LONGLINE TROLLING CRANKBAITS
August 23, 2010
Longline trolling crankbaits quickly eliminates unproductive water when walleyes are suspended, spread out on flats, along contour edges and shallow shorelines, or roaming open basins. It's a good candidate anytime you need to cover large expanses at a similar depth; a time-saving method to locate and trigger neutral and negative fish to strike; and to learn a new body of water while you fish.
Barring a few mechanical and mental fishing fundamentals, longline trolling isn't difficult to master. The key is presenting crankbaits at the right depth and speed near walleyes. Structure, water depth, fish location, and lure choice determine refinements to make to your longline trolling presentation.
Longline trolling is effective during the day or at night. Daytime longlining tends to work best in dark or deep water, and in the shallows on windy days. Nighttime longlining is productive almost everywhere, especially in waters that are clear or have heavy fishing and boating activity.
Things You Need At Trolling Speed
Good equipment is required for longline trolling. Purchasing the most expensive gear isn't mandatory — some of the best walleye trollers use inexpensive rods with the right action — but you do need rods of correct length and action; dependable reels with ample line capacity; correctly positioned rod holders; motors that troll at the right speed; and true-tracking crankbaits in popular colors, proportions, wobbles, shakes, and sounds.
Use a motor that allows you to troll at the correct speed and that properly controls the boat in wind and waves. Tiller outboard motors in the 20- to 90-hp range perform well for longline trolling. Larger walleye boats generally are rigged with outboard engines from 100hp to 225hp and have console steering, making it difficult to troll effectively at slow speeds. A 9hp to 15hp outboard kicker motor on the transom enables slow forward trolling.
Use medium-power, fast-taper rods ranging between 61â„2 and 9 feet, and baitcasting reels spooled with either 8- to 12-pound mono or 14- to 20-pound superline. Line-counter reels easily monitor the amount of line out, although you can also count passes of line across the reel spool to estimate the amount of released line. Or place a simple slip-bobber knot along the line (say 100 feet from the lure), which you can feel with your thumb (particularly at night) as line passes off a baitcasting reel. Once you establish the right line length to position lures at productive depths, adjust the knot to repeat the presentation.
Thin-diameter superlines don't stretch, are more sensitive, and allow crankbaits to dive deeper. Superline sensitivity allows you to stay in contact with the lure to detect when it's running properly versus fouled by weeds or wood. It also helps you stay in contact with the bottom and determine bottom content — mud, sand, or rock.
When fishing with multiple lines, properly-set rod holders position lures away from each other, prevent tangling, and allow you to cover more water. Stationary rod-holder designs, like Driftmaster, are durable, simple and easy to use. Adjustable rod holders, like R-A-M rod holders, along with many others, are also durable and easy to adjust.
You'll need a good net, too, like a Beckman net or Loki rubber-coated mesh net, which prevents crankbaits from tangling in the net. Frabill's Trolling Shovel is another net designed for scooping up fish while trolling. For fishing alone, use a lightweight net to land fish.
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Most important are the crankbaits used to catch walleyes. Many styles of crankbaits are designed to match baitfish and water conditions common to walleye waters. The best walleye crankbaits tend to be either long and thin, imitating forage like smelt or shiners, or shad-shaped, closely resembling shad or perch. They have a shivering, rolling action, as opposed to a wider wobble common to many fatter-bodied crankbaits popularly used for bass. Fluorescent colors like chartreuse or orange increase visibility and can be the color of choice in the dingy water of rivers and flowages. Natural silver or perch patterns tend to predominate for walleyes in clear water.
Lure choice depends on depth, cover, and fish preference. Different models and sizes of crankbaits are designed to dive different depths. Crankbaits with plastic lips molded into the body typically withstand the abuse of bouncing off weeds and rocks, while balsa models may be more suited for current or open-water trolling. Precision Trolling — 5th Edition, by Dr. Steven Holt and Tom Irwin features dive-curve charts for individual lures, allowing for easily determining crankbait running depth with various line lengths and weights.
Specific crankbaits often outproduce other lures trolled at the same speed, through the same area, and at the same depth. Lure color, size, action, and the sounds produced can make a difference. Experiment with different crankbait designs and colors, letting the fish decide which lure they prefer.
Match the lures diving ability to the depth of water. For trolling depths between 1 and 5 feet deep, try a shallow-running Storm ThunderStick, Rapala Minnow, or Smithwick Super Rogue, slowly trolling across flats and points on 100 feet or more of line.
For trolling mid-depth locations (5 to 15 feet), larger-billed crankbaits like the Rapala Shad Rap, Excalibur Shad-R, Cotton Cordell C. C. Shad, and Lindy-Little Joe Shadling are popular walleye crankbaits.
In deeper water (15 to 25 feet), use deep-diving crankbaits like the Reef Runner Deep Diver and Mann's Stretch 20 to troll deep flats, rock or weed points, humps, contour edges, river channels, or for suspended fish. Let out enough line behind the boat to get crankbaits down into the fish zone.
Wide-wobbling crankbaits, like the Rapala Fat Rap or Worden's Timber Tiger Deflector tend to work better for banging and bouncing off timber and brush, or when walleyes are relating to rock riprap in rivers and reservoirs or to natural rock outcropping in lakes and rivers. Wide wobblers like the Storm Hot 'N Tot and Wiggle Wart offer an aggressive wobbling action, not thought to be a preferred walleye characteristic, but which sometimes works well for walleyes roaming open basins.
Trolling has many mechanical aspects that separate crankbait pullers from expert trollers. Whether you're trolling lakes, rivers, or reservoirs; points, midlake reefs, flats, or open basins, visualize crankbait position in relation to walleye depth and location.
Identify key walleye locations and troll your crankbaits where walleyes easily can find them. When fish are hugging the bottom, adjust boat position and speed, along with line length, so crankbaits track close to the bottom. When fish are a foot or higher off the bottom, run your crankbaits near bottom, but not below the fish. Position the boat in the right place at the right speed, and let out enough line to position crankbaits near walleyes located at a specific depth along contour edges such as points, midlake humps, or shoreline breaks.
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Sometimes longlining is as easy as trolling straight forward at the same speed. Other times, give crankbaits a little action to trigger strikes, by pumping your rod forward to add action to your crankbaits. Momentarily hesitating as you let the rod tip back floats the crankbait until the boat or the next pump dives it forward.
Running crankbaits near bottom, occasionally ticking rocks and weeds, also gives lures an erratic action. Steer the boat in an S-shape pattern to impart a subtle speed-up slow-down motion to crankbaits. Using your motor thrust to speed up and slow down also gives crankbaits an action that can trigger strikes.
Longline trolling is effective on defined structure like following contour edges. Rocky shorelines, shallow offshore reefs, and weed locations also are prime spots.
Minnow-imitating lures, like a Storm ThunderStick or a Rapala Minnow, excel for trolling shorelines and reefs. Correct line length makes lures run at proper depths. Some situations require up to 150 feet, while other crankbaits and other situations call for less than 75 feet of line, depending on water depth and cover, such as boulders and the tops of weeds.
Shorelines are good longline trolling spots when walleyes are near shallow spawning areas in spring or feeding locations in fall. In spring, walleyes move shallow to spawn near lake inlets and rock or gravel shoals, where they remain after spawning to forage. In fall, walleyes often move to shallow locations to feed heavily on baitfish before winter.
At night or on windy days, troll windswept shorelines or reefs as shallow as 3 to 4 feet, using shallow-diving crankbaits run about 75 to 100 feet behind the boat. Use just enough line to occasionally contact bottom or tick the tops of rocks or weeds. Make several passes along a shoreline or reef, trolling different depth contours to determine the most productive depths.
Troll over the tops of weeds or along weededges in spring and fall. Many walleye anglers shy away from longlining near or over weeds due to increased lure fouling. Trolling over weeds in spring, before they grow too tall, or in fall, once they begin to die, makes trolling easier and also easier for walleyes to find food.
Use superline, like Berkley FireLine, to longline troll weed locations. Superline's sensitivity makes it easy to detect the tops of weeds or a fouled crankbait. The no-stretch qualities of superlines allow you to rip your rod tip forward several times to free weeds, leaves, and other debris that foul crankbaits.
Longline trolling is a good way to fish open basins, eliminate unproductive water, and find schools of roaming walleyes. Basin trollers often add planer boards to spread multiple lines, though the system is in essence nothing more than a glorified version of longline trolling. When you locate an area of active fish, continue to troll through the area.
Current areas, like lake inlets and narrows — necked-down locations that connect two different bodies of water — can be good spots to longline troll when there's sufficient room and depth to troll. Key on hard-bottom locations and drop-offs near the mouths of inlets, particularly at night. In narrows, troll shorelines, keying on the downwind side — although trolling the entire current area can be good.
Longline trolling is perhaps the most effective way to catch walleyes in medium to large rivers. Smaller, shallower rivers generally lack distinct key structural elements such as deep holes and large flats that attract and hold walleyes. Trolling also is more efficient on expansive flats with a fairly uniform depth. Flats on outside bends near deep holes are good spots to find walleyes searching for food. When fish are spread across large areas with subtle holding features, longlining is a good option.
