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Bottom Bouncers: Going Retro for Walleyes

Bottom Bouncers: Going Retro for Walleyes

Writer Doug Stange, soon to join the In-Fisherman staff, shot this photo of Guide Garry Allen and son after fishing on Lake Sharpe in the early 1980s, using spinner-crawler harnesses behind bottom bouncers.

Sometimes, the best ideas are the simplest and the bottom bouncer is as simple and as fundamental as it gets. At the time, it was revolutionary. Today, it's as applicable as ever. The clich's could roll on. Go back to the basics of walleye fishing and the bottom bouncer ranks high on the list of inventions. This year marks number 56 since its inception. Many of the original promoters have passed, but current-day guides and everyday anglers alike prove that the system still excels.

Knowing the history of the wire and lead contraption might be enough to bring the presentation back in style. I won't call it a revolution until I see it. I read too many memes that start with, "one secret trick to catching more fish," to know that nothing is really new and that there are no secrets. But somehow the idea of backtrolling in a deep-V with a small outboard surrounded by just one or two rods seems not only simpler, but forever relevant.

Bob Meter invented the basic bottom bouncer in North Dakota in 1964. His goal was to improve on Carolina-style rigging that snagged too much. The first try had the weight at the end of the wire, which worked okay, but once he moved the weight up the wire, the system was born. But it apparently took a decade to escape the Bismark area.

By 1978, the rig was in the hands of Garry Allen, of Chamberlain, South Dakota, the first guide on the Missouri River reservoirs. Garry grew up fishing the area with his dad, and the Bob Meter rig replaced the rig they generally used—a 1-ounce barrel sinker setup above a swivel and leader. The heavier weight (typically 1.5 to 2 ounces) with the wire stem allowed him to fish faster and still trigger walleyes. By the time then writer and teacher Doug Stange fished with Garry in 1980, he was making some of his own bouncers. As a guide, his clients learned the system but it would be almost another 10 years for the rig to truly blossom.


Early events on the Manion Walleye Circuit and then the Manufacturer's Walleye Council (now the Master's Walleye Circuit) included anglers pushing the limits of reading early sonar, expert boat control, and slipsinkers pulling bait down to the fish. The Lindy rig was the name of game and bait was strictly pulled at 0.6 mph.


At some point in the 80s, South Dakota guides Bob Probst Sr. and Mike McClelland showed up and used bottom bouncers to catch walleyes at double the speed. As the tournaments moved throughout the country, this self-promoting duo highlighted the versatility of the rig catching suspended fish in the Great Lakes, landing walleyes near rocks in Minnesota, and generating mud bites throughout the Plains.

At that time, these guys were heckled at boat ramps across the country. Tournament angler Chad Hall remembers a 1984 event at Mille Lacs: "The other anglers scorned Bob and Mike at the dock," he says. "The mud was going to affect the bouncers, the spinners were too clunky for the clear water, the snells were too short to catch fish." Allen explained that these hypotheses were true in some sense. The walleyes that week did require a presentation a bit off the bottom, which traditionally required a three-way rig with a long dropper. Bob and Mike had a simple solution that highlights the versatility of the bouncer. "We just reeled up our weights two turns and caught just as many fish as anyone."

Professional walleye angler and longtime guide Steve Fellegy met with Probst and McClelland at the Mille Lacs event. "Mille Lacs had a big baitfish population so the overfed walleyes required some finesse," Fellegy says. "Bob and Mike had their big bouncers and heavy line, which didn't work immediately, but give good anglers like that an inch and they catch a mile." Adjustments to the conditions are key but a weight system in front of bait is going to be a sure deal for walleyes at some point.

A Saginaw Bay event led to more challenges. The other boats were catching fish on Hot-N-Tots. Crankbaits require letting line back so it took time to set up for a run across a flat or gravel bar. The fast-dropping bottom bouncers saved time and worked at all depths from shallow weedlines, through suspended fish on the graph, and then skimming tops of rockpiles. At some point, even if a presentation isn't perfect, keeping it in the water at the right depth and speed pays dividends. The duo fished their versatile bouncers all the way until their retirement from tournaments in 2006.


