By Steve Weisman
One of the buzz phrases in walleye fishing in recent years has been about pulling crankbaits. It sounds so easy. Just grab your favorite colored crankbait, tie it on your favorite rod and reel, let out some line and take off at the speed you think will work. Oh, if it were only that easy. However, as with any type of presentation, there are some basic keys that will put the odds in your favor.
For John Grosvenor, a prominent guide on northwest Iowa’s Iowa Great Lakes and owner of JTG Expeditions http://www.fishokoboji.com, crankbaiting for walleyes is one of the go-to presentations for his clients. With 14 years of guiding experience, Grosvenor finds that pulling cranks works well on all of these lakes throughout the open water season. “The five lakes on the Okoboji chain, along with Big Spirit Lake just to the north offer a wide range of trolling options. It seems like no matter the time of year, you can always find one of the lake where the fish are biting.”
On each guide trip, Grosvenor’s goal is the same. “I want every client to go away with the knowledge that they can do this themselves. Many times I have seen former clients on the water catching fish. It’s a good feeling seeing them be successful. What I really like about this type of fishing is that you can cover a lot of water in search of aggressive fish.” To be successful at pulling crankbaits, Grosvenor believes anglers need to have a good basic knowledge of the philosophy behind the concept. It really comes down to answering three questions: How much line? How deep? How fast? It’s about finding the answers and then repeating the presentation consistently.
Where to begin
Grosvenor’s answer to this lies in his own journey from over 15 years ago. “I knew that pulling crankbaits worked. I had heard the stories and seen the results, but I didn’t know where to start. That’s when I came across the book Precision Trolling: “The Troller’s Bible” by Holt, Irwin and Romanack. “As far as I am concerned, it is a must. Even after all of these years, I still have it with me in the boat.”
Grosvenor believes the lengthy introduction provides a great background that explains the philosophy behind pulling crankbaits. “Once you get into the book, there is a page covering the most popular crankbaits showing each crankbait’s diving curve, a graph that shows how deep the lure will run based on the amount of line let out and your speed.” Grosvenor believes it is important to get out the tackle box and become familiar with the crankbaits themselves and their relation to the charts in the “Troller’s Bible.”
Grosvenor adds, “Once this step has been accomplished, it’s time to go out on the lake and give it a try yourself. Seeing is believing. I can still remember doing that in late August 15 years ago. I got the gear and started using what I had read. I was running shallow when all of a sudden one of the rods bent. I thought I had a snag-that is until I grabbed the rod. It was my first walleye pulling a crank!”
Grosvenor notes that there are a lot of excellent lure choices out there, but he believes anglers should find the baits that work on the waters they will be fishing. A good place to start here is with the local baitshops for the types of crankbaits the locals are using in the area lakes.
Just as with other types of fishing presentations, choosing the right equipment will not only make things easier, but also offer more opportunities for success. First off, Grosvenor believes in getting the right reels. “You really need to get a good linecounter reel, if you are going to replicate the dive chart and graph. Abu Garcia’s 5500 and 6500 LC are two excellent choices.” There are many line choices, but Grosvenor chooses to use 10# Berkley Fireline “because it allows the crankbait to get deeper faster. Plus, if you have the rod in your hand, there is much greater sensitivity.” Grosvenor also follows the idea that many proficient crankbait fishermen have: go with a medium action rod with a relatively soft tip. “Fireline does not stretch, so when a walleye hits the bait, the soft tip sort of softens the shock of the strike. With a stiff rod, I think there is a greater chance of the walleye getting off (the hook pulling out). I’ve also found that with the softer tip plus the walleye’s actual strike, you don’t need to set the hook. Most of the time the fish is already hooked.” How about rod length? That’s personal preference. There are some anglers that like eight-foot long and longer rods, but Grosvenor is happier with a seven to seven and a half footer. “Once again, I lean toward Berkley products. A good Lightning Rod is hard to beat, but I have two Fenwick rods that I think are my favorites.” To complete the outfit, Grosvenor uses a Berkley Cross Lok Snap to attach the lure to the line.
