Let's face it: there's a bias against using spinners in cold water. On the wide-open Great Lakes, what veteran walleye angler doesn't go strictly with crankbaits without a second thought?
Try longtime In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro Mark Martin of Twin Lake, Michigan. One of the greatest Great Lakes advocates of using spinners in spring, Martin placed sixth in the 2000 Lake Erie PWT event with a counterculture combination: using spinners and cranks simultaneously in his trolling spread.
"They work perfectly together, if you do it right," Martin says. "In cold water you have to run your crankbaits slow, around 1 mph, and you can definitely put out spinners at the same time. Everything, including the baitfish, is moving slowly. And spinners have a big profile like crankbaits. They're no different than a #14 Husky Jerk."
A crawler lover of the highest order, Martin and his own bias toward bait have prompted him to troll spinners alongside cranks at one of the few times the two offerings are speed compatible. Together they allow him to put similar though contrasting profiles and presentations high in the water column for suspended open-water roamers. "Either spinners or cranks would count for a limit by themselves," Martin says. "Using the two, your odds are higher. It allows me to put different menus in front of the same fish."
Admittedly, even Martin's undying affection for spinners and crawlers in no way diminishes the utility of cranks, cold-water killers par excellence. Consider the record-smashing success of Reef Runners, Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Rogues in delivering 346 walleyes over 10 pounds and 150 daily baskets over 40 pounds during last year's PWT tourney on Erie, which is to say, cranks clearly rule. But should they rule out spinners?
The Deadly Mixture
"I like crankbaits until the water gets to at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit," says PWT pro Eric Naig, Cylinder, Iowa. "It seems more fish are caught on cranks until that water warms up a bit."
Without a doubt, cranks have it going in spring, when they supply the deadly mixture of size, shape, wobble, even suspension. Add to the triggering capabilities the speeds at which they run and their penchant for catching fish when speeding and stalling on turns.
When choosing cranks, the spring starting point is long and narrow for subtle action that matches the fish's mood in cold water. That's why minnowbaits such as Husky Jerks and Rogues and banana-shaped permutations such as Reef Runners, known as well for their "roll" around a horizontal axis as their side-to-side movement, are ideal choices. Suspenders like Jerks and Rogues, to say nothing of the Reef Runner's close approach to neutral buoyancy, spike the punch with momentary levitation when stalled on a turn or when the boat slows slightly when climbing a wave. (And although you're fishing high in the water column, experience bears out that shallow divers trolled farther back behind the boards don't match the large-billed baits a short distance back in terms of action and production.)
"I like suspending baits early in the year," Naig says. "If you're making turns and slowing down, a lot of times the fish eat the bait when it's stopped."
But for all the talk of minnowbaits and their undeniable effectiveness, another bait worth trying on Erie--or wherever shad are prevalent forage--is the #9 Rapala Shad Rap. Like spinners, the flat-sided Rap lacks the widespread popularity of minnowbaits for spring trolling. Berkley's Frenzy Diver or Frenzy Diving Minnow, with their slightly more triangular body shapes than traditional lures, would be likely choices as well due to their resemblance to shad forage.
"I don't understand why people get so hung up on minnowbaits," Martin says. "I'm amazed at how many fish come on large Shad Raps. The shad are out there--on Erie--and they're that size. People don't think about shad as a popular baitfish, but I do." And so do walleyes.
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Whichever you run, troll at slow speeds with frequent turns. Martin tends to the slow side at 0.8 to 1.2 mph; Naig goes slightly faster at 1.4 to 1.6 mph. Turns accomplish a couple things. At Martin's speeds, outside boards might accelerate the baits to 1.5 mph, while inside baits loiter at 0.5 mph. Martin says he turns so the inside boards almost, but not quite, reach a dead stop. Of course, when one side of the trolling spread starts producing, that could be a cue to speed up or slow down. Try different speeds to determine what the fish want, but the stuttering effect of turns usually deserves more of the credit.
Bouncers Above Bottom
When open-water trolling on the Great Lakes, the high fish, suspended from 6 to 15 feet down, are the ones you want. They're the most active, and even if the fish are a little lower, they'll scream up to nail a bait above their heads. The way Martin runs spinners alongside his cranks, he suspects the spinners are a touch deeper than hard baits when run 25 to 40 feet behind the boards. To run spinners with #5 Northland holographic blades, Martin puts 1-1/2-ounce colored bottom bouncers, for attractors, six feet ahead of them. Then he attaches the setup 45 to 60 feet behind his inside boards (while running the cranks on the outside boards).
If turns impart start-and-stop action to crankbaits, then spinners behind bottom bouncers produce more of a pendulum effect. When spinners rise and fall, they not only enjoy a change of pace that triggers walleyes, but also the presentation covers higher and lower tiers of the water column.
One wild card in the entire equation are the bottom fish--the ones you would reach at the same speeds using a 3-ounce bouncer. Back when Dan Plautz won the PWT Erie event in 2000, he dredged bottom on the last day using spinners and crawlers after a storm and boat traffic had pushed the fish down. The problem is that bottom fish are less predictable.
