What Is The Top Live Bait For Walleye By Season?

UPDATED 23 FEBRUARY 2021

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by Bill Laney

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Walleye are well known to be finicky biters, and one of the most important keys for catching them is using the right bait at the right time.

Live bait is by far the best bait for walleye, but which kind is best to use depends a lot on the time of year, and sometimes even on the time of the day.

The top 3 kinds of walleye live bait are minnows, nightcrawlers, and leeches. Minnows can be used effectively over the whole year, but tend to perform best during the colder months. Nightcrawlers and leeches, on the other hand, work best during the warm months, and tend to be the top choices in summer.

Let’s look at the 3 best live baits for walleye in more detail, and break down their performance over the course of the whole year.

 

The best live bait for walleye by season

SeasonMinnowLeechNightcrawler
Spring (March – May)✓✓✓✓✓✓ (late spring)
Summer (June – August)✓✓✓✓✓✓✓✓
Fall (September – November)✓✓✓✓✓✓
Winter (December – February)✓✓✓

 

Now let’s look at each of the seasons in more detail, to see which one is the best choice at different times of the year:

1. Best live bait for walleye in spring

Spring is a time of dynamic changes, and needs to be further broken down into early and late spring. In early spring, as the ice is breaking up, walleye move into shallower areas of the lake, heading towards their spawning grounds. 

During early spring, they feed actively on small fish, and so minnows are the best choice to use at this time. 

But in late spring, as the weather continues to warm up, nightcrawlers become an excellent option. The reason for this is that they become a natural food source for walleye at this time of the year. The thawing snow raises water levels of lakes and rivers, which in turn washes night crawlers out of the soil and into the water, where they make a great snack for hungry fish. The best way to use them is as a whole worm, with a hook attached at each end.

2. Best live bait for walleye in summer

Nightcrawlers continue to work well at this time of the year, but leeches quickly become the top choice during the summer months. In fact, many anglers report they have caught more trophy fish on leeches than on all other baits combined, so you should definitely give them a try. 

However, there can be differences from lake to lake in terms of how well each of them performs, so it’s always best to compare them side by side, to see which one works best for you.

Both nightcrawlers and leeches work best in the warmer months because they are more active in warm water. If you drop a leech into cold water, it tends to roll up into a tight ball, and won’t budge anymore. But in order for a leech to be enticing for hungry walleye, it needs to wriggle around actively, which is why summer is the top season for using them. In addition to this, both types of bait are harder to get during the cold season.

3. Best live bait for fall walleye

During the fall season, you can find walleye feeding aggressively on schools of small fish in shallow areas of the lake, taking advantage of the many young fish that have hatched during the summer, and fattening up for the cold season.

During early fall, leeches and nightcrawlers continue to be effective, but as the water cools down further, minnows become the top performing choice once more. But overall, this is a time of year when you can use all three choices effectively.

4. Best live bait for walleye ice fishing

Ice fishing for walleye is one of the most popular ways to catch them, and every year thousands of anglers impatiently wait for the ice to get thick enough to fish on. During the winter season, they continue their autumn feeding behavior, and focus almost exclusively on small fish as their food source.

Due to this feeding behavior, minnows are the absolute top choice in winter, while the other two options hardly work at all during this season. Walleye completely ignore nightcrawlers in winter, which is strange, since they make a great bait for trout ice fishing (for more details check out our article Do nightcrawlers work for ice fishing?).

Also, if you use a jig to actively work your presentation, a minnow head can be even more effective than a whole one at this time of the year. If you want to learn more about the tactics that work best at this time of the year, take a look at our article on the best bait for walleye ice fishing.

 

Best minnow for walleye

The most popular walleye minnow is the emerald shiner

But keep in mind that there is no single best minnow for walleye – the ideal choice is to use one that is native to the lake where you want to fish (or at least similar to a native species there).

When they are actively feeding, you can get them to bite on almost any kind of bait, but when they are finicky (which is most of the time), they tend to ignore the ones that look alien to them. 

Here are the 7 most popular species used for walleye:

  • Emerald shiners
  • Golden shiners
  • Fatheads
  • Redtail chubs
  • Creek chubs
  • Rainbows
  • Suckers

 

If you’re not sure what kind works best on your lake, try to ask other anglers, and examine the stomach content of freshly caught fish, to see what they are feeding on. Sometimes that simple approach will give you the best clue on what to present to them. Also, keep in mind that their favorite food fish tends to change over the course of the year, so you might have to adjust accordingly.

Which one you use also depends on what’s available at your local tackle shop. Usually they’ll have 3 or 4 different species, and a range of different sizes. In that case try to test several species and sizes, to figure out which one works best. 

While we’re on the topic of size: small minnows around 3-4 inches long seem to work best in winter, as the ‘eyes tend to feed less aggressively at this time of the year. However, when targeting trophy fish in summer, you can increase the size to up to 7-9 inches, which will specifically attract the big fish, while excluding the small ones.

 

How to rig live bait for walleye

There are 3 main ways to use a walleye live bait rig:

  • Slip bobber rig
  • Slip sinker rig
  • Jig

 

Probably the most popular live bait rig for walleye is the slip bobber, which is used to suspend your hook 1-3 foot above the bottom of the lake. This works well for all 3 bait options, and can be used during all seasons, including for ice fishing in winter. 

Slip bobber fishing is incredibly fun, as you always get a shot of adrenaline when you see the bobber suddenly getting pulled underwater when a hungry fish takes the hook.

However, finicky biters may tend to spit out the hook if they feel resistance from the slip bobber. In that case a slip sinker rig can be better. This setup works well with all 3 types of live bait, and is ideal for allowing wary walleye to eat the bait without feeling any resistance from your tackle.

A great way to use a slip sinker rig is to fish a big minnow on top of promising underwater structure to target trophy size fish. Use a rod with a sensitive tip for this, so you can feel what’s going on at the end of your tackle, and release line when you feel a fish take the bait. Then give it a few moments before you set the hook. 

A slip sinker rig can also be used for trolling slowly in lakes and rivers, bouncing the bait off the lake bottom on promising structure.

The best way to hook a live fish is with a single hook through the nose, or passed through the back, between the dorsal fin and tail fin. Leeches are best hooked close to the sucker, and nightcrawlers should be hooked with two hooks, one at each end.

Finally, when ice fishing, the most popular option is to use a jig head and pass the hook through the nose of the minnow. Presented that way, the colored jig head helps to attract fish, and then the live fish seals the deal. 

 

Final remarks

The challenge of catching walleye can be broken down into two main parts: a) finding them, and b) using the right bait (for more details on the first part, check out our article on the top walleye fishing tips).

If you’re looking for the best walleye fishing bait that works well all year round, then you should choose minnows. 

However, while small fish are the absolute top choice in the colder months, during the summer nightcrawlers and leeches can catch a lot more fish, and so should always be included in your tackle box when you go open water fishing.

 

Additional resources:

Walleye fishing tipsHow much does it cost to mount a fish?best live bait for walleyeHow long can you keep ungutted fish on iceCan you eat largemouth bassPerch as baitDo walleye have teethKayak fishing tipsFishing hacksIs chatterbait good for bassWhere do you throw a chatterbaitWhen to use spinnerbaitWhere do you use a spinnerbaitWhat size spinnerbait for bassWhen to use a drop shot rigFrog fishing setupBest color frog for bass fishingWhen to throw a frog for bassWalleye jigging setupBest line for walleye jiggingWalleye trolling setupWalleye trolling speed