Trolling for Walleye During Summer
July 15, 2018
Trolling for walleye is one of the most effective ways to find and trigger them in July and August. From the Canadian Shield to big rivers, prairie potholes, and the Great Lakes, pulling a variety of presentations helps cover water in search of active, catchable fish at a time when walleyes are scattered and forage is abundant.
Many top guides and tournament competitors troll to put fish in the boat when the chips are down. Often, their systems are variations of popular trolling methods modified to best fit their favorite fisheries, and tweaked to match the conditions and mood of the fish.
Former In-Fisherman PWT champion and walleye expert Mark Martin of Twin Lake, Michigan, has trolled countless lakes and river systems in his career. He offers Lake Huron's storied Saginaw Bay as an example of multiple trolling patterns that often exist within a single fishery.
"July and August on Saginaw Bay offer a potpourri of productive patterns," Martin says. "One of the most overlooked is the shoreline weed bite. Many anglers leave weed walleyes in their wake on the way to troll deeper waters, but why drive past fish if you don't have to?"
According to Martin, opportunities to play the green card abound. "Pretty much the whole west side from Bay City State Park up to Au Gres has coontail, cabbage, and a mixture of both. It's a similar scenario going the other direction, from the power plant out to Sand Point. Walleyes of all sizes, including fish up to 9 or 10 pounds, inhabit vegetation all summer, and trolling is a great way to catch them."
Martin plies vegetation with a two-hook Northland Fishing Tackle Baitfish Spinner Harness with a #4 holographic Baitfish-Image blade in perch, emerald shiner, or gold perch patterns. He tips the rig with a 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Nightcrawler, since a variety of bait-stealing small fish make fishing with live nightcrawlers a frustrating exercise in rebaiting. "To reduce weed fouling, don't run your hooks all the way through the Gulp! Nightcrawler," he says.
"The rig is far more weedless without the point, barb, or bend sticking out." He fishes the rig on no longer than a 3-foot leader, and when tying his own he uses 15- to 17-pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon, explaining that fluoro allows a metal clevis to spin at slower speeds than mono. "I can add one or two of Northland's cork floats to the line for extra lift, and troll under 1 mph," he says.
He trolls the setup behind one of Northland's Slick-Stick bottom bouncers, which slides on the line ahead of the swivel linking leader to mainline. "These are the most efficient bouncers for weeds," he says. "The weight parts the vegetation for a second or two, allowing a spinner rig on a short leash to shoot the gap before the curtain recloses."
Martin says Saginaw Bay's weedline is irregular and typically lies in 8 to 12 feet of water. "The best way to troll it is hand-holding a trolling rod and line-counter reel loaded with 10-pound Berkley FireLine, keeping your line at a 45-degree angle," he says. "With multiple people on board, run the heaviest weights in the front of the boat, to avoid tangles. Say, 3 ounces on the front line, a 2-ounce Slick-Stick in the middle, and 1 to 1½ ounces on the stern lines.
"Watch your sonar while trolling in and out of the weedline," he continues. "Pay attention to plant height. When they come up 2 to 3 feet off bottom, start thinking about pulling out because by the time you do, they'll be 7 feet high. In sparse vegetation it's possible to mark fish. When you see one, bang your bouncer on bottom several times to get their attention. It's like blowing a grunt call at a whitetail buck. You want the walleye to know your rig is there and key in on it."
Saginaw Bay also offers a basin bite. "Walleyes can be in 15 to 35 feet of water," he says. "Don't just put your lines out and start trolling. Spend time looking for pods of baitfish on sonar. The bait is typically suspended, and active walleyes typically make upward forays to feed on them. Don't hesitate to send a bottom bouncer rig down to check out fish marked tight to bottom and don't spend more than 20 minutes trying to get bottom fish to bite or you're wasting your time."