"For the hours and miles I put in during practice, I find it's often not practical to keep a bait down there," Martin says. "I figure if I can't get them going on the bottom within an hour and a half, they probably aren't going to go."
Time to break out the cranks and bring the baits up in the water column. Oh, and one more thing: Don't forget the spinners.
The baitfish gurus at Koppers unveiled a radical design in hardbait technology with the new LiveTarget BaitBall lineup. Comprised of a 2 3/8-inch floating squarebill and 3½- and 4½-inch suspending jerkbaits, all of which dive to four feet — along with a 2½-inch diving crankbait that reaches depths of 10 feet — the series mimics a tight school of frightened baitfish. So, rather than seeing one large preyfish, predators see a cluster of smaller, bite-sized minnows instead. If it proves half as deadly as the umbrella rig concept, it's going to be a game-changer on the cranking scene. livetargetlures.com
Jackall Jockie 120 Topwater Minnow
Designed by Kazuto Yamaki, the Jockie 120 blends topwater theatrics with top-shelf jerkbait performance. It dives straight with a spin of your reel handle — thanks to its unique, diamond-shaped lip. Plus, the bottom cup produces a popping sound on splashdown. Other features include a flashy inner scale molding, and aft-oriented, moving weighting system for long casts and a funky pop, dive, head-stand, and rolling action. Available in six colors. jackall-lures.com
Lucky Craft S.K.T. Magnum
Designed by Bassmaster Classic champ Skeet Reese, this beefy, tight-wobbling crank matches the supersize meals of behemoth bass. It should also shine for other large fish-eaters. Available in 11 colors, in four sizes from 1 to 3¾ ounces, in MR and DR versions. The 105MR is the shallowest runner, targeting depths of 6½ feet, while the 120DR is the depth-dredger of the family, capable of reaching 25 feet. luckycraft.com
Matzuo Kinchou Shad
Brandishing flared, blood-red gills, these shad-bodied additions to Matzuo's Kinchou series are wide-wobbling floaters featuring chambered bodies with stainless-steel rattle bearings. Available in eight colors, in 3- and 3 ½-inch sizes that dive from eight to 12 feet, respectively. matzuo.com
Smithwick Perfect 10 Rogue
Building on the stellar attributes of the original Rogue — an all-around jerkbaiting icon for more than 35 years — Smithwick created the Perfect 10 Rogue. Upgrades include a flash-enhancing new material and lip design that takes the suspending bait deeper, faster, plus a tungsten rattle that produces a unique, strike-triggering thump. Best of all, the weighting system allows the 5½-inch bait to be more responsive and regain its horizontal posture quicker after a twitch than its predecessor, all while retaining the iconic Rogue roll that has fooled countless bass. As a bonus, the translucent body intensifies the bait's reflective scales, and accentuates the eight available color patterns. smithwicklures.com
Rapala Scatter Rap
A groundbreaking 'scatter ' lip gives Rapala's newest lure series — which includes the Scatter Rap Crank, Minnow, Shad, and Countdown — an aggressive sweeping action that mimics the maneuvers of fleeing forage. The baits are easy to fish — just crank or troll, and they do the rest — but the more you get a feel for their intricacies, the more tricks they'll perform. Running depths range from five to nine feet. Available in a variety of hot color patterns. rapala.com
SPRO Baby Fat John 50
If you're looking for a shallow-running hardbait with a wild side-to-side hunting action, the new Baby Fat John 50 is a serious contender. Weighing in at 3/8 ounce, the bait dives to two feet, max. And, thanks to its fiberglass 'computer chip ' lip, it darts from to the side, then returns to center for an erratic fish-attracting action. Available in eight catchy color patterns. spro.com
Storm Arashi Silent Squares
Part of the hot new Arashi (ah-rash-ee) family from Storm, the Silent Square 3 and 5 sport 'circuit-board ' bills that enable true tracking at slow speeds, while still reaching maximum running depth. Another slick feature is a self-tuning line tie that keeps the bait tracking true, while producing a tantalizing roll, accentuated by a pronounced tail kick. The size 3 is 2 1/8 inches long, weighs ½ ounce, and runs to three feet, while the size 5 stretches 2 3/8 inches, weighs in at just over 5/8 ounce, and dives to five feet. Available in 12 alluring colorations, ranging from Mossy Chartreuse Craw to Black Silver Shad. stormlures.com
Named with the Japanese word for sky, this ultra-responsive jerkbait from iconic bassman Gary Yamamoto glides or walks underwater, depending on your wishes and retrieves. Available in 76-, 100-, and 110-mm sizes that dive to four, eight, and 10 feet, respectively, in a broad palette of colors. yamamoto.baits.com
Yo-Zuri 3DB Jerkbait
Built with big bass in mind, but perfect for other predators such as pike and walleyes, this 3½-inch suspending jerkbait is part of the brand-new 3DB family. Features include lifelike detail on gills, fins, and scales, flat sides, flashy 3D Internal Prism, and Wave-Motion Vibration Ribs that create wave-like fish-attracting vibes. Comes in five core colors, all accentuated with oversized red eyes and Mylar tail treble dressing. yo-zuri.com