There are a number of presentations to target walleyes on the Iowa Great Lakes that will put fish in the boat, with some being more effective than others at certain times of the year. Trolling crank baits is one of my favorite ways to bring walleyes to the net day in and day out, which consistently put BIG fish topside. Keys to trolling success on Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake with crank baits, are like links in a chain, where each link is important in the strength of the chain which is your trolling program.
Fishing equipment needed for trolling crank baits on Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake include 2-4 properly calibrated line counter rod/reel combos, a number of different crank baits of different colors and dive depths, Precision Trolling Data App for smart phones, a couple planer boards and electronics on your boat. Trolling may seem complicated to some anglers but it really is a straight forward way to catch walleye consistently. Most fisherman already have a boat with electronics and a good start on an inventory of crank baits and in some cases even have the line counter rod and reel combos as well as a boat with electronics. Understanding and preparing all of your trolling equipment is key in solving the equation on a daily basis to catching walleye consistently with crank baits.
Fine tuning your trolling program begins before you get on the water. The first step is calibrating your line counter reels, and to keep the discussion simple we will talk in terms of mono-filament fishing line. Start by spooling your line counter reel with Berkley 10 lb. XT which is the type of line used in development of Precision Trolling Data. This will cut your learning curve immensely for successfully trolling crank baits. 1000 yd spools of 10 lb. XT or larger work best for spooling line counter reels so you have enough line to calibrate the reel.
The line counter reel should be filled full with line, and once you feel the spool is full, it's time to calibrate the reel. A note of importance- do not cut the line from the large spool of mono-filament until after you have calibrated the reel. If you do not have enough line on the reel once you think it's full you need to have the ability to add line without splicing line in, and vice versa for taking line off.
Calibrating your line counter reel once the reel spool is full of line involves a 100' tape spooled out in your yard and fastening one end of the line at the tip of the rod to the end of the 100' tape. I find that a screwdriver pushed into the ground and and Offshore Tackle OR-16 Clip work good for this. Zero out the counter and then free spool line out to 100' on the tape. If the counter is over 100' you need to add line, and if it is under 100' you need to take line off, thus the reason for larger spools of mono-filament needed to complete the process properly. Once the counter on the reel reads 100' at the 100' mark on the tape, you are in the chips!
Armed with calibrated line counter rod and reel combos when you hit the water on Okooboji or Big Spirit Lake, how do you determine target depth to start trolling? To keep the answer to that question simple, we will talk in terms of basin fish on a lake such as Big Spirit Lake. When you get out on the water start your recon in the search for fish by doing transects across the basin or area you plan to troll looking for fish. Many times I will not start fishing for the first 45 minutes to an hour that I'm out on the lake. I'm looking for good numbers of fish where I can concentrate my efforts for the day. Basin lakes in the summer, like Big Spirit Lake, are very easy to troll and recon is a must in order to get the most out of a day on the water so you are not covering a bunch of dead water where there aren't any fish.
As you see fish or schools of bait fish with marks below them on your sonar, start creating way points of where the fish are located. Down and side imaging is very useful when doing this as you look for schools of walleye not only below you, but also out to the sides of your boat. Once you've completed some recon you'll be able to determine a target running depth for your crank baits, and if running multiple rods, a target distance off the sides of the boat as well. The goal with doing some recon prior to the start of an initial trolling run is to determine the prime location within the water column vertically and horizontally where walleyes are concentrated. In some instances you will be able to tell where bigger fish are located within the school as well.
Once you're comfortable on where you will start a trolling run, select baits that run at different depths within the water column where fish are holding, placing them at different distances from the boat utilizing inline planer boards. The goal is to cover as much vertical and horizontal area of the water column as possible. Planer boards can be run out to the sides at 50-150' on average. In Iowa we are allowed to fish up to 2 lines and can purchase a 3rd line license at an additional fee. In many cases if I have another angler with me that has the third line license as do I, we will run up to 6 lines at a time while trolling. More lines allow you to figure out the puzzle of crank bait size, color and running depth each time out on the water.
Target depths for baits in relation to where walleye are holding within the water column depends on a number of environmental factors which include water temperature, water clarity, sunlight and wind as well as where bait fish are found in the water column. To sort all the differences out from day to day in environmental factors, trust your electronics as you look for fish and what depth walleyes are holding at to help you determine crank bait sizes and running depths. Be willing to adjust your baits as the day changes in regards to the environmental factors of wind and sunlight. You may be catching fish on a particular pattern and then the fish shut off. It may be the fish didn't shut off, they may have moved a little deeper because of a decrease in wind and increase in light penetration in the water column. By adjusting the running depth of your baits you'll be back to catching fish.
