If you didn’t know better, open-water trollers might look a little like drunken sailors. What could they possibly be doing… weaving this way and that, planer boards to the side, seemingly trolling to and from nowhere?
Actually, there is rhyme, and reason, to their movements.
The best open-water trollers on the Great Lakes (and other large waters) typically track subtle breaklines that walleyes follow during seasonal migrations. The trollers know that walleyes relate to certain areas of a body of water at certain times, for reasons that can be explained. Though operating in essentially ‘open’ water, the fish’s movements are not random.
Sometimes structure is defined by a mere drop of a foot or two over a half mile. But, if you could look down from high above, all the water drained from the lake, you’d see that those contours are actually structure on a macro scale. Walleyes use that structure. You can count on them relating to even subtle breaks, or suspending near them.
Understanding the importance of those tiny details and using them to your advantage can lead to more and bigger fish. Take, for example, Ted’s basket of five fish weighing 53.2 pounds on Lake Erie during the Professional Walleye Trail tournament in 2002.
The total stands as a PWT one-day record.
Let’s look at Lake Erie. What you learn there can be applied elsewhere.
Spring? Head west. Walleyes in Lake Erie congregate on reefs in the Western Basin or travel up feeder rivers to spawn in March and April. Look for hard bottom structure and incoming water or wave action that supplies oxygen to eggs.
Walleyes start to move east once spawning is done. They filter through passages between the Bass Islands during April and May. Try trolling in and around the islands until you determine the most productive channel.
The importance of pinpointing tiny points and turns along the breaklines becomes clear when years of GPS coordinates that produced fish in the past are overlaid on a map of the lake. Traditionally good spots are often on the breaks or close by. Knowing where they are will make finding walleyes predictable even in the biggest waters.
Big Water, Big Advantages
As overwhelming as it may seem at first, open-water trolling on large bodies of water has its advantages. Its biggest strength lies in states where anglers may use more than one rod each. Fishermen can spread several lines to the side with planer boards.
They can use a variety of lures or bottom bouncers and/or Snap Weights with spinner rigs and live bait at different depths. You are sifting large sections of water, from side-to-side and top-to-bottom, looking for active fish.
Jigging, meanwhile, covers only a tiny bit of water. Certainly, there are times even on the Great Lakes (or a vast inland lake or reservoir) when a jig is the right approach. Try jigging when walleyes are concentrated and relating to bottom structure. Even when you’re on a good trolling bite, in the aftermath of a serious cold front, it can be time to find fish on the depthfinder and jig for them.
Still, open-water trolling is the method of choice when walleyes are scattered over larger areas or flats. The odds of putting baits in front of active biters are higher when you’re moving through the water from 1 to 3 mph.
Whether open-water trolling, jigging or rigging, structure is the key to finding fish on any body of water. Locate key points, reefs, underwater humps and troughs by studying maps of the area. Enter GPS coordinates in your unit. Visit web sites devoted to the body of water you are targeting. Walleyecentral.com is a good starting point. Stop at local bait shops and ask questions designed to determine exactly where walleyes are in their annual migration. What depth have they been in the past few days? What methods have worked? What lures, what colors, what boat speed? If spinners have been the top tactic, what blade sizes and colors have produced the biggest fish? Are they on the bottom? If not, what size snap weights are being used with what length of line out?
A general rule of thumb: crankbaits work best when water temperature is below 50 degrees F, and spinner rigs work best over 50 degrees. Whatever the method, the point is to sift the water column from top to bottom and side to side. If fish appear tight to the bottom early in the day, then seem to rise from the bottom as the morning progresses, it’s a safe bet they’re suspended and could be up high.
Line-counter reels are critical for open-water trolling. Make certain they have the same amount of line, same pound test, on all of them. Everything must be identical to return baits to the same location in the water column time and again. Eight-foot rods like the St. Croix PGT80MM are perfect to troll boards in addition to helping absorb the fight from trophy fish. A good sonar with side-imaging, like Humminbird’s 997c SI Combo, is a must for locating suspended walleyes.
If running four rods, run two bottom bouncer rigs and two with snap weights. Choose large #4 to #6 Colorado or Hatchet blades when targeting big walleyes. Use a majority of metallic blades in sunlight and clear water or, a majority of colorful blades on cloudy days and murky water. X-Change clevises allow fast blade changes.
When crankbaits are the choice, refer to the book “Precision Trolling” to figure out how much line to let out on each lure to cover different depth zones. The dive curves in the book are based on using 10-pound-test monofilament line. Use super-braided line, like Power Pro, to get smaller baits down even deeper. ‘Superlines’ are also better when trolling shoreline breaks right behind the boat, where floating debris may foul hooks. Check the lures often, especially when the rod tip stops quivering from the wobble of the crankbait.
Try using a combination of a crankbait and live bait. Add a piece of nightcrawler to the front treble hook or a whole one to the back treble. Check the bait next to the boat to make sure the live bait isn’t spoiling the action of the lure.
Set one or two baits to run just above fish visible on the sonar screen. Run one near the bottom and one high in the water column to intercept walleyes cruising just under the surface.
Don’t use the same baits on every line. Vary lure size, color and action. Let the fish tell you what they want. Walleyes are like people. Some prefer Arby’s, some McDonald’s, some the chicken at the Colonel’s. Give walleyes a choice. Every bite yields more information to help zero in on the right combination to produce the biggest and most fish on any given day.
Spread lines with planer boards. With spinner rigs, start slow, about .5 mph, and increase your speed to 1.5 mph. With crankbaits, start at 1 mph and speed up to 3 mph. Make S-turns to speed up outside lines and slow down inside lines. If walleyes show a preference to outside or inside lines, speed up or slow down to give them what they want. S-turns also swing baits out and away from the structure to nab fish suspended just off the breaklines.
High quality rod holders, like Tempress’ Fish On, are a must in order to ensure a proper spread of lines. The ability to adjust up or down and sideways is critical to preventing a tangled mess and covering the water column properly.
Don’t troll helter-skelter. Use modern fishing tools to find and focus on structure, no matter how subtle, which hold fish. Success awaits you on the high seas!