FLW Outdoors Magazine : Features
April 2005

Walleyes in depth

Click on this image, and then again in the next window, for maximum detail. (Photo by Ron Finger)
Walleyes commonly hold precise depths; learn specialized techniques to achieve depth control.
13.May.2005 by Jeff Samsel

Trolling specialist Todd Frank puts a premium on pulling his baits through exactly the right depths, and he uses several specialized techniques to achieve precise depth control.

“Watch that rod,” Todd Frank said with a knowing smile, pointing toward one of four rods in his trolling spread. As if it had read a script, a walleye buried the rod Frank had indicated almost at the moment the words left his mouth.

A few minutes later, as Frank was dip-netting a 3-pound fish, I queried him about how he knew which of the four offerings the walleye would hit. “I had spotted a good group of fish just a little bit shallower than most we have been catching,” Frank explained. “I turned the boat just slightly so the lure on that line would slow and run just a bit shallower. The same turn made the lures on the other side dig deeper – away from the fish. The other line on the same side is rigged with a bottom -bouncer, so it, too, stayed too deep, even when we turned.”

A Wal-Mart FLW Walleye Tour pro and walleye guide from Pulaski, NY, Frank has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s finest crankbait trollers. He placed third on the FLW Walleye Tour in 2002, largely through trolling crankbaits, which he believes produces bigger fish overall than other popular techniques. “I always look for the crankbait bite,” he said.

Asked what sets top trollers apart from the pack, Frank answered without hesitation, “Depth control.”

Open-water walleyes commonly hold in precise depths, often based on depths of baitfish schools. Fishing the wrong depth is no more productive than fishing in the wrong part of the lake. “I’d rather have the wrong bait at the right depth than the right bait at the wrong depth,” Frank said, “and the difference might be only a foot or two.”

Frank uses a handful of tools to help him reach specific depths with various baits – key among them are leadcore lines, snap weights, bottom bouncers and reels with line counters for measuring out line. Line size, the number of leadcore colors, leader length, lure type and trolling speed are some of the variables Frank has to account for when he puts out trolling baits.

The type of line also makes a difference. Frank trolls mostly with Fireline, and the small diameter of the fused line allows baits to run deeper than they would on monofilament. Fluorocarbon, which sinks naturally, also affords anglers extra depth, with all other factors being equal.

Frank’s tackle boxes all have charts taped to them – charts that look like science project results, which, in a sense, they are. They are the product of dozens of hours of research and tell how deep the baits in any given box run with various setups. If Frank wants to troll two colors of Smithwick Spoonbill Super Rogues, a Mr. Walleye Rattlin’ Rogue and a Deep Long A, all at 24 feet, his charts, combined with his knowledge of other variables, tell him exactly how to achieve that.

Using multiple trolling techniques to control depth allows Frank to vary the actions of the baits in his spread and to adjust for conditions. For example, he might want to vary the wobble of the bait he is using but maintain the bait’s size and profile as well as his trolling speed. To accomplish that he might switch from a Deep Long A to a regular Long A, which has a tighter wobble than the deep-diving version, and then use leadcore line to get that bait to the same depth.

Often, perfecting the spread comes only through experimentation, either with depths or with presentations. If the baitfish and/or the walleyes are using a broad range of depths, Frank wants to explore that entire zone and pay attention to which lines draw strikes. If the zone is obviously narrow, he’ll mix up his offerings and presentations as much as possible within that zone. Sometimes walleyes favor a bait fished with snap weights over the same bait fished at the same depth with leadcore line – or vice versa – for no obvious reason.

“Walleye trollers must be ready to make changes until they find what the fish want and how they want it,” Frank said. “If I’m marking fish and not getting bit, I’m going to be changing something, whether that’s my lure, a color, the presentation, the speed or something else.”

Generally speaking, Frank likes to use leadcore line to pull baits deeper if the water is rough, as is often the case on the Great Lakes and other major walleye-trolling destinations. The long loop of the line between the boat and the bait takes the shock out of up-and-down motion. When conditions allow it, and the fish cooperate, he likes snap weights best – especially for tournament fishing – because he fishes with far less line out, thus improving the chances of getting every hooked fish into the boat.

For relatively shallow fish – less than 25 feet – Frank will use some deep-diving lures and troll with baits tied directly to his main line or fished behind planer boards. Varying line lengths, line size and trolling speed allows him to vary the depth a deep-diver runs by several feet and to control that depth with precision.

Sometimes walleyes will all be close to the bottom, but over a range of bottom depths. Often this occurs over hilly bottoms that have a lot of slopes but few defined drops. When Frank marks a lot of fish close to the bottom and at a range of depths, he trolls with bottom -bouncers, which are weights that bounce along the bottom, just as the name suggests, allowing shallow-running crankbaits pulled behind them to swim just off the bottom.

Figuring out the depths to pull baits through is a science in itself, and it calls for careful use of electronics. Frank often crisscrosses over an area several times before he puts the first bait out, using his graph to study the range of bottom depths, the depth of the baitfish and walleyes, and the configuration of the structure. He’ll commonly troll parallel to a ridge, with the baits on one side set several feet deeper than the baits on the other side. To work that kind of structure effectively, he must gain a very good picture of where the edge runs, depths above and below the drop, and the pitch of the slope.

Frank rarely takes his eyes off his graph screen, and he almost never looks away for long. He wants to track his location in relation to the structure, spot every high place that he might be able to get his baits to bump and watch for groups of fish in different depths than what he has been seeing. Often walleyes will begin a morning high on a hump or along a channel edge, but will move deeper through the day. As they do, Frank wants to adjust.

When walleyes – especially big walleyes – do strike, Frank wants to know exactly what he has been going over. That allows him to duplicate the situation, sometimes with one or two additional lures set to run through the key depth in the same manner. Often, that helps him put more large walleyes in the livewell.