Jig is up, on top, among opening-day walleye lures
Jigs have caught more world-record fish than any other lure and will be the go-to choice for many anglers on Minnesota's fishing opener May 14.
DULUTH — When the News Tribune ran a story in March on how jigs are by far the No. 1 lure for the most world-record fish, it probably didn’t surprise any walleye anglers in Minnesota.
The data from the International Game Fish Association’s record books, crunched by the "Lure Love Podcast," showed that jigs have caught more than five times as many world-record fish as the next type of lure, spoons, 1,105 to 211.
Folks in Minnesota have been using jigs to catch fish for decades, especially walleye. And jigs — essentially weighted hooks — are often the go-to lure for catching walleye early in the season, like on the May 14 fishing opener.
Tip them with a shiner minnow, a fathead or chub, strip on a piece of nightcrawler or a plastic twister, or maybe add some smelly Powerbait or Gulp. The options are boundless, as are color options, weights and shapes to match just about any fishing situation.
Drag them. Jerk them. Gently lift and drop. Snap them.
Jigs are relatively inexpensive, compared to jerkbaits, stickbaits and spoons that can run $10 or more these days. You can get a really great jig for $1 each or less.
We asked several Northland fishing pros what they will be using on opening day this year, assuming the ice is off the lakes in time. Not surprisingly, they didn’t stray too far from the basics, with some variation in jig shapes and colors.
The consensus is to go bright with colors and go light on weight, with 1/8- and 1/16-ounce jigs the most popular choices.
Bemidji-based Northland Fishing Tackle jigs came out as the clear favorite. They are among the largest jig makers in the country, are widely available, sold in many sizes, shapes and colors and have been around for decades.
The wily veteran
Greg Clusiau, of Keewatin, Minnesota, may fish more days each year than any person I know. Multiply that by a half-century of fishing and you have a lot of experience. Clusiau’s go-to jig for opening-day walleyes is the Northland Sting’n Fire-Ball short-shank jig. In fact, it’s his all-time favorite jig all season long.
“I’d probably go with a 1/8-ounce, something light, as the walleyes are usually quite shallow on most lakes’’ for opening day, said Clusiau, a longtime Iron Range fishing columnist.
His favorite color is Glo Watermelon, and it will be tipped with a shiner or a chub.
“If the boat is in shallow water (6 feet or so) I’d make long casts away from the boat and work it back slowly in short hops or a slow continuous drag. I let the fish tell me just what they prefer. Depends on how active they are on this particular day,’’ Clusiau said. “Most times I’m back-trolling as slow as I can go or or going forward with a bow-mount electric motor.”
Guiding the governor
Tom Neustrom, of Grand Rapids, is an inductee into both the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame. Neustrom will be guiding Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on opening day. You can bet they will both have jigs tied on.
Due to the incredibly cold spring and incredibly late ice-out, Neustrom, who had planned to fish Winnibigoshish with the governor, may instead end up on nearby smaller lakes that lose their ice earlier. Regardless, Neustrom notes, it’ll be a jig bite.
“The cold water should keep walleyes in that 5- to 10-foot range, where they’ll take a jig and minnow combo. If a quick cold front moves in, they could drop into 15 feet or so,’’ he said.
Neustrom said he expects a late walleye spawn due to colder-water temperatures, so anglers should be jigging near gravel and rock rubble where walleyes laid their eggs.
Neustrom will likely start the day with a Northland Fire-Ball jig with 1/16 ounce if it's fairly calm and 1/8 ounce if there is some chop. His favorite color is Parrot, but he also likes Watermelon on Winnie.
“I’ll have a couple rods rigged with Deep-Vee jigs, too. They’re very effective at cutting through turbulence and finding the bottom,’’ Neustrom said, adding a bait tip as well. “Everyone loads up on lake-run shiner minnows. I carry a bunch as well. But if the bite is exceptionally tough, you’ll want to downsize the bait. Grab a scoop or two of chubs. Sometimes, they make all the difference.”
Neustrom reminds anglers to be patient with the hook set while jigging, to lean into the bite.
“Don’t set right away,’’ he said. “Let the fish eat it and pull back with a smooth hookset.”
Fish the snags
Jarrid Houston, of South Range, Wisconsin, a veteran fishing guide and the News Tribune’s weekly fishing columnist, says his favorite Minnesota opener jig is the Northland Fishing Tackle RZ, in the deep-yellow Sunset color.
On opening day, quite likely on the St. Louis River Estuary, he’ll be going with a 1/8-ounce tipped with a chub minnow.
“This setup can be utilized all open-water season and in many different scenarios. But for May, much like autumn, I like to pitch it up on rock/sand transitions or river mouths that hold annual walleye spawning grounds. Target depths are anywhere from 5-20 feet,’’ Houston said.
Later in the season, Houston will often tip his jigs with a piece of worm or nightcrawler, a combination that will attract multiple species of fish.
The guide reminds anglers to "become one with your jig.”
“Imagine what it is doing down there every time you hop it,’’ Houston noted, adding that the choice of rod may be as important as the choice of jig. He likes a 6-foot with his reel loaded with monofilament line in 6-pound test.
And Houston says look for fish in the craggiest waters possible, right where you are likely to get snagged. Because that’s where the fish will be.
“There really are not a lot of ways you can screw up this tactic of fishing. But anglers should make sure to not drag the jig, but rather keep the line taut to detect the thump of a fish bite,’’ Houston said. “Also, if you are getting snagged-up, that is a good thing. Fish the snags … I get all giddy just thinking about it!”
Consider lead-free jigs
A growing option for Northland anglers are lead-free jigs — made from materials like tungsten, steel, tin and bismuth — as more people become aware of the dangers of toxic lead in the environment.
Lost lead weights and jigs left in lakes and rivers can be picked up by loons and other birds that mistake them for the small rocks they need to digest their food. Even a tiny, 1/8-ounce lead jig or sinker can kill a loon.
Efforts have been made to phase out the sale of small lead fishing tackle in Minnesota, mostly under one-half ounce. But so far those efforts haven’t advanced, and state officials are instead pushing a voluntary switch to unleaded tackle.
More companies are offering more options for lead-free jigs which are often a little more expensive than lead models. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency lists more than 50 companies that make and sell lead-free weights and jigs.
For more information, go pca.state.mn.us/living-green/lead-free-fishing-tackle-get-lead-out .
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Dultuh News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .