August 21, 2016
There was a time when slipsinker livebait rigs ruled the waves and excess hardware had plummeted out of fashion, relegated to the rusty bottoms of old tackle boxes on the back shelf in the garage. But like a phoenix, heavy lead combos began rising from the ashes. It began along the Missouri River, where reservoir anglers started trolling a newfangled contraption resembling a section of bent coat hanger poked through a lead weight. Actually, it was lead molded onto a wire frame, likely in a Frankenstein-like experiment spawned in some enterprising angler's basement. As walleye catches spread and the numbers of subterranean manufacturers grew, bottom bouncing crawled out of the abyss and evolved into a significant tactic among the walleye crowd. From humble beginnings, a legendary presentation was born.
The Basic Bouncer
The standard bottom bouncer has perhaps a 10-inch wire leg with a weight molded to the stem at about the midpoint, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. Higher is more snag-resistant, lower (or at the base of the wire) perhaps offers better bottom feel. At the top of the leg, the wire is bent at about 90 degrees to form a shorter arm, generally with a snap swivel at the end, to which you attach the looped end of a snell — livebait rig, spinner rig, whatever. In essence, it's an easy on-off snell-changing skip-along fixed sinker.
Because the wire leg protrudes below the weight, it fends off rocks and usually avoids wedging into crevices between boulders, as it crawls over and between them. As long as you maintain tension and motion, the sinker stands up, although it rocks as it crawls up and over an object or touches bottom, with the foot momentarily lodging in place as the assembly tilts forward, then backward once bottom contact is broken.
This rocking motion imparts movement to your snell, and thus your livebait, making it surge, then pause. If a spinner's attached to the snell, the spinner pulses, then slackens rotation. Change triggers strikes, and bouncers continually impart change, just by their basic design and function.
Most bouncers come with either a twist or an open R-bend at the junction of the wire leg and arm, to which you tie your main line extending up to your rod. R-bends tend to minimize tangles, since the knot can rotate around the bent wire as the bouncer drops to the bottom on the initial descent. Twist bends are inherently less self-correcting and more tangle prone. Your best bet when dropping a bouncer assembly to bottom is to lower the rig into the water and then let it descend under light tension, extending the rig behind the bouncer rather than letting the sinker plunge and risk wrapping the trailing snell around your main line.
Any snell of about 3 1„2 to 4 feet or less is fair game to be trailed behind bouncers. Any longer, and the snell will likely tend to droop below horizontal and snag bottom or cover. In light cover or where snags are sparse, simply drift or troll the rig along, skipping across bottom. In heavier cover or amongst frequent snags, consider holding the rod and suspending the bouncer slightly off bottom most of the time, occasionally letting it drop back down, touching bottom momentarily before raising the rod tip again.
When using spinner rigs at traditional trolling or drifting speeds, precise line length isn't critical so long as snags aren't too bad. In fact, a bit of extra line allows the bouncer to maintain light bottom contact when it sinks to follow a deepening contour. Something approximating 45 degrees is about right for your line's angle of descent behind the boat. Coupled with a relatively steady drifting or trolling speed, the wire leg will skip along bottom and crawl over snags, keeping the arm and trailing spinner out of harm's way.
When fishing slowly and precisely with standard livebait snells — often incorporating a slip bouncer — fish the setup more like a livebait rig. Let out barely enough line to touch bottom as you inch along the contour at the fish's depth as it appears on your electronics. Lift, drop, touch; lift, drop touch. If snags aren't too bad, you can feed line to a biting fish. If they're nasty, don't feed excess line on the bite. Simply lean the rod tip back toward the fish for a moment, then sweep forward. A slipbouncer functions like a slipsinker rig for extreme rocky conditions so long as you don't let it fall and lie on bottom, where it becomes prone to snagging.
A slipbouncer isn't bent like a traditional bouncer, however, and features different characteristics. First off, it has a straight wire leg with an attachment loop at the top and no wire arm. Instead, the top of the leg inserts directly onto your line or into a sliding clevis attachment that rides on your main line, and you need to tie in a barrel swivel to determine the length of your snell. In effect, it functions much like a long-legged sliding slipsinker with a hinged connection to your main line.
