July 13, 2021
By Michael Veine
One of the most consistent walleye presentations is a spinner-crawler rig (spinner-crawler harness) on a bottom-bouncer. Mainly a trolling or drifting tactic, many walleye anglers have used this technique before, but few have perfected it. For many years, bottom-bouncer fishing has been my primary method in my busy charter fishing business that operates mainly on Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie.
Last year I pulled body-baits during early spring, but after the water temperature nudged into the high 40s, we fished bottom bouncers almost exclusively and caught limits on most trips. When all other programs were failing on other boats, we consistently caught walleyes, even during the toughest fishing conditions. Even when fish are high in the water column or when they’re in thick weedbeds, bottom bouncers can work.
I’m convinced that walleyes are attracted to bottom bouncers. There’s something about the wire and weight combination that draws fish. My side-by-side testing has shown that they usually outperform every other sinker style. When walleyes are holding tight to bottom and are inactive, a bottom bouncer ticking along the bottom seems to wake them up and elicit strikes. If I see suspended fish on sonar, I quickly shorten the setbacks to bring bouncers up to the fish and they produce results there, too. It’s a simple and versatile setup.
Years ago, when I started using bottom bouncers on big water, I read that you were supposed to use the lightest weights possible that would take the lure to bottom, which I later learned wasn’t the case. I’ve discovered that you should use the heaviest weight practicable, especially when walleyes are on or near bottom. A heavier weight kicks up more debris and makes more noise. The commotion attracts walleyes and catch-rates increase.
When fish are aggressive, heavier weights also allow faster trolling while keeping lures in the strike zone. Faster trolling equals more water covered and better hookup-to-catch ratios. Faster speeds also reduce catches of undesirable fish. I typically like to troll at the maximum speeds that walleyes still respond to, which varies on any given day. The more weight used, the shorter the setbacks that are needed, which speeds up the setup process and also lessens tangles.
I use 3- to 4-ounce bottom bouncers for most of my walleye trolling. I occasionally use 5- to 6-ouncers when targeting walleyes in water deeper than 50 feet, but those heavy weights tend to drag back the in-line planer boards that I use, so there’s a trade-off.
There are two applications where I prefer to use lighter weights: 1) fishing in weedbeds and, 2) fishing in waters shallower than 6 feet. The reason I don’t use a heavy bottom bouncer in shallow water is because the setback becomes too short to allow me to detach the planer board safely and net fish effectively. An 18-foot setback is my minimum. In vegetation, I prefer a 1/2-ounce bouncer with a thin lead weight. I bend back the wire embedded in the weight until it’s about 3 inches from the snap-swivel end. This angled shape deflects weeds away from the ‘crawler harness and allows weeds to slide away, keeping things running efficiently. In vegetation, I always fish suspended at least a few feet off bottom.
Years ago, I was fishing in a Saginaw Bay walleye tournament with 120 boats vying for a $10,000 payout. During prefishing, we found a good spot in 10 to 15 feet of water that was full of walleyes, but it was also full of sheepshead and big catfish. Spinner-crawler rigs were the only presentation working there, but we were catching lots of undesirable fish and only an occasional walleye. I increased speed to avoid undesirables but the lures came up off bottom the walleyes quit biting. Also, the larger spinners I was using wouldn’t work well at those faster speeds, so I switched to small spinners, 3-ounce bottom bouncers, and increased trolling speed to 2.0 to 2.2 mph. The results were amazing. We avoided catching sheepshead and catfish and we reeled in one walleye after another.
Even when the wind died and the water went flat with bright sunshine, walleyes still kept biting aggressively. In the past, in those conditions, I assumed walleyes had moved deeper. But now I realize a big bottom bouncer blowing by and kicking up silt activates them. During the two days of that tournament we caught hundreds of mostly big walleyes and, besides making some money, I also learned a lesson. Since then I’ve boated thousands more walleyes using that same technique.
