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Posted by Phil Lilley on June 24th, 2016
I can’t remember when I first fell in love with walking the dog for river smallmouth. I believe I first began to use these lures back in the 1980s, when about all that was available was the Zara Spook (no rattles back then), the Baby Zara Spook (not to be confused with the Super Spook Jr.), and the Zara Puppy. I thought the big Spook was too large for river fishing. I considered the Puppy too small, though I used it occasionally. The Baby Zara was a shorter but just as fat version that worked fairly well, and it became my walking bait for a while. But I wasn’t yet in love with them.
I suppose it was when the Lucky Craft Sammy first came out that I really got into using these lures. I bought a couple Sammys, and as I remember, the first time I tried them I did really well, and so I started using them a lot.
It didn’t take too long to get my muscle memory down to where walking one of these things was automatic. It’s a different twitching action from working prop baits, as I’d done since I was a little kid fishing Devils Horses on Wappapello Lake with my dad. To walk one of these well, your twitch needs to be very quick and sharp, a flick of the wrist. A backhand flick works easiest for me…in other words, if you’re holding the rod in your left hand, you want the rod tip to be off to your right, and vice versa. It’s a whole lot easier to flick your wrist downward, toward the palm side, than upward toward the back of your hand. The flick should put some slack in your line as the lure glides to one side. You want that bit of slack, so that the next flick can make the lure zig the other way. With a good walker, you can almost make it zig and zag without hardly moving forward, simply by taking up very little line between flicks.
But you have to tailor your flick to the particular lure you’re using. Some lures require a very small, gentle flick, others a much harder and longer movement. And you can vary the movement to either make the lure glide a long way (6-8 inches) with each zig and zag, or almost zig and zag in place without any glide. You can make it very quiet and smooth, or very splashy, depending upon the flicking wrist movement.
The other thing to consider is the cadence. You can do it slowly or quickly, regular or erratic.
And you can do another trick, though it’s not easy to do once you get your muscle memory so accustomed to the regular flicking movement. By going soft flick, hard flick, soft flick, you can make the lure walk off to one side or the other. I have to really concentrate to do this, because I’m so used to making each flick the same that it’s very difficult for me to do the soft, hard, soft deal. But when I’m really on my game, I can cast past and just off the side of an overhanging limb, so that my line doesn’t drape over the limb, and then walk the lure right under the overhang. Or cast past a stump, walk the lure toward the stump until it’s behind it, then make it walk the other way and come around the stump. The hard flick makes the lure glide off to one side several inches, the soft flick makes it zig the other way without gliding, then the next hard flick makes it glide farther to the side it glided before.
You can use either spinning or casting tackle to walk the dog. I use casting, with a copoly line of 8 pound test. I’ve found that shorter rods make walking easier. My walking rod for the jetboat where I’m standing on the deck is a 6 footer; my canoe rod, where I’m sitting fairly low to the water, is a custom 5 footer.
Here’s what I’ve learned about these lures that is specific to Ozark river smallmouth fishing…
When do you use it? Well, I will always have one tied on once the water temps are above 60 degrees, and will often try them even if it’s colder, down to 55 degrees. So it’s pretty much an April through November bait for me. And forget about early and late–I use them all day long; sunny, cloudy, calm, windy.
And it is always my first choice in very clear water. My technique then is to fish it fast and splashy, which may seem odd given that we always think about using finesse techniques in super clear water. But my theory is that smallmouth are still bass, and are aggressive when active. Big, splashy lures don’t scare them off, and the faster and splashier it is, the less they get a good look at it, so they strike it in simple instinctive reaction–if I was assigning human thoughts to bass, they would be something like, “I can’t see what the heck it is, but it looks alive and edible so I’d better whack it before it gets away.” My only concession to “finesse” in air-clear water is to SOMETIMES downsize the lure.
If the water is murky, and/or bigger water, the minimum size lure I use is about 100 mm (like the Sammy 100, or Super Spook Jr.) and I’ll often go bigger, like the Sammy 115 or full size Spook or even the bigger River2Sea Rover. In very clear water, the 100 mm size is still my go-to lure, but I may go down to the 80-85 mm length, like the Sammy 85 or one of my homemade walkers that is about that same length. I NEVER go smaller than that with these lures–I don’t even own one any smaller than about 80 mm.
