William Shakespeare wrote that eyes are windows to the soul. Walleye pro Mark Martin says waves can be windows to the 'eyes. Big waves attract big predators because baitfish up high in the water column can get disoriented. Bruiser walleyes home in on the feast. ¶ But catching walleyes high in the swells is tricky. High-riding walleyes don't mark well on 2D sonar and even side-imaging has trouble isolating predators near the top of the water column in waves.
In recent years, anglers have widely used in-line planer boards, but at times the boat spooks fish near the surface. Scattered fish seem to feed better after reassembling in a group. So how can a presentation be timed to intercept walleyes after they settle down following the boat's passage?
The answer is one part ancient technology and one part brand new. "We were fishing in 7-foot waves on Green Bay two years ago and could see fish about 200 feet behind the boat," Martin says. "The face of each swell is like a window. In the clear water of Lake Michigan, we could see fish way back, especially with the sun shining through the waves."
Normal board programs were slow that day. "We had several people on the boat and six in-line boards out. We had spinner rigs and crawlers down about 30 feet because they'd been working all week. I began wondering how to get lures even farther back, out of the spook zone, back where walleyes were regrouping in the prop-wash. So we ran a spinner rig out, wrapped the line around the threads of an empty water bottle, and put the cap back on. We were just killing time. We dropped it back 200 feet to keep it out of the way. The rod was straight up in the air and the line was wafting around back there. We kind of forgot about it"
"The next time anybody checked, the rod was doubled over. Somebody said the water-bottle was snagged, but I knew it had to be a fish," he says. "The rig was running about 15 feet down over 35 feet of water. We reeled in a 5-pound walleye and put the bottle back out. This time we paid attention. The next walleye hit instantly. We had enough people to put out a second bottle and ended up catching more walleyes on those two water bottles than we did on our six boards."
At an AIM tournament on Green Bay, one of Martin's co-anglers was an airline pilot. "After seeing the water bottle catch fish, the pilot began calculating time and speed," he says. "One reason I became a fisherman was because I thought it would never involve math. Turned out I was wrong. Boat speed has everything to do with how far back a bottle has to be."
Creating A HotSpot
"It worked every place I went," Martin says. "We caught fish with water bottles everywhere. The bottle rig didn't always catch the most fish, but it caught the biggest fish at least 90 percent of the time.
"Schools of minnows are in tune with the turbulence created by the boat, taking advantage of it to feed on plankton that's stirred up. That's where walleyes hunt. People are just starting to learn this; I'm just learning it. It took time to figure out why water bottles worked where traditional boards did not."
Martin's theory: The boat pushes predators off to the side and disturbs plankton. Baitfish see it swirl and collect and school up to feed, which finally attracts predators to the propwash, creating a temporary hotspot. The question is: How long does it take for this feeding spree to set up, and how far back is it at a given boat speed? "It turns out the speed you're traveling determines how far back the bottles need to be. When trolling at 1.5 mph, bottles should be 200 to 250 feet back. At slower speeds, move them closer. At 2 mph or more, lures need to be 300 to 350 feet back.
"So we developed a formula for rigging water bottles, but I needed to come up with something a little more efficient and hydrodynamic that wouldn't damage line. I took the idea to Bill Church of Church Tackle and he started designing various shapes and mechanisms for attaching line." The result was the Church Tackle TX007 Stern Planer, a trolling device that looks more like an orange traffic cone. "It's the Star Trek stealth program," Martin laughs, "presenting baits where no one has presented them before." Sounds like Captain Kirk ran a charterboat.
"The design Church developed spears through waves while hardly bending the rod," he says. "When a big walleye takes it under, it reels in like a bullet. The resistance is reduced by its pointed shape. But the key is how it follows the boat's path. A water bottle stays right in the prop-wash, no matter where the boat goes. And so does the TX007. You can turn the boat three times, look back, and the TX007 is way off to the side, beyond the outside board, right where the boat had passed.
"Sometimes a muskie grabs one, the line breaks, and you have to chase it down. Sometimes a stern planer submerges, but it's hydrodynamic. It sheds water like a porpoise. It doesn't interfere with the fight like a side planer."
Most anglers already own everything they need to be stern-planer pilots, with the possible exception of the stern planer itself. Lures that run any depth, leadcore line, and sinkers weighing several ounces can be pulled behind a stern planer. "You can put a big FlatFish back there," Martin says. "Stern planers take smallmouths, salmon, northern pike, steelhead — any presentation that works behind a traditional planer board can be presented behind a Church Tackle Stern Planer."