Martin's open-water arsenal includes 'crawler harnesses with bright-colored #6 holographic blades, trolled 1 to 1.8 mph. In 2 feet or less of surface chop, rigs trail 8 feet behind an in-line weight. "When the wind picks up and swells get bigger, surge becomes a factor, so you need to replace the in-lines with clip-on weights 50 feet ahead of the rig," he says. With either system, mainline is 12-pound Berkley XL, the stretchiness of which allows striking walleyes to suck the harness far enough in for solid hookups, he says. "Some days leadcore works well, too," he adds. "It pays to experiment with your weighting systems."
Martin also trolls crankbaits on the bay—sometimes in the same spread as spinner rigs. "To some anglers it's heresy to mix spinners and crankbaits," he says, "but it works wonders at speeds up to 1.8 mph. If I need to go faster, I switch to all cranks."
Top lures include deep runners like the #12 Rapala Husky Jerk Deep Diver, #9 Rapala Tail Dancer, 43â'„8-inch Storm Original ThunderStick Deep, and size #5 or #7 Rapala Shad Raps (he likes both the rattling, plastic RS series and regular balsa models equally well). "You can also pull a variety of shallow runners behind leadcore, in-line sinkers, or clip-on weights," he adds.
Martin spreads his lines port, starboard, and aft with a flotilla of planer boards and stern planers. In general, he presents both rigs and crankbaits in the top half of the water column, "Divide water depth by two and fish up from there," he says. "Start midway down and if you're not getting bit, keep moving your lures higher, even if you're not marking fish that high. Saginaw walleyes holding on bottom aren't shy about rushing up and grabbing rigs 2 or 3 feet under the surface."
Longtime guide and In-Fisherman confidante Doug Burns trolls up walleyes all summer long on Iowa's downsized yet fish-rich version of the Great Lakes. His pet trolling pattern for connecting with hot-weather walleyes entails trolling crankbaits over the largely featureless abyss of Spirit Lake's sprawling basin.
"Spirit Lake is a big bowl," Burns says. "From drop-off to drop-off on each shoreline, it's basically a 20-foot flat, except for a long trough on the east side of the lake that drops to 22 feet. Sometimes walleyes are in the trough, but for the most part they're in the basin."
Burns says walleyes follow their stomachs into the basin. "Our main forage is spottail shiners and perch," he says. "Spottails get into the basin in early summer, usually around June, and 1½- to 4-inch perch also move out to feed on bloodworms."
He relies on sonar to search for baitfish and the larger marks of hungry 'eyes shadowing the forage. Trolling a feeding frenzy can be productive, but not always. "I target feeders on bait first, but sometimes it gets to the point where you have too many baitfish," Burns says. "When you don't get bit trolling through baitfish and walleyes, move away from that area. Not far, maybe a quarter to half mile. Just far enough to find walleyes that have recently eaten and are an hour or two from eating again. These fish aren't actively feeding, but you can often get them to bite."
When he finds fish, he trolls hardbaits from 2.5 to 3.5 mph. "I use a precision, dual-power approach," he says. "I engage my Mercury kicker just enough to almost reach the speed I want, then let my Minn Kota Terrova do the rest. With the trolling motor linked to my sonar and GPS, I can repeat productive trolling paths and adjust them as needed when the fish move.
"Summer walleyes like speed and direction changes, so I use the 'rabbit button' on my bowmount remote for a burst of speed while turning right or left. The combination makes a sharp corner that cracks the whip with your outside lines while the inside lines slow down. Do that two or three times to make the baits dance and change direction, then go back to straight and steady for a while."
Burns favors shad-bodied baits over minnow imitators. "Shad profiles are key in this system," he says. "I run smaller lures in late June and early July, such as #4 Rapala Shad Raps and Berkley Flicker Shads. Bass-type baits like Wiggle Warts, Bandits, and Bombers are also good; 5A or 6A Model A Bombers are especially good behind planer boards, higher in the water column. They're a little bolder and track true at speeds of 3 mph or more."
He also adds #5 and #7 Rapala Scatter Rap Crank Shallows and Scatter Rap CountDowns to the mix, occasionally experimenting with smaller lures like Rapala's Ultra Light Shad and Ultra Light Minnow. "Perch and shiner patterns are perennial producers, but gaudy colors have their moments," he says. "I start with at least one pink or purple in the mix and go from there."