As mentioned earlier, the key to pulling crankbaits successfully is having the ability to repeat the presentation consistently. That comes with boat control. “That’s why I went with the Skeeter WX 1900. Using my 101# thrust Terrova I-Pilot, I can put the Skeeter exactly on the course that I want at the speed that I want. One of our most successful pulls is in May after the Walleye Opener in the shallows just outside the docks on West Lake. This presentation really works well for this.”
Time of year
Grosvenor finds time of the year helps determine the crankbaits he will use. The old adage match the hatch is very important. “When the water is cold, I prefer to use smaller shad-like baits. That’s where I will use #5 and #7 Berkley Flicker Shad. This time of year the water is really clear, so Black Silver is at the top of the list. Other colors that I like are Blue Tiger, Pearl White, Firetiger and, of course, Chartreuse Pearl.” As the water warms into the 60s, Grosvenor will move toward the bigger baits including the Rapala Shad Rap and will also increase the speed from ½ mph in May up to as fast as 3-4 mph. In May during clear water times, Grosvenor targets walleyes after dark pulling cranks in the shallows. Then in June, as the weeds begin to grow, it’s time to work over the weeds and just outside the weeds. Weedlines can vary from three feet to 20 feet depending on the lake. Finally, in the summer, walleyes will often go to the basin and it becomes an open water bite.
“In all of these cases, however, don’t believe that you have to be on the bottom to catch walleyes. Active walleyes will suspend up in the water column.” Throughout the trolling run, Grosvenor will train his eyes on his Lowrance HDS8 looking for baitfish and those telltale arcs. “The side scan feature helps me dial in on the weedlines. It’s an unbelievably true picture of what’s below, nearly as clear as a photograph.”
One issue that can arise by mid-summer is the problem of floating weeds caused by boat traffic. The boat traffic, and sometimes the wind, can stir up the weeds causing them to float to the top or suspend, which makes trolling difficult. “That’s the beauty of having so many lakes close by,” says Grosvenor. “There is usually a lake in the area where you can make it work.”
Let’s follow Grosvenor on one of his guide trips and see how the process goes. Based on the lake and the time of year, he has a base from which to go. As the fishing begins, each rod will be matched with a different colored and style of crankbait. Using the “Troller’s Bible”, Grosvenor will let out line so that each bait is at a different depth in the water column. For the bait that is set for the bottom structure or the weeds, enough line is let out so the bait ticks the bottom or the tips of the weeds. “If there are two of us, we will put out two baits and put the rods in the rod holders as dead sticks. The waves and the motion of the boat will provide the movement. We will hold the other two rods and provide the presentation changes.”
Why hold the rod? Why not just stick it in the rod holder and go? “I can remember doing that,” says Grosvenor. “One trip many years ago, a buddy and I pulled crankbaits around West Okoboji. We had just about gone around the lake with no hits. So, kind of out of desperation, I suggested that we each grab one of the rods and begin to give a pull on the rod (speeding up the bait) and then let it go back. Within 100 yards, we had each caught a walleye. That made me a believer in changing the action of a bait.”
So, that is one of the suggestions Grosvenor has for his clients. Hold on to one of the rods and change the action of the bait. “We’ll make a long sweep forward – maybe six feet – and then let it go back. It seems that it’s on the pause that the walleyes will often strike. At other times, we do a single quick jerk…jerk…jerk. Once a strike occurs, that’s an indicator of what to repeat.”
As the fishing continues, Grosvenor is constantly looking for the secret to that day’s bite. “Being a keen observer is so important. When a bite occurs, take in everything and answer these questions: What bait? What size? What color? What depth? What speed? Did it happen after a sweep and on the pause?”
Grosvenor will do what he can with the boat control and speed. Once a hit occurs, look for the same thing to happen. If it does, a pattern has been established. “Once you catch the first fish, then you have experience from which to go, and you can begin to put together a pattern. Analyze the situation and look for a reason.”
Give it a shot
“I firmly believe that pulling crankbaits is one of the most efficient and effective ways to catch walleyes. It’s a matter of studying this type of presentation and then getting out and putting it all together.”
Remember, proper practice makes all the difference!