Trolling notes for greenbacks
By Daniel Kiazyk
After spending a couple of days with folks who had not trolled often for greenbacks I thought it might be important to spend some time describing some rudimentary considerations for being successful while trolling on the Red River for greenback walleyes. It's at one time a relatively simple and complex operation that has a few nuances making it somewhat unique in form. Get the process down and it's very surprising how many large fish come to the boat while trolling the Red in the Fall.
Before we get in it too far it should be said that any consideration, for anyone wishing to troll successfully on the Red River, needs to include a reflection on water temperature as it progresses through the season. In my experience water temperature is a very important factor in achieving any kind of success when trolling for greenbacks. If the water temperature is too low (below 45 degrees) it's essentially an ineffective use of time to troll too much. Okay I have caught walleyes trolling the Red River when the weather outside has been brutal, not fit for any person and the water temperature has been below 45 degrees. But in general it does seem as though your success rate is good so longs as there are walleye in the river and water temperature stays above 45 degrees.
Saying the prior about water temperature does not preclude those exceptions where walleyes were in the river in good numbers and because of a warming trend I had decided to troll even though the water was cooler than 45 degrees. The trolling bite on that day was epic and it broke the general rule outlined above. But again I like to generalize and it has served me well. In this context it seems that when there is a warming upswing in atmospherics the walleye are more apt to bite than if there is a steady trend to further cooling in the outside environment.
Having considered water temperature as a major determining factor as to whether or not an angler should even consider using cranks on the Red I'd like to look at some important considerations for trolling the river on those days when conditions warrant it. These considerations are as follows: 1) there is the depth that you're going to troll at 2) there's the speed that you're going to troll at 3) there's is the type of gear that you're going to you use for trolling 4) and finally there's the actual crank bait that you'll use for trolling.
Depth is an important first consideration for trolling in this context. When first starting out on any day looking at your depth finder you'll often get a feel for where the fish are at after an hour or so. In general at the beginning of the day to be able to find walleye and the depth that they are at will often involve working up and down the river's natural structure. In effect when I start out trolling I'll move from the shallow flats to the deepest channel. In the process of going up-and-down that structure you most often will see a locational pattern start to form – that is where the walleye are holding at - and if you find they're not biting at that level anymore you can employ the same process again to look at a variety of levels throughout the day.
I guess the latter point on structure is of some importance as well. Structure fits hand-in-hand with depth and fish will use structureand depth differently at different times of the day and season. If you notice that fish are hanging around structure at a particular depth that's where you need to be trolling. Structure, however, can be very difficult to fish as it usually contains the craggy and snaggy stuff that eats up crank baits. Try to troll the level they are at…and touch the structure at that level.
Speed is an consideration as well for successful trolling on the Red. I find that if the crank bait is ticking the bottom there's a chance that it's going to stop momentarily and then its going to dart out and move quickly (as the boat is moving ahead at its regular rate). This slow down/speed up motion is going to attract walleye - and a bite from them. I believe a speeding up and slowing down crankbait imitates a struggling baitfish. This action can be accomplished in a couple of other ways. Firstly, big S turns will speed up and slow down a crank bait. Working up and down a piece of structure will also speed up a crankbait. Finally with your motor there's the option of throttling up or throttling back to effect the speed of your crank bait.
I generally find that best speed for trolling walleyes is somewhere between 1.25 and 2 miles an hour with an average of 1.5 mile an hour being the most commonly sought speed. The speed that you'll need to travel at is going to be effected by whether or not you're trolling into the current or with the current. It seems as though traveling with the current your crank bait will move down to the bottom much more quickly and will require far less throttle. Interestingly enough you will invariably notice a considerable difference in success when comparing bites with or against the current. I am convinced that if you are able to get your crank down to the bottom when trolling against the current you are more likely to get bit by more fish on most days.
