It was our last test and the hour was up. Four minnows set an inch above the bottom under Nathan Zelinsky's perfectly anchored boat had not been eaten. The early-April sun was out but the water temp did not break 50°F this day on Cherry Creek Reservoir in Denver, Colorado. With slow-moving walleyes on the graph the entire time, we also watched the floats bob and twitch when the fatheads and shiners sensed danger.
Colorado-based Tightline Outdoors Guides Ron Lowry and Zelinsky were preparing for the Colorado Walleye Association's yearly "Ice Breaker" tournament held in mid-April every year at Cherry Creek Reservoir. With water temperatures below 50°F, lethargic walleyes save their energy to feed at night to gain a visual advantage over the abundant shad in this system. This tournament, as well as many other cold-water walleye adventures, occur during the day, so a plan to excite the bite must be formed.
A 20- to 25-foot basin covers almost half of the 800-acre metro Denver flatland reservoir. A quick review with sonar reveals large schools of fish holding within inches of the bottom. Zelinsky shares what he thinks triggers these walleyes: "The sediment holds pre-emergent insects, crayfish, bloodworms, and other potential food. Small panfish attempt to dig up these morsels while larger predators notice this action and respond." Of course, a crankbait skittering along the muddy bottom stirs up sediment and glances off the few rocks, generating the same effect. Something in this mix of options regularly tempts these walleyes to bite.
While some crankbaits dive 20 feet, those that do are much larger than the typical panfish digging in the dirt. With the weight of leadcore line, however, any lure digs bottom. Ron Lowry explains the simple technique needed to solve the puzzle. "Drop the leadcore on a tight line behind the moving boat until the tip of the rod starts to bounce. At this point the crankbait is digging and deflecting like a feeding perch. Reel up one turn and maintain a constant speed to keep the charade moving throughout a trolling pass." It sounds easy, but a quarter of the 50-boat tournament field still comes home empty each year.
A few states away, similar gear regularly comes out for longtime Guide Johnnie Candle. On Devils Lake, North Dakota, Candle focuses on main-lake points, old shorelines, and breaks in 15 to 20 feet of water. He also travels for tournaments and at the Masters Walleye Circuit's (MWC) 2014 inaugural event at Kinzua Reservoir in Pennsylvania, he found mid-July walleyes feeding 25 to 30 feet deep in a stumpfield. Leadcore was one of the effective options proving that the technique is not just for cold water and not just for western waters.
Hayward, Wisconsin, area guide and MWC emcee Dan Palmer adds, "the 2015 early-March Stockton Reservoir MWC event was also won by targeting deep prespawn walleyes with small crankbaits run along the bottom of the reservoir." He also reminded me that the technique has also been effective on river saugers during the traditional early-season MWC tournament at Spring Valley, Illinois.
Better known for his tactics trolling leadcore in trees, National Walleye Tour (NWT) angler Chase Parsons turns to the heavy line when fishing flowages, rivers, and Great Lakes drop-offs where he delicately feathers leadcore line along channel edges and reefs to target fish on top and hanging along the edge of structure. None of these tactics include subtlety or dive curves to make the baits dip, dive, and dig into the bottom of the lake.
2013 NWT Angler-of-the-Year Robert Blosser breaks down reaction trolling to three specific situations: rivers, cold fronts, and medium-sized rocks. "In spring and summer, leadcore is my first presentation for rivers," he says. "I can change depths with the same presentation while covering water quickly. Walleyes may eventually prefer a jig but I always catch enough on leadcore to understand how a river is working." In the fall, a river typically has too much debris from falling leaves and decaying sticks to make leadcore productive. On steeper-breaking rivers he switches to handlines.
The other two times he turns to "trenching" crankbaits is on medium-sized rocks and whenever fish are belly-to-bottom. "Deflecting a crankbait off a rock triggers fish, and moving fast with leadcore allows me to cover water and learn the area." When fish sit deep in the mud, we're back to the Cherry Creek situation of fish feeding at night and resting during the day, which requires anglers to tempt reaction bites for success.
Move too fast and leadcore rises and pulls lures out of the strike zone. Move too slow and the lures unnaturally dig too much of the mud. Blosser used to use driftsocks and an attentive hand on the throttle to temper the wind and manage the speed of his presentation but has since switched to the Motor Guide Xi5 trolling motor in combination with his tiller Yamaha gas kicker for boat control. Setting the gas motor to 1.0 to 1.8 mph, then programming the Xi5 GPS system to cruise at a specified rate keeps lures bouncing perfectly as the electric motor compensates for any wind-generated speed fluctuations.
