Contour Trolling Tricks

Contour Trolling Tricks

Reservoir walleye anglers know that spinners or crankbaits clipping along at 1 to 3 mph, sometimes faster, trigger strikes from walleyes amidst a smorgasbord of shad, smelt, alewives, myriad minnows, and more. When fish are virtually surrounded by a bounty of forage opportunities during warm-water conditions of summer, trying to force feed 'em one more slow-moving minnow or worm may not elicit much of a response. But zip something past their noses quickly enough to imitate a scared and vulnerable critter fleeing for its life, and walleyes just might snap.

Contour trolling; Speed for triggering. Speed for coverage. Speed to make your bait stand out from the crowd, be it a crowd of baitfish or a procession of familiar baits, lures, or rigs creeping along at a slow and steady pace.

Why then are walleye anglers from natural-lake country so brainwashed by slow-moving livebait rigging and jigging tactics that most refuse to pick up the pace, even in the heat of summer? Because one doesn't argue with tradition. Slow has always been the way to go. Walleyes like slow stuff. Speed is for elsewhere. Tempt, don't trigger. Besides, walleyes aren't supposed to bite well in summer during the day, when the bite goes sour. But just wait until fall when they start biting livebait rigs and jigs again -- stereotypes and platitudes reinforced by several generations of hand-me-down legend and lore.


Fast-moving presentations like spinners and crankbaits aren't just for reservoirs. They work well on natural lakes under the right conditions. When the water is warm and walleyes settle into traditional summer activity patterns highlighted by the lowlight periods around dawn and dusk, the slow stuff still produces. But during the rest of the day when the fish lay low under the summer sun, switch gears; break out those spinners and crankbaits to trigger strikes. And not just for fish suspended in open water, either.

Traditional structural hot spots -- deep weedlines, extended points, and humps topping out above the summer thermocline -- all have edges. If the edges are fairly regular and conducive to long trolling passes, they provide a path along which you can zip a lure or lure-livebait combo. Granted, it's a bit easier to to zoom a crankbait along the perimeter of a clean sand-rock drop-off, than to tickle the outer fringe of a weedbed without snagging, but the principle is the same; troll something at a quick pace along the edge.

Perhaps the easiest presentation is a bottom bouncer-spinner-crawler harness skipped along the roll at the top edge of the primary drop-off. Use your bowmount electric trolling motor to dance a 2-ounce bouncer along, nicking bottom, barely kissing any bottom-hugging sandgrass. A whirling, flashing #2 or #3 blade adds vibration and undulates the worm as it zips on through at 1 to 2 mph. Decision time: either eat it right now or kiss it goodbye.

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Taller standing weeds (Area A) provide a bit more challenge, but nothing unsurmountable. The best bet generally is to switch to a bullet sinker and shorter spinner snell, say 15 to 18 inches instead of the traditional 30 to 40. It's OK to occasionally touch bottom or rub your rig against the outer weed stalks, because the slender sinker will slink on through, and the rotating blade should protect the hook from fouling, most of the time. If you frequently pick up foliage, switch to weedless hooks or to a single weedless hook on a spinner rig baited with a leech. Streamline and simplify, but don't sacrifice speed.

Do you see any submerged wood cover along the top of the flat adjacent to the drop-off, as is common on so many lowland flowage waters throughout the North Country? The same rigging should still perform well, scrambling over and across remnant wood meeting the drop-off. Snag resistance and speed are a deadly combo under the summer sun. Plus some color, flash, and vibration for increased visibility in dark or stained waters.

Need more speed, vibration, and triggering capabilities to trigger strikes? Enter crankbaits, which push the envelope to 3 or 4 mph. Switch to longline trolling with an outboard motor if necessary to provide the additional oomph to make those baits zoom along structural edges.

Traditional walleye crankbaits are long and slender with more wiggle than wobble -- baits like Rapalas, Rogues, ThunderSticks -- but they also tend to excel at slower trolling speeds of 1 to 3 mph, typically applied in cooler water. At 3 to 4 mph, they may spin out of control, while shad imitations like Shad Raps continue to run true and send out more vibration and flash. Slightly bulkier baits like Bomber Model A's and Manns' Stretch series tend to perform better at these higher speeds, and their durable plastic construction stands up to whacking rocks at a fast clip. You have choices. Try some of each, and let the fish determine which they want to bite.