Martin runs the TX007 on 10.5- to 11-foot rods with Abu Garcia 6500 line-counter reels. "I use Fenwick rods with a fast tip," he says. "Fast tips transmit lure and blade vibration better. Unlike boards, stern planers let you know when a little perch is hanging on because there's a direct pull to the rod tip. The rod becomes an indicator of blades turning and cranks wobbling correctly. A long, medium-power rod stands straight up on a corner of the transom. The planer is back so far you can sweep fish taken on boards underneath the stern lines and net walleyes in the prop-wash without reeling other lines in. The boat keeps trolling."
Long rods are more versatile. "Position the rods out flat or point them straight up. Longer rods get the stern lines out of the way, yet hold them out where the tip can be monitored along with the boards. Rods can be aft or on the stern, but the transom is ideal because when you miss a fish with a board, the long rod can be laid out in that direction, sweeping the stern planer closer to active fish."
Anglers tend to opt for tough, abrasion-resistant lines for trolling, but Martin prefers a limp mono. "I've tried every kind of line for trolling," he says. "I use 12-pound Berkley Trilene XL because it's the same diameter as 10-pound Trilene XT but it stretches more, resulting in better hookups. Walleyes come in behind the bait and flare their gills as they strike. If the line doesn't stretch enough at that point, hooks don't get as far back in the mouth and fish rip free more often. After 35 years of guiding and tournament angling, you know how many reach the net and how many are lost. That small change to limp line made a big difference."
Braided lines allow lures to dig deeper and transfer more energy from blades and cranks back to the rod tip, but Martin says the lack of stretch keeps walleyes from sucking lures deep enough into their mouths. "The more you use limp mono, the more you realize fish are not ripping free when hooked on low-stretch lines. My former partner Gary Roach and I once measured 120 feet of line each. One of us had XL, the other XT. We tied them off, wrapped the loose ends around nails and walked. We could walk 7 feet farther with XL — that's how much additional stretch you get with an average setback."
In extremely clear water, however, Martin uses 8-foot leaders of 15- to 17-pound Berkley Vanish Fluorocarbon, even though it stretches less than Trilene XT. "Everything is a compromise," he says. "But that's how important fluorocarbon can be in clear water. Today's fluoros are more abrasion resistant around the sharp-edged mussels responsible for clearing the water. Whether I'm using XL or Vanish, I tie on a #7 swivel 7 to 8 feet up the line to keep the stern planer from sliding back and hitting fish in the face."
"Taking lures down where the fish are with leadcore requires setting out the same number of colors on each rod," Martin says. "Anglers running leadcore on two rods over river channels have a hard time trolling the true edge, especially around trees. The other problem with leadcore is proximity. The formula demands the same amount of line on each rod, which places the lures too close together so they tangle.
Stern planers can stagger those lines. Run one planer back 200 feet and the other 250 feet behind the boat. The stern planer follows precisely the same track as the boat, so lures stay on the true edge and never tangle. With 4 rods — two stern planers and two traditional boards in tight — leadcore shouldn't tangle."
Before stern planers arrived, the only way to troll along the timber in Lake Oahe or other reservoirs was to longline two lures off the back corners of the transom. "Run four lines and you tangle every time," Martin says. "Even with two rods, lures have to be tuned perfectly or half the day is spent unwrapping tangled leadcore. Say walleyes are feeding in depths that demand 140 feet of leadcore and a long leader down to a #7 Shad Rap. Now you can stagger two Shad Raps behind the boat that stay on the same contours as the boat. With stern planers, instead of having all the lures out next to each other at the same point in space, you've got them staggered from 200 to 250 feet behind the boat with the same length of leadcore and leader on each. Both lures stay precisely over the contours the boat passed over. Now you can run two boards with the other lines out of the way."
Stern planers excel in shallow lakes with shallow-running lures by delivering lures behind the spook zone. "Anglers on shallow lakes can use stern planers to keep lures above the vegetation," he says. "Distance is depth. A shallow runner tethered close to a stern planer stays higher in the water column. You disturb walleyes with the prop when you run over the grass, but the lures are 200 to 250 feet back. Put a Rapala Original Floater 25 feet behind a stern planer and it stays about 3 feet down, though it would run 5 feet down with a normal setback. Stern planers allow you to put far more line out while keeping the lure shallower than any other method can."
Martin recently filmed a TV show on Saginaw Bay with a tackle buyer from a big box store. "He'd already sold a ton of stern planers but didn't know how to fish them," he says. "We put two stern planers off the back and three boards on each side. He no sooner got the first planer back 250 feet and he had a fish on. I guaranteed him our biggest fish would come on the stern planers. He kept track. Out of the 37 we caught, 80 percent and the two biggest hit rigs behind stern planers."
Martin lists his email address in the TX007 package, encouraging people to contact him if they discover a new stern-planing technique. "Just me — nobody else," he laughs. "We're still in the experimental stage. Probably always will be. I'm still learning, and the truth is still out there for the guy who never thinks he has enough rods out." –
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd,Minnesota, stays on the forefront of tackle and techniques for many species of fish.