The biggest drawback to these lures is that they aren’t all that easy to walk in strong current. The current puts a bow in that slack in your line, and tends to pull it tight. You can’t make the lure walk right on a tight line. You can walk one easily if walking with or against the current, but making it walk across the current is problematical.
I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting with various commercially available walkers, as well as making my own. Here are some of the ones I’ve tried:
Lucky Craft Sammy–I still love the action and the swishy sound of the rattles on this lure, especially the 100 size. But I’ve used them a little less the last few years, as there are other lures out there that are just as good.
Strike King Sexy Dawg Jr.–about the same size as the Sammy 100. I like it because it sits more level in the water than the Sammy, which floats at a very steep angle at rest. It’s very easy to walk. The only thing I don’t like about it is the rather fat body profile. Price point is nice compared to the Sammy.
Super Spook Jr.–unimaginative profile, and I don’t like the loud knocking rattles as much, but it’s easy to walk and certainly catches fish. The price point is nice.
Megabass Giant Dog X–the only size I’ll use, it’s no bigger than about 80 mm. I like the profile, and the feathered rear treble, but it’s a little persnickety about walking really well.
River2Sea Rover–I haven’t tried the smaller version, which is about 95 mm. The big version, 125 mm, is almost too big, but it’s surprising how often little bass whack that thing, and having three trebles instead of two reduces the blow-ups where the fish doesn’t get hooked. Three smaller trebles on any of these lures hooks more fish than two larger trebles, and I’ve actually modified some of the ones above to have three trebles. The drawback, however, is that often all three trebles end up in the fish as it struggles, giving it more wounds and making it a lot more difficult to lip it and then get it unhooked.
Lucky Craft Gunfish 95–though supposedly a popper, this lure was designed to walk, and it does it very well. I like the size, the feathered rear treble, and the splashy, spitting walk.
Evergreen SB (SB stands for Shower Blows, which really makes me wonder what the Japanese guy was aiming for in naming it that)–this Japanese pencil popper walks about as well as any lure I’ve ever seen. You really can almost make it walk in place without moving forward.
6th Sense Crush Dogma 100–another Japanese version, but this one isn’t all that expensive, about ten bucks, and it really walks well, especially if you want it splashy. Decent profile. Rattles are rather loud but not a bad sound.
Storm Chug Bug–the normal size one walks very well, kinda the poor man’s Gunfish.
There are also a bunch of poppers which walk, though I’ve yet to find one that does it as nicely as a real walker or a slim, pencil popper type. The Lucky Craft G-Splash walks about as well as any popper I’ve tried.
Finally, a word about blow-ups when the fish don’t get hooked. This happens quite often with these lures. It’s almost like the bass are mad at the thing and whack it without actually trying to eat it. I’ve given this a lot of thought, however, and I suspect that they often hit it to stun it. Picture the lure zig zagging and splashing and moving very quickly, a little like one of those topminnows that skip across the surface frantically when pursued by a bass. But it’s a big lure, a big mouthfull, and it’s not easy for the bass to strike it with precision in order to immediately engulf it. So I think they hit it as viciously as possible, hoping to stun it and then come back and eat it at their leisure. When this happens, there are three things you can try. First of all, DON’T set the hooks on the splash, wait a second to see if the lure has disappeared before striking. If the bass “missed”, you can keep working it at the same speed you were doing when it hit. Or you can speed up the cadence like it’s REALLY trying to get away now, which often triggers an even more vicious strike. Or, you can stop, let the lure sit quietly for a few seconds, then give it a couple of really tiny little twitches, just enough to make it quiver in place. This last technique takes advantage of what I think the bass is trying to accomplish with the vicious strike. But in very clear water, it may not work because the fish may then get too good a look at the lure as it sits motionless, and get turned off by something about it.
Another trick to try when the bass are “missing” the lure a lot is to have another rod ready, rigged with some kind of soft plastic. I keep working the walker after a strike until it looks like the bass isn’t going to come back for another whack at it, then I zip it in as quickly as possible and toss the soft plastic in the vicinity of where the strike was. I especially like a soft jerkbait like a Superfluke for this technique. Let it sink for a while before twitching it.
But just accept the fact that you’re going to miss some fish, including some big ones. One of the biggest Ozark smallmouth I’ve ever had hit one of my lures exploded on a Sammy, coming completely out of the water and knocking the lure a good five feet through the air. It never came back for another attack, but I got a really good look at it when it cleared the water on that strike, and it was at the very least a 22 incher, and I think it was closer to 24 inches. It was sure an impressive sight!