By David Harrison
If the professionals are having a blast trolling crankbaits, you should too. No other walleye presentation can handle high speeds while working the entire water column. Trolling spoons mainly work for suspended fish. Spinners max out at 2 mph. Casting the bank with the trolling motor on 10 pushes 1.5 mph. Plus, major tournaments are being won by crankbaits at a record pace.
The first day on new water is cranking time. If research online or at tackle shop can pin down a few areas where walleyes might be, take the cranks out and drive around. Most anglers don’t have the sonar skills to confidently find walleyes the first day and some conditions (shallow water flats) make small groups of walleyes tough to spot. Just as good to get some lures wet in a few key places and then learn from a few bites than to go cross-eyed picking out single fish on a screen.
Cranks have their limitations too. Setting a spread of lures easily eats up 20 percent of the available time. Unless the lures dive quickly, letting out leadcore or even 150 feet of mono becomes tedious compared to fast-dropping bottom bouncers. Also, with all of those lines out, anglers rarely want to turn around and respond to fruitful section of water.
Colder water evens the playing field. Crankbaits in water under 55°F (generally) need to be pulled slower and the gap to livebait speeds narrows. Colder water often calls for lures with less wobble and more roll. This article starts when effective crankbait speeds reach 2 mph or more and experienced anglers switch lures away from stickbaits like the Rapala Original Floater and Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue to lures with more wobble than roll. Also, the Great Lakes often require larger lures and different vibration profiles, which are well documented, but beyond the scope of this article.
Having a set of basic principles allows good anglers to jump ahead of the game. Too few lures and too many lures are both equally devastating. Having just the right tackle (rod, reels, and line) is vital. Then, especially with crankbaits, depth control leads to success. It’s time to turn on the jets and hit the water.
Shallow Plains Cranks
The 2017 National Walleye Tour event at Lake Sakakawea was known more for the 60-mile run (each way) some anglers made from Garrison, North Dakota, to New Town than for the fact that crankbaits won out over livebait. Duane Hjelm trolled crankbaits throughout the week to find fish along the lake’s 1,320 miles of shoreline and stayed with that program to tempt larger fish while others pulled slow-death rigs.
“The first two days of practice were spent using Lowrance StructureScan to find walleyes,” Hjelm says. “I could see the fish along old shorelines, small rockpiles, and other structure in shallow water.” What sonar does not tell an angler is the exact size of the fish.
Once confirming that many of the reservoir’s walleye were along these shallow ledges, he first turned to crankbaits and then never switched. “Livebait produces strikes, but going 1.1 mph on these large reservoirs only works when working a specific pod of fish or specific ledge,” he says. “I was lapping boats in the area going 2.0 to 2.5 mph.” He used a combination of leadcore and flatlines for his final presentation. He explained that each of the two methods has their benefits. “Flatlines are easy to cast and they pull lures slightly different than leadcore,” he says. “Fish often prefer one over the other each day. With most shad-style lures, flatlines only reach 8 to 12 feet deep and leadcore can be adjusted for short stretches of deeper shoreline.”
He ran two leadcore lines on 9-foot trolling rods directly out from the gunnels and two flatlines perpendicular to the boat. This simple system works well on reservoir flats. The leadcore line tracks straight and produces a slightly different angle and vibration for the lures than the flatlines. In shallow water (under 10 feet), leadcore rarely needs more than 70 feet to reach bottom and if using spinning rods, flatlines can be cast to the side of the boat for quick deployment.
His spinning rods were rigged with 10-pound mono. Its stretch and shock absorption allowed him to land more fish. Another common option is 10-pound braid so the lures dive deeper but beware, braid requires a moderate-action rod for shock absorption or larger fish tear out hooks on the way to the boat. While pre-fishing, Hjelm would mark each fish caught with a descriptive waypoint. “Purple WNC 70 back,” would describe a fish caught on a Walleye Nation Creations Shaky Shad. Later in the day, he would return to the area to find out more about certain hot spots. “There was one area where we landed two larger fish at the same time while trolling,” he says. “I marked the area and came back to find it was a large rockpile that concentrated the fish. Since the area was small, we switched to jigs to catch a few more fish.”
More Crankbaits in Tournaments
Similar to Hjelm, Skeeter pro and 2017 National Walleye Tour Angler of the Year Robert Blosser starts with crankbaits. “In many situations, I tie on a Rapala Jointed Shad Rap and drive around,” he says. “If walleyes are shallow, I use a flatline; if they’re deeper, leadcore or snapweights. This catches the most active fish in the area while allowing me to move as quickly as the water temperature allows.” For water temps below 55°F, this means speeds below 2.0 mph. As the water warms, the speeds go up. “This isn’t always a final pattern, but a way to figure out an initial bite and put some fish in the boat.”
