The walleye scene is awash in new lures, presentational tweaks, and technological breakthroughs. With a sea of hot baits, must-fish tactics, and Space Age electronics at our fingertips, it's easy to gloss over the mundane matter of boat control. Before someone shouts "b-o-r-i-n-g," let's not forget that all the latest lures, killer techniques, and new honeyholes on the planet won't put fish in your boat if you can't keep your hook in the strike zone at a speed that trips their triggers. "Things like lure color, size, and action are important, but depth and speed are paramount," says longtime guide Jon Thelen, echoing a few founding principles of In-Fisherman's presentational theory. "And that requires boat control."
While it's a no-brainer on calm days, mastering speed and position becomes far more difficult when wind and waves enter the picture. "It's ironic that as many of our boats have grown larger in recent years, they've also become harder to handle with precision," he says. "Their hulls catch more wind, and the large outboards used to propel them can be hard to dial into precise speeds, or slow down to a crawl." And even small craft can be tough to control in the face of currents, crosswinds, and other confounding factors.
That explains why Thelen rarely leaves the dock without driftsocks, and a plan for their deployment. A lifetime of chasing wandering 'eyes across the fabled flats, reefs, and other sweet spots of Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, and other A-list, big-water fisheries has taught him a thing or two about using socks as a weapon in the never-ending fight for boat control.
One of the simplest driftsock setups is used when you need to slow the boat while forward trolling. "Let's say you want to slow-troll spinners at .8 mph, but it's too rough for the electric motor, and your big motor or kicker can't hit that exact speed," Thelen says. "Drop a 40- to 48-inch driftsock off the bow eye, so it's directly under the center of the boat."
To avoid hanging over the bow in rough conditions, he secures the sock prior to launching his boat. "Tie direct, with no harness buoy," he says. "The sock should run beneath the front of the hull. You sacrifice steering if it runs too far back."
Another advantage of this single-sock setup comes when heavy seas make it difficult to trace a tricky contour with the kicker motor. "Offset to one side of the boat, with a small prop, a kicker often doesn't have the oomph or ability to control a large boat in a strong wind," he says. "A driftsock under the bow allows you to use the main engine, which is much more manageable."
Such a system also reduces the effects of wave surges when trolling with or against the wind. "This can be key, because even though it can be good to vary lure speed with an occasional rod sweep, most crankbaits and spinners aren't designed to constantly start and stop due to wave surges," he says.
Bow-based socks have applications in backtrolling, too. "Depending on boat size, anywhere from a 50- to 72-inch driftsock can help you slow a small tiller to a crawl," he says. "It also makes it possible to backtroll with a big wheelboat with a 250-hp outboard."
The setup is similar to the forward-trolling system, except Thelen adds a harness buoy to the drift-sock, then clips that to the bow eye. "Attaching it there offers advantages over a side cleat," he says. "You generate a direct line of resistance, for easier steering. Plus, the line is closer and more parallel to the surface, so the sock stays in the water better."
When drifting spinners or Lindy rigs, Thelen turns the boat perpendicular to the wind. Such positioning calls for a double-sock deployment comprised of a large sock astern, and a smaller one at the bow. "Drifting sideways, I run a 60-inch sock off the back cleat, and a 40- to 50-incher on the front," he says, explaining that such a size differential causes the stern sock to act as a pivot point, enabling easier locational adjustments with his bow-mount trolling motor.
"If I'm fishing a drop-off, with the bow over 15 feet and the stern over 20, and I start to drift too deep, I can bump back up the break with the trolling motor — while keeping the boat sideways — a lot easier with this setup than with two socks the same size," he says.
Other particulars include adding extra attachment points — Thelen prefers the Panther Marine Rope Cleat — on both sides of the bow. The left cleat is positioned just behind the trolling motor mounting bracket, while its twin is set back an equal distance from the bow. Advantages include keeping the sock out of the way when fishing, and having more room in the center of the boat for fighting and landing fish.
"Using the factory-installed forward docking cleat puts the driftsock in your way," he says. "I've seen anglers pulling in a sock to get it out of the way when a fish is hooked, but this changes your drift and increases the chances of losing the fish while you're fiddling with your socks."
Thelen adds a harness buoy to his rigging when side-drifting, to get the sock away from the boat and improve its performance by reducing the angle at which the lead enters the water. "In large waves, adding 5 or 6 feet of rope between the harness buoy and the cleat further improves performance," he says.
Another scenario where socks excel is when casting a windblown bank. "If you're at the bow, casting into the shallows while using the trolling motor to slowly move the boat parallel to it, the wind and waves want to push the stern toward shore," he says. "This can spook fish or even run your lower unit aground."
To keep the back of the boat in line, Thelen hangs a 48- to 60-inch sock off the outside corner. "I bump up the trolling motor to counteract the extra drag, and the sock keeps the stern from swinging with the wind," he says, noting that a harness buoy is mandatory, but extra rope is optional.
The back-corner setup also makes it easier for electronic navigational aids such as Minn Kota's i-Pilot Link system, which Thelen uses, or MotorGuide's new PinpointConnect technology, to follow key contours.
Socks aren't just for still waters. When anchoring over a channel edge or other current-washed breakline, Thelen drops a 40-inch sock, secured by a harness buoy and 6 feet of additional rope, off either corner astern. "This keeps the current and wind from pushing you up and down the break," he says.
The extra rope is key to prevent the hull from acting as a current break and restricting the flow of water into the sock.
Whatever the driftsock setup, he always adds a dump line, such as the 20-footer Drift Control supplies with its harness buoys. "The line attaches to the end of the bag, so you can quickly get the water out and pull the sock in," he explains. Infinitely easier than wrestling with a full sock, it's one more critical piece of ammunition in Thelen's boat-control arsenal.
Driftsocks are available in a host of sizes, most of which fall somewhere between 18 and 72 inches. Given such ample options, selecting the right sizes for your boat and styles of fishing can be intimidating. Thelen simplifies the process with a few basic rules of thumb.
"Boat size and wind conditions are the determining factors," he says. "For boats 14 feet or less, as well as canoes and kayaks, an 18- to 24-inch driftsock is perfect in calm to slightly breezy conditions. Moderate winds require beefing up to 25- to 30-inch sizes, while strong winds call for 36- to 42-inch socks."
When fishing from a larger boat, he applies likewise incremental adjustments. "If you're running a 16- to 18-footer, the recommendations are 25- to 30-inch driftsocks in light breezes, 36- to 42-inch sizes in moderate winds, and 48- to 50-inchers in heavy seas," he says. "With a 19- to 22-foot boat, start with a 36- to 42-inch driftsock in light winds, upgrade to 48- to 50-inchers, then 54- to 72-inch socks as the wind increases."
Thelen's top socks include Lindy's Wave Tamer — a heavy-duty sock featuring a spring-assisted opening for fast deployment. He also favors Drift Control's Magnum and Original series for 40- to 60-inch options, and recommends the company's Fisherman series for socks down to 18 inches. Together, he says, the lineup makes it easy to find a trio of appropriately-sized driftsocks with which most walleye fans can tackle virtually any safely fishable situations.