Learning to Troll for Walleyes
June 3, 2008
My newest passion in walleye fishing the past couple years has been trolling. I will admit it, I flat out love trolling for walleyes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something special about a thump on a jig, a slip bobber dropping, or a tap on a live bait rig; but when I see a rod whack backwards from a big hit, it sends an adrenalin rush like nothing else.
Trolling for walleyes is nothing new, but it’s taken awhile to catch on. I think the biggest reasons are either the cost of adding the equipment or some simply don’t want to change from their traditional techniques. But in my opinion, trolling for walleyes can be one of the most productive methods for not only seeking walleyes, but for producing BIG walleyes. There are a lot of resources available on trolling for walleyes, but I felt there wasn’t a great resource that is meant for beginners. I will go through all the equipment that we use for our walleye trolling arsenal and how it applies to our fishing.
I think rod holders for walleyes are so crucial I will start with them first. If you’re looking to get into trolling for walleyes, you’re going to need some good rod holders. There are a lot on the market but I’ve had fantastic results with the Atwood 2-in-1 Adjustable series. I’ve used these deep, shallow, with boards, and with dead sticks. They are easy to use and it’s easy to get your rod in and out. Opinions will vary on rod holders but I have 7 of these in my boat and it’s all I use.
Rod holder locations are critical in a boat, especially when it comes to drilling. Making a mistake can be costly and quite frankly, I don’t like to drill in my boat anymore than I have to. I like to have 4 in the back and 2 in the front. The 2 in the back should be spaced out couple feet if possible. This allows more room between the rods when maneuvering through a trolling system. This will allow the 2 front rods pointed out and the 2 back rods to be angled at 45 degrees. This should allow a good spread. You can also run 2 more rod holders further up the boat, and these rods you can run on planer boards (just one of many rod position scenarios). One thing you should watch out for, especially if you run a side console instead of a tiller is the rod holder location by the driver. You’ll want to have it further enough behind the drivers seat that when you’re turning around you’re not bumping into the rod. This is a common mistake and knowing this ahead of time could save your sanity. If you are in this situation, I would look into the Jason Mitchell Elite Series #JMST80MF trolling rods. This has a shorter butt section which will eliminate this problem.
There are a ton of great trolling rods out there and they won’t break your bank. Before you look to purchase your rods, you have to ask yourself how you want to troll? Are you going to run lead core? Planer boards? Dipsy Divers? These are all important to know so you purchase the right rod the first time.
A great all around rod that I use are the Cabelas TXSXXXIII trolling rods. These are 7′ 6” trolling rods in Medium action, and are telescopic which makes it easy to store. And they are only around $50 so it won’t break your bank. I run 2 always on the back of the boat.
If you want to avoid planer boards, the latest craze is to go LONG on the top set of rods. There are now rods as long as 14 feet long which will allow a longer spread between the lines. I will be honest, I’ve used 10 foot rods and I ended up selling them. I found them to be a nuisance when trying to net fish as I’d literally be near the front of the boat while the fish is being netted in the back. I went to planer boards and haven’t looked back. To each his own, this method suits me best.
If you plan on running Dipsy Divers or planer boards, typically a longer rod is what you’ll want but you can get away with most fiberglass rods. For these I run the Cabelas TXSXXXIV trolling rods. These are 8′ 6” in Medium action and have a lighter tip. Myself personally, this is as long as I want to go. I don’t normally use a 4-rod spread in the boat without boards, I like to spread the lines out.
A small tip to consider when trolling your rods in holders is to be patient when a fish strikes. It’s an easy reaction when you see the rod whack backwards on a hit is to grab the rod and set the hook. This is not a good idea for 2 reasons. First, depending if you’re using no-stretch line, it may rip the lure right out of their mouth. When a fish hits a trolling treble hook, that should be a solid hookset in itself. Second, your best bet is to not mess with the fish as it’s trashing and trying to swim sideways. Wait until the rod bend is more consistent and that means the fish is parallel or in line with the boat. From there the fish will come up easier and without resistance which could make the difference in you losing the fish. Smaller fish will come right up to the surface and you can literally “ski” them in. If the line is staying down, take your time, it’s a big one.
There are a lot of great trolling rods for walleyes on the market from makers such as St. Croix, Shakespeare, Berkley, Jason Mitchell Rods, and Bass Pro Shops models. Choose the size and action that you prefer and I’m sure you won’t go wrong.
I have only used the Daiwa Sealine trolling reels for walleyes and I have no intention of switching. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wide selection out there, there is, and I’m sure you’d be happy with other options. But these reels are just flat out reliable and as they say, if it’s not broken…don’t fix it. I know some anglers who choose not to use line counters for trolling but myself personally, I can’t troll for walleyes without them. Knowing exactly how much line is out is crucial to knowing exactly how deep your bait or lure is running. When the bite is on I think you need to know exactly what’s going on and dial in your presentation to the proper depth. The difference between 80 feet back and 100 can be huge, depending on the lure or presentation. And at times, we’ll have as much as 200 feet out and you need to know where your bait is running. Pay close attention to the depths that are producing fish and adjust your reels accordingly.
There is a wide array of trolling lines for walleyes, it’s really all about personal preference. But the main thing you need to consider is line weight, line diameter, and color.
Line diameter is probably the most important line aspect, as it will determine how deep your lure will run. To put it simply, the larger the diameter, the greater the resistance; the smaller the diameter, the less the resistance. A lot of guys will use mono line, and that comes with pros and cons. The pro is it allows for stretch which is handy for not losing fish on the strike. The con is the larger line diameter that keeps your lure from trolling to it’s deepest potential compared to superlines. For superlines, I like to use either Fireline or Power Pro and the past couple years I’ve ran solely Power Pro. Using 10 pound test Power Pro, the diameter is equivalent to 2 lb. test mono and 6 lb. for Fireline. So I can troll the deepest with Power Pro due to it’s less resistance. I can run some of my crankbaits as deep as 34 feet without using any weights or lead core.
Color really comes into play when it comes to leadcore. A general rule of thumb is that leadcore sinks at a rate of 10 feet per color, and each color is 10 yards. However, this is a general rule of thumb and depending on your speed it could be much less. This really makes fishing into a simple math equation where you can dial in your depth. You’ll want to use a mono or fluorocarbon leader, and typically you don’t have to have it too long. The longer the distance the more it will have an effect on the lure so a rod length should be plenty.
When you’re using Power Pro or Fireline, you’ll also want to use a mono or fluorocarbon leader. I personally use 8 and 10 lb. test Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon for my leaders, and run them about 8 feet in length. This will spook less fish and in the case of snag this will give allowing you to retie a new leader. I have been using a blood knot for connecting my Power Pro and the fluorocarbon leaders and this shouldn’t ever give. I don’t use swivels as that will add resistance that will affect trolling depth.
As previously stated, for trolling I like to use between 8-15 lb. test with 10 ft being the most common. I like to stay consistent with the line I use as it takes the guesswork out of the equation. I know exactly how my lures will run with the same line consistency.
Trolling Techniques for Walleyes
There are a variety of trolling techniques for fishing walleyes, I tend to use them to strictly run spinners or cranks. They both have their time and place to fish them, it really depends on the situation. I’ll go into situations where I use both.
Over the course of the summer, I’ll troll spinner rigs off and on depending on the lake. The lake I fish them the most is Lake Sakakawea, which like most large reservoirs has a lot of large, fishable areas. More often then not, we’re trolling crawlers or soft bait crawlers like Berkley Gulp Crawlers. Often we’ll use leeches and minnows as well. When I fish lakes in MN that have a strong shiner forage base we’ll use shiners pretty heavily. Match the forage base more often then not but don’t be afraid to experiment. How deep and fast you troll for walleyes will mean you have to match the right amount of weight to keep the bait in the zone. I have bottom bouncers and various weights as small as 1/8 oz. and as heavy as 3 ounces. When you’re doing a slow drift you can get away pretty light but when you’re trolling you’ll need to increase the weight as you troll faster or fish deeper. Fine tuning spinner rigs is pretty in depth and is an entire topic in itself. See our article on fishing spinner rigs.
Typically when you think of trolling you’re thinking of crankbaits, and when it comes to which crankbait there are endless options. There is a crankbait of almost every color, size, and action possible, and it helps to have a large selection to be able to cover all the bases depending on the bite. The most common cranks I use are what I like to call stick baits, minnow baits, and banana baits.
When I talk of stick baits I’m referring to long, narrow baits like the Rapala floating minnows. My tackle box is full of #9s, #11s, and #13s. These have a tighter wobble and I’ve used these on numerous rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. These are one of those go-to baits, especially for shallow situations.
I consider minnow baits to be like the traditional Rapala Shad rap, Rapala Minnow Rap, Rapala Tail Dancer, Berkley Frenzys, or the Salmo Hornet. Which crankbait you use really depends on personal preference. If you ask 100 trollers what they like you’ll probably get almost as many answers. The baits I mentioned are the cranks I use most and it’s really a toss up which I use most. We’ll typically use a variety of them all and let the fish tell us which bait and what color they prefer.