Every Day in South Dakota

Allen and his son Mike now run Allen's Hillside Motel and Guide Service with up to 15 boats on the water each day. The only thing that has changed since 1978 is the boat size. "For 40 years I have guided by backtrolling with bottom bouncers," Allen says. "I don't carry any other rig. Depending on the wind, we put a driftsock up front and backtroll with the kicker motor. This way the lines never find their way into the prop.

"I use enough weight to keep the bait close to the boat and therefore right on the structure I want to fish," he says. Excellent boat control separates good anglers from great ones and after 40 years of guiding, Allen remains one of the best. "If I see a group of fish on sonar, I still toss out a marker buoy," he says, "and I toss out a second one if the school is large enough. I go back and forth through that area until the bite slows."

The starting speed each day is fast (between 1.6 and 2.0 mph) and if that's not producing, he slows to 1.0 to 1.6 mph. Still a go-to lure for him consists of a #4 chartreuse blade in front of a two-hook half-crawler rig or a single Aberdeen hook through a minnow. Only in the last few weeks before ice does the guide team vertically jig if the bouncers don't produce.


Putting the Weight to Work

The hardest part about running bottom bouncers is choosing a rod that fits your style, manages the weight, and delicately hooks fish. "Pick one of the many 6-foot 6-inch medium to medium-heavy casting rods that is light enough to hold all day. Pair it with a quality baitcasting reel," Hall says.

Although baitcasting rods are good for hand-held fishing, Hall says that Probst always had a 9-foot spinning rod out as a dead rod in a rod holder. The spinning reel was easier to open and let out a bit of line in the rod holder and the long length kept the presentation out of the way of other lines.

St. Croix still offers a rod that specifically mentions bottom bouncing—the Bounce-N-Troll, a (ECC70MHM) 7-foot, medium-heavy power, moderate action, with a 1/2- to 3-ounce weight rating. Although not specifically named as such, the Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye Casting Rod (ETW70M-MFC) is also a walleye-specific bottom-bouncing rod for all around use.

From here, rod choice depends on if you regularly use rod holders versus hand-held trolling and if you prefer braid or monofilament line. Jason Mitchell designed his Elite Series by Clam casting rods (10804) to be hand-held. Since a hand-held rod "gives" more than one in a rod holder, they warrant a faster action.

In the same thought, monofilament "gives" more than stretch-free braid and thus line choice can help dial in a setup. At the other end of the spectrum, if you prefer braid and rod holders you might use a slower-action rod outside of the walleye-specific options. For full-flex situations, salmon/steelhead rods work well and are available in longer lengths. I use the Fenwick HMX86MH-FC but it took examining multiple options to choose a favorite.

The perfect bottom-bouncing reel doesn't exist either. Some anglers lean toward small line-counters like the Okuma Cold Water 350 Low Profile, Daiwa Accudepth IVC Low Profile, or the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500LC. Others find the nearly-extinct flipping switch on a casting reel a vital option. The Abu Garcia Silver Max is about the only reel left on the market with this feature since the Quantum Accurist was discontinued.

Braided line cuts through deeper water and transmits bottom composition better than fluorocarbon or monofilament. Mono has stretch to better manage big fish in the shallows, while fluorocarbon has its place in clear water. I spool my Silver Max reels with 10-pound Berkley Braid Professional Grade but leave enough room on the spool for 20 cranks (about 40 feet) of 10-pound Berkley Trilene XT monofilament. I never cast these reels, so it's easy to replace worn mono, swap it out for fluorocarbon as needed, or even remove it and use the braid for deep fish later in the year.

Weights

Meter Fishing Tackle still sells the Bob Meter version and it looks the same as it did 40 years ago. Four-inches from the tip of the wire to the weight, the distinct R-bend closed by a sleeve, and a few more inches of wire to the line tie. It looks like the Northland Rock Runner and Worden's Bottom Walker. Worden's also offers a Spin-N-Glo version if you want to try something new. Bullet Weights sells painted and unpainted bottom bouncers.

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My first bottom bouncer came from a catalog in the mid-80s. At summer camp we had caught some walleyes in a reservoir tailrace and therefore we assumed (incorrectly) that the rest of the lake was swarming with them. I remember filling out the handwritten order form, having my dad write a check, and licking the stamp to send it in. Six weeks later I had a small spinner tying kit and two sizes of orange-painted bouncers. The design had short arms, no wire, and I pulled them for walleyes throughout Kansas and later for trout in Colorado.