For roadbeds with multiple snags, underwater brush, and riprap, Jason Mitchell, guide and host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors TV show, charts his first pass straight down the top of the road. Then he moves over 10 feet for his second pass to put half the lures on the edge of the drop-off. A third pass focuses on the ditch or culverts along the bottom of the drop-off. By adjusting leadcore lengths and watching for the telltale "dip" in the rod tip, he knows his lures are banging bottom in the strike zone.
Back in Colorado, Zelinsky focuses on smooth-sided roadbeds, which require a slightly different tactic. "Shad follow plankton in open water and run into roadbeds perpendicularly. Walleyes watch for schools of bait rising up and over the roadbed to ambush." He occasionally runs along the top or sides of a roadbed for active fish, but the most effective path imitates the shad. "Starting on top of the roadbed I run the boat at the top-end of my expected speed (1.4 to 2.0 mph) and drop the lures until they contact the bottom. Then I steer the boat off the side of the structure and slow it by 0.5 mph, allowing the lures to sink toward the drop-off. Swinging the boat back towards the roadbed I gradually speed back up to imitate a rising school of shad. All along, the lures occasionally bump bottom and trigger strikes."
Farther west, Potholes Reservoir in eastern Washington state drops 30 feet every fall, leaving walleyes to inhabit expansive underwater sand dunes. Similar to the roadbed situation, local Guide Shelby Ross adjusts the boat speed and floats leadcore over the 10- to 15-foot sandy rises. After cresting a dune, count one second for every 3 feet of line out (about 50 seconds for 150 feet) then increase boat speed by 0.5 mph for a similar length of time to bring lures up the rise. Slow down again to match the dune's backside drop while watching rod tips to verify lures occasionally nudge the bottom throughout the pass.
In deeper water, Chase Parsons adds an 8-ounce lead ball on a red Offshore OR16 snapweight release 60 feet (two colors) in front of the leader to help the leadcore sink quicker. He has one set of lures bouncing bottom about 180 feet back while the snapweight helps two lures hit bottom about 160 feet back, essentially creating a "square" of lures. This tactic also reduces line tangles if a lure starts spinning due to becoming fouled with debris. In shallower situations, mixing traditional dacron-sheathed leadcore with braided-sheath leadcore on two rods each can have the same effect of separating the lures by 10 to 20 feet.
Rod setups split into two camps: equal-length rods and vastly offset versions. Johnnie Candle and Jim Carroll were involved a decade ago in the development of the specialized Scheels Outfitters Xtreme "shorty" leadcore rods (less than 6 feet long) to help separate multiple lines off the back of the boat. "The design might have gone even shorter but a rule at the time prohibited it," Candle says. With a shorty rod and a regular rod perpendicular to the boat, lures remain separated by a few feet, reducing tangles and improving the presentation.
After the peak of short rod sales ended, Mitchell extended the opposite end of the spectrum by producing a 14-foot leadcore-specific rod in his eponymous Open Water Series distributed by Clam Corporation. Multiple companies (including St. Croix and Scheels) carried 14-foot rods until sales dipped a few years ago. The longest available as I write this is 12 feet. With the tips of the long rods over 30 feet apart and the shorty rods working closer, the overall leadcore spread increased dramatically.
Alternatively, Zelinsky runs four 8-foot 6-inch Fenwick Eagle Telescopic Trolling rods (EA86M-MFC-T) with two rods perpendicular and two rods parallel to the boat with their tips hanging barely off of the rear corners. When a fish hits the transom rod and is landed, the perpendicular rod may then be rotated to the transom rod holder and the rods reset without a hitch. Rods of different lengths must be replaced where they came from to limit tangling lines.
Ron Lowry has embraced Okuma Dead Eye (DE-CSD-1062M) trolling rods. When loaded, they bend deeply into a half-parabola shape to make up for the zero stretch nature of the line while hooking and fighting fish. In comparison, a planer board trolling rod bends mostly at the tip to keep as much line off the water as possible. Other features to look for include larger guides for anglers who use a swivel to attach the leader and a rubberized handle to generate friction when placed in rod holders.
Leadcore line saw large changes two years ago with the introduction of braid-based sheaths, including Sufix 832 Advanced Lead Core, Bass Pro Magibraid Lead Core Trolling Line, and Tuf-Line MicroLead. Thinner overall (with the same weight leadcore) these line take lures deeper with less line out. Although offered in strengths down to 12-pound, walleye anglers still prefer 18-pound in all designs for consistent sink rates and ability to pull through snags.
