Posted by Phil Lilley on October 8th, 2011
Rumor has it that fools up north take two foot long, fairy wands out on ice and dabble something called pimples up and down through holes for walleye. That’s just wrong. I once read an extended debate on a walleye message board over exactly how many and what size chartreuse and fluorescent red beads needed to be arranged in what order on a crawler harness to catch walleye. Bear in mind, these were grown men arguing over worm fishing. However, the true depths of walleye madness are the men who knowingly put their bare legs in bogs full of leaches to attract and capture bait for walleye. This article is not about freezing, bait fishing or being bait. This article is intended as a primer for walleye trolling in our White River system.
Walleye thrive in four of the five upper White River lakes, although natural reproduction is limited in most. Both Missouri and Arkansas regularly stock walleye to supplement any natural reproduction in these lakes, and both impose 18-inch minimum length limits to protect the species from over harvest. The abundant shad within the lakes of the system help numerous specimens to exceed that length. Walleye to 30 inches are captured every year and larger fish are known to occur.
The first step is to remember some basics about the fish. Walleye are large, toothy perch. They are predatory, nomadic, and tend to loosely school. Their eyes, for which they are named, enable them to hunt well in low light. Although they will gleefully feed on worms, frogs, crawdads, and even leeches, they’re primary forage in our river system are shad and sunfishes. The key to finding and catching walleyes is their forage.
Both shad and bluegill spawn in the spring, at or near the full moon, when the water reaches the upper sixties and seventies. During that time period, the walleye will be holding outside of the shallows during the day and will move in during the low light. Mature threadfin shad are almost exactly the same size as number 5 and 7 Shad Raps. Mature sunfish, like bluegill and redear, are larger but have the same profile as Rapala’s Dives To series. These baits, trolled along spawning banks such as rip rap and hard gravel and sand surfaces will pay off. The shad actually spawn in the extreme shallows and are usually visible during the key time. Sunfishes typically spawn in 3 to 10 feet of water. Because of the shallow depths, some fishermen use planer boards to place lines nearer the bank than the boat and avoid spooking fish.
After the shad spawn, the walleye will be as scattered as the shad. For a period of four to six weeks in May and early June, the most reliable means of finding walleye is to watch early each morning for explosions as white bass or small black bass forage over flats. These will mark locations of scattered shad, often near the edge of the flat where it rolls into a channel. More often than not, these locations will be an inside bends of the channel. Baits trolled a foot or two above the bottom of the flats will be the most frequently successful. Be aware that walleye will sometimes suspend at the depth of the flat but will locate out over the channel. Trolling patterns should include this open water as well as the flat. In normal years at the upper end of Table Rock (Big M to Holiday Island) the usual depth for the described flat trolling will be 15 to 25 feet during the day. At dawn, dusk, and on cloudy days, the fish may move shallower.
During June a different pattern will begin to develop. Walleye will begin to suspend in trees, especially where the timber is at or near the channel edges. The key to this pattern developing is the formation of the summer thermocline. As more and more of the bait and small fish begin to hold at its fixed depth, the pattern will continue to improve. Although counter intuitive, trolling is an effective way to take advantage of this pattern. The ideal location is where the tops of the remaining trees are at or just shallower than the depth the fish are holding. Almost as good is visible flooded timber sitting on a channel edge with only a few scattered trees standing in the channel itself.
After the thermocline drops deeper than flat depths, the walleye may well continue to hold on some flats if the flat is brushy and has ambush/shelter locations in that brush. This pattern usually exists adjacent to a creek or river channel which cuts through the flat. As an example from the upper end of Table Rock, one such flat is 16 to 20 feet deep in normal late summers. The river channel is 30 to 32 feet. Once the thermocline is deeper than 32 feet, the productive area is up on the brushy flat. Where this pattern exists, the most productive trolling usually involves plowing a trolled crank bait along the bottom, often at speeds faster than one would expect.
A final location tip is also a late summer/early fall, deep thermocline pattern. The best description for this pattern is “broken bluff.” Look for a location where an outside bend bluff is interrupted by a creek entrance. Troll at or slightly above the thermocline depth parallel to the bluff and continue the troll from where the bluff ends through the creek mouth and on to where the bluff begins once more. Shad schools often hold suspended at the junction of the creek and river channels. Where they do, the walleye will cruise.
Once October temperatures begin to chill the water and the thermocline weakens, these location patterns slowly disappear.
DEPTH AND SPEED
Depth and speed are the two variables that must be combined with location for trolling success. Tackle and equipment choices should be based upon controlling depth and speed.
The speeds most frequently effective for walleye are 1.5 to 2.8 miles per hour. The lower speed is where the angler counts on bites from feeding fish. At the higher end of the speed range, the bites are commonly reaction strikes. Instinct compels the fish to attack before the quick bait escapes. Depending on water temperature, the two causes for bites overlap somewhere in the middle. A GPS, handheld or integrated into the sonar unit, is invaluable for walleye trolling. The tool allows the fisherman to repeat any speed, which has provoked a strike. It also enables a thorough testing of different speeds.