Two other weight systems modify the classic design. The pencil weight attaches to a clevis slider system that is threaded above a swivel on the mainline. This system allows the weight to be changed easily without affecting the spinner snell. Northland sells a standard version called the Rock Runner and a stainless-steel version called the Slick Stick. Several online fishing retailers sell unpainted pencil bouncers in sizes up to three ounces or so.

A modified three-way rig has come into fashion lately as a less-intrusive version of the bottom bouncer. A cannonball sinker on a 4- to 16-inch loop of mono attaches to the sliding clevis similar to the pencil styles. Luhr-Jensen has a rubber cannonball named the Black Betty that bounces off of rocks and in Denver, we buy bulk cannonball sinkers from Sportsman's Warehouse in sizes up to 2 ounces. If you want to go ultra-finesse, this setup allows the use of a tungsten drop-shot weight. Long-term research by Colorado guide Nathan Zelinsky leads us to paint all of our weights white for the clear water.

Innovations on the Innovation

Professional walleye angler Gary Parsons remembers those early events. "I spent much of my first few years of tournaments trying to beat Bob Probst and Mike McClelland. It was a singular goal at the time."

Parson's remembers the start of the trend, "It wasn't a secret, Bob and all of the Dakota anglers had buckets of the wire bouncers in their boats. I was a disciple of Bill Binkelman's worm tactics so I was naturally drawn to the presentation." At the same time, other anglers scoffed at the contraptions until the big reservoir tournaments where the bouncers ran away with the prize money.

"Bob was so far ahead of his time in many ways and the bottom bouncer was his tool," he says. Gary fished with Bob in 1984 and recalls, "He would use a flasher and drive over a school of fish and point out how the active fish hovered off the bottom. We went over other groups of fish and he would then ask me if I thought they would bite. It was like an exam at walleye school." At that point it was Bob's ability to place the bouncer right through the area at the right speed that caught fish.

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After learning the basics, the innovative Parsons was the first to use bottom bouncers on planer boards in a major tournament. "We were fishing a 4-foot-deep sandflat near Saginaw Bay and, on a whim, decided that the gentle contours would allow us to spread out our lines on boards. The first day we weighed a 28-pound bag of fish. The second day we caught nothing due to high winds and were ready to leave early to drive home when someone stopped us and explained that even though boats in the river had caught fish, our weight held up for first place."

Parson's further work to publicize the slow-death rig brought bottom bouncers back into the spotlight about a decade ago. Like those before him, he would hand-bend Aberdeen hooks for other anglers, explaining how to thread the 'crawler on just right to produce the now-classic spin. Bottom bouncers are back on everyone's boat again as tackle trends follow almost-predictable boom-and-bust cycles.

Even backtrolling has been improved. Ted Takasaki explains: "Backtrolling was the best way to control a boat in high winds. Sure, it was wet and cold but it kept the boat, and especially the lures, precisely over the fish. Today, with 72-inch bow-mounted electrics it makes sense to allow the bow of the boat to break the waves." Takasaki has pioneered the idea of 4x4 trolling with bouncers. Using only the bowmount allows the back of the boat to sway and adjust with the wind. By using his kicker motor for thrust and rear boat control, along with the remote-controlled bowmount, his rigs once again stay precisely over the fish. For a system where the lure choice is easy, boat control is what separates the pros from the amateurs.

Try One Tomorrow

Hall says the system is the best way for an angler to start walleye fishing. "Pick an area in a reservoir, river, or lake to try out," he says. "Guide the bottom bouncer along the bottom with a crankbait or minnow in the winter, or a nightcrawler in the summer, for 20 minutes. Keep the speed at 0.8 to 1.1 mph. If nothing bites, move to the next likely spot." This system almost guarantees fish and over time, the angler can start correlating sonar returns, boat control on structure, depths, speeds, and vegetation details with fish caught and refine their process.

In today's detailed world of walleye, simplicity has a draw—shopping in only one aisle of the big-box store, no need for a fancy depthfinder that switches between 20 screens, a simple boat, and one hand on the motor. The real discriminator is always time on the water, the ability to adapt, and a focus on what is happening in the fish's world at that moment.

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*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is a regular contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contacts: Guide Garry Allen, 800/435-5591, allenshillside.com; Guide Bob Probst Jr., 605/222-1621, Probst Professional Anglers on Facebook.

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