Trolling clean edges -- drop-offs with rock-sand bottoms (Area B) -- is easy. Select a crankbait model designed to dive deep enough, and let out enough 10- or 12-pound line for the lure to make occasional bottom contact without pounding or excessively fouling. Then weave your way along structural edges, proceeding shallower until your bait starts to touch. Then lean the boat out deeper, until the bait begins to run free. Feel the change in vibration as it comes off the lip. Then lean back in again, progressively following the edges of major structures. You'll be surprised by how much territory you can cover while trolling at miles per hour rather than hours per mile.

Trolling weededges is more challenging; lots of greenery to snag, uproot, and foul. Follow a few helpful guidelines: Run shorter lines and use deeper-diving lures that float back to the surface when you stop. Shorter lines help weave in and out of twists and turns along the weedline, tickling the edges of deeper weeds on the fringe. When you start to feel weed contact, turn out deeper, perhaps giving the rod a quick forward wrist snap to help rip the lure free. If the vibration diminishes, give it a few more rips to hopefully clean the lure. If it still feels wrong, slow down and reel in to remove the offending greenery. Then repeat.

Fouled lures are a fact of life in weeds. The best trollers tickle the edges while sustaining the fewest hangups. Time and experience are good teachers. Patience and avoiding frustration are key.

As you become familiar with the intriguing contours of weedbeds, you learn to anticipate turns and bring your lures through the fish zone with fewer foul-ups. Watch your depthfinder and turn the boat, based upon where your following lure will travel, not simply the path of the boat. Sounds easier than it is, and even the best trollers make mistakes and bring their lures too deeply into the weed fringe to come through cleanly.

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This is particularly true when trolling tight inside corners along weedbeds. Contrary to popular belief, it's easy to troll lures into tight inside corners; it's just about impossible to troll them out again, however, without fouling. If you realize that you blew it, are trapped amidst the weeds, and are about to snag big-time, simply stop the boat, let the lure float back to the surface, and slowly creep back out to open water. Then start trolling again.

Whether you're forward trolling spinners or cranks, one person should fish off either side of the boat. A third person has to fish directly behind the outboard motor, pointing his rod tip over the transom. Ideally, the driver should troll on the inner (nearer) edge to structure or weeds, in order to make quick adjustments in the boat path, because he sees, feels, or senses changes in the contour first. If the driver is fishing on the outside or over the transom, trolling more in open water, communication is essential. The person fishing off the inner side should relay information as he feels increasing bottom contact and weedgrowth.

If you work as a team, the whole team wins. Sometimes you're on the inside, sometimes the outside, but always in or near the fish zone. And who knows? Sometimes when you troll off the edge of structure into deeper open water, something big and nasty may be suspended out there as well. Muskies and pike like speedy tactics, too.

If the fish prefer modest speeds, think spinners. For higher speeds, think shad baits or rounder-bodied crankbaits. In between, try simultaneously running a spinner on one rod and a thin minnow-imitating crankbait on another rod, because each lure style performs correctly within an intermediate speed range, around 2 mph. But when walleyes clearly prefer either the higher or lower speed echelons, don't mix lure styles; choose the one that works best.


The nice thing about quick trolling spinners or crankbaits in summer is that strikes are not tentative. It's either bang, fish on, or something heavy has fouled your lure. And walleyes, often maligned as not being hard fighters compared to bass or pike, will put on a show when triggered on artificials in shallow, warm water. A big one will spin you around in your chair on impact. Compare that to the gentle sucking in of a leech or crawler.

Your biggest challenge when quick trolling natural lakes in summer will not be the speedboats, skiers, or personal watercraft so common at this time of year; you can maneuver around them pretty effectively, and they'll tend to steer away from you as well, since you're a potential oncoming threat rather than a sitting duck. The challenge instead comes from trying to maneuver along those same weededges and breaklines where other boats and anglers are slow dancing livebait rigs and jigs. Skim along slightly outside them, say howdy as you pass, and jerk a fish out from under their boat as your lures pass below their transom. Then get the heck out of there -- quickly -- before they know their pocket's been picked.

Drawbacks? Sure. Those same anglers might be plucking walleyes out of a pocket in the weedline that you can't reach with a long line and quickly trolled lure. Sometimes, precision and stealth can't be beat. If so, switch back to slow. But the point is, you have options. If slow isn't working, consider a quick fix. Just because everyone else is moving in slow motion doesn't mean you shouldn't pick up the pace.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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