Okay, so it follows that a consideration of gear will make a difference for success when trolling for walleye on the Red River. It seems as though the thinner the line the more quickly you are able to send a crank bait to the bottom. Be sure that your reel is filled with enough line as on some days depending upon a whole number of factors you'll need a lot more than you thought necessary. Current and speed of boat are going to be two factors that will also have an impact upon the ability of a crankbait to dive. Normally when you can't get to the bottom, with what you normally use on the red, you'll have to switch to a crankbait that dives even deeper. I find that buying a series of crankbaits that dive down 30 feet will allow me to troll to at least 15 feet on the red on most days. In addition to the variety of cranks required I do like to use a snap swivel when trolling as it facilitates a quick change of cranks to get to that depth and it will save your line from twisting should the crank become fouled. And then there are those situations later on in the season where a fine seven-strand wire leader could be added as pike seem to invade the river later on in October and the possibility to loose a crank or two to these toothy critters increases.
With regards to the rod and reel that I'll use a number of possibilities exist. Firstly I find that a baitcaster to be perhaps the best tool in general to assist in the practice of trolling. A baitcaster that has a large spool capable of carrying at least 200 yards of 20# fire line is required for successful trolling on the Red. As for a Rod I find that a stiffer rod is better as it relays information more effectively on what the bottom is like and how the fish are taking the crank. Softer has its strengths as well in so far as it will absorb the power head shakes of a walleye during the fight and it will load up longer when the inevitable snag occurs. To allay the prior two difficulties I make an adjustment of drag to compensate for a hard fighting trophy walleye or an immovable snag.
So its only at this point that I can finally get to the focus of this article – the crank bait and trolling it. So what crank bait needs to be chosen to do the job? A number of options exist with regards to crank baits. Firstly there is no crank bait too small to use on the Red. Of course smaller crank baits will be limited to use in shallower water but, there's a time of day when even a smaller crankbait can be effective on normal fishing lines. Most of your trolling will occur between 11 and 16 feet with 16 to 20 feet being a rarer option. Regular ten pound test superlines will get most cranks down to their desired depths.
Color options and/or trying to reproduce the types of forage (and their colour shape) that are present and are fed upon by walleye in the Red River is an important consideration. Remember that the walleye that are coming into the Red River are chasing after emerald shiners, crappie, goldeye, drum, bullheads. Remember that array of forage and that a variety of colors/shapes to match the species will make you that much more effective while trolling on the Red. It follows that the variety of cranks that we see available as slim/fat will have their place at any given time of the day week/month/season. Going through a reductive process until you do get that shape and size and colour for a particular year will come but it does take time.
As for deciphering the code, that is finding the crank bait that the walleye will bite on a given day, it's almost necessary to have change going on in your boat at 30 minute intervals. Eventually you're going to find a crank bait that walleyes want on that particular day. I've seen it so specific that once a color pattern was established that colour would start to catch fish no matter what style was used. Also factored into this code piece is the type of gear, the speed as well as the conditions that the Red River does present to you the angler that will have an effect upon your success with any crank bait on any given day.
I'm of the mindset that trolling fits into a part of a whole day out on the Red River. Cranking involves getting out and moving great distances allowing you to put your bait in front of more fish in a larger area. It does not however present some of the attractiveness that a well prepared, well presented Jig does in a specific area of structural interest to walleyes. Cranks do have their place especially when the fish may not be in the river in great numbers or earlier on on the season when fish may not be in in great numbers. Regardless of the contexts there's one thing to keep in mind when using cranks, trolling crankbaits produces some of the biggest fish of the year.
One last very interesting possibility with regards to crank baits and presenting them to the walleye wherever they may be... An option not considered by many on the Red is to look at lead core trolling. Lead core has this uncanny ability to bring any bait down to any level so long as you have enough consistency in the bottom to what you're presenting the bait. Trolling a crank bait with lead core to a very irregular bottom may be problematic, but with a combination of speed and empasis on sticking to a specific depth getting that #5 clown shad rap down to thirteen feet on some of the longer flats of the river can be a deadly deployment. Having a few odd tricks up your sleeve is going to create conditions of possibility that many walleye haven't yet seen.... meaning more opportunity not yet fathomed
I see trolling as a part of a wider approach to making contact with some of the biggest fish of the year on the Red River in the fall. It's not always the silver bullet but it sure can produce some big green monsters!