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Author: Jim Bell
Trolling is an ideal way to cover a great deal of water in a relatively short period of time and to "prospect" for active fish. Once the fish are located, the secret is to return and target them with a concentrated salvo of the same kind of baits that produced the original strike.
The key to successful trolling is "precision trolling," and not just dragging baits behind your boat. And when it comes to trolling, crankbaits have become the bait of choice for many tournament and non-tournament anglers.
As a matter of fact, I believe you will soon see a time when walleye tournaments will follow suit with the bass tournaments and be limited to artificial lures only. When this happens, even more emphasis will be placed on precision trolling. But that is merely my own speculation, so let's get down to the facts.
When trolling crankbaits, understanding the forage base is one of your first keys. Having a crankbait close in size and vibration to the local forage is always an advantage.
In the spring, tight wobbling baits like Shad Raps and Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues are top choices. As the water warms and fish become more active, more erratic baits, like Reef Runners, are the choice of most pro's. Since most crankbaits will only dive to a moderate depth, even when pulled very fast, the issue for many trollers is how do I get my baits down to where the fishfinder indicates the fish are holding, at 20 feet, 25 feet, or even greater depths?
Thanks to modern technology, and some very clever innovations, we can now place crankbaits precisely at any depth with easily replicated accuracy. I'll cover these techniques with enough detail to get you started, but the best way to learn precision trolling is to get on the water and take it step by step until you have a firm understanding of all the tricks that are at the disposal of today's walleye angler.
Shallow Water Trolling
One of the most common and easily managed techniques involves lead core line. When fishing lead core line, you need to understand that there are multiple objectives involved as well as multiple benefits. Lead core is not just about getting a bait down deep. The diameter of lead core line creates an inherent tendency for the bait to follow the boat closely when contour trolling.
This allows your bait to get into the inside and outside turns and to take full advantage of the boat movement and the increase and decrease in speed, of the bait, as it is pulled through the turns. One other key thing that lead core line gives you is the ability to keep your lure on the bottom. Lead core line follows the bottom contour like a jet fighter hugging the treetops to avoid radar. If you have a bottom that is very washboard-like this allows your bait to get into those little pockets on the bottom instead of just skipping over the top. Walleye like to lie in pockets.
One very important tip for using lead core line is to have two reels spooled with different weights of line. I use ABU/Garcia 7000 series reels because of their line capacity. I will spool one with Cabela's 36-pound lead core and one with Cabela's 18-pound lead core. Using the heavier line allows me to fish shallow water, say less than 10 feet, and still let 3 to 4 colors out, because of the larger line diameter. One might ask why I would use lead core in shallow water? The reason would be the contour trolling mentioned above, which gets my baits down into the little pockets that hold the fish. When fishing deeper water, I will go to the 18-pound lead core. Lead core is marked with a different color every 20 feet.
Controlling and Varying Coverage
Snap on weights and in-line sinkers are approaches that are used quite a bit. They may be used with crankbaits but also with spinner baits. One of the keys here is your ability to cover more of the vertical water column. As the boat speeds up the baits will rise, as the boat slows down your baits will drop. Trolling in an "S" pattern will allow you to cover a greater area in the column of water. Your inside baits will slow down and your outside baits will be speeding up giving you greater coverage.
When trolling with crankbaits one thing is key, and that is having the ability to reproduce the depth that your bait was running when it attracted a strike. I use the trolling guidebook by Dr. Steve Holt. This book lists almost all of the current crankbaits produced and used in the market. It gives you a dive curve for each bait using Berkley Trilene 10-pound XT. These guides are very accurate and very helpful. One other item that is a must is a line counter reel. I use the Daiwa 27 and 47LC reels. Having a line counter gives you the ability to reproduce your success while trolling.
Spread the Wealth
Planer boards have become a common thing on most walleye waters. If you were to go to Mille Lac's lake, my home body of water, 5-7 years ago, you would never have seen planer boards. Now, if you go out on Mille Lacs in the summer, you will see the little yellow Off Shore planer boards everywhere you go on the lake. A planer board is used to take your bait of choice out and away from the boat. This is done primarily for two reasons, first, the boat spooks the fish and having your lines extended away from your boat's path will put the spooked fish right in line with your oncoming lures. Secondly, and more basic, planer boards are used to separate lines. Objects that are "in tow" tend to gravitate to the center of your wake where they can become entangled, but more importantly baits towed directly behind the boat are covering non-productive water.
You typically tie on a crankbait, let out a decided amount of line, based upon the depth you are targeting, and clip the board onto your line. You then drop the board gently into the water and let it pull itself out away from the boat. One of the issues that people have always had when fishing with planer boards is being able to see when a fish is on.
Off Shore Tackle has come up with a unique kit that you can add to your planer board. It turns the flag that is placed on the board to increase visibility into a strike indicator. You adjust a spring so the flag stays up and then let the line out. While watching the board, if you see the flag go down, a fish is on. Pretty simple.
