As we pulled off the water on that frigid December morning, the air temperature had fallen into the single digits and wind chills were well below zero. The far northern reaches of Lake Michigan had finally succumbed to winter's chill and was turning hard before our eyes.
We'd put in an all-nighter on Little Bay de Noc and were rewarded with 27 walleyes. A dozen of those fish weighed between 9 and 12 pounds and nearly all were caught by trolling large shallow diving stickbaits in 17 to 35 feet on leadcore line. The presentation was precise and the results astonishing. Every steep-breaking shoreline that we fished required adjustments between two, three, and four colors of leadcore as we shuffled rod-and-reel combos throughout the night. My fishing partner, Captain Paul Delaney, had the bite dialed in. Trolling at 1.2 to 1.5 mph, we ran a Smithwick Super Rogue on the outside planer board closest to the structure in about 17 feet of water. On the middle rod, we had an F18 Original Rapala Floater on three colors of leadcore, working the 18- to 24-foot break. The outfit nearest the boat was spooled with four colors of leadcore to deliver another F18 Rapala down 28 to 35 feet to the base of the break. On the opposite side of the boat was a fourth rod with a deep-diving minnowbait on a flatline for suspended fish.
The program worked like a finely-tuned machine. We made slight adjustments on each successive pass by leaving out more or less backing line after the leadcore. This resulted in minute changes in the running depths of lures. Although the technique doesn't require an engineering degree, a basic understanding of each of its components aids in mastering the art of leadcore trolling.
As the name implies, leadcore line consists of a thin filament of soft flexible lead encased in an outer sheath of woven material that gives the line its strength. Each brand of line has slightly different characteristics, typically in 12-, 15-, 18-, 27-, and 36-pound test. The most commonly used is 18-pound test, while 12- and 15-pound lines are gaining popularity among anglers pursuing suspended fish in open water.
The size and weight of the inner core of lead doesn't change among line tests. Instead, the outside woven material varies in strength. So 12- and 36-pound-test leadcore are nearly identical in weight, but 36-pound is thicker. At average trolling speeds of 1.8 to 2.4 mph, the thicker line runs shallower due to increased water resistance.
Leadcore line is metered, with every 10 yards a different color. While colors are convenient to gauge the amount of leadcore being run on each outfit, experienced anglers advise not to rely on the color coding of each spool to be exact. For this reason, Delaney suggests that when anglers first spool reels with leadcore, they lay out the line on the ground and measure segments with a tape measure for precise depth selection.
While leadcore for walleye anglers has been popular for more than 30 years and among salmon and lake trout anglers for even longer, it remained largely unchanged until recently when Sufix introduced 832 Performance Leadcore. The greatest difference between this line and traditional leadcore is the weaving of the outside sheath material. Traditional leadcore materials are made of nylon, Dacron, or polyester blends, resulting in a thicker line that absorbs more water and has a greater dampening effect on vibrations from the rod. Traditional lines remain productive and are available from Mason, Cortland, Tuf-Line, and Cabela's.
New leadcore lines, such as Sufix 832 Performance Leadcore and Tuf-Line Micro Leadcore, wrap the lead core with either a combination of Dyneema and Gore Performance fibers in the case of Sufix, or Spectra fibers in the Tuf-Line product. These materials are used in today's braided lines. Since braided lines are thinner and stronger than Dacron, these new lines are touted as 70 percent stronger, 10 percent thinner, 300 percent more abrasion-resistant, far more sensitive, and capable of running 30 percent deeper. In the field, these new lines run about 7 to 7.5 feet deep per color at 2 mph. Traditional leadcores deliver approximately 5 feet of depth per color at the same speed. For this reason it's important to deploy the same type of leadcore on all setups.
The depth achieved by leadcore is affected by trolling speed. In water, leadcore has a bowed profile. At slower speeds, the weight of the line causes it to sag further. As trolling speed increases, more water resistance is exerted on the line, generating greater lift and less bow so lures run shallower. This bowing effect of leadcore also dampens the lure's action from surging of the boat or planer boards in choppy conditions. Leadcore also has a flowing motion and a degree of buoyancy that allows lures to better track the path of the boat when contour-trolling tight to structure.
The 30-percent difference in running depth between traditional and advanced leadcore is huge. Four colors of new microfilament leadcore get a lure 28 to 30 feet deep, while six colors of traditional line are needed for that depth. Two colors are 60 feet of line, so thinner leadcore allows use of smaller, more manageable line-counter reels. Thinner diameter and tighter weave also make these lines more sensitive and less water-absorbent. Because they retain less water, they're easier to run in freezing conditions. And increased sensitivity is always a plus for detecting vegetation or debris on lures.
