By Joel Nelson
Trolling balsa baits could be the No. 1 tactic for getting all kinds of fish to bite during the open-water fishing season. Whether you’re long-lining with braided line or raiding the depths behind some leadcore, crankbaits are made to elicit reaction bites while withstanding everything from heavy cover to vicious strikes.
That said, there are some best practices that’ll get you bites with greater regularity. Here are a few items to take into consideration the next time you’re trolling.
Especially for bottom-dwelling fish like walleyes, dive depth of your lure could be one of the first variables when considering which style of bait to pull. Shiner-style baits usually will dive least, with shad-style, and then large-lipped stickbaits diving deeper. However, within each of those types are different sizes, each with their own running depths. That makes it possible to cover some depth ranges with multiple baits of differing sizes.
Go to crankbait manufacturers’ website for more information on dive curves, or consider purchasing that information through an app called the Trolling Bible. This publication offers dive curves for every crankbait around, and that really takes the guesswork out of how much line to put out, how fast to troll, and which depths to target.
It’s best for your boat to be over fish that you’ve already found, so putting in some time with your electronics will help you set up your trolling run rather than going in blind.
Use a combination of side-imaging, two-dimensional sonar, and down-imaging to locate schools of fish you’d like to target, then drop some waypoints on the largest or most consistent clusters. In open basins, that may be bait pods with suspended feeding fish. On shoreline breaks, that could be a weed edge with features that attract bait and, thus, fish. Mark your run, then execute it.
Not all structure is conducive to pulling crankbaits. When long-lining, we’re talking about large features with relatively consistent depths. That’ll help keep your bait in the zone and in front of fish for the longest time possible.
Scattered fish along large structural elements are much preferred over tight pods of fish on small rock piles, for example. You want your bait to be live for miles, not meters, anytime you put a bait behind the boat.
Conventional wisdom has most people pulling crankbaits at 2.2 mph to 2.8 mph GPS speeds. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however, because wind and low-light conditions will allow faster speeds, which should be interpreted as more water covered.
Bright conditions or neutral fish in deeper water may like it a little slower, all the way down to 2 mph. The key point is that boat speed affects dive depth, so the combination of crankbait model and size, the amount of line behind the boat, the depth of water, and speed should be considered if you wish to replicate any success you may have.
Boat control could also be referred to as depth control, which means keeping your crankbaits just above bottom and on a consistent track. S-curves can be useful to trigger fish to bite, but doing so can be tricky, especially with leadcore line.
Baits that repeatedly dredge bottom or are fouled can start to roll and make their way to other lines. A good boat operator monitors electronics, drops waypoints, and keeps baits from being tangled by keeping a good track that avoids other boats, cover, and water that’s too shallow.
Line-counter reels are crucial when cranking to be consistent with your sets. Typically, there’s a “magic” combination that results from proper depth, speed, and bait. But all of them are dependent on the amount of line behind the boat.
Too little and the bait won’t achieve its full diving depth. Too much and you may be fouling on bottom, although there are times in clear water when lots of line out can have its advantages.
The bottom line: Experiment with different amounts of line out per reel at first, catch some fish, then replicate success on all reels in the boat.
For most anglers, simple monofilament line is a great material to pull crankbaits. It’s forgiving, with a fair amount of stretch. But that’s also its downside, so it can be more effective to pull crankbaits on a braided line.
Better feel of the bait’s wobble will ensure your crankbait is running true without weeds or other fouling, and less stretch afforded by braid means a positive response when trolling.
Of course, this can be too much of a good thing. Leadcore trolling employs a special line type on a line-counter reel that’s hollow in the center and is filled with a single strand of lead. That lead sinks the line and brings the bait to deeper diving depths.
In this scenario, it’s often wise to let out line until you’re hitting bottom, then reel up a few turns such that you’re only randomly ticking bottom from time to time. For walleyes especially, this is important. Because of the bow in leadcore line, keeping consistent depth, trolling speed, and bait types employed will be paramount to success.
In ultra-clear environments, especially for open-water basin trolling, fluorocarbon leaders up to 30 feet may be employed. In river systems with sharp rocks or zebra mussels, it can be wise to use nanobraid-style leaders to stand up to the abuse.
Most often, fluorocarbon wins out, offering a few feet of invisible connection to your baits.
It’s important to utilize a slower action rod with more of a parabolic bend to it when pulling crankbaits. These are often inexpensive rods, but especially for hard lines like braid, the effect is crucial.
Slower actions allow fish to get the baits completely in their mouths before tension slowly drives those hooks home. A fast rod with braided line simply results in more fish lost, despite sticky hooks and lots of them.
Snaps are simply the best way to run your crankbaits, no matter what style you’re pulling. Easy open-and-close wire offers quick changes between baits, and perhaps more importantly, the large wire loop at the end allows for maximum travel when the bait wobbles side to side. You could tie each bait directly, but you’d have less action to show for it.
No matter where you troll crankbaits, they’re effective tools for both finding and catching fish. There are times when starting off on a new lake that crankbaits should be your first and primary consideration.
Covering water and finding active pods of fish can help inform you of new spots and better techniques to target them, too, allowing your reconnaissance to be often as productive as your end-game strategy.