A lot of color and size choices for spinner rigs work for walleyes. I’ve found that there are two consistent daytime patterns, which I use most of the time. About the only time I deviate from them is when I’m fishing deep, clear water for suspended walleyes. There, I like to use flashy, jumbo spinners and twin treble hooks. For nighttime walleyes, it’s hard to beat Moonshine Lures harnesses; otherwise I tie my own.
Walleyes aren’t line shy, even in clear water. I find no reason to use a light mainline, and harness leaders need to be heavy-duty. I use 15-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game monofilament for mainline and 25-pound Viscous fluorocarbon for all my spinner-crawler rigs. I’d use 30-pound, but 25 is the heaviest fluoro that allows the plastic clevises I use to spin freely. The heavy leader is abrasion resistant when trolled over rocks, zebra mussels, and other rough substrates. It also holds up well to toothy fish like walleyes and pike. The heavy, stiff leader material also seems to help the lure to roll when pulled through the water, which seems to activate bites. Harness length isn’t critical in terms of walleye bites. I prefer a length of about 4.5 feet, however, so they lay in my boat. That length also provides a good distance from bottom bouncer to fish for optimal netting.
The type of hook is important on spinner-crawler rigs. I prefer a pair of #4 Eagle Claw baitholders tied 2 inches apart. I mostly use a half ‘crawler threaded onto hooks so the baitkeeper barbs on the shank of the hooks hold the ‘crawler straight. I’ve done side-by-side comparisons of whole and half ‘crawlers and the halves outproduce whole ones 9 times out of 10. The only time I use whole ‘crawlers is on treble hook rigs in deep water for suspended walleyes. Those rigs have a hook spacing of about 4 inches.
I use #3 Colorado blades on my rigs most of the time. I can effectively troll these blades at speeds from 0.75 to 2.2 mph, sometimes faster. I buy most of my blades from Cabela’s.
My favorite rig consists of one glow bead followed by four red beads strung between the quick-change clevis and hook. the clevis holding a #3 silver blade. I also often use a bright-colored rig, which features fluorescent colors for more visibility. Those rigs consist of an orange bead, then a chartreuse foam rig float, then another orange bead, all between the clevis and hook, with a #3 fluorescent orange/chartreuse (half and half) blade. A float is brighter than beads and it increases bulk and visibility. I never put beads ahead of the clevis. When trolled fast, the pressure exerted against the clevis by a forward bead negatively effects the rotation of the spinner. On most days, I start by fishing equal numbers of both of these two rigs. If walleyes show a preference, I switch all rods over to that rig. Most days, though, both are equally effective.
I use a loop knot to attach the harness to the snap swivel on the bottom-bouncer. Keep hooks sharp. If trolling on the bottom, I sharpen hooks every day and, with the heavy leader material I use, I often wear out hooks from constant sharpening before the line gives out. Still, I can usually catch 100-plus walleyes on a rig before it’s worn out, after which I keep the reusable components.
I prefer plain lead bottom bouncers over painted ones. A quality bottom bouncer is made of stainless-steel wire that has spring to it. I mostly use Walleye’s Choice bottom bouncers. They make 4-, 5-, and even 6-ouncers, which most other brands don’t offer. I‘ve never had one fail, which is impressive considering how often I use them.
I store my harnesses by winding them on foam pool noodles cut to fit inside clear, plastic shoe boxes, which you can buy at department stores. Bottom bouncers can also be stored in them, too.
I’m convinced that heavy bottom bouncers attract walleyes, and that’s what I prefer to use when the situation allows. The only problem with heavy bottom bouncers is that they can be dangerous if anglers are careless while reeling in fish. If a fish pops off and the rod isn’t in a safe position out to the side of the boat, those big lead weights with sharp protruding wire become hazardous projectiles that can easily put out an eye out, or worse. On my boat, all fish are fought with the rod pointing at 90 degrees out to the side of the boat, rod tip bent back toward the fish, so that a flying lure can’t hit anyone on board. That rod position also helps absorb the shock of fighting fish, putting more fish in the boat.
*Michael Veine is full-time charter boat captain and freelance outdoor writer from Michigan.