Strategies For Open Water Walleyes

In the past decade, trolling open water for suspended walleyes has risen from obscurity to prominence on large bodies of water, notably the Great Lakes. Never before has catching so many oversized fish in a few hours been possible. Experienced trollers almost make it look easy; it isn't. The principles are straightforward, but so many interrelated factors come into play that a lot of practice is necessary to put it into practice.


To be successful, you must apply your set of multiple lines and lures as simply, effectively, and tangle-free as possible. That means applying a few basic guidelines. Once in progress, then you can begin fine-tuning speed, lure choice, and depth range. First, however, you have to get those lines in the water, running true, on target for suspended or basin-hugging walleyes.

The first principle is to locate midlake areas with suspended or basin fish activity. Do this by noticing the activity of other boats, listening to a marine band radio, proceeding to areas of recent fish activity, or trying known seasonal hot spots. Once you're in the area, slow down enough to look for the presence and depth of suspended fish on electronics. Scan parallel paths across the basin until something good shows up on your screen. Now you have a target area and depth range. Punch in GPS coordinates to establish a starting point.


Next, proceed about a quarter mile upwind of the school or target area, slow down to trolling speed (or less), and begin heading downwind toward your target. Trolling downwind is always easiest. Should you ever need to slow the boat or shift into neutral, such as to net a fish, the wind and waves will continue pushing your boat and lines downwind, maintaining the spread between lines, planer boards, and Dipsey Divers. Should you ever troll crosswind or upwind, and for some reason have to reduce speed or shift out of gear, the wind will immediately turn your boat downwind, eventually crossing and tangling your multiline setup, putting you out of action for an extended time. You'll only do this once before learning to avoid spiral trolling.


While trolling downwind, let out your first line and lure behind the boat, adding a clip-on sinker (OffShore Snap Weight or equivalent) if necessary to take your lure into the target depth. When enough line is out behind the boat for the lure to reach the desired depth, engage the reel, clip a planer board onto the line, and then let out enough additional line (under tension) to swing the board far out to one side of the boat. When the board's running a sufficient distance out to the side, engage the reel and set the rod in a holder. One line up and running.

Repeat the same process off the other side of the boat, for a total of two outside (farthest out) lines. Veteran anglers sometimes prefer to run an unweighted line high in the water column, often just a few feet below the surface, to check for the presence of "high" or exceptionally active fish. Consider it. In any case, run your outside lines shallowest, to encounter fish pushed to the side by the approach and passing of your boat. Reach out to shallower fish sliding to the sides. Deeper fish (more than 25 to 30 feet) are less affected by the boat's presence.

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Now repeat the process with an inside line placed to either port or starboard. Same principle, just with more weight or deeper-diving lures. Run the line out behind the boat, get the lure trolling at the target depth, and add a planer board to the line. This time, however, only feed the board out perhaps two-thirds of the distance to the already existing outside board. Engage the reel and set the rod in a rod holder. That's three lines in gear. Repeat off the opposite side for a total of four. If you have your act together, trolling downwind at around 1 to 2 mph, you're now approaching the location of your target school. Time elapsed: about 7 to 10 minutes.

If you're lucky, you'll go only a few minutes before one or more of your boards lags, dips, or buries (big fish) in the waves. Fish on! No panic. No pumping of the rod, which would tear out the tiny hooks common to walleye crankbaits or spinners. Simply lift the rod out of the holder and slowly wind in line. Eventually the planer board will reach the boat. Unclip it and drop it in the boat. Continue reeling. Next, the sinker comes up the line. Unclip it and drop it in the boat. Continue slowly reeling, eventually bringing the hawg within netting distance off the transom. Reach out with a long-handled landing net and scoop up your prize. Unhook the fish and reset your line.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Chances are, however, that you'll first have to make a couple trolling passes to establish a productive speed, depth, lure type, and color pattern. Or perhaps troll downwind using a slight S-pattern to speed up lures on one side of the boat while slowing those on the other side, in order to quickly determine a speed preference. Or pick up and reset lines to troll several parallel trolling passes, perhaps 1/8 to 1/4 mile to either side of your first pass, to ensure you encountered the school. Or try several additional areas to encounter active fish.

Or incorporate some of the many additional tricks veteran anglers use to trigger strikes from midlake walleyes, like surging and pausing your trolling speed to make lures dive and rise. Or experiment with different actions of crankbaits. Or change blade size, shape, and color on your crawler harnesses. Or really speed up those spoons to trigger strikes. Or read the motion of your boards to detect hits and misses, the hookups of perch or small walleyes, or fouling with weeds. What separates veterans from tyros is only gained over vast hours of trolling practice and interpreting conditions.

But to proceed to that stage, first apply the basics or fundamentals of presenting to open water walleyes -- trolling downwind with lines spread to the sides, straining the depths in search of active fish. If you can do that without tangling, you're in the right neighborhood. Now all you need do is knock on their doors long enough, loudly enough, until they answer. Fish on!

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