Trolling or Holing?

by: Mark Martin

The in-between season as winter approaches might mean open water or ice. Be ready to go either way when the weather can, too.

With the way the weather works in the northern climes, you never know what the tail end of fall and the onset of winter will bring. Sometimes it’s warm enough for open water. Other times it’s cold enough for ice. Then again, you might get a boat out one day and find ramps sealed the next.

All of which is why, when it comes to walleye fishing, I’m ready to do whatever it takes to get on fish. Troll a line or drill a hole—either end of the spectrum is possible. For last-chance walleyes in open water, trolling day or night with long, thin stickbaits is one of the most productive methods for big walleyes on the feed before winter. In the event of ice, however, I don’t stray far from the spots that last produced before hard water, and I jig them with a subtle motion that 
matches the walleye’s mood.

Right about now, the weather can go either way. You can, too.

Going for a Troll
Cold water has long had a reputation for necessitating live bait for walleye. But with the emergence of tournament fishing in the frigid waters of April and with all the time I’ve spent stalking walleyes year-round near my home, outside of Muskegon, Michigan, the efficacy of minnow baits is undeniable. Cold water in spring or fall makes little difference—it’s still cold water. With the thin minnows, I’ve caught walleyes with water temperatures in the low 40s, even in the high 30s in December. The reason I like thin minnows in such conditions is due to their light side-to-side action accented by a roll around a center axis. No other lure supplies the key cold-water ingredients of Normark’s Rapalas. When the water is in the 40s, Rapala Husky Jerks are excellent trolling baits, particularly for Great Lakes walleye. When the temperatures, though, hover in the low 40s or even dip into the 30s, I like the even more delicate action of Rapala’s Original Minnows, floaters that dive slightly when trolled and wiggle just right — which is hardly at all at speeds of 1.0 mph or less.

One of the best bites occurs anywhere is in November and beyond on the Great Lakes. Trolling inshore areas around pierheads and river mouths with Husky Jerks behind planer boards puts more and bigger fish in my Lund than any other pattern on earth. This time of year, the fish move shallow in a trend similar to spring movements, when baitfish are in close and walleyes start running rivers. 

To run two lines per person and get lures away from the boat in increasingly clear, zebra-mussel-filtered waters, I turn to Church Tackle planer boards—the Walleye Board, in particular, because of its size to plane away from the boat and provide resistance necessary to put hooks in fish. For nighttime trolling, Church Tackle offers a handy glow stick than can be attached to the boards for seeing strikes.

To set lines and divide up the water column, I like to stagger the distance I’m running the Husky Jerks behind the boat. For instance, with No. 10 and No. 12 Down Deep Husky Jerks, I’ll put one lure out 10 feet behind the board, the next 15, another 20 and another 25. This way, I’ll be running four different depth levels to better zero in on the fish. For colors, I try to match Great Lakes forage with silvers and blues. New for 2004 will be the holographic Glass Minnows from Rapala in Down Deep models.

My trolling speeds are about the same on and off the Great Lakes. I like to troll slowly, keeping my speeds around 1.0 mph on my Lowrance GPS. I’ll troll with my Mercury kicker motor most of the time for Great Lakes fish, but when a number of boats are working an area or at night, 
I’ll switch to the quiet power of my electric motor.

The electric excels especially for night trolling, either on the big lakes or on inland waters, for slow contour trolling. At night, when the water temps slip toward 40 degrees, I’ll use the Original floaters from Rapala in size 13. When I put the lure over the side on Berkley 20-pound FireLine, I go just fast enough to make the lure wobble. Another trick to trigger strikes is to slowly ease the lure forward and drop it back on a semi-tight line—a move that often gets following walleyes to bite.

Going to the Hole

Following walleyes are by no means relegated to open water. When I start ice fishing, I watch the walleyes under the ice—and coming to my bait—on an Aqua-Vu underwater camera in the DT Series, an indispensable device that gives depth and water temperature. More than anything, though, I’m able to watch walleyes come in for a look at my bait and adjust my jigging motion accordingly. With a Jigging Rapala, to which I add a minnow to the middle treble, I’ve found by watching the camera that a light jiggle is all the action necessary. Twitch the lure too hard or drop it to bottom, and off the walleyes go.

The spots I choose at first ice are remarkable similar to the ones I’ve fished in open water. I like to take waypoints from where I’ve caught my last open-water walleyes and return to them. In open water, too, I rely on electronic contour maps in my Lowrance from Navionics. Navionics maps give contours on your GPS units, and the same points and humps that are noted on the map—and last produced in the fall—are the first spots I check at first ice.

But since mobility is somewhat limited in ice fishing, I wind up drilling a lot of holes with my StrikeMaster auger, which has the gasoline power to drill plenty of holes along a contour line or hump from shallow to deep. Also, before a lot of snow gets on the ice (and even when it does), I tame the slick conditions with Get-a-Grip treads by StrikeMaster, which make it easy to keep your footing and drill plenty of holes. Which way you go now—to open water or ice—is largely out of your hands.  It’s in Mother Nature’s, and it only makes sense to play with the cards she deals you. Troll if you can or jig if you must. Either way, you’ll be well on your way to walleyes.


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