Crank the shallows for early pike and walleye

Contributing Editor

One of the most popular ways of fishing for walleyes and pike is
to toss out a crankbait and go for a ride. Trolling is used both by
anglers who don’t know what else to do and by those who know it’s
often the most effective way to present a bait so the maximum
number of fish have a chance to see it.

Guess which group catches more fish?

There’s a lot more to trolling than simply burning gas and
killing time. It’s not always the tactic of choice, but in certain
situations, nothing works better. It’s a great way to find fish
when they’re scattered, as they are on most lakes during the
post-spawn transition period of early spring. When the season opens
in May, and before that on lakes open all year, trolling crankbaits
is the way to go.

One key to effective trolling is depth control. Until recently,
it was anybody’s guess how deep a given bait worked behind a boat.
If you were picking up weeds or bumping bottom, you knew where your
bait was, but otherwise you had little or no clue.

Research by two walleye pros changed all that. Books by Mike
McClelland and Mark Romanack now tell precisely how deep most
crankbaits will run, depending on trolling speed, line test and
distance behind the boat. McClelland’s Crankbaits and Romanack’s
Precision Trolling take the mystery out of that aspect of the game.
Their web sites offer a ton of info. Check out either
www.mcclellandoutdoors.com or www.precisionangling.com.

If you don’t want to mess with depth charts, many crankbaits now
come with packaging that gives a ball-park idea of how deep the
bait runs. I simply mark that depth range on the belly of a new
bait with a permanent marker. If you’ve lost the packaging, most
baits with big or long lips dive deeper, while those with short
lips run shallow. Line diameter makes a difference, too. A lighter
line makes a bait run deeper, and vice-versa.

In early spring, you can limit your trolling to shallow and
moderate depths because most pike and walleyes will be scattered,
but located close to shore or on offshore reefs and other shallow
structure where the water is warmer and where there is food
available. Until weedbeds develop and young forage fish reach
eating size and start schooling tight to structure or suspending
over deep water, pike and walleyes spend a lot of time roaming
around looking for food. Trolling lets you cover a lot of water and
put your bait in front of more fish than would be possible by
casting, drifting or fishing with a slip bobber.

Crankbaits work well now because baitfish are relatively scarce.
Pike and walleyes are hungry after spawning, and they’ll hit a bait
that looks like a perch, sucker, shiner, shad or whatever happens
to be the most common forage species on the lake you’re fishing.
You may see baitfish breaking the surface, which usually means
they’re being chased by predators. Match the color and size of your
baits to the forage fish. If you don’t see baitfish, use smaller
baits for walleyes, larger baits for pike.

Wisconsin walleye pro Chuck Demlow, of Adventure Guide Service,
adds that while pike and walleyes are hungry now, they’re not very
aggressive.

“Troll slowly with stickbaits that don’t have too much
side-to-side wobble, until the water warms into the mid-50s,”
Demlow says. “Once that happens, you can start trolling a little
faster with baits that have a more erratic wobble. And regardless
of the season, I like baits that rattle because they trigger more
strikes.”

Demlow also likes to use a lighter line now, when the water is
clearer. A lighter line dampens a bait’s action less than a heavier
one does.

Early in the season, you’ll find both pike and walleyes close to
river mouths, on shallow bars and off rock points. Stay fairly
shallow. On a lake like Beaver Dam that’s only eight feet deep,
fish in four feet of water or less. On lakes that run to 20 feet,
like Winnebago, work 10 to 12 feet deep.

Lakes like Mendota and Big Green that never froze over last
winter will have good weed growth early this year. Troll just
outside these new weeds or over the top of them.

Demlow often trolls with side-planers that attach directly to
the line. When fishing with a partner, he runs three on each side.
Side-planers get baits away from the boat and let you cover more
water. They also let you run baits right along shore, which you
can’t do with flatlines on shallow, rocky lakes. Side-planers also
catch fish that spook when the boat runs over the top of them. They
swim off to the side, see a bait and often hit it.

You can also cover more water vertically by running baits that
dive to different depths behind planners.

“Always run the shallowest bait on the outside and the deepest
runner close to the boat,” Demlow advises. “That way you can bring
an outside or middle line across the top of other lines to check a
bait or reel in a fish without tangling.”

Later in the summer you can try trolling over deep water for
suspended fish, precision trolling a deep weedline, or probing the
depths with a downrigger or a three-way rig and a drop sinker. For
now, though, drag a selection of crankbaits that will cover the
shallows and you’ll put more pike and walleyes in the boat.

To book a trip with Demlow, call him at 262-306-9781.

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