In tournament fishing there’s a rampant perception that every go-to tactic, every lure style, every nuance in use today is a fairly recent phenomenon dating back to last season at most. Everyone wants the hottest of the hot and the newest of the new gracing the end of their line. Correction: Make that their revolutionary new formula of line. If it isn’t a prototype as yet unavailable to the everyday angler it simply isn’t new enough, or good enough, to outfish the competition. After all, if you don’t have an edge, you can’t cut your competitors down to size.
To that I say, “Short memories.” Because in fishing, almost everything out there that catches walleyes or any other species is a product of evolution. What appears new is often a newly refined version of an old idea – updated, revised, often improved upon, but definitely not born yesterday and stocked on the tackle shelves earlier today.
“Lures and systems move in cycles,” noted Ron Lindner, co-founder of “Lindner’s Angling Edge” TV series. “If you want to know what’s likely to make a big splash, just look back about 20 to 25 years, see what was hot then but fallen into disuse today, and there’s your answer. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Just recycle an old jalopy, slap on a fresh coat of paint, and give it a sexy new name and vivid color scheme. If it worked then, it’ll probably work now. And remember, if the fish haven’t seen it the last 10 years, they haven’t seen it, period. Some old tricks never go out of style. Only out of fashion and popularity.”
Along those lines, I’d like to point out that just last year out sport lost a legendary icon. E. L. “Buck” Perry of Hickory, N.C., was, flat-out and no questions asked, the unabashed father of structure fishing, responsible for the way most of us think about and approach fishing today. Whether you’re familiar with him or not, he laid the groundwork for future generations, and coined words like structure, breaks, drop-offs, migration, and other concepts today’s angling crowd takes for granted.
Also lost upon many modern fishermen is the fact that Buck invented a funny shoe-horn-shaped metal lure called the Spoonplug, stamped out of brass. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t supposed to be. Rather, it was a tool that came in different sizes to allow precision trolling at different depth levels, even before the days of depth finders and chart books telling you how deep certain lures run when trolled on various lengths of line. Spoonplugging, as Perry called his system, was a hands-on, whack-the-bottom, establish-the-contour-by-feel-and-troll-it-effectively type of system. No more guesswork. If it was down there, you felt it. And along the way, you caught plenty of fish.
Contour trolling: Then and now
Among walleye anglers, the modern concept of contour trolling incorporates a multi-line spread of lures, often using planer boards to widen coverage. You troll at a slight angle toward shore, inching progressively closer and closer toward a drop-off. Then, when you see the innermost planer board begin to drag, or an inside rod tip begin to dance, indicating bottom contact, you immediately swing the boat back out over the adjacent deep water. In essence, you barely brush bottom or cover with one lure, with the others running free, then skedaddle back out into the safety and security of open, snagless water.
Next, you head along roughly parallel to the contour, occasionally getting sufficient nerve up to inch shallow again and tick bottom a couple of times before retreating. It’s more like timidly testing the contour, rather than blanketing it. Admittedly, you do one heck of a job of covering the confined open water adjacent to the drop-off with your squadron of lures. If fish are suspended out there, you’ll clobber ’em. You just don’t do much of a job contacting fish that are living life on the edge of the shallow flats.
The hands-on approach of classic spoonplugging, by comparison, requires you to handhold the rod rather than placing it in a rod holder. (Perry’s original rod was a 4 1/2-foot fiberglass trolling rod – a far cry from today’s longer, lighter, more sensitive versions.) As a result, you get plenty of exercise pumping and dipping and ripping the rod tip to impart action and tear lures free of weeds or across logs and rocks. It also provides instantaneous information as to bottom type or transitions between bottom types; types and thickness of weeds; swing-and-a-miss strikes; strikes occurring when the lure changes speed and direction as it deflects off cover or bottom; and continually tells you whether or not your lure is running properly.
As a bonus, repeated use of the system develops one heck of a bicep-tricep combination on the rod arm, and a forearm that even Popeye would envy. Employ the system for months on end and it’ll make your steering arm pale by comparison. If you’re ambidextrous, try alternating steering and rod arms to develop a more balanced physique.
Walleye anglers tend to contour troll with shad baits that have subtle wiggles. Team that with a planer board and it’s hard to get a good read on what lies below. Multi-species trollers, meanwhile, often handhold a rod with the line attached to a wider-wobbling, harder-throbbing plastic crankbait that literally throbs at trolling speeds of 2 to 4 mph, sometimes even faster. Get a strike from a big fish – or a sudden snag – and it spins you around in your chair. Ah, there’s nothing like a sudden jolt to break you out of your trolling doldrums.
Part of the magic of this system is the anticipation that comes when you troll a familiar structure, knowing your correctly positioned lure is about to come off the tip of a point, right where you want it. You can literally perform a countdown, “Three, two, one, bingo!” and the fish slams your lure right on cue. It’s hard to be humble when you have them wired.