There's so many crank baits to choose from it can be intimidating for an angler that is new to trolling. What I recommend to trolling novices is buy baits based on 3rds for the body of water that you fish. Purchase a few baits of different sizes and colors that cover the upper third, middle third and bottom third of the water column based on their running depth on the package. This is a good starting point without having to think about all of the other candy in the candy store. There are times when I go into a bait shop and look at the selection of crank baits they have and remember fondly as a kid inside the candy store when I was trying to choose what I wanted. The trouble with that, is now I'm adult and can afford to buy candy, which can be hard to explain to my wife when I come home with several bags of baits which require a wheel barrel to unload the truck. As far as crank baits go on Big Spirit Lake it's pretty hard to go wrong with a Perch Pattern or a bait with purple in it, such as a Shad Rap in Purpledescent or Berkley Flicker Shad in Purple Flash.
The primary tool that can help you determine running depth of your crank baits is the Precision Trolling Data App for smart phones. I utilize the smartphone app from Precision Trolling in our boat and almost anyone can use it from adults to kids if they know what brand of crank bait and size is snapped on the end of the rod. Within the app you choose the brand of bait and size, such as a # 9 Berkley Flicker Minnow. Feet Down in the app would be your target depth to run baits. As an example, your recon run helped you determine that most fish were suspended at 12-14 feet in 20-25 feet of water so you want to run your bait a couple of feet above the fish to start. The #9 Flicker Minnow based on the app will run down to 10 feet of depth with 34 feet of line let out on your line counter. So you let 34 feet of line out and the Flicker Minnow is in the zone where you want it. If you wanted to run the Flicker Minnow out to the side of the boat because you want to run more rods, then after you let out the 34' of line, you pin on your planer board and then let out more line to get the bait out to the side of the boat. It really is that simple if your line counter reels are calibrated correctly. I like baits that allow me to reach target depth with the minimal amount of line out which makes running a multi rod trolling spread easier to manage as the boat turns, or we get multiple hook ups which helps in reducing tangles.
If I do not hook up with a fish after a period of time then I will start switching crank baits and experiment with color, size and running depth. Once I hook up with a fish or two, I will start fine tuning things on the other rods I'm fishing to replicate the pattern for the day. Remember- pay attention to the details such as running speed or depth. Were you going 1.9 or 2.1 mph when the fish ate the #8 Rapala in a Perch pattern running at 12'? Paying attention to details is important to success on the water.
On days that are windy and the water is really stirred up I will always run at least 1 or 2 baits in the upper 6-8' of the water column as there is always the potential to catch fish that we do not mark with electronics. In fact I have caught some large walleyes at certain times during the summer in that portion of the water column over a basin when most people are running baits in the middle to bottom portion of the water column.
Trolling speed is the other key element in figuring out the walleye puzzle when trolling crank baits. Rule of thumb is when the water is cold go slow and when the water is warm go fast. Examples of cold water speed are .7-1.7 and when the water is warm speed can be increased to 1.7-3.0 mph or more. Trolling with the wind is the easiest way to maintain boat control and avoid tangles in a trolling rod spread. One of the ways that I figure out speed for the day is to pick a starting speed based on water temp and time of year, and go up or down in speed based on hook ups with fish as I do S turns with the boat while trolling.
Say I start at 2.1 mph for a trolling run, and as I'm doing s curves with the boat, I notice that when I turn to the starboard (right) side, the planer board on the port (left) side goes back and fish on! This tells me that I need to speed up since the board sped up on the left side as I turned right, therefore I increase the speed to 2.3 as an example. If I start getting bit at 2.3 mph I will continue to increase or decrease speed as I go based on the turns that I make with the boat and hook ups that I get. By the end of the day I usually have the pattern dialed in pretty good and will have figured out crank bait size, color, running depth and speed. This pattern can be replicated the next day in many cases barring no major change in weather or other factors. Keeping notes for your body of water for trolling information is helpful in future years as your skill with trolling increases.
So how do you know when you have everything dialed in? The first indicator is you are catching fish! Trolling can be an intimidating presentation to learn but with determination and commitment to consistency in your trolling program you will catch fish. Some of the other indicators that you have the trolling puzzle figured out are when fish consistently come to the net and are inhaling the bait or consistently hooked up on the front treble hook of the crank bait. These are small details that can indicate that you have your crank bait size, color, running depth and speed correct. On the other hand if fish are consistently coming on the back hook this can be an indication that you need to slow down or change to a smaller size bait.
Trolling success starts in the garage or yard at home, but with a little attention to detail when you start out , your odds for success are greatly increased. I get questions all the time on how to troll and what I tell people is develop consistency in your trolling program with an emphasis on details and you will increase your hook up rate each time out on the water. You do not need to have a lot of equipment to get started with trolling, but to get good at it, leave the spinning rods and live bait at home! With a little bit of time spent on refining the learning curve you'll be a pro in no time!