Twenty years of time-lapsed cinematography along the banks of a reservoir somewhere in the sprawling Midwest might look something like this: Water recedes, little green sprouts pop up on virgin shorelines, grow 20 feet high, water comes back, climbs up the trunks, over the branches, and the tops pop under the surface.
After years of drought, water levels are up again. Trees that grew on the banks during the dry years are entirely submerged, ranging up to 24 feet in height, creating a new world of cover. Walleyes in some waters also are reaching gargantuan sizes again.
Over the past 24 months or so on Lake Oahe, South Dakota, the perception of a 10-pound walleye morphed from "Wow," to "Ho hum." It's happening everywhere from Wyoming and Nebraska, north to Devil's Lake, through Wisconsin, to points farther east. The big girls are back, happy days are here again — with one disclaimer. "On tournament days, I expect to lose 50 crankbaits in those trees," says tournament angler Chad Schilling. "On a good day, I lose a dozen."
While fishing MWC, FLW, and AIM tournament trails the past six years, Schilling posted several top-10 finishes in the new trees, including a win at the 2011 AIM Championship on Lake Oahe, where he topped second-place finisher, Kevin Audrain, by over 20 pounds. "Tickling the trees is the rage all over the country because the water's up," he said. "Lot of new timber out there. We've always done well in the old timber, but that stuff is 80 feet under water now in a lot of places around the country."
Unless you've been orbiting the moon, you heard about anglers like Chase Parsons and Rob Rowland winning tournaments by pulling spinnerbaits through the trees on leadcore line. In fact, in a recent FLW tournament on Oahe, the top three places were taken by pros pulling spinnerbaits on leadcore. "Beats losing a couple hundred cranks per tournament," Rowland said. "You lose a few spinnerbaits, too, but they come through amazingly dense cover."
Crashing through the trees like George of the Jungle costs time and money. The art is in the tickle — learning to be precise enough with braid or leadcore to touch the branches without running head first into the trunks. When you hook a pig, it's like sitting on a bull when the gate opens. Get on it or get sent.
"As soon as walleyes quit relating to shorelines in spring, they go to the trees," Schilling said. "They stay there right into winter. We're not always tickling the tops. In October we're tickling the deep sides of trees closer to the main river channel."
By May on McConaughy or June on Oahe, walleyes leave those shallow shoreline breaks. "By mid June they hit the inside edges of the trees on Oahe," Schilling said. "Trees hold baitfish the longest throughout the year. Early on we look at the inside edges of treelines close to rock and gravel shorelines. In summer they scatter and you just have to hunt them down and decipher patterns. In fall, they're on the deep edges of those trees closer to the main river channel. Where stands of trees are miles wide and miles long, walleyes stay all summer. In smaller patches of trees, sometimes they're there, sometimes they're not, but those smaller batches are where you're most likely to find some fishing all to yourself."
Before doing anything else, Schilling marks the outside edges of a stand of trees with GPS waypoints. "I dial in a trail with GPS," he said. "I start out with the inside rods running right over the GPS marks to tickle those trees. Tickling means you're trying to make contact but as little as possible. You don't have to tickle when walleyes are aggressive. It's great when they rise up 5 or 6 feet above the trees to crush a lure."
Schilling doesn't always troll. "If trees are only 3 to 5 feet under the surface, casting is the best approach," he said. "If the trees are 6 to 10 feet down, I mostly troll with braids. Down 12 feet or more, leadcore is more precise than any other method." And precise is what it's all about in standing timber.
"When they're high in treetops near the surface in summer, I cast a #7 Lindy Shadling in bright colors," he said. "You want to attract fish out of the trees with aggressive, noisy, bright baits. Triggering speeds change every day, whether casting or trolling. When I troll Shadlings on leadcore, I'm always playing with speed, starting out fast but usually ending up somewhere under 1.7 mph. Faster's better. When you have to slow down — and they generally force you to — it's not a lazy man's game. When that board moves, get on it right now. Give a good fish any amount of time, they bury you in a tree."
Schilling casts with a 7.5-foot medium-fast Cortland spinning rod and a 2500 series Shimano spinning reel. "You must put pressure on them and get them out quick, so I use 14-pound Berkley FireLine tied directly to a Lindy crankbait snap. My trolling gear consists of a 14.5-foot Scheels trolling rod and a Shimano Tecota 500 line counter filled with 14-pound FireLine. With rods that long, you don't need boards. Including the beam of the boat, those rods create a 37-foot spread. The rods are stiff. I want lift and I want it now. On the back I use any short trolling rods with Shimano Tecota 500 line counters and 18-pound leadcore. I use 6- to 8-foot, 14-pound Berkley FireLine Crystal leaders. No stretch. Gets fish out of the trees fast and saves a lot of crankbaits, too."
Eyes Down In There
"We got tired of losing baits when trolling riprap by the dams," said Nebraska guide and tournament angler Rob Rowland. "A 1-ounce Terminator got deep enough when trolling with braid. When Terminator terminated the 1-ouncers, we switched to Booyah Blades to cover that size, but a 3/4-ounce Terminator is still an awesome choice. When you got one it was a money fish — an 8, 9, or 10 pounder. Then the pool level rose and we had to find a way to get these spinnerbaits back down there and started using leadcore."
One thing led to another and last fall the top three places in a major event on Oahe were taken by anglers pulling spinnerbaits through the trees on leadcore.
"Mark Brumbaugh called to say, 'look what you've started now,'" Rowland laughed. "With leadcore, spinnerbaits are guarantees in those 20-footers standing in 40 feet of water. The idea is to lightly rake the tops of those trees so they don't hang up. Amazing how it pulls through so much garbage. Walleyes often hang in the thickest stuff, making spinnerbaits incredibly effective."
