Unlocking Secrets to Trolling for Walleyes

By Steve Weisman

As a fishing guide on the Iowa Great Lakes, M. Doug Burns is often asked by anglers, “What should I do when I troll for walleyes?” Burns, who has been a professional guide since 1986, begins to answer this question by saying, “There is not one single answer to this question. As a matter of fact, books have been written on this topic.” Burns does believe, however, that by developing a solid game plan, angler success can become consistent. To make things easier, Burns tries not to lump trolling for walleyes into one huge topic. Instead, he breaks it down to times of the year. This discussion will include late spring into summer covering trolling with both plain hook and spinner.

Do your homework
Before even talking about tactics and presentations, Burns believes that it is important for walleye fishermen to do their homework. This is important no matter what time of year it is or what type of presentation you plan on using. “If you haven’t been fishing for a while or if you are going to a new lake, I suggest you visit the local bait shops. They can give you an idea of what has been happening in general, so at least you have a basic starting place.” Burns believes it is important to study a good lake map to understand the topography and where and what type of transition lines there are, know what constitutes the forage base, check out the water clarity and if it varies in different places. Of course, a good LakeMaster chip can offer anglers incredible detail right on your locator. Once Burns has done this research, he turns to his Humminbird locator. “There is no doubt that today’s electronics are truly our eyes beneath the water. They can help us find those transition lines, the subtle bottom changes and, yes, fish. That, notes Burns, can be a detailed discussion of its own!

Getting back to the game plan. “Even though I am on East and West Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake throughout the open water season, I try not to rely entirely on yesterday’s results. That old adage to not fish yesterday’s memories is very important. Things change daily, even hourly. So, even when I am on the water day after day, I always try to be cognizant of even the most minor changes that might make the bite different. Plus, I try to have several options just in case the ‘hotspot’ doesn’t pan out.”

As a guide, Burns puts the pressure on himself to put his clients on fish. “They pay good money for me to do this. For that reason, I try to be as on target with the walleye bite as I can and am always looking for those little things that can mean a change in the bite.” So, these are suggestions Burns has to help you catch more fish via trolling.

Working transition lines
“First off, during the spring and into the early summer months, I try to fish transition lines. It might be a line going from muck to sand or sand to rubble or to rocks. These transitions provide a structure, or one might call it a roadway for the walleyes. I also find that during this time, the walleyes are on the move. At the same time, forage fish will be using these transition areas, too.”

Burns finds that the southern reservoirs have transition lines, but they are not quite the same as the natural lakes he fishes in the north. These reservoirs often have steep drop-offs and canyons, so a lot of the transitions might be more manmade, like roadbeds, rip rap along the shoreline or the face of dams. Since many of these reservoirs have been flooded, a transition easily seen by the human eye is where a tree line ends.

Fishing transitions can be hard work. “I remember fishing a walleye tournament on Big Spirit Lake. There was a transition line that ran from Buffalo Run to Marble Beach on the west side of the lake. In this case, the transition line was so narrow that we had to run the boat so that lines on both sides of the boat were on that line. If they weren’t, those lines never had a hit.”

With the advent of the I-Pilot, Burns finds it easier than ever to keep on a transition. “By using the Humminbird and the “record a track” on the I-Pilot, not only can I find and follow the transition line, but after the first run, I can record that course and easily return over that same route. If it’s too windy, I can run back to the starting point and then follow the route back.”

Equipment options
Burns likes to rig up 6’ and 7’ Fenwick Elite Tech walleye series rods, because they have a good backbone with a fairly soft tip. “This is nice, because when a fish bites, the rod loads on its own, plus setting the hook with a smooth sweep forward works really well. I find many of my clients like to use spinning reels, but I like to use bait casters myself. I then use Berkley Fireline 10/4 for its sensitivity and strength.”

Although there are many types of weights to use, Burns prefers using bottom bouncers because they don’t snag easily, help keep the bait up off the bottom and are great for being able to feel the differences in the transition areas. “I think a bottom bouncer can enhance the action of your presentation, because as the wire ticks the bottom, it rocks the weight itself and pivots the bouncer so that it subtly changes the action of the bait being pulled. My rule of thumb for bottom bouncer size is ½-ounce for every five feet of water.”

