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A Lesson in Live Bait Rigging  at Cabela's

A Lesson in Live Bait Rigging

Author: Gary Roach

Live bait rigging is a simple and effective way to catch walleyes. The reason a live bait rig works so well is because it allows you to control the bait. What I mean is, you can put the bait right in front of the fish, and keep it there.

Gary Roach, rigging results.  Photo by Tim Lesmeister ©
Live bait rigging is a simple and effective way to catch walleyes. The reason a live bait rig works so well is because it allows you to control the bait. What I mean is, you can put the bait right in front of the fish, and keep it there.

When the fish takes the bait, you can "feed" them by allowing them to run with the bait, and they get a good grip on the hook before you bury the barb.

As simple as the live bait rig is to use, there are some little tricks that can increase your success. But first a little history on "The Rig." The live bait rig goes back to the first time somebody put something that was kicking or squirming onto a hook and put it into the water to catch a fish. Really, when you think about it -any hook with a minnow, leech, nightcrawler, cricket, live insect or minnow that is in the water and used to catch fish is a live bait rig. But as fishermen go, we are not content with the basics. We want more.

The "more" for the live bait rig was a sliding sinker held in position on the line by a barrel-swivel, which allowed the angler to feed line to the fish. There have been a lot of modifications to basic sinkers as well. Savvy anglers use walking sinkers over rocks, bottom bouncers over snaggy bottoms, and bullet sinkers in vegetation.

I was never satisfied with the limitation of the snell. The snell is a piece of line that has the hook attached to one end and a loop on the other. You attach the snell to a barrel swivel. What limited you with this rig was the ability to adjust the length of the snell. You had to cut and retie every time you wanted a longer or shorter snell. And if you needed a real long snell you could only reel up to the sinker which meant holding the rod tip as high as you could or even standing on a boat seat so someone could net the fish. All of these limitations led me to develop the Roach Rig.

With the Roach Rig you incorporate a "stopper" on the line that holds the sinker in place. It's just a bobber stop knot, but now it does double duty as a sinker stop as well. First, you slip a small bead on the line, and then the sinker stop. If you're using a spinner or nightcrawler harness that is prone to causing line twist, then it's a good idea to use a tiny barrel swivel a few feet from the hook. If you're using minnows or leeches, you will have the line on the reel running all the way to the hook, which increases sensitivity.

The Roach sinkers are easy to take on and off the line, so as soon as you know how deep you're fishing, you can just pop on the right size sinker above the bead and adjust the sinker stop to put the perfect distance between the weight and the bait.

Now for some tricks that will help you be the most effective angler you can be when you're using the Roach Rig.

When choosing your weight, take two things into consideration. First, how deep are you fishing? You want to have good feel of the bottom, and a heavier sinker will give you that. You can tell if you are on a rock bottom, sand, or muck. The sinker can tell you all that, once you get used to how those different types of bottom feel. Sure it takes a little bit of time on the water and some practice, but pay attention to what that sinker is telling you, and it will help you. Why? Whenever you run into a transition from one bottom type to another, work that area hard. It's a great place for fish.

One trick that I've just started using, because it has only been available for the last few years, is Fireline. I use it for all my rigging. The extra sensitivity really helps you get a feel for that bottom.

The other consideration when picking a weight is the mood of the fish. While I will typically pick a heavier weight when I'm fishing deeper or want to "feel" the bottom, that may not be the case if the fish are in a negative mood. This is something that every angler must remember. Your sinker can dictate the speed that you fish, and slow you down if that should be the presentation.

Think about it. Fish are on that structure, but they're not biting. So slow down. That's hard to do. But, if you change from a three-quarter ounce Roach sinker to a quarter-ounce and then try to maintain a 45-degree line angle, you will have to slow that boat down even if it means tossing out a drift sock to slow you to a crawl. So don't forget, that a sinker can help you out.

The weight can dictate the speed of your presentation, and that works both ways. If you need to speed up to cover more ground, put on a heavier weight. The size of the sinker doesn't create the bite; the hook, size of bait, and type of bait do that. The sinker only affects the speed at the depth you're fishing.