According to In-Fisherman Editor Steve Hoffman, "When walleyes begin moving upstream in early to midfall, trolling is the best way to contact them. "Trolling upstream is the most popular method in most areas and usually is the easiest way to control the boat and give crankbaits maximum action at slow to moderate speeds. When I'm trolling river flats, I usually move into the current in a zig-zag pattern. This allows me to cover more water and contact walleyes scattered across the flat. I also key on any structure, such as scattered rock boulders, weeds, or slight depressions, since these edges often attract more walleyes.
"In many river sections, often current keeps your crankbaits running correctly without making a lot of forward progress. When I'm moving toward shore, or toward the river channel, I don't move upstream so much as cross-stream. This lets me hover my crankbaits in key locations, giving walleyes more time to find the bait.
"Perhaps the biggest problem when trolling in current is boat control," Hoffman explains. "Determining the speed that makes your bait run correctly is the most important factor for triggering river walleyes. Most anglers tend to watch their speed instead of concentrating on how the bait feels in relation to that speed."
River backwaters also can be good if there's room to make trolling runs. In spring, walleyes migrate upriver and downriver throughout the Prespawn and Postspawn periods. During high water, calm water in backwater locations attracts walleyes. Troll crankbaits along flooded timber and brush, positioning your crankbait close to flooded wood to draw walleyes out from cover.
Trolling downstream can be a productive way to locate and catch walleyes, too. On heavily fished rivers, walleyes may hesitate to strike crankbaits they've seen pass many times going the same direction and speed. Trolling with the current allows you to alter your crankbait presentation to trigger strikes. Move slightly faster than the surface current. Select the proper lure size and action to reach bottom. Bouncing crankbaits on bottom creates multiple pauses, which often trigger walleyes.
"Sound and color can make a big difference in rivers," Hoffman says. "Sometimes, a simple color change or switching to a bait that rattles can make a difference. That's especially true in murky water where more flash, color, and sound help fish find your lure. Not all rattlebaits, however, give off the same rattling sound, and some are better than others. Let the walleyes determine their crankbait preference."
Longline trolling in reservoirs can be difficult, where depth changes constantly. Stick to longline trolling in large areas of similar depth, like flats, windswept shorelines, and riprap locations. Shoreline contours are especially productive in spring when walleyes are shallow, feeding on baitfish.
In reservoirs that offer little or no natural walleye spawning habitat, riprap — rock placed along shorelines to prevent wind and water erosion along the faces of dams, causeways, shorelines, or roads — naturally draws walleyes, particularly in soft-bottomed reservoirs where spawning areas are scarce.
The key to effectively trolling dam or causeway areas is to stagger lines and lures at different depths to cover the sloping rock face. Select lures that run at a different range of diving depths. Troll the shallowest version closest to the dam, and stagger deeper-running baits farther out. Weaving in and away from the dam is unnecessary and usually counterproductive, since it takes bait over open water instead of skimming the face of the rocks. Make occasional contact with the bottom, but avoid pounding lures or you'll eventually get snagged.
Use different rod lengths to spread lines on the same side of the boat. Use 7- to 9-foot casting rods on outside lines and 51â„2- to 6-food rods on inside lines. On the line closest to the dam, longline troll a shallow-running minnow-imitator on a 7- to 9-foot rod. Use a slightly deeper-running lure on the same side of the boat on a 51â„2- to 6-foot rod. Do the same on the opposite side of the boat, but consider the slope of the rock face and the lure's running depth to reach near bottom.
In spring, key on shoreline locations with dirty water to find walleyes on windy days. Long points swept by wind often provide straight contour edges to troll. Windswept shorelines and bays with dirty water also can be good. Trace shoreline contours, points, and bays using shad baits, like the Excalibur Shad-R or #5 and #7 Rapala Shad Rap. Occasionally troll over deeper water for walleyes suspended off the contour.
Reservoir locations with constant depth, like flats, are easiest to longline troll, especially on windy days and at night when walleyes move up shallow to search for food. Visually study the shoreline to locate potential locations. A slow-tapering landscape adjacent to reservoir shorelines often indicates a nearby flat. Many reservoirs flats have a fairly constant depth, although flats generally get deeper toward the main river channel, shallower toward shore. Troll flats using an S-shaped pattern to contact scattered fish. Identify any structure, such as timber or brush, baitfish locations, depth changes, or hard bottom areas on flats that attract walleyes.
Longline trolling can be refined to match different walleye waters. It takes time on the water to gain the experience to recognize good longline trolling locations and the adjustments needed in longlining presentations. Once you get a feel for the basic mechanics of longline trolling — how much line to let out; how fast to go; and what style, size, and color crankbait to use — simply refine your trolling presentation to match the locations you fish.