One tip when using planer boards and you have hooked a fish -- when you start reeling the fish in, you will be fighting the board and the fish at the same time -- so, when you get the board close to the boat, hold your rod tip as high as possible, lifting the board out of the water. The key is, do not let the board drop back into the water, move toward the bow of the boat and keep reeling. If a fish is on, the weight of the fish can turn the board upside down, and if it drops back into the water, it will act like a very large-lipped crankbait and dive. If this happens, and by the way, a fish of 10-pounds or better may also cause this problem before you can get the board out of the water, you will need to free spool the reel until the board floats back up to the surface. Once it is on top then start reeling again.
Two more key components to effective trolling are using the correct tackle and good rod placement on the boat. I use Fenwick's DR82C, Dypsy Diver rod, for all my trolling. It has a foam handle that is nice when you are placing it into a rod holder. Cork handles will get chewed up sitting in a rod holder, after bouncing back and forth.
I also believe that rod placement in the boat is as critical as using the right rod.
I accomplish this with Cabela's Quick Draw rod holders. I mount three of the bases on each side of the boat behind the console. I can then move the rod holders to where I need them for different trolling techniques. The quick draw system allows you to pull the rod straight up, causing the rod holder to pivot. This allows you to remove your rod quickly and easily. When your rod doubles over, you don't want to be struggling with a rod holder and lose a valuable opportunity. On the bow of the boat, I mount two bases, one on each side, and use Cabela's 360 HT rod holders up there.
Speed, the Important Variable
When trolling crankbaits, boat speed is a factor that is overlooked too many times. As fisherman, we instinctively slow down when the temperatures drop. In many cases this is the correct choice. Fish are generally more lethargic in the colder water. While this is a time honored angling rule, I've found that sometimes rules need to be broken. Experience has taught me that there are plenty of times when more speed will produce more fish.
A walleye is a predatory fish and this trait or instinct can be used to your advantage. A fast moving bait passing within a walleye's strike zone will often cause an instinctive strike.
You also get to put your bait in front of a lot more fish if you are moving faster, thereby increasing your chances for a bite. I am a believer that speed and changes in speed can increase your success. Try trolling at a faster speed sometime and I know you'll be successful.
How fast is too fast? I often pull baits at 2 mph, which is about twice as fast as conventional wisdom would dictate.
Personally, for trolling with monofilament, I use one line and one line only -- Berkley Big Game 10-pound test. This line is designed with a little more stretch than standard mono. I like this characteristic because as a fish gets close to the boat the line can help to take up some of the shock of the fish's final attemts to escape.
For trolling lead core line I use Cabela's Nylon Lead Core Line in 18lb and 36lb test as mentioned earlier.
Keeping crankbaits organized and untangled can be a real challenge. I use Plano's 3700 and 3730 Stowaway boxes. I place the Stowaway boxes into one of the new soft-sided tackle boxes, like Denny Brauer's Signature Super Magnum bags. One of the keys is not to have too many crankbaits in each box. You are better off having more boxes than stuffing too many baits into one box. The advantage of using this system is you can change what is in the soft-sided tackle box very easily. The extra boxes, that I am not currently fishing from, are put into large Rubber Maid storage boxes that I purchase at the local hardware store. I can fit up to 20 Plano 3700's into one of these, making it easy to bring all my baits with me in the back of the truck.
Speed, Hooks, Rods Reels, Wind
Trolling or drifting live bait is a technique that walleye fisherman have used forever and I believe it will remain one of the main stays of walleye fishing. Even though equipment has changed over the years, the idea remains the same -- put fresh bait in front of the fish and he should eat it.
The first and simplest method is to use what is called a Roach or Lindy rig. These rigs are pretty simple -- you have a hook, some length of line, a swivel, a stop and a bead then finally your sinker. What has changed is the introduction of new hooks and snells. The leader in this arena continues to be VMC, they have been in the business for over 200 years and understand what a fisherman needs to keep a fish hooked. Remember the hook is your only connection point to the fish and if it fails so will you. Spending a little extra on quality hooks, like VMC's new colored Walleye Wide Gap hooks, will help to assure success. I am a believer that colored hooks do work, I very seldom, if ever, fish a Roach-type rig without colored hooks.
VMC has come out with a new pre-tied snell that includes VMC Walleye Wide Gap hooks and fluorocarbon leader. The characteristics of fluorocarbon make it nearly invisible in the water, and along with it's abrasion resistance, this makes it the ultimate line to present live bait. When live-bait fishing I would not be without fluorocarbon.
When fishing Roach or Lindy rigs I place a stop and a bead above my swivel. This allows me to change the length of my snell without re-tying my line. The stops that I like to use are Hi-Vis bobber stops. You slide them onto your main line before tying to the swivel. You simply pull both ends of the bobber stop, tightening it onto your line, and then you cut the tag ends off. When fishing over a soft sand or a mud bottom I like to use a long snell, say 8-12 feet. When in rocks, because of the possibility of snags, I will shorten my lead to around 5 feet.