And speaking of hooks. Here's my rule of thumb. For a big minnow, I like a medium-sized hook so I incorporate a #1 or a #2. For night crawlers, I tie my own harness with either two or three #4 hooks. Leeches are one of the best walleye baits, if presented properly. You should never use any hook bigger than #6, and many times I use a #8 with a leech.

These hooks may seem small to a lot of anglers, but I'm trying to let that bait work its magic. With a #8 hook and a leech, the bait can swim up off of the bottom, wiggling, squirming, twisting, and turning. That will make even the most tight-lipped walleyes hungry.

Because you are using small hooks with Fireline, you need to keep the drag set lighter, but not too light. I use a spinning reel for rigging, because they allow you to feed line with no drag. This means the fish feels nothing as the line spills off the spool. Once you set the hook then you want some reel drag.

Set the drag on the reel for the line-diameter designation of the line. If it's four-pound diameter, set the drag for four-pound pull. Now when that big fish takes a run at the boat, the hook won't rip out of the fish's mouth and the rod will take up the shock.

There's been a lot of debate on how far to set up the distance between the sinker and the hook. Everyone has an opinion, and I wouldn't argue with anyone about their reasons for a particular formula, I can only give you Roach's reason for why I set the distance between the weight and the bait the way I do. It's very simple. I let the fish dictate it.

If I'm on a body of water where the walleyes get pounded day in and day out, and these fish are "smarter" than the average walleye, then I will extend the distance between the weight and the bait as much as 10 or 12 feet. Seems like a lot, but I have discovered that walleyes that are heavily pressured along with tough-biting walleyes tend to fall for a bait presented a long way from the sinker.

If you're wondering how to get that fish close enough to the boat to net it, remember, the sinker stop slips, so if you are going to use a real long distance between weight and bait, keep the sinker stop just tight enough to hold the sinker in place. As you reel in the fish, just keep reeling when the sinker hits the eye on the rod tip. You can reel right down to the fish, net it right at the side of the boat, readjust the sinker stop, and start all over. Doesn't that versatility the Roach Rig gives you sound great?

In a fishery where the walleye are not so pressured but are simply in a negative mood, you can use a tighter distance between weight and bait, maybe three to four feet. This is because the fish are likely tight to bottom and you want to get that bait positioned right on top of their nose.

Now comes the ultimate question: How long should I "feed" the fish before I set the hook? You have a sliding sinker here, so you can release line to the fish and let them get the bait firmly in place in their mouth before setting the hook. I can tell you that live bait rigs definitely have a good hooking percentage ratio because of this option.

Now walleyes are finicky eaters, and I always feed them line. If I feed a walleye for a 10-count and only get a half a 'crawler back the next bite gets a 20-count. After a few bites I've figured out what the count needs to be to get that hook buried to the bone.

As far as setting the hook, DON'T. Using a small hook with a line that doesn't stretch means setting the hook will likely rip the hook right out of the fish's mouth. Here's the best way to get the hook buried, and the fish into the net.

It takes very little effort to get a small hook with a razor point to penetrate. Use a rod with a more limber tip. When you have given the fish enough time to take the bait, your rod tip should be pointed towards the water at a slight angle to the direction the line is going into the water. Start reeling, and when you feel the pressure of the fish on the end of the line, sweep the rod tip back and up while reeling at the same time. When that fish feels the pressure and turns to run, that hook is going to do its job. There's no "crossing their eyes," or "ripping their lips off" -just a big old fish on the hook ready to come and be introduced to the net.

A few other tips I can give you. Sometimes a tiny colored bead put right above the knot at the hook will generate bites. Also a tiny spinner works super under dark water conditions. On a tough bite, sometimes I take a night crawler and just hook it once through the nose on a #6 hook and shoot a little air under the collar to keep it up off the bottom. On mud flats, I never let the sinker drag on the bottom. Keep the weight three to six inches off the mud bottom for good results.

The good old live bait rig. It probably catches more fish than any other freshwater setup there is. That's because when fish are hungry they will eat, and when they see a nice easy meal twitching, swimming, squirming and wriggling right there in front of them, hey that sounds like a dinner bell to me.

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