Burns' depth preferences and weighting methods are a study in diversity. He typically runs most baits close to bottom, where they produce eater-sized walleyes with the occasional big fish. But he keeps a lure or two around the middle of the water column to pick up bigger fish. Weighting options include Off Shore Tackle Tadpole resettable diving weights, along with leadcore—four colors of which keep his baits close to bottom at 2.5 mph. He favors a 15-foot braid leader when fishing leadcore, which telegraphs lure action. "Even with small lures, I can see a little vibration on the rod tip and tell when the bait is fouled," he says. "With Tadpoles, a 4-foot leader is plenty."
As for the summer outlook, Burns notes that Spirit Lake's walleye fishery is in excellent shape, with "a bunch of fish in the 23- to 27-inch range, plus good year-classes between 14 and 18 inches."
Big River Bounty
Summer trolling isn't just for still waters. Mississippi River guide Marty Hahn plucks plump walleyes from Pools 3 and 4 in July and August. One of his favorite patterns is slowly pulling 1/16-ounce weedless jigs tipped with a leech or half a 'crawler downcurrent in flows of .7 to 1.3 mph.
"This pattern works on the main river in low flows, and in backwaters when the main river is moving too fast," he says. "Finding the right current speed is more important than targeting a specific type of structure or bottom content, although clambeds with the right amount of flow can be especially good this time of year."
Hahn says 8-pound Berkley Trilene Sensation monofilament mainline allows the jig to reach bottom on a long cast in depths of 12 feet or less, which is another cornerstone of the system.
"Walleyes typically turn and move with the current after they bite," Hahn says. "Since you're trolling downriver, bites feel like a subtle tick—the kind you get on a livebait rig—instead of the crushing strike of a river walleye hitting a crankbait trolled upcurrent. When you feel a tick, follow the fish back with your rod tip, but don't open the bail to feed it line. When the line tightens and you can't extend the rod tip any farther, make a long, firm, sweeping hook-set. Don't be gentle about it. You have to compensate for the fish coming at you, having a weedguard on the jig, and the stretch of mono mainline."
He also fishes the featureless "no man's land" of Lake Pepin, which functions much like a river-run reservoir and lacks appreciable flow. "The suspended bite here is overlooked," he says. "It's a shad-based pattern that can be as simple as trolling #7 Shad Raps, Jointed Shad Raps, and Flicker Shads at 1.5 to 3 mph on superline or leadcore, 10 feet down in 20 feet of water."
While it helps to locate baitfish on sonar, such sightings aren't a necessity. "Sometimes you're grinding it out, hunting for scattered fish with nothing on the screen," he says. "You have to stay focused because the rewards are worth it. This is a big-fish pattern that produces lots of walleyes from 23 to 27 inches."
Lake of the Woods
On the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods, veteran guide Jon Thelen trolls minnowbaits to find walleyes scattered over the offshore basin. "The north end of the lake is rich in structure and walleyes may take up residence on a reef or point, but the southern end has far fewer of these fish-holding areas, so walleyes move out to the basin for the summer," he explains.
Here, walleyes roam relatively soft-bottom areas in depths of 30 to 35 feet. "Their summer range covers a massive area," he adds. "The fish can be anywhere from 3 miles offshore to 20 miles up the lake."
In such expansive fishing grounds, it's wise to find fish before wetting a line. "Blind trolling is a slow way to find needles in such a big haystack," he says. "My Humminbird Helix 12 marks fish at 20 mph, allowing me to quickly track down schools of walleyes that may be miles apart. At such speeds, the fish show up as a streak, so I turn around, slow down, and get a better feel for what they are before deciding whether to start dropping lines."
Minnowbaits are Thelen's weapon of choice once fish are found. "Trolling small, shallow-running, stickbait-style lures like the 2½-inch Cotton Cordell Wally Diver has long been a favorite on the south basin in mid- to late summer," he says. "The Wally Diver's slender profile and tight wiggle mimic the action of shiner minnows, which are the lifeblood of the fishery and a staple of sauger and walleye diets. Downriggers have been the traditional delivery system for decades. But in recent years, folks have also figured out how to get these baits down with leadcore, which is also extremely effective."