Rowland says spinnerbaits attract baitfish, which attract walleyes, which scatter the bait, leaving the blades in position to get lunched. "At McConaughy, when we're throwing spinnerbaits, squads of alewives follow and peck at it. No way to know for sure, but I think walleyes follow those alewives and when they strike, the alewives scatter and that spinning blade is all that's left."
Depending on blade style, weight, and speed, Rowland needs 4 to 5 colors of 18-pound leadcore to hit treetops 20 feet down. He speeds up and slows down to make the blades change frequency. "I like to see those rod tips bouncing, ticking the tops of the trees at about 1.7 to 2.4 mph," he said. "If the rod tips aren't bouncing, let out line in small increments until they do. Ease the spinnerbaits down into the tops of the trees. That's about as trouble free as it gets when you're trolling in timber. The arm of a spinnerbait deflects wood, and the single hook comes out of most spots clean. But don't let them stop moving forward. When the bait drops vertically, you have less protection."
White-chartreuse or all chartreuse seem to be the prime skirt colors everywhere. "I like brass and gold willowleaf blades in alewife country," Rowland said. "They get on silver blades, too, but alewives seem to follow gold blades best. I always add some kind of trailer, like a white twin-tail grub with a stinger to slow the fall of the bait."
Rowland spends a lot of time on Lake McConaughy in Nebraska, trolling spinnerbaits through new stands of trees with his Cabela's Depth Master Gold DM30 reels and 8-foot 6-inch Depth Master Trolling Rods. "Leadcore is essential whenever you're trolling deeper than 15 feet," he said. "The less line you have out, the better off you are. A 3/4- to 1-ounce spinnerbait requires 4 to 5 colors of leadcore to get down 20 feet. I tie 8 feet of 14- or 20-pound FireLine to the end of my leadcore. Braided leaders get through the wood best, and get more lures back in the boat."
Brumbaugh placed fourth in the AIM championship on Oahe, as Rowland points out, by casting suspending baits over the tops of the trees. Another famous pro, Mike Gofron, used the same technique. "We were targeting trees topping 5 feet from the surface," Gofron said. "I was using a Rapala #12 Husky Jerk. The water was so clear you could see walleyes come up out of the trees when you paused the bait. You tighten the drag all the way down and just keep hauling after the hook-set. They hit on the pause after a twitch, and you dragged them out immediately or not at all."
Pro Tommy Skarlis placed fourth in the FLW tournament on Oahe by trolling suspending baits over the trees. "I could have won if I had the program down on day one," Skarlis said. "On the final day, we had two rods set up with Off Shore boards pulling deep-diving Reef Runners and deep-diving #12 Husky Jerks, and we had two hand-held rods with flat lines behind the boat pulling the shallower-running #12s and #15 Maxx Raps. On day three we learned to trickle those baits along and periodically stall them out. That was the key to bringing them up out of the trees to strike.
"I was on the outside edges of the trees, catching bigger fish there," Skarlis said. "The Husky Jerks were 38 feet behind the Off Shore boards and the Reef Runner Series 800s were 20 feet back on 10-pound Trilene XT. I should have gone up to 17 pound because they're not line shy in the trees. That's where deep minnows shine, though. The Reef Runners and Deep Husky Jerks have big bills that take them nose down, protecting the hooks. They hit the wood hard but tend to deflect. The hand-held rods held straight 20-pound FireLine. We trolled the outside edge, where it trailed off into deeper water. The treetops where I was fishing were down about 12 feet. When it was calm I was going 1.3 to 1.5 mph, and over 2 mph when it was windy.
"We whaled on fish when we stopped the baits. They smoked the board rods on the inside turns, where the bait would slow, stall, and hover. And they were blasting the hand-held rods when we fed line, which stopped the bait. A long rod-tip drop would stop it just long enough to trigger fish. The treetops were down 12 feet in spots, so walleyes were coming up at least 5 feet sometimes to harmonica the baits. I can't tell you how many times we had to grab the pliers because the baits were lodged sideways in their face."
Catching fish in the trees? "It was the most fun and the most exciting bite I've been on in a long time," Skarlis said. "When they pulled the board back they'd almost sink it. You had to get on that rod and crank."
Plans For Plantations
Schilling's tactics and gear are similar. "I'm not a big fan of braid with boards," he said. "I run 14-pound mono and my Off Shore boards stay clipped on better. I start about 30 feet behind the board, getting a Lindy Shadling down 7 feet. Stop-go is the trigger when you're getting picked up on the boards. Love the days when they're coming 6 feet over the treetops to smash a bait. But most of the time you have to tickle the wood to get bit."
Skarlis, who was fishing the deep side of a stand of trees in 17 to 18 feet of water on a gradual flat, said these tree-hugging tournaments taught him to pay closer attention to pool levels. "I'm taking notes on water level now," he said. "We were working trees 6- to 12-feet tall that submerged only a couple years ago. We got burned when water levels dropped slightly. Those lures that barely ticked the wood one day were buried the next."
As intimidating as trolling the trees may sound, positive news is everywhere. "You find a random tree where you lose a bait or two, but once you get an edge established things run pretty smoothly," Schilling said. "Most of these trees were planted or hedged by shorelines and grow in straight lines in most reservoirs. You want the wind going with or against you — no side winds perpendicular to the trolling pattern."
Time-lapsed cinematography: Dawn, you show up, mark the edge of a tree line, troll it, net big fish, smiles, photos, more fish, back to the ramp, sun sets, obla di, obla da.
Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an In-Fisherman field editor.