When it comes to the main line, for rigging I almost always have 6lb Berkley Pro-Select premium line in Phantom Green. On occasion I may step up to 8lb if I'm fishing snag infested waters. When using this light of a line it is critical to change it often. One nick in the line can cause you to lose the fish of a lifetime. If you fish a lot, as I do, or if you just don't like the hassle of changing line, Berkley has come out with an easy to use line winding station. It is called the Cyclone Spool Station and is designed to work for a lifetime. Once you start using it you will never have to worry about setting the line on in the correct direction, and you'll never skip putting new line on your reel because you do not want to fight with it. The Cyclone Spool Station makes spooling easy and fast and is well worth the investment.
When rigging I use a very soft tipped, fast action spinning rod. For windy days I use a shorter rod and for calm days I opt for a longer rod. I like the shorter rod on windy days because the wind has less affect on the rod.
I use Abu Garcia's Tournament spinning reels. I like the balance of the T500F with a shorter rod and the T100F for the longer rod. Remember when live bait fishing the bite is going to be very subtle, and a Quality Fenwick rod will help to make the difference.
The technique for fishing a Roach/Lindy rig, is pretty simple. You choose a sinker of the correct weight for the depth of water you are fishing in. A general rule is 1/8 oz in 10' or less, 1/4 oz in 10-20' and a 3/8 to 3/4 oz sinker in 20' plus of water. Most fishermen will troll with the bail on the reel open. If a bite is detected they will feed line. Once they think the fish has firmly taken the bait they will tighten the line and set the hook.
I have a little different way of doing things. I hate to feed line, because as soon as you do, you have lost control of the situation. You have no idea what is going on with your bait once you do this. I will usually drop my rod tip when I feel the bite and then pull back and start reeling. Mike McClelland taught me many years ago that you can pull all you want without losing the fish. Your hook will set into the fish when he tries to get rid of it. The analogy is this, if I hold a hook in my hand and have someone pull on the line running from the hook, I will not get hooked. However, as soon as I let go of the hook I will be in trouble.
All of us have felt the head shake of a fish as it is being brought it. What this is, is the walleye flaring its gills and shaking its head back and forth. This forces water through the gills and washes what it does not want in its mouth, out. When you feel this head shake when the fish tries to spit the hook out, is when the hook will penetrate into the fish. By just pulling back and reeling at a steady pace, until you feel this head shake, you will more times than not get the hook into the fish.
Bottom bouncers and spinners are one of the most productive combinations used in professional fishing. This combination allows you to move at faster speeds, up to 3mph, and to cover more ground. The increased speed allows you to get your bait in front of more fish, upping your odds.
Bottom bouncing is pretty simple and very effective. You tie on a 1-3oz Northland Rock Runner bottom bouncer, attach a Northland spinner, drop it to the bottom and hang on. It is important to match the weight of the bottom bouncer with the depth and speed you will be fishing.
This method is used on every body of water that I have fished and more times than not will come into play during a tournament.
A couple of tips will help you to be more productive using this bottom bouncers. Much the same as with the Roach/Lindy rig, shorter snells in rocky structure will help the rig to stay un-snagged. Also reading your electronics and looking for fish first will help. One day while pre-fishing for a Cabela's NAWA tournament in North Dakota, Mike McClelland and I were fishing together. I was running my PinPoint trolling motor from the front of the boat and was watching fish on my 7520 sonar. Mike was fishing in the back of the boat and was putting a clinic on for me. Not being bashful I started to watch to see what was going on. What I noticed is that when Mike saw fish 2-3' off the bottom he was lifting his bottom bouncer up to the fish. Now I was always taught to fish bottom bouncers on the bottom. Once I started to do the same my success went up.
When fishing bottom bouncers I use a 7' medium action rod, like the Fenwick GTC845. This gives me the backbone I need to set the hook and the feel that I need to detect the fish. I couple that rod with an ABU Garcia Eminence EC300C. This reel is actually a bass reel but works great for walleye fishing. It has a flipping button on it. What this allows a person to do is let line out and then to release the button without having to re-engage the reel. This saves a lot of time during a long day of going up and down break lines looking for fish. I couple this with 8-10 lb. Berkley XT line.
Once again speed is something that needs to be constantly changed to find out what the fish want. To many times we try and force the fish to bite. Listen to what the fish have to say and your success will increase. One point that I believe people miss out on is being versatile and willing to change. More times than not people change when things are not working. Yes, this is a good time to change, but the more important time is when things are going well. You will learn much more about what works and works better when the fish are biting. You may be able to change 2-3 lb Walleyes into 4-6 lb walleyes by a simple change. Next time the fish are biting try changing just to see what happens.
In states that allow two lines, here is a little trick that I figured out. Many times you will see a rod in a holder on one side of the boat and a fisherman hanging onto a rod on the other side. All day long the fisherman will be looking to the other side to see if a fish has hit the rod in the rod holder. I call this rod the dead rod. After years of getting a sore neck and back looking over my shoulder, and missing way to many fish, I have come up with this method. Purchase a long, 9-10' rod. Put that rod in a rod holder on the same side of the boat that you want to fish. With your shorter rod, fish inside the dead rod. This allows you to watch over both rods. The longer rod will keep the dead line far enough from you that it won't get snagged up with the rod you are holding. This is also where two Cabela's 360HT rod holders can come in handy.