A postman would have fits delivering mail to a walleye; it never stays in one place long, and leaves no forwarding address when it moves. Yet, that’s exactly what we have to do each time we launch our boats—find these underwater vagabonds and deliver tempting packages bristling with hooks.
Fortunately, it isn’t as hard as it could be, thanks to the groundwork laid by fishing pioneers like the late Buck Perry. Long before high-tech electronics, he learned that walleyes don’t swim helter-skelter; they travel along bottom irregularities and congregate where points, islands and submerged humps intercept these routes.
As a result, today, even average walleye anglers know that the best spots to fish usually touch the deepest water in the area, such as structure that reaches the basin in a natural lake, or the old river channel in a reservoir. In man-made impoundments, areas where the river channel swings in toward shore (or back out again) are must-fish spots.
And because of the ever-increasing quality and availability of mapping software, sonar and GPS, even weekend warriors can find these structures with relative ease.
So, why are guys like FLW Walleye Tour champion Rick Nascak hoisting big cardboard checks on the weigh-in stage, while you’re hauling water?
For the most part, it’s because they’ve fine tuned one of the most important weapons in the walleye hunter’s arsenal: contour trolling. Here’s how.
In a nutshell, trolling success hinges on your ability to deliver a bait precisely to where walleyes are, in the way that shows it to the most fish possible in the least amount of time.
Take a point, for example. Walleyes often hold on either side of a point, waiting to ambush prey, and it takes a precise approach to reach them, because although the structure may be huge, walleyes usually only occupy a tiny portion of the real-estate.
Put your baits in their face by trolling tight to the point, from the base through to the tip, being careful not to swing out as you turn back toward shore. Watch your rodtip as the depth rises when you come up on the tip of the point. If a walleye doesn’t take the bait there, the rod will vibrate as the bait bounces across the top. As you start to come off the other side of the point and the depth increases, the tip will stop bouncing and your bait will dart forward, often triggering a strike.
On steep-sloping points crowned with weeds or timber, dragging baits across the point’s spine can be a nightmare.
“Weed walls on points and shoreline breaks are common on a lot of the natural lakes I fish,” says longtime North American Fisherman contributor Dan Johnson. “These edges are great places to troll, but the trick is not getting hung up.
“One trick is to scout the weed edge with sonar before you ever put a bait in the water,” he adds. “After a few expeditionary passes, you can nail down a trail with GPS that hugs the edge and allows you to anticipate boat-positioning adjustments well in advance.”
The latter point is key in thoroughly fishing irregularities such as cups in edges. “These pockets often hold fish, so it’s critical to get your baits in there,” Johnson notes. “Sometimes that means swinging the boat over the tops of shallower weeds to position your bait just right on the edge.
“For precision trolling on irregular weed edges and other breaks, I avoid long letbacks,” he says. “Diving baits, a few shot or a small clip-on weight, coupled with thin-diameter superline such as 10/4 FireLine or a copolymer like 6- or 8-pound Silver Thread AN40, help get you down there without a lot of line out.”
Cranks And Core
Nascak, a Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit veteran also knows that attention to detail is critical. He took top honors in the recent FLW Walleye Tour championship after contour-trolling deep breaks at Lake Oahe, South Dakota. There, he caught walleyes so fast that he was able to run 50 miles to his spot and limit out before 11:30 a.m. every day, then take his time getting back to the weigh-in.
“It was a joyride,” he grins.
Nascak runs mono in depths of 10 feet or less, and switches to FireLine for 10- to 20-foot contours. Lead-core, which Nascak used to win the FLW title, is perfect for 20 feet or more.
’Core offers another advantage—it’s speed-sensitive. Typically, the key to contour trolling is setting baits so they occasionally tick bottom. Raising and lowering baits on mono requires adjusting letback. But with leadcore, you can simply increase boat speed to bring your lures up, rather than reeling in and resetting the lines. That keeps your baits in the strike zone longer, which invariably yields more strikes.
Most fishermen tune crankbaits by running them next to the boat at normal trolling speed to see if they travel in a straight line. But precision contour trolling calls for super-tuning.
That means baits must run true at speeds faster than your average 1.5 to 2 mph trolling pace. If not, they might kick out to one side or the other, or run shallower than you want them to when you speed up to turn to follow a break.
To super-tune a lure, first tune it at trolling speed, then let the rod back and sweep the bait quickly through the water. If it darts to the left, use pliers to make minute adjustments to the eye to the right until it runs straight. If it darts to the right, adjust to the left.
Once your baits are running true, line-counter reels are critical to return them to productive depths. “Even lead-core, which is supposed to change color every 10 yards, isn’t precise enough to achieve repeatability,” says Nascak.
One trait that separates successful contour trollers from the pack is their ability to follow meandering breaklines—a tough feat when the wind blows or current strength varies. In such conditions many anglers say, “I’m only going to troll contours that are easy to follow.” That cop-out will cost them fish.
Learning how to precisely control your boat makes all the difference. If walleyes are congregated on a tight turn on the breakline, overrunning the turn by just 10 or 15 feet can put the boat over water 15 feet too shallow or 15 too deep.
Advances in electronics, trolling motor operation and drift socks help the process. For example, sonar and GPS units are indispensable to find breaks and follow them precisely. Even moderately priced units accept mapping chips that display bottom contours and your boat’s location in relation to them.
Using two sonar units in tandem, one on the bow with the transducer mounted on the trolling motor housing and one on the console or near the tiller, offers a tremendous advantage. Watch the front sonar to see when the depth begins to rise. Depending on boat length, that nets you a 16- to 21-foot advance warning of approaching turns. Side Imaging technology from Humminbird gives you even more notice.
With a powerful electric-steer trolling motor, such as Minn Kota’s Terrova, you can start to turn the bow immediately. If you were steering with a gas kicker on the transom and looking at a single sonar screen with its transducer located near the stern, your lures would completely miss the honeyhole before you got repositioned on the break.
Nascak recalls there were times on Oahe when he had to turn so sharply to stay in the zone that his boat appeared to be running perpendicular to shore. Other boats would blindly troll up and over the point while he stayed on the break and caught the fish.
Using a trolling motor in tandem with the kicker also helps control the bow, especially in a breeze. The optimum is to have the combination of the bow-mount trolling motor pulling the boat while the gas kicker is pushing.
Some anglers link their big outboards to their kickers so they can steer the smaller engine from the console. Don’t do it. A kicker steered from the rear yields sharper turns.
And always be sure to track these critical turns with your GPS. The day before the FLW championship started, Nascak went to a spot where he’d found fish two years before. He quickly had a limit and for the next several days, that spot produced the walleyes that won the event.
The ideal speed to troll crankbaits is usually 1.5 to 2.5 mph. Spinners work best at 0.5 to 1.5 mph. But don’t be afraid to go faster or slower or make S-turns over the drop-offs. The outside baits speed up and the inside baits slow down.
Check other depths by running a lure on a planer board to the shallow side and another to the deep side. Run two directly next to the boat.
Having two rods close to the boat lets you quickly reel up a couple of turns if the depth rises fast and the lure smacks the bottom. Raising it will cause the lure to dart forward and might trigger a strike.
Pay attention to where bites come from—shallow, deep or in-between. If they come from one side or the other most often, consider moving to a contour closer to that depth on your next pass.
It sounds simple given the infinite number of fishing scenarios and all of their inherent complexities, but the key to catching walleyes is just delivering your baits to where they live and keeping them there for as long as possible. There’s no better way to do so than by dialing in your trolling tactics.