Planer boards help prevent spooking. They’re primarily considered an open-water midsummer tool, used to spread lines to search for suspended basin walleyes. But they can be a powerful tool early in the season when walleyes are shallow and bottom conditions favor their use. Find the right conditions on the Great Lakes or small natural lakes–sand, clay, mud, or gravel–and some argue that boards can be used any time.
“Look at the structure, to determine whether you can use boards at all,” says veteran Gary Parsons. “If you’re dealing with shallow rocks or any snaggy bottom, boards can be a hassle. But in locations where you can bump crankbaits or bottom bouncers off the bottom without hanging up, boards can be the ticket to getting your lure into shallow water without spooking fish.
“When I’m searching for roaming schools of fish in a large area,” Parsons says, “the first thing I do is spread out as many lines as I can, as wide as possible, to contact walleyes. If I catch a few fish and get a sense for where the fish are located, I revise the board layout to pull the baits right through the fish.
“Walleyes have a limited sight zone and a limited distance they’re willing to move to bite,” Parsons adds. “If I can get four lines into the fish zone, I’ve maximized my odds of catching fish.”
Crankbaits and spinner rigs are perhaps the most popular lures to use with planer boards. But when spooky walleyes are ultrashallow–say one to four feet–PWT Pro Dave Hanson applies a weightless philosophy. “If walleyes are extremely shallow and spooky, I like a spinner rig with a small spinner and a live minnow,” he says. “I also lighten up on the number of beads on the spinner and I don’t use any weight–although sometimes in 3 to 4 feet I might add one small split shot ahead of the spinner. On slow days, I’ve had luck with a small hook and a leech.”
Boards are effective when conditions are flat calm, but Off-Shore Tackle owner Bruce DeShano says they’re equally effective on windy days in the shallows. “In rough water, wind pushes food up against shorelines, attracting baitfish and walleyes,” he says, “which is when I really clean up on walleyes feeding up in a mudline. Simply adjust the position of the boat to run the boards and your lures in key shallow locations.”
Reading boards–knowing when a fish hits–can be difficult, especially in wind and waves. Small walleyes, panfish, or weeds also are nearly impossible to detect without reeling in the the board, removing it, then reeling in and checking your lure; resetting the lure and attaching and resetting the board–a time consuming task.
Off-Shore’s Tattle Flag, an accessory available for in-line boards, detects fish strikes and fouled lures. The spring-loaded flag works just the opposite of an ice fishing tip-up. A fish hit generates a pull on the wire and the flag moves downward. “If you pick up weeds or moss on your lure,” DeShano says, “the board flag drops enough to indicate that something other than your lure is on the line.”
DeShano also suggests running two or more boards on either side of the boat, giving you a reference point between the boards. “When one of the soldiers is out of line,” DeShano says, “start reeling because it likely has a fish on. The boards don’t need to be run as far to the side as most people think. I think walleyes are more shadow shy than motor shy. If you get the line 30 feet to the side, you’re in good shape. The closer you can keep the boat to the board, the better control you have over the board.”
“If you’re in the middle of a sandflat that’s four miles long, with sparse weedgrowth, you could pitch jigs all day and be lucky to get one bite. But with boards, you might limit out in an hour,” Parsons offers. “On any given day, if the circumstances call for boards, they’re the most important item on your boat. Frankly, they’re indispensable. I couldn’t survive today’s tournament scene without them.”