This hinged joint tends to reduce any rocking effect imparted to your snell each time the bouncer touches bottom, because only the sinker pivots, rather than the entire assembly. The upshot is, you tend to get subtler presentations with slipbouncers, which is fine if that's the effect the fish prefer.
The Foam Walker, a slipbouncer from Today's Tackle, offers an interesting innovation; with an interchangeable weight attached to the base of a foam body, it becomes a floating snag deflector prone to crawl over boulders. And you can pause your drift or troll occasionally, because the foam body will remain standing at rest — ideal for finesse fishing livebait on a plain hook snell.
"For a bit quicker presentation," adds walleye guru Mike McClelland, "a plain old bouncer and a one-hook (two hooks for crawlers) snell is fine. Once again, the key is simply dropping the rod tip back toward the fish on the strike, giving it a moment of reduced tension or slack to inhale the bait before you sweepset the hook.
It's similar to spinner rigging in all regards, just at a slower speed and without the added flash and attraction. Think of it as quick livebait rigging without a blade. When fish are modestly aggressive, you can mow 'em down simply because you can cover water faster than with a traditional lighter-weight slipsinker rig.
"In my early tournament days, I used bouncers and plain snells to great advantage to cover more water than other contestants, in the process sorting through more caught fish to maximize my daily weight. Competitive fishing is an odds and efficiency game, and anything you can do to raise your odds and gain an advantage over the competition will put more dollars in your pocket. Bouncers sure filled mine with a lot of walleye gold."
Most bouncers commonly used for traditional walleye presentations run 1, 1 1„2, or 2 ounces. Consider lighter bouncers for subtle finesse presentations and heavier 3-ouncers for deep water or quick trolling; heavyweights are popular on the Great Lakes where zebra mussels will cut exposed line but over which bouncers crawl unphased, probing the 30- to 40-foot level. You can even fish bouncers and spinner-crawler harnesses in conjunction with planer boards, especially when walleyes are on or near bottom.
Plain lead bouncers have evolved into colored options, chiefly fluorescent oranges and yellows and chartreuses for adding visibility in dingy water. A few exotic designs feature a spinner and clevis, or a float, on the top wire arm, adding some combination of flash, vibration, sound, color, profile, and flotation. Most, however, are pretty straightforward designs.
Bouncers typically are fished on moderate-action long-handled casting rods, suitable for both holding or placing in rod holders. For holding, 61„2- to 7-footers are about right. For fishing strictly in rod holders, you can go even a bit longer. The key is for the rod to be forgiving on the strike, bending slowly without spooking a fish while it ingests the bait. A soft-enough rod will simply bend, and the fish will hook itself, before you even lift the rod out of the holder. A stiffer rod will stop bending too soon, and the fish will sense danger and drop the bait prematurely.
Small flippin' reels spooled with anything from 10- to 20-pound-test abrasion-resistant monofilament line usually are best, although some tournament pros prefer superline for added sensitivity in deep water or increased abrasion resistance around wood. Small reels are more than adequate, since you don't need loads of line capacity; nor do you need to hold heavy weight all day. Plus, a flippin' feature allows you to hit the button and let out line, then lift your thumb and engage the reel without having to use two hands. It's perfect for trolling along with a foot-controlled bowmount electric and a rod in each hand, especially if one is a left-handed reel, and the other a right. That way, when you get a bite, sweepset one rod, then set the other in a holder on the opposite side of the boat, and finally, fight the fish. Meanwhile, the other rod keeps fishing for you during the battle, and many a walleye has fallen prey to an untended rod with a soft tip and a lively livebait on the line.
In the end, a bottom bouncer, be it jazzed up with goodies or simply a plain ol' hunka lead molded onto a length of wire, does three things simultaneously: it skips across rock snags while following contours, presenting livebait along the way. Once you establish the basic bouncer, the rest is all razzle dazzle and personal preference. The best thing is, bouncers fish equally effectively whether you hold the rod or place it in a rod holder and let nature take its course. In other words, they're almost impossible to fish incorrectly. And for that, we thank our lucky stars every day for that lucky bounce.