To increase his odds of boating larger fish in July and August, Thelen upsizes from a Wally Diver to a 4½-inch Smithwick Floating Rattlin' Rogue, which dives from 4 to 10 feet on the troll. "Lake of the Woods also has tullibees, which add another dimension to the food chain," he says. "A Rogue offers the same slim profile and tight action as the Wally Diver, in a bigger package that's more appealing to walleyes looking for a larger meal. Switching to a Rogue allows you to sort through fewer 12-inchers while targeting larger slot fish for the livewell and trophies for release."
With both the Wally Diver and Rogue, he favors shades of gold or silver, which "produce some flash and look like the natural food choices." But when strong winds muddy the basin's water, he opts for brighter patterns.
He's no stranger to trolling up summer walleyes on a variety of other fisheries. He used to fish the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) and currently travels the Upper Midwest and southern Canada filming Fish ED television and online programming for Lindy Fishing Tackle. "Basin trolling is a factor wherever you have a lack of deep structure coupled with an abundance of food in some sort of featureless 'middle of nowhere,'" he says.
On some lakes, he makes the same midsummer switch from small to upsized stickbaits that he does on Lake of the Woods. But not always. "In some cases, it depends on the food source," he explains. "Smithwick Rogues are effective on Minnesota's Mille Lacs Lake, which also has tullibees. But on North Dakota's Devils Lake, where the fish are used to smaller meals like juvenile perch, freshwater shrimp, and minnows, I stick with the smaller Wally Diver all season."
Thelen says that Rogues aren't just for basin trolling where large forage is available. "I troll them on structure, too," he says. "For example, when I'm on a Canadian fly-in trip and walleyes are relating to a breakline, trolling a larger stickbait consistently catches larger fish than a traditional jig-and-minnow or jig-and-plastic presentation."
High Plains guide Matt Liebel fishes North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea, where a rejuvenated walleye fishery helps overcome summertime challenges. "It's probably the most difficult time of year to locate fish because they're so spread out, but thanks to a record walleye population, it's still possible to catch big numbers of fish trolling," he says.
Case in point: While checking a 10-mile stretch of shoreline last summer, Liebel landed 60 walleyes in five hours. "I left the landing at 7 a.m. and ran two crankbaits in 10 or 11 feet of water," he recalls. "I never turned around once. Just kept trolling down the bank. Some spots weren't that hot, but others were lights out."
Liebel's game plan includes trolling flats near the old river channel, typically in 10 to 15 feet of water but sometimes as shallow as 3 feet, when a favorable wind blows into flooded grasslines or other cover as the impoundment reaches its high-water mark in July. "Back bays can be sleepers," he adds. "Most people overlook them, but if baitfish are in there, so are the walleyes—even in water temperatures in the upper 70s."
He leans on crankbaits like the #11 Berkley Flicker Minnow, #7 Flicker Shad, and #5 Jointed Shad Rap. He also fishes a variety of beefy Bagleys and Salmo Hornets. A typical four-rod setup includes two 12-foot poles and two 5-footers. Fished off the sides of the boat, the long rods are loaded with 10-pound-test superline mainline, which is linked to the crankbait with a dual-lock snap; 100- to 150-foot letbacks are typical, but vary according to depth.
"Short rods are fished straight out the back of the boat," he says. "I run 18-pound leadcore with a 15-pound FireLine leader on these rods, even in shallow water, because the leadcore helps the lures track better and reduce tangles. With most baits, one color is plenty to reach the fish."
Trolling speeds typically hover between 2.5 and 3 mph, but Liebel doesn't hesitate to put the hammer down and hit 3.5 mph when the walleyes are up for it. "Pushing your speed reduces the number of small fish you deal with," he says. "Increase it as long as the bigger ones keep biting." Just another timely trolling tip to help you boat more fish this summer.