Learning from those first few bites is critical. If walleyes are in groups on a specific rockpile or drop-off, then jigging could be the next option. If they’re are spread out in an area larger than about four long-bomb casts, then bottom bouncers with slow death or spinners comes into play. Anything larger than a quarter-mile area begs for a faster crankbait presentation.
At the 2018 National Walleye Tour (NWT) Championship on Lake of the Woods out of Baudette, Minnesota, Blosser found larger fish to lead the first two days. “The walleyes would occasionally rise up onto a rock reef in 25 feet of water, but generally were spread out in the surrounding 30-foot deep basin,” he says. Leadcore line allowed his co-angler and him to present Rapala Tail Dancers and Cotton Cordell Wally Divers near the bottom at all times. As he neared the reef, he could speed up and the leadcore would rise a few feet without adjusting the reels. Limited to only two lines due to Minnesota regulations, trolling was still the right choice to keep the lures in the strike zone and moving quickly to increase the odds of running into at least one large fish a day.
Eventual winner and Triton Pro Max Wilson also used Rapala Tail Dancers in the NWT Championship. The Lake of the Woods water was tannic colored and baits with UV coatings and custom colors painted by Viper Tackle Company worked best. Although it generally took 280 feet of leadcore to get to the bottom, his best depth was at 180 feet back. “The fish I marked were on the bottom, but I kept my speed constant during practice and tried 50 lures a day while always changing depths to optimize the pattern,” Wilson says. “All of my big fish came 180 feet back so I kept one lure at that depth during the event and used the second line to keep changing presentations. Many anglers forget that fish depth and activity levels change during the day and stick with the exact setup for hours on end.” For this bite, he pushed 2.5 to 3.0 mph at times, forcing walleyes to react to a fast-moving lure.
Before the event, he found loose schools of walleyes on his electronics that were nearly a mile long. These schools would shift due to wind and bait locations throughout the week. “As I was going from spot to spot I would waypoint the big schools to track their movement,” he says. “That way, when I needed to fish a school in the tournament, I would have an initial guess where they would be. One day, the fish moved a half mile. If I had been pulling livebait it would have taken much longer to contact the group.” Highlighting both the technique and the fishery, both anglers were catching 50 to 70 smaller fish a day from these schools even while limited to two rods.
Wilson and Blosser treat trolling as a contact sport. There are always lines to set, lures to change, and notes to take on depths and speeds. Switching lures and managing presentation details every pass requires persistence. When the fish spread out, focusing on pulling crankbaits in front of as many fish as possible requires a high level of effort.
Depth Control for Dummies
Mark Romanack’s team perfected the crankbait dive curve almost 30 years ago. By using underwater divers, the group tests the true depth of key crankbaits at different distances behind a boat or planer board. Their online Precision Trolling Data app now lists 44 brands and over 450 lures with 800-plus dive curves for different line/lure combinations.
The app normally lists 10-pound Berkley XT monofilament and 10-pound Berkley FireLine as basic choices, but has recently added 18-pound Dacron leadcore with a 15-foot leader as well as the “50 plus 2” (a 2-ounce snap weight set 50 feet from the lure) presentations for many lures. Since new lures and presentations are added to the app database every couple of months, the lifetime subscription is the best option.
For suspended fish, no other tool can help you precisely set the depth of a crankbait. For shallow-water trolling it’s easy to see the vibration in the line when a lure is digging the bottom and crank up once to work the lure at a precise depth. The app, along with a few rules, helps you understand which lures to troll when.
Summer crankbaits fall into four categories. Shad-style lures are the most common and work about anywhere. Larger sizes produce on larger bodies of water, but big fish eat the 5-cm sizes, too. The vibration pattern is down-the-middle roll and wobble, which also produces flash and visual attraction. The other lure types include longer minnow and banana lures which, along with jointed lures, have what is known as a rolling-snaky action. Finally, keyhole-lipped lures like the Salmo Hornet and others with a hunting action come into play as an alternative. A fourth category is saved for the true deep divers. These are generally larger lures that can reach 30 feet or more on standard line.
If you study the Precision Trolling data you find that, as a coincidence, when using 10-pound Berkley XT mono, most shad-style baits have a max dive depth that’s twice their length in centimeters. The 7-cm Berkley Flicker Shad or 7-cm Rapala Glass Shad Rap generally dive to a maximum of 14 feet. The 5-cm versions max out at around 10 feet. The actual dive curves might be different, but the maximum is close enough to decide that in 14 feet of water a 5-cm lure needs to be run on leadcore to hit bottom. The rule isn’t perfect because the app shows that the Bagley Balsa Shad trolls to 18 feet, but this tip puts you in the ballpark for shallow trolling.