For a technique that emphasizes precise depth control, line-counter reels are essential. With traditional leadcore, salmon-style reels are in order if five or more colors are to be used. Top choices in this category include the Okuma Magda Pro-30DXT, Penn Warfare LC-30, Daiwa AccuDepth Plus-47LCB, and Shimano Tekota 500LC. All have large spool capacities and power handles. Due to their added size and weight, they generally require a heavier rod to balance the outfit.
When using five colors or fewer of advanced leadcore, typical walleye trolling reels can be used, such as the Okuma Cold Water 15LC, Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Altum DLC-12, Penn Squall 20LWLC, Daiwa Sealine SG-27LC3B, and Shimano Tekota 300LC. It's generally worth spending more money on a top-quality reel if you intend to use it frequently or in harsh conditions. If your usage is limited, mid-grade reels suffice.
Since leadcore line has little stretch, trolling rods with a moderate action are recommended. A softer tip helps keep hooks from pulling out. Many companies make rods for this application, and some favorites include St. Croix Eyecon Trolling series, Okuma Dead Eye Leadcore series, Shimano Talora Leadcore series, and Daiwa DXT. Anglers vary in rod length preferences. Some favor uniform length rods, generally in the 7- to 9-foot range. This allows any rod to be switched with any other rod in the trolling spread and is ideal when using identical lengths of leadcore with in-line planer boards.
When leadcore lines are flatlined behind the boat without boards, however, some anglers prefer rods of various lengths. For example you can set a rod such as the 10-foot St. Croix Eyecon toward the front of the boat as the outside rod and a 5-footer angled toward the transom as the inside rod. This provides from 5 to 9 feet of separation between lines. But the rods cannot be swapped.
Leadcore line is a depth-generating tool, and its thick diameter requires a stealthy leader to the lure. In clear water, 10- or 12-pound mono or fluorocarbon leaders 10 to 50 feet long work well. Use longer leaders for spooky fish in clear water. In stained water, braided lines such as Berkley FireLine or Sufix Nanobraid in 8- to 15-pound test can be used to achieve greater depth and increase sensitivity.
When planer boards are used, backing material on the reel is required. Release clips on planer boards can break leadcore's lead filament. The broken lead eventually pokes through the outer braid, weakening the line, so planer boards should be clipped to the backing material of leadcore, not the leadcore itself. For flatlining, backing isn't required but is helpful in increasing line capacity.
Two options exist for backing material—monofilament or braid. Choice often is based upon how and when the leadcore is used. In extremely cold conditions, monofilament is better since it retains less water and is less likely to freeze than braid. Mono also holds more securely to release clips. In warm water, braid gets the nod for its strength, thin diameter, and sensitivity.
Leaders and backing can be connected to leadcore in several ways. Some anglers are more comfortable making these attachments with a #10 to #14 swivel that can be reeled through the guides of rods and the levelwind of reels. But in this size, few swivels are strong enough. They can also damage ceramic inserts on rod guides. For these reasons, most veterans use various knots to join lines. To join traditional leadcore and mono, the Willis Knot is popular. Check online for step-by-step instructions. The process starts by pushing the sheath back on the leadcore and cutting out a 5- to 6-inch length of lead. Tie a loose overhand knot with the empty sheath and push the mono leader up the empty sheath, through the loose knot to the leadcore. Move the overhand knot to the end of the sheath and cinch it down to keep the mono from slipping.
Due to the slickness of braid, avoid using the Willis Knot with it. Instead, Delaney recommends making an overhand knot at the end of the leadcore line. Next, with the leader or backing, tie a clinch knot above the knot in the leadcore. Tighten down the knots securely and trim the tag ends. This knot easily passes through guides and levelwinds. Other popular connecting knots include the uni-to-uni, Albright, and nail knot.
There are countless applications for leadcore throughout the open-water season. For example, large shallow-running lures can be trolled with their seductive slow-rolling action at depths of 30 feet or more. And small divers can be run at great depths to tick bottom or create a sediment cloud that can interest deep-water walleyes. It also provides the precision to troll lures above flooded trees or to pull weedless ones through them without snagging. Even in shallow water, leadcore smooths the action of bait rigs as well as lures in big waves that cause the boat and boards to surge. Mastering this technique makes you a more versatile walleye angler.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, is an avid multispecies angler and a veteran walleye troller on big water.