These thinner lines also negate the need for salmon-sized trolling reels required by traditional lines. For example, the Abu Garcia 6500LC holds all ten colors of the new Tuf-Line MicroLead. The smaller Abu Garcia 5500LC holds five colors of braided leadcore line—more than enough for most walleye situations 30 feet deep and less. The market for traditional-sized leadcore reels remains strong with the Okuma Cold Water, Abu Garcia Alphamar LC, and Diawa Sealine Trolling Reels still making strength and price improvements for walleye anglers while withstanding the test of time for quality.
For suspended fish in open water, the standard leader for leadcore is 50 feet. For trenching, this would negate the ability of the heavy line to keep lures riding near bottom in the strike zone. Twelve feet works best, and to keep the leaders the same length on all four rigs anglers use two or three arm-lengths instead of a measured distance.
While everyone agrees on leader length, leader material preferences vary. For rivers and other areas with leaves and debris, Chase Parsons prefers 10-pound Berkley FireLine because anything on the lure transmits a muted thump to the rod tip, indicating the need to check the line. Although both anglers fish in clear western waters, Zelinsky prefers 10-pound Berkley Trilene XT for shock absorption, while Shelby Ross prefers 10-pound Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon for abrasion resistance and transparency.
Mitchell believes that, "everything loves 5-cm baits." Salmo Hornets, Rapala Shad Raps, and Berkley Flicker Shads in that size range top the list of most pros. He also likes the 4-cm Hornet during bug hatches and other notoriously difficult bites. As walleyes (especially the larger ones) thrash near the still-trolling boat, the tiny #5 treble hooks on small crankbaits tend to rip free. In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange prefers changing out the trebles for 4x strong Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp L774 trebles. Another option is to remove both trebles to replace the rear hook with an open-ring Eagle Claw Siwash hook (#2 for 5-cm lures and #4 for 4-cm lures) directly attached to the wire. As seasoned pike and lake trout anglers have known for years, this single hook with a larger gap pins fish securely while reducing leverage near the boat. The change also makes the lure effectively snagproof, allowing you to run brushlines, fish cribs, and riprap roadbeds with confidence.
When helping design Berkley Flicker Shads, Parsons made the 6-cm version suspend, giving it a slightly different action without enlarging the lure much. As Colorado lakes thaw in March, Zelinsky turns to Rapala HJ10 Husky Jerks in Glass Pink Clown, Firetiger, and new Redfire Crawdad, for the first few weeks of trolling until water temps move to the upper 40s, before moving to Flicker Shads and Flicker Minnows for the April tournament. In the Great Lakes, Blosser starts with 7- to 9-cm shad-style lures but often dials in the bite with Cordell Wally Divers and Reef Runner shad and minnowbaits, which imitates alewives and gobies.
All About the "Boing"
Palmer says that leadcore is, "all about the boing." Of all the ways to get a crankbait below 20 feet, leadcore has the most natural presentation as the boat responds to strong winds and waves. Snapweights heavier than 3 ounces and bottom bouncers efficiently bring a lure to the right level, but when the boat surges the line movement hinges at the weight (the "boing") and the lure pauses unnaturally. Downriggers work (one team at Cherry Creek uses downriggers and places well every year), but this method takes a lot of skill to keep everything operating within inches of the mud. No-stretch leadcore clearly throbs when the lure hits dirt and can be backed off a turn, allowing the lure to track in the strike zone. Then, as the boat hits a wave and the hull crashes down, the sag in the 150 feet of leadcore behind the boat extends and contracts with nary an effect on the presentation, just a little boing.
Palmer uses leadcore in high winds even in shallow water. "A recent bite in 8 feet of water showed me that leadcore can sometimes outproduce mono on planer boards. We weren't using the lead to sink the lures, we used it to smooth out the action."
A relatively simple technique with advanced equipment still takes practice. Watching Lowry and Zelinsky troll leadcore makes casting and jigging seem easy. Zelinsky drops and starts both the kicker and electric motors while Lowry starts letting out a total of about 600 feet of line on four rods. From there, one angler controls speed while the other continuously checks rod tips and adjusts the line out for slightly varying depths, which creates a whirlwind in the cockpit. Twenty minutes later the lines are in, motors are up, and the team speeds back to the start of the trolling pass. By afternoon, when the wind is up and swirling snow hampers visibility, boats with less energy and attention to detail sit and watch while experienced teams net fish after fish.