July 23, 2012
Q: How slow can you troll?
A: Depends how deep you reach into your bag of tricks to pull off a sleight of speed in a scenario while trolling for open water walleyes.
And why would you want to? The reasons are numerous: smaller pods of predators than a decade ago on the Great Lakes, winds that would otherwise whip a walleye boat at warp speed, a weather change for the worse, and the overwhelming tendency of everyone's favorite uber-perch to groove on worms and spinners towed at a trickle. Hmm...maybe that last one's a drawback.
Herein lies the value of slowing the boat to a crawl by whatever means necessary and the emerging discipline of coordinating an AutoPilot electric with a gas kicker motor to troll both slowly and precisely along contours.
"Sometimes you can smoke by the fish at 3.2 mph and they'll go, Hey, I want it," says In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail pro Tommy Skarlis, Walker, Minnesota. "But most of the time they want it creeping along."
On the Great Lakes, in a scenario for open water walleyes, the need for minimal speed is emerging with diminished schools compared to a decade ago, when wide swaths of walleyes stretched for miles. Because of fewer numbers and more concentrated schools nowadays--though nevertheless daunting populations compared to anywhere else--the PWT's master theoreticians always consider mowing down a fish or two at faster speeds, then mopping up at slower rates that keep lures in the fish's faces longer, particularly when times are tough.
"You can go fast to get a reaction bite and then go slower for more of a hunger bite," says PWT pro Keith Kavajecz, Kaukauna, Wisconsin. "Or, if you get a big northeast wind and the water temperature drops, try slowing down. What you're fishing dictates how fast to go."
Sometimes it takes a trick or two, or 10, to dial in textbook spinner speeds of 1.2 to 1.6 mph, let alone slower, or to achieve cold-cranking speeds of 1.0 mph that predominate in spring and fall. When wind kites a boat at trolling speeds faster than desired even at minimum idle, Skarlis puts on the brakes with schemes that shave a point or two, in tenths of a mile an hour, from his trolling speed.
For starters, putting the outboard into gear when trolling with the kicker will keep the prop from spinning and thus provide enough drag to shave off a tenth. The same goes for dropping down a bowmount trolling motor, with its prop and gear housing perpendicular to the boat's path for additional braking. Braking, of course, is the whole purpose of drift socks, the parachute-like bags deployed on ropes to slow the boat's progress. To get the job done, Skarlis puts out a 40-inch Beckman Drift Control sock on a length of rope that attaches to the bowline and positions the bag 3 to 5 feet ahead of the outboard. Kavajecz, meanwhile, deploys a bag on a 5- to 8-foot rope tied to a RAM ball mount on the opposite side of his kicker motor. Even sitting down or removing a pedestal seat will decrease the amount of sail and therefore decrease speed.
Ontario PWT pro Greg Horoky says extra adjustments can be accomplished by opening the door on a boat with a full windshield for less sail, closing it for greater sail and a quicker speed when the kicker might be in neutral, except when popping it into gear once in a while for steering. If the boat's still zooming, a last-ditch effort is to slip the kicker into reverse to slow the boat even more.
"I've seen Hawaii Five-0 conditions on the Great Lakes when a kicker in reverse isn't enough," Skarlis says. "If all the Skarlini tactics can't get the boat down to spinner speed of 1.2 to 1.6 mph, it's time to go in. You shouldn't be out there anyway."
At the other end of the spectrum, calm conditions demand a measure of stealth and deceleration. I've seen my pal, PWT pro Jim McGowan, Hubbard, Ohio, bring in big weights on mirror-flat days by trolling planer boards and spinners with a MinKota AutoPilot electric on the bow of his boat. The technique is one McGowan developed on the central basin of Lake Erie, where he often trolls at 1.0 mph with the AutoPilot and with 1-ounce inline weights behind planer boards, figuring his spinners get down to a depth about half the length of line behind the board--50 feet back for 25 feet.
"I use my AutoPilot whenever I can," McGowan says. "By late summer I may get rid of it if I want to cover water and go faster. But even in summer, if you're on fish, you're going to whack them on spinners. If the fish are there and you're marking them and you're going slow, they're going to bite."
Which brings us to the role of AutoPilot, one that provides hands-free operation of the front electric trolling motor and a steering system that corrects to keep the boat on course. When the AutoPilot is dialed in to 20 to 30 percent power and the kicker's in gear, the steering correction provided by the AutoPilot not only keeps the boat on course when trolling straight downwind, but also offers the ability to go crosswind without the bow swinging all over the place.
"The idea behind the trolling motor is to keep the bow of the boat from sliding around," Kavajecz says. "When you put the trolling motor down, you can keep the bow where you want it, in the direction you want to go."
A similar trick can be accomplished along structure with the new Motor Guide PTS V, a bowmount with bottom-tracking technology that has depth-seeking ability to keep the boat on a specific contour.
"If you lack an AutoPilot feature on the bowmount," says Dave Csanda, "don't despair. In calm conditions, simply sit at the bow position and run the bowmount via the foot pedal. A Minn Kota PowerDrive bowmount with a long 18-foot cord, meanwhile, is ideal for trolling when seated back at the console position, behind the windshield and protected from the elements, with easier access to your rod holders. Or, with a standard mechanical foot pedal motor, simply drop the bowmount, point it straight ahead, and tighten the pedal's friction adjustment so the motor won't swivel, set it at 20 to 30 percent power, and sit back in the console position, using the steering wheel to turn the big outboard like a rudder for subtle steering corrections. The only drawback is that you may occasionally need to run up front to shut the motor off if you snag bottom or hook an unusually large fish."
Meanwhile, if the pods are smaller than ever on the Great Lakes and every school of walleyes needs to be worked thoroughly without dead time searching for the next one, the impracticality of trolling back upwind becomes much more practical with AutoPilot. In conditions with winds of 15 mph or less, and waves of 2 feet or less, it's possible to troll upwind when you set the AutoPilot in the direction you want to go. The kicker provides the power, and the AutoPilot keeps you going without continuous adjustment with a steering wheel or tiller handle.
What's more, when the wind is blowing into a breakline you want to parallel, the AutoPilot can keep the boat on course and provide faster and slower sides of the trolling spread--one side buzzes a little quicker as the other lags behind, which is perfect when trying to control the boat and determine the speed du jour that, more and more, is as slow as you can go.