch, I will guarantee you Pareto’s principle would shine through like an orange jig in dark stained water! 

And if given a choice, a jig would be my presentation of choice almost 100% of the time!  For anyone who has their sights set on fishing the prolific waters of Canada, that’s truly all you’ll need.

Now hold on a second. Many will ask if they just read the above correctly? And, yep, if you look back you’ll see I said it–a jig and minnow is the go-to, premiere walleye presentation. It is the simplest yet most effective lure to produce action and boat you tons of fish! Tackle companies will hate me, trolling pros will loath me and nay sayers will load their proverbial shotguns.  People will call me one dimensional and the spinner guys will kick and scream and say really bad words.  But when all the protesting and name calling subsides, people will be forced to admit that a jig and minnow is a walleye slaying machine.  In fact, forget 80/20, when it comes to jigging for walleyes, it’s more like 95/5.

Now, is this to say that a jig is the most effective presentation in all bodies of water all the time? Nope, I’ll concede that. But, remember the rule. 80% of results will be achieved by 20% of the means. Sure, I can catch walleyes trolling. Yep, I can even catch them pulling a Carolina rig or crawler harness. And, from time to time I’ll catch walleyes casting, using crank baits and spinners. But the vast majority of walleyes WILL be caught jigging bottom-relating walleyes. 

Fact is fact–most often walleyes relate to structure; usually that means bottom structure. In Canada, there is this interesting little rock called the Great Canadian Shield. It’s a premiere habitat for everything a walleye needs. It attracts bait fish (food) and it provides shelter (hiding spots from predators) as well as ambush points. Introduce a tantalizing minnow bouncing like a pepperoni pizza and crisp cold Canadian Molson right in front of their face, and those bottom hugging fish become highly susceptible to your lure.    

Keep in mind though, there is more to jigging than throwing a minnow over the side of the boat until it hits bottom. Case in point! I was guiding a bear hunter and his wife a few days after he harvested his bear. The wind was primarily out of the southeast, it was a little on the cool side, and gray encompassed the entire sky. I knew it would be a doable bite, but slow-moving finesse would be the name of the game, at least early on. As so often happens, the female half of this duo asked pointed questions and listened intently to the answers. She picked up on the technique instantly, while the male half didn’t have the patience to let his jig sink to the bottom. She proceeded to land fish after fish, eventually boating the biggest of the day, a superbly gorgeous 28 inch female. He, on the other hand, took most of the day to figure things out. Same tackle, same baits, same location. She had the time of her life (and let him know it, I might add) while he struggled to catch a limit. The difference? She was able to present her jig on the bottom, where the fish were. He couldn’t get the feel for it, even after we tied on a bigger jig for him. 

But walleyes aren’t the only fish that will succumb to your jig. Just asked legendary angler Babe Winkelman. In a recent episode of Good Fishing, “Off to Ontario,” Babe explains in his opening monologue, “I love jigs; my favorite way to catch ANY fish that there is.” He goes on to say that when he starts fishing, a jig is the first thing he reaches for.

In fact, I got to observe Babe’s jig fishing repertoire firsthand when I took him on out Lake Nipigon a couple years back. At that time, I targeted trophy brook trout by donning either a casting spoon (cleo) or a spinner (rooster tail). During the initial meeting, and true to his form, Babe baited me with a few questions about how I prefer to catch the big coasters. He allowed me to hang myself on my preferred lures, and then set the hook by asking, “Have you ever caught one on a jig?” Somewhat embarrassed yet skeptical, I stuttered and said no. Long story short, Babe out fished me 20 to 0. I stuck with my spoons and spinners while he boated brookie after brookie with his white Fuzzy Grub jigs. Lesson learned!

I’ve also landed some of the biggest pike of my life on jigs. Sometimes I was targeting them, but more often than not, I was unsuspectingly fishing for walleyes. Countless times during action-filled walleye bites, I’ve gotten a rod-bender that just doesn’t feel the same. Sure enough, after nursing the fish along, I’ll catch a glimpse of an enormous pike that has engulfed my lure. It takes some finagling, but I manage to land most of them. And pike are famous for being holed up in weeds where casting or trolling is next to impossible. Jigs present the only option! Using them strategically just outside weed edges where they won’t get hung up is usually enough to entice them out of their thick hideouts. I’ve even used 1 oz jigs tipped with huge sucker minnows, casting them great distances to avoid spooking shallow patrolling fish. I’ve had tremendous luck with that technique, and it’s one you won’t see people use often. I remember one time my dad was chuckling at my modus operandi until I landed a 41 incher. He quickly changed his tune!

A quick side note – many moons ago, I learned how important it is to use fluorocarbon leaders. Before then, if I stumbled into a pike while jigging, I’d likely been bit off. Nowadays, no problem. With the fluoro leader my odds of landing accidentally-hooked pike increase tenfold. Don’t go to big with your line size, though, and remember you still have to finesse them in–you won’t be able to horse ‘em.

Don’t forget lake trout either! Sometimes a jig is the ONLY way to catch lakers, especially on small lakes where trolling runs are impractical. Anyone who has spent time chasing lake trout on Canadian inland waters knows exactly what I am talking about. When faced with that situation, big tube jigs are incredibly effective. They’ll get you deep in a hurry. You can mount precision attacks and once they are hooked, the fight is out of this world!

Heck, I’ve even targeted fall white fish with jigs. Taking a page out of Babe’s book, I’ve out-fished spinner guys on several occasions while river bank fishing pre-spawn, fall whities. It’s a blast!

Given the above, it’s easy to see that ol’ Parteo was on to something with his theory. Not only does a small percentage of water hold the largest percentage of fish, one angling technique (jigging, of course) produces the largest percentage of action. And consider this next time you’re around your tackle box. Open in it up, and take a quick inventory of your arsenal. Then think about what percentage of tackle you REALLY use, compared to the total tackle you have. My guess is ol’ Parteo is at work in there too!

And for those of you who are curious, I did get my paybacks with Babe the following year. Out on Lake Nipigon once again, I refined my jigging skills to include the brook trout I had learned such a tough lesson on. Not only did I eke out a few more specks then him, I landed the biggest of the day; a gorgeous 25 incher! I guess the student learned a valuable lesson from the teacher! Pareto would be proud!

Until next time…


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