So, how does Burns handle a bunch of lines in the water? “When you’re running, say four lines, it is important to make sure that the back two lines have a ½-ounce lighter bouncer than the two lines at the front of the boat. This way when you turn or move to the right and left to follow a transition line, the front and back lines will stay separate. Nothing is worse than making a relatively tight turn and a little later finding two rigs snagged up!”

Burns ties his own plain hook snells using 4-6 pound Sensation mono and spinner rigs using 10-12 pound XT or Flourocarbon. He also uses a quick-change clevise to change blade size, types and sizes more easily. If you want to use factory made ones, Northland Tackle offers a wide range of choices. “I like making my own because I can tailor them and adjust lengths to the fishing conditions. I try to match color of the blade with the forage. I also find that the Colorado blade turns over at slower speeds, followed by the Indiana blade and the Willow Leaf blade. If the day is cloudy, I will use a darker colored blade, while if it is a bright day, I will move more toward silver and a hammered blade to give more flash and reflection.”

Starting with the tried and true
Once the location has been chosen, Burns will rig rods differently until a pattern has been established. For instance, he will rig up both plain hook snells and a variety of spinner colors. Finally, Burns believes that speed is crucial to catching walleyes. “The first time out is always the hardest, because you have to go by what others have told you or by what you know from your past experiences. Once you catch the first and then the second walleye, then you have a pattern that you can follow. So, the first time out in the spring, I will begin by trolling between .6 and .9 mph. I’ve caught walleyes at relatively slow speeds with the blade just wobbling from side to side almost like a spoon. That’s kind of the tried and true, but I will bend the parameters from there. I will go even slower down to a crawl, but I have also found that cold water does not always equate to slow, slow, slow. Instead, I have found occasions where there is no breaking point. I have had great days on the water going between 1.7 and 2.2 mph. Until you hone in on the preferred speed, I will change speeds at different times just to see.” Of course, if you are going to change speeds for a length of time, the size of bottom bouncer may need to be adjusted if it is a dramatic change. Burns also suggests to his clients to not drag the bouncer. “I like to keep the bouncer in contact with the bottom, yet not let it drag. It’s called a bottom bouncer for a reason. I also like to pull the bouncer toward me and then let it drop back and make contact with the bottom. This change in speed can many times trigger a strike.”

Whatever the case, it is important to first find the fish and then let them tell you what they want. “That’s why I start off with a variety of choices. At the same time, don’t stay married to the same spot for hours if nothing is happening. Keep your options open.”

Live bait vs. plastics
Historically, anglers will use minnows in the spring, then move to leeches when they are available and nightcrawlers as summer approaches. Once again, Burns will start there, but not for long if the walleyes aren’t cooperating. It’s important to remember, too, that not all minnows will work in the same lake. This is where it is important to understand the forage base of the lake. The minnow used needs to match what the normal meal for walleyes is in that particular lake. “As early as I can get them, I will try leeches,” says Burns.

More and more, Burns is turning to Gulp! Alive for bait. “It certainly beats the mess and fuss of live bait. Plus, you won’t go through nearly as much bait and you don’t have to worry about keeping it alive and fresh. I’ve used plastics on jigs for years, but I’m beginning to find them to work successfully when pulling a plain snell or a spinner. The leeches are really dynamite, and the softness of the Gulp! Killer Crawler and Pinched Crawler with their great action are winning me over, too. As with anything else, though, if you don’t give the plastics a good try, you’ll never become confident in using them.”

So many options
When you look at all of this, it can become mind boggling, especially if you are new to this trolling game. “Don’t let it scare you,” says Burns. “If you break it down step by step as we have here, it becomes easier to manage. Some of the clients that I will guide hire me for this very reason. By spending a day on the water they can be part of the entire process without having to go through that entire start-from-scratch and go through the learning curve. Then they can go out on their own using the lessons learned from the previous day. Yes, there are times when I think I know exactly what is going on and it flat out changes. When that happens, I stick to the game plans and go through the process of elimination. That’s what keeps me coming back day after day!”