One method to reduce the time spent looking for the right speed is to maintain a set speed with the boat, but change the bait speed. Pull forward on the rod, hold at the forward point for a few moments, and then allow the bait to stall by dropping the rod back. Strikes may occur on the pull forward, on the pause and slow down, or at the restart of the normal speed. On some outings, the only success may be on speed changes. In tree top trolling, many of the strikes happen when the bait temporarily hangs on a limb and then pulls free with a sudden acceleration.
Another speed variable is the lure’s best speed for action. Before deploying any bait, test run the bait at various speeds within view from the boat. Not only can you verify the bait is tracking straight, but also you can find the speed at which the bait has the desired action. Select the bait based upon the anticipated speed range you will use.
Depth of the lure can be controlled by weight or by the dive curve of the bait. One alternative, especially useful on large lakes without timber like the Great Lakes, is the downrigger. The large cannon ball weight is sunk to a set depth on a wire line. The lure is clipped to run some feet behind the cannonball. The strike pulls the bait from the clip and the fish is landed directly. The depth control is precise with this system. Unfortunately, in impoundments such as Table Rock, the presence of submerged timber renders downriggers problematical. He who chooses to down rig in Table Rock limits himself to fewer fish holding locations.
Another alternative used elsewhere to control depth is to use snap weights. Lead weights are clipped to the line as it is released. By using predetermined weights and clipping at measured points, the depth of any lure can be controlled. With snap weights, the weight stays on after the strike and is removed as the line is recovered at the boat. When fishing alone, this recovery can become quite tricky. The snap weight system is not timber friendly, although it does outperform the downrigger system in marginal areas.
The weighting system used most effectively on Table Rock is lead core line. Lead core line is made by covering a thin wire of lead (or a politically correct metal) with a braided sheath of nylon or dacron line. The color of the sheath changes every ten yards. Thus fishermen ask one another how many colors they had out. The weight in the line adds sink to the lure, and the longer the length of lead core out the greater depth added. Most sources state that each color adds five feet of depth to the lure’s dive curve. This depth is speed dependent: speed up and the added sink reduces; slow down and the depth increases. The advantage of lead core lies in the ability to troll lures such as #5 Shad Raps and floating minnows like Rapalas at depths they would otherwise never reach.
Field testing by reliable comrades has developed a formula which appears to be accurate at 2 MPH. Allow 5 feet of depth for each color plus add half the expected dive depth for the length of line out.
The usual lead core rig is a larger level wind reel on a moderately flexible rod. Typically, fishermen will spool a Dacron braid on the reel then attach five or more colors of lead core line. A monofilament leader is then placed at the end of the lead core. The usual method for attaching to lead core line is to strip an amount of the wire from the braided sheath and then tie the lines with the empty braid.
Lead core avoids many of the disadvantages of snap weights and downriggers. However, it does require dedication of an entire rod and reel rig to the method. In addition, anglers must become accustomed to planning trolling passes and course changes which allow for line, which sinks when it slows.
The fact that so many weight alternatives exist suggests fishermen have not been satisfied with the alternative – long line trolling. However, developments in the last decade have reinvented the method and increased its effectiveness.
METHOD AND EQUIPMENT
Long line trolling requires some specialized equipment, but that special equipment is not necessarily expensive.
The trolling rod can be any length, but most anglers find 6’6″ to 7’6″ the easiest to use. The rod should be medium power and have a moderate action. The medium/moderate action is more forgiving on the strike, during the typical walleye headshakes, and at the lunge walleyes always make at the boat. This avoids ripping the bait from the fish, an especially critical factor if you use low stretch braided line.
Many fishermen use Ugly Stick’s, as they possess the desired action and are inexpensive and durable. Other alternatives include the Shimano Voltaeus or the Falcon HD series. I use an older Shimano Compre I bought to fish for large Brown trout as one rod and a Falcon HD for the other. I have an Ugly Stick as a spare for guests.
The reel selection depends on the line choice, so let’s discuss lines first. As stated earlier, depth control can be critical so the line choice makes a difference. The larger the diameter of line, the more that water pressure pushes the line, and the lure, toward the surface. The depth a standard Wiggle Wart reaches on 15 pound test monofilament with 100 feet out will be only half as deep as the same lure on 10 pound braid that has 2 pound diameter (known as 10/2).
When long line trolling, 100 to 200 feet of line out becomes common. Braid not only shortens the length of line needed to reach a depth, it also increases the feel transmitted to the rod tip. Based upon these factors and experience, I strongly suggest using braid. However, not all braids are equal. Certain brands exhibit a greater tendency to fray; others snap at midline too frequently. While the different brands all have fans, I suggest you choose from Power Pro, Suffix, and Berkley’s Fireline. Each brand is of excellent quality. Furthermore, I suggest 10/2 or 15/4 pound test. Personally, I use the Power Pro 10/2 line exclusively.