Minnow-style lures like the Berkley Flicker Minnow, Rapala Tail Dancer, and Cotton Cordell Wally Diver don’t follow an easy-to-remember dive curve trend. These lures offer more tail-kick and a longer profile than shad lures. Jointed lures like the Rapala Jointed Shad Rap and the new Berkley Flicker Shad Jointed also join this category because all of these have a rolling-snaky action in the water due to the joint or pivot point. On lakes with longer-profile baitfish like smelt, these lures can make or break a trip. For me, active walleyes in the early morning prefer jointed lures and then I switch to standard shad lures as the sun rises.
The third main lure style for trolling is the erratic Salmo Hornet. This non-traditional crankbait has always filled a niche in the walleye world due to its specific wobble and general hunting action at many speeds. The smaller 4-cm size comes through during bug hatches and its wider wobble gives a different vibration profile than the shad-style lures. Unfortunately, distribution on this bait has changed and many smaller retailers don’t carry it any more.
Two new lures have broken into the hunting category recently. The 3.5 and 4.5 Berkley Digger have become a staple for NWT angler Korey Sprengel. When trolled, these lures dive deeper than the 4.5 feet expected while casting, and the keyhole-shaped lip gives away the classic design. Similarly, the Bagley Rattlin’ Diving Kill’r B2 has the same action in a smaller bait. Don’t count out the classic Storm Hot-N-Tot, and the Rapala Scatter Rap family fits in this category, too.
True deep divers like the largest Rapala Deep Tail Dancer and the Salmo Freediver fit into their own category. These lures dive 30 feet or more while trolling and are useful at higher speeds and when trying to go deep with a wide spread of planer boards. Due to their large lips they have a different action than their similar-looking counterparts so they deserve a separate mention.
Shad lures, minnow/jointed lures, hunting, and deep-divers each produce a different basic vibration. Choosing from these categories is always the first decision on the water. Size and depth come next with the best pros utilizing everything from monofilament, braid, leadcore, snapweights, and even wire line at times to put a specific lure at a specific depth. If walleyes shy away from the boat then planer boards come into play. Only after working through different speeds do top anglers worry about color. They all agree that the sway and roll of the bait at a specific speed and depth is what triggers a bite.
An aisle full of crankbaits with six sizes and 20 colors for each style can be intimidating. Long-time crankbait developer for Berkley and Nitro tournament pro Keith Kavajecz gives some advice: “Start with basic sizes (5 cm and 7 cm) and buy three lures in each of the three major categories of baits for 18 total lures. For me, that would be three 5-cm and 7-cm Flicker Shads, three 5-cm and 7-cm Flicker Shad Jointed lures, and three 7-cm and 9-cm Flicker Minnows.” Depending on your specific part of the country, the Flicker Minnows could be replaced with Berkley Diggers (a hunting lure) or the Flicker Shad Shallow. For the Great Lakes or larger bodies of water, bump up the sizes.
He also solves the color conundrum. “Models with some contrast like purple and white or gray and white (the mouse color) are a good start,” he says. In darker water, firetiger works well. If a lake is low on food, then matching the hatch is a good idea, with shad, smelt, perch, or crawfish colors.” Hiring a guide can also help narrow down options for a specific lake. Pick one company that has a color scheme that fits with your local area and stick with their lures to start.
Instead of focusing on lures, Kavajecz recommends getting a matched set of trolling gear centered around good line-counter reels. Trolling depth control is predicated on having the same reels filled to the same level with the same line type (hint, use the line-counter when filling the reel). Check the reading of the line counter to at least 50 feet in the back yard or basement. When a fish bites, pay attention to the amount of line out and put more of the same lures out at that distance to get more lures in the feeding zone.
On the water, change some or all of the lures after a given trolling run until something works. Remember, the action of the bait is the most important thing to figure out, then profile (which includes size), and finally color. Most anglers change colors before changing lure types and that can slow their progress. This is where a smaller crankbait collection is an advantage because with just 18 crankbaits you’re more likely to try them all in a summer morning and hone in on a pattern faster.
The best time to start a collection is when one of the major lure brands goes on sale in the spring. Your worst bet is to buy a discontinued lure type in the bargain bin. First, because that lure likely didn’t have the right combination of wobble and roll for walleyes and second, as you lose lures you won’t be able to replace them. “The next spring sale will come around and you can replace the lures that were lost and add a new color or two,” Kavajecz says. “Before you know it you’ll have all 20 colors in your boat.”
The list of the fastest lures for walleyes has never been longer. Starting simple is key to early success, but then a lifetime of collecting and fishing lures from across the spectrum awaits. Knowing when to put away livebait and put speed into your spring presentations keeps you ahead of the pack.
*David Harrison is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman magazine. Contact: Guide Nathan Zelinsky, 720/775-7770, tightlineoutdoors.com