When I talk of banana baits I’m pretty much talking about Reef Runners. These baits are in a class by themselves in the erratic action it produces. From the Little Ripper to the Deep Diver, they produce a wide wobble that can be deadly. The Deep Divers are one of my personal favorites when it comes to getting to 25 feet or more. The only downfall is they will often need tuning when they come out of the box and at times after being used. When you’re fishing deep with long lines it’s crucial that you’re using properly tuned baits, otherwise you’re going to be dealing with tangles all day long.
There are so many good crankbaits, I can’t begin to name them all. But a good starting place is to get Precision Trolling, also known as the Trollers’ Bible, and start dialing in the depths you want to fish with the right crankbait. Simply put, Precision Trolling will show most of the crankbaits in the market and how deep it will dive depending on the amount of line. This is where having line counter reels are essential, as you can choose your baits to get down to the right depth. Understanding what lures to use and how to get to the depth you’re marking fish is the key to trolling.
Your motor will be one of the keys to catching a lot of fish when trolling for walleyes. If your boat only has one motor and it’s a large 2-stroke, you’re kind of limited in your options. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that you won’t catch fish using it, but I’ve found mine to be too loud to fish in shallow situations. It will be essential to use planer boards to get the baits away from the boat when the walleyes spook. Another factor in a larger motor is how slow it will troll down to, and how much you can dial your speed. There are times when I like to troll really slow, as low as 1 mph, and sometimes we’re cruising at 3.5 mph; it really depends on the day. Using something such as a trolling plate will help slow your motor down, but there is no replacement for a good Kicker.
I run a Yamaha 9.9 4-stroke kicker for most of my trolling and I’ve been extremely pleased. Not only has it been reliable, but it’s very quiet and cost efficient. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of solid 4-stroke kickers on the market, I just stick to what has worked for me in the past. I use my Kicker in one of two ways, with a steering wheel and as a tiller.
I have an adapter that connects my kicker to my main motor steering system. This way I can steer like I’m used to when driving the boat. But when you’re actively running cranks and using a lot of lines, I like to stay on my feet. That’s when I’ll use my Extension Arm for my tiller so I can drive the boat 3-4 feet back. This is really nice for back trolling as well as it’s handy having full control.
If you have a strong enough trolling motor, you can use that to troll at times as well. I don’t use it very often, typically in calmer or shallower water. Sometimes the fish are really spooky and this can be helpful to cover good water without spooking the fish. And if you’re fortunate to have some trolling runs that are straight, the Auto-Pilot feature can be priceless.
Here’s a scenario from last year where this came into play. We were trolling one of my favorite lakes and the trolling run was miles long and straight as an arrow. The wind had died down to a halt and we were trolling in 8 feet of water. I set my trolling motor to a speed that dialed in 2.1 mph and set the Auto-Pilot and I literally didn’t have to mess with steering for hours. While at the same time 2 of us were running 4 planer boards and smashing a large class of walleyes. If you can have situations where you don’t have to mess with steering, TAKE ADVANTAGE of the situation, you’ll be glad you did.
Depending on the lake you fish, how much of a graph unit you need may or not make as much of a difference. I hate to say you have to spend a lot of money on a unit in able to troll for walleyes, but have you taken a look at what’s on the market lately? Fishing is getting easier, there’s no doubt about it, and technology is showing the way. Nowadays, if your favorite lake is known, there’s probably a lake map available for your unit. There are so many pros to having a good map and GPS that I could probably write for hours, but let’s look at the obvious. Lake maps with your GPS will ensure you are always at the depth you need, and you can easily return to that same place again. And not only are there more maps available, some are even available now in High Definition! If you’re trolling in open water, these tools are simply invaluable. If you know the contours of the lake, you’ll keep your baits in the fish zone longer and that means more fish.
I am a big fan of planer boards for walleyes, but it wasn’t always this way. My first time using planer boards was on Lake Superior and in some serious rough seas. I can recall it being a real mess, I’m not sure the skipper was as experienced as we’d hoped for. At any rate, today they’re making a comeback.
Offshore Planer Boards
My favorite planer boards for walleyes are Offshore planer boards. They are very reliable and they work. That’s really all you can ask for in any of your fishing equipment, and Offshore planer boards aren’t any different. But I don’t use vanilla Offshore boards either, I add a couple accessories that I feel are essential to seeing fish.
Offshore Tension Release Clip
The first thing I added is a tension release clip (OR-18 Snapper Adjustable Tension In Line Planer Board Release). These are very important if you want to use superlines such as Fireline or Power Pro or leadcore (there are some drawbacks, see the article on using leadcore). The clips that come with the boards have a tendency to slip on bigger fish or snags, and that’s a headache I prefer to avoid. But setting the board and taking it off is a snap. Just a “clip and pinch” and the board is on it’s way.
