Trolling for Walleyes over the Weeds

By Steve Weisman

Last August, I had the chance to listen to Jon Thelen, walleye guide and host of Lindy’s Fish Ed Television Series, give a fishing seminar at the Okoboji Blue Water Festival. His topic was “Walleyes in the Weeds,” and I was excited to hear what his thoughts were on that topic. I had my own ideas for fishing weeds in the Iowa Great Lakes, but I wondered if his tactics were similar in the walleye lakes he fishes. In addition to the seminar, I had the chance to just sit down with Thelen and talk more about the topic “Walleyes in the Weeds.”

You know what excites me the most? Thelen and I were talking the same weed walleye language, even though he uses Lindy spinners and I use Northland spinners. What it means to me is we can use this technique wherever there are good weeds and have a good chance to catch fish. So, this will be my attempt to merge both Thelen’s and my ideas.

Choosing a weedbed
Around here, fishing weedbeds begins in earnest begins in late June and lasts through the summer months. First off, we are talking about trolling over the weedbeds. We are not talking about fishing the edges. Lots of anglers will stay away from going over the tops of the weeds with spinners because it’s easy to get hung up in the weeds, and you have to spend lots of time cleaning off the fouled hooks.

According to Thelen, we’re not talking about just any weedbed. “Grass and pencil weeds are not the best choices. There are more bass and panfish around pencil weeds, but they can hold walleyes in the fall. Cabbage weeds are better choices. You can fish walleyes in weeds that are in five to six feet of water, but I try to target weedbeds in 10-12 feet of water. I also like to have deep water nearby. If possible, I try to choose a weedbed that has deep water on both sides.” Thelen encourages anglers to not just try a weedbed for a few minutes. “Stay with it. They are there. In thicker weeds, I find that the fish will be off and on all day.” Some lakes might only have one or two weedbeds, while other lakes offer weedbeds in several bays and along several points.

I agree, but as far as depth is concerned, my best luck around here has been in 6-8 feet of water with weeds that are growing about halfway to two thirds of the way up the water column. The goal is really to get reactionary bites with the walleyes coming up to attack the flash of the spinner.

According to Thelen, “I use a ¼-ounce weight and pull Lindy Lil Guys right over the weeds at anywhere from .8 to 1.2 mph. I am not worried about getting the bait right on the weeds. This is a reaction bite, so I use my front trolling motor to get up to speed and then cast the bait back behind the boat. I will tip the hook with either a nightcrawler or leech. Often times, I will pinch the end of the nightcrawler off.”

Thelen likes the Lindy Lil Guy for several reasons. It comes in a variety of holographic color patterns to simulate primary baitfish colors, while the beads mimic the secondary baitfish colors. “I always try to pick the spinners and baits that match the forage.” Thelen also likes that the spinner wobbles side to side adding almost a crankbait-like swimming action to the rig. “The whole objective is to get the fish to come up. The flash, the sparkle and vibration make for a reactionary bite.”

Here are my thoughts on presentation: The idea is to keep the spinner in the strike zone but not in the weeds. It’s definitely a fine line. I like to use 4/10 Fireline to help keep the spinner down in the zone. I will place a 1/4-ounce or 3/16-ounce bullet sinker on the line and then tie on a swivel. Next I attach a Northland Tackle 48” to 60” leader with a holographic baitfish spinner. You can either use a single hook or a double hook. There are 10 different colors designed to match the baitfish hatch in a particular body of water.
The glitter and flash is pretty amazing. Over the years, I’ve found the yellow perch, firetiger and sunfish colors to be three of my favorites. You can also pick the type of blade you want to use.

We both believe that speed is the key that will trigger the bites, so we go at least .8 mph up to 1.5 mph depending on the day and the mood of the fish. We are looking for the reactionary biters. I’m not really scientific about how far back to let out the line. Unless the wind is blowing too hard, I will use my I-Pilot to move us at the desired speed. Once we are up to speed, I will let the line out until I feel the tick of the vegetation and then reel up a couple of cranks. I will continue to play with the distance until I am satisfied. The good thing is the bullet weight is pretty forgiving, so if the vegetation is kind of up and down, it will slip through the vegetation without getting caught up. If it is too windy, I will try to drift and use the I-Pilot to keep me on the right trail.

Trust the rod holder
I will warn you of one thing. Fishing this shallow water, when the fish go after the bait, they simply smack it! Either have the rod in your hand or in the rod holder.
Thelen told me with a smile, “Trust the rod holder! The bites are rod jarring, and rods have been known to exit the back of the boat!”

I totally agree. I remember early on when I set my rod down in the bottom of the boat. I barely saved a rod from going out the back of the boat, when a nice walleye nailed the spinner. Since I do this around here, there is always the chance of getting a northern pike to smack the spinner. It might be a small hammer handle, but it also might be a pike up to 10 pounds.

Thelen adds, “When the walleye bites the bait, it’s boom (bite and turn), boom. Many times the rod itself will hook the fish. I’ll go, ‘well there’s one…and wait and then take the rod out of the holder. You don’t need to set the hook. The hook is already set. I’ll keep the rod tip up because the fish wants to go down in the weeds and keep steady pressure. Don’t let the line go slack. It becomes like a tug of war.”

Yes, it works
Thelen’s final thought was a great reminder. “When fish leave a feeding area, they leave for a reason, but in the weeds, they are still in their food environment.” However, we both believe that patience is the key for consistent success trolling for walleyes over the weeds.

Last summer, three of us that fished together had an incredible run of success trolling over weeds for walleyes, catching our limits several times. Here was a late August morning of fishing: two of us caught 16 walleyes: 2 slots, 6 that we kept between 15-16½” and several 13-14 inchers. We also boated eight northern pike, one a 10 pounder, along with a small musky. Plus we caught a largemouth bass, a perch and a bluegill.

This is the perfect time of year to try this technique. The young-of-the-year baitfish and panfish are hiding out in the weeds, and the predator fish are right behind. Nothing like an easy quick meal! Unless you know from past years where the best fishing spots are on these weedbeds, the first few times are hunt and search experiences. However, with the GPS and waypoint capabilities on today’s locators, it doesn’t take long to develop a pattern. Each time a strike occurs I will mark that spot. Soon we have a trolling or drifting trail we can follow.