Speaking of wired, back in the day, there were no no-stretch super lines to enhance sensitivity, make lures dive deeper, or reach deeper depths on shorter lines. Instead, there was Perry’s ultra-low-stretch No-Bo monofilament trolling line, spooled on a modestly-priced, bare bones Penn 109 trolling reel. Along the same concept as leadcore, it had a different color bar every 10 yards to indicate line length. Today, you’ll likely opt for FireLine, a small line-counter reel and 6 1/2-foot graphite composite trolling rod for all the advantages – including how good you’ll look holding it. Keep the reel small and the rod length medium to reduce the weight and leverage imparted to your forearm and wrist.
Wired, in the old days, literally meant fishing with wire line – either a single strand of soft, pliable wire or a braided, stranded wire like SevenStrand. Wire definitely trolled lures deeper with less line, and shorter lines allowed you to weave along tight contours better. Wire surely cut through weed fringes better than mono. And that part about strikes spinning your around in your chair? With wire, it threatened to dislocate your shoulder to boot, particularly with sudden snags!
If you did snag, attaching a lure retriever onto your line and lowering it on a cord until it struck the lure provided a surprisingly effective method for snagging the hooks and hauling the lure back to the boat.
Perry’s brass Spoonplugs admirably withstood the repeated abuse of rocks, weeds, snags and toothy critters, and remained the preferred lures for trolling reservoirs with hard bottom and snags. If they had a downside, it was around weeds. Troll too deep into a weed edge and you were doomed to plow the field and haul back a hay wagon of foliage.
Floating-diving crankbaits emerged, however, as popular choices for weedy lakes. When you saw you were trapped and about to dig deep into a weedbed, you simply slowed the boat to a crawl or stall, let the lure float back to the surface, and then crept forward until the lure left the forest. Then you kicked the outboard throttle back into trolling speed and sent it back down again to the target depth, wobbling and working.
The trick to fishing weeds was to barely nick the outer fringe of weeds, rustling the edge to roust them out without ripping away the greenery. It took some practice, but things worth doing often do. Anticipation was the key, particularly with weedbeds, but also with any system where the line and lure travels well behind the boat, and the path of boat and lure do not necessarily coincide. In fact, the real key was to visualize the lure’s correct path and then weave the boat shallow and deep ahead of it – the end result being a lure that nicked and skipped and tickled without unduly banging and clanging and snagging. Done properly, it became a fine art. Executed poorly it became a lesson in frustration.
Originally, the spoonplugging system was accomplished with smaller boats and 10- to 25-hp tiller outboards. Hands-on tiller control provided immediate swings of the boat needed to hug any contour like a glove. If you watched your depth finder and saw thick weeds fast approaching, you could veer hard to the side and stand a good chance of making a clean getaway.
With console steering, however, control is compromised. It’s designed to ease high-horsepower engines this way or that, rather than spin a smaller boat on a dime. The good news, though, is that walleye anglers often have a 10-horse kicker outboard on the transom, next to the power plant. If it’s hand-control steering and throttle control, you’re in business. You can’t swing a 20-foot fiberglass hull as quickly or deftly as a small 14- or 16-foot aluminum, but that’s the compromise you make when you need a substantial boat to explore big waters at long distance and come back safely, regardless of wind and weather.
In essence, boat control is an integral part of the system. The way today’s walleye pros troll crankbaits along contours is not quite the same. In fact, the way they hug drop-offs with bottom bouncers is actually a closer match – except that they’re using a slower system and a different lure setup with a different triggering mechanism.
In a nutshell, Perry’s system of ticking lures on and off bottom provided a means to interpret the bottom by feel and to trigger strikes with speed, even from fish that weren’t eager to bite. Lures that barely ticked on and off bottom were ideal, and you achieved that by selecting the proper sized lure for diving capacity, fine-tuning line length until the lure barely began to touch bottom at the desired depth, and then experimented with speed to see what triggered fish best. Lures that kept whacking and banging bottom were either the wrong lure size, or you were running too long a length of line. Lures that ran free too much of the time had the opposite problem; the solution was to upsize to a deeper diver or lengthen the amount of line between your rod tip and the lure.
What goes around comes around – and likely will again
The current lineup of walleye commandos may have numerous lure models, names and color patterns that are indeed fresh from the mold, the imagination and the palette. But remember Ron Lindner’s sage experience about lures and systems that deserve a return engagement. In that regard, the old spoonplugging is the new full-contact contour trolling. Different lure styles, perhaps. More sensitive trolling rods and a new generation of no-stretch, telltale lines that relay every wiggle, wobble and whack back to the rod tip. In the end, it’s still full-frontal, in-your-face, no-apologies Buck Perry in the 21st century. Still giving you an edge by establishing the contour and catching what lives there – then, now, and into the future.