The best thing I ever added to my Offshore planer boards are the Tattle Flags. If you find yourself fishing in heavy waves, regular planer boards are darn near impossible to read. They ride up, down, back, and forward and all the while if a small fish or weed hits your bait you’re probably missing it. The first time I used plain Offshore planer boards, I dragged a walleye for about 3 miles before we realized that it had a fish on it. We just couldn’t read the board in the waves. With Tattle Flags, this isn’t the case. When a fish or weed hits your lure on a plain board, it will cause the board to jerk backwards. But unless you’re fishing on a smooth surface, you might not see it. With Tattle Flags, everything that happens to your lure is transferred up to the flag, NOT the board. I tell everyone who fishes with me to treat the flag like a rod tip. You can tell when there’s a small fish or even when dragging a weed; something you just couldn’t do effectively before.
Both the Tension Release Clip and the Tattle Flags are purchased separately. I’ve seen where you can make homemade tattle flags and these should work the same.
Church’s Mini Planer Boards
Another planer board that I’m seeing used more and more are the Church’s Magnum Mini Planer Boards. These are essentially how they’re described, as they are a miniature sized planer board. I know a couple people who run these and I’ve fished over them before, and they do have their place in the boat. The smaller size makes them easier to fish, and out of the box they are a little easier to read. The problem with the size is it may have some problems fishing in rough seas. My experience with these is on the Missouri River to slide up the slow current and for that purpose they work extremely well.
Some walleye fishermen may never see a need to troll deep, and if you fit in that category, trolling can be pretty easy to learn and master. But if you have any intention on trolling deep for walleyes, there’s a lot of decisions and learning curves to the game.
How deep is deep? I consider deep being about 25 feet and more. Let’s say you’re slow trolling over 60 feet of water and you’re seeing clouds of baitfish hovering over 50 feet down; how would you get at those suspended fish? That is a question that has a lot of answers, and there really isn’t a wrong one. It just depends on the day. Here are some tools that can help in that equation.
Snap weights are a quick way to add weight to your line so you can dial in the depth you want to fish. I have the complete set with weights between ½ ounce to 3 ounces. I have that simply for versatility, as there are times when you may need to get deep. They are easy to use, and easy to maintain. The only downside is it will more than likely require a lot of trial and error to properly dial in your bait with the depth. It’s a good idea to keep a log with the baits you like to use and the depths/depths you’re covering.
3-way rigs are a creative way to get your boards down deep, and without a lot of money. Check out this article on 3-way rigs to get up to speed. Simple load up on 3-way swivels (or 2 2-way swivels) and all the weights that you need. If you’re going to be using them close to a snagging bottom, try tying a lighter line on the dropper line that connects the weight to a swivel. In the event of a snag, you’ll be able to break the dropper line which will allow you to quickly get your line back in the zone.
Another method that most anyone can use is bottom bouncers while trolling. I say that because most fisherman I know have at least a few bottom bouncers, so everyone is equipped to use them to troll. Bottom bouncers really aren’t any different than 3-way rigs or snap weights when it comes to fishing them, they’re just a tool used to get the bait deeper. Like snap weights, I have a wide variety of weights with 1/8 ounce being the smallest and I even have a couple 4-ounce bottom bouncers. Like other weights, you’ll need to be prepared for some time on the water to test out what works for you. The key is to get the crank, weight, and the speed that keeps the bait in the zone you desire.
Leadcore is a special type of fishing line that is used to get any crankbait down to the depth you desire. This is probably the easiest method for trolling deep, and has a lot less of a learning curve than using multiple cranks and weights. It’s a great tool for catching fish. To avoid redundancy on using leadcore, see this article on using leadcore for walleyes.
Dipsy Divers were the last tool I added to my trolling arsenal, and I’m still learning these today. They are essentially flat disks that can be customized for your trolling needs. What’s unique about Dipsy Divers are what they can do. Dipsy Divers not only act like a weight to bring your bait down deep, you can set them to run away from the boat like a planer board. This is a quick and easy alternative to planer boards if you want a wide spread and troll deep. There is a wide variety of sizes and models available, so you can troll shallow or deep. While these primarily got their start on the big water of the Great Lakes, they are gaining popularity and I’m starting to see these more inland for walleyes. When properly used, they can be a great walleye catching tool.
As you can see, trolling for walleyes can be either really easy or it can seem complicated; it’s all what you make of it. And I would say trolling for walleyes is a lot like they say about the game of Poker, it’s easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master. Nothing can take the place of experience and time on the water experimenting is how you will become a better troller.