Choice of line not only affects the depth of the bait. It also determines the type of reel to be used. As the amount of line out determines depth, knowing that amount becomes important.
Old school fishermen rely upon linecounter reels. These reels have gears which flip a displayed number for every “x” spool revolutions. When properly filled with line, the number of revolutions to flip a number is roughly equal to one foot. By letting out 150 “feet” of line with a line counter reel, the fisherman can determine a rough depth for the lure and can return the lure to that same depth time and again.
If you opt for a linecounter reel rod and reel combination, the Daiwa Sealine series enjoys the best reputation, although the expense of the Shimano linecounter may explain why it has so few fans.
If you choose to use a metered braid, any ordinary casting reel with a smooth drag may be used. I use a Shimano Citica on one rod and an Okuma Serrano on the other. Both were reels I replaced on bass rods with upgraded casting reels.
A final piece of equipment remains for discussion.
Some years ago Mark Romanack and several others performed research by sending a diver down to observe the actual depth achieved by various crank baits when trolled on specific lines. The result of that research was a book titled Precision Trolling, also known as the Troller’s Bible. The book is now in its 9th or 10th edition and printed on Tyvek to make it more water resistant. Go to fishing411.com to view the information and acquire a copy. This tool will save you time and money in presenting the baits at the right depth and speed.
Naturally, the research that Mark and his colleagues did has variables. The line diameter, the lure size, and, in the case of lead core trolling, the boat speed all affect the lure depth. You will need to experiment with your actual presentation and learn to adjust his dive curve graphs to your reality. For example, I know my choice of 10/2 Power Pro means I get an additional foot or two below his maximum depth of Wiggle Warts. Regardless, the book is worth it!
The method, once you are equipped, becomes simple. Move to the depth slightly shallower than what you expect to work. Begin to troll the areas you have selected, using the baits and enough line to troll the bait at the target depths. Move out to greater depths when you do not find success. Once you are 10 feet deeper than your start, move back to shallower than you started and try that. Sometimes they are shallower than you expect. Twice this last year, I caught very large (10+ pounds) fish only after I moved to shallower depths after starting and moving out from my starting depth.
If you troll Table Rock, or any of the White River reservoirs besides Taneycomo, you will hang up. It is not a matter of “might” but “will.” The Corps of Engineers cleared some areas, but even the cleared flats boast stumps, fence lines, and brushy stick ups from submerged gullies. After more than 60 years under water, creek channel edges, bluffs, and the old river channels still have cedars and some hardwood trees. To complicate matters, on the flats, walleyes tend to congregate at the changes. The places where the flat humps, bumps, dips, or drops to the deeps will produce best. And those changes are the most likely to have snags. Based upon these inevitable facts, some walleye fishermen simply don’t troll lures. However, the fish are there and if you intend to catch them you will need to put those lures at risk.
Uttering those brave words does not mean I enjoy losing lures. Instead, it means I have sought compromises. I have tried to find the most effective lures among those I can buy inexpensively. I have factored in the CHF as well. CHF is the comparative hang factor. The ugly truth is that some lures hang more easily than others. The newest Bandit walleye lure is an outstanding example. It catches fish. However, its triple hook arrangement means it hangs more frequently than the Reef Runner against which it competes. The Bandit has a higher CHF than the Reef Runner without an appreciable difference in FCA (fish catching ability). If you compare the price versus the CHF and then factor in the FCA, the Reef Runner is the winner.
All of the following comments are the result of my field experience and subjective comparisons of the FCA to the CHF, with expense considered. You are welcome to experiment and reach your own conclusions. I do ask you share what you learn.
First, all Rapala baits work really well. The only problem is their expense. 6 to 8 dollars per bait is expensive. Berkley Flicker Shads are an alternative to Shad Raps. Storm Thunder Cranks works as well or better than Tail Dancers. Bomber Fat Free Shads substitute very well for DT’s.
Second, buy the Cabela’s Reef Runner knockoff and spend half as much.
Third, even though Normark (Rapala) now owns Storm, the company’s original series lures remain among the best at catching walleyes. The Wiggle Wart, Hot N Tot, and Thundercrank excel as inexpensive walleye lures. Just be sure you buy the original series and not the variations introduced by Normark to reduce costs of manufacture.
Size and color are additional keys. White with blue or purple, silver and silver with black and blue, Firetiger, and bone are all good. 2 to 4 inches baits are great. Do not be afraid to go larger than 4 inches. 5 to 10 pound walleye are accustomed to feeding on gizzard shad to 10 inches and bluegill from hand size to hogs.
I hope this will help those who wish to enjoy the excellent walleye fishing available here in the Ozarks.