Winter walleye fishing is an often overlooked, lucrative time to be on the water in Michigan.
By Mark Romanack
Anyone who has spent considerable time targeting walleye will attest that these popular fish will often literally destroy one fishing presentation while seemingly ignoring others. Some might say, “that’s fishing,” and move on with life, but the most successful anglers always push the envelope to figure out why walleye do what they do.
Truth be told, if what we know as a fact about walleye fishing were a jigsaw puzzle, there would be a lot of missing pieces. The problem with anglers is if we don’t know why something doesn’t work, we tend to “speculate” an answer. Even worse, those “speculations” often become regarded as a fact over time.
Crankbait trolling ranks as one of those walleye fishing arenas where anglers spend more than a bit of time speculating. Conventional wisdom suggests that crankbaits work best when walleye feed in warm water. Indeed, walleye will often crush crankbaits during the warm water months. Sadly, many misinformed anglers believe that the crankbait bite begins and ends during the summer.
The truth is that walleye can be readily caught using crankbaits even in the coldest months of the year. A growing number of walleye enthusiasts push the limits of late-season trolling right to the point where ice ends the fun!
Unfortunately, most crankbaits don’t have what it takes to trigger walleye strikes in cold water. It’s important to remember that walleye are cold-blooded creatures. Water temperature plays a significant role in how walleye react to crankbaits.
When walleye benefit from an active metabolism in warm water, they readily strike baits with a lot of flash and aggressive action. The more action a crankbait produces, the more likely walleye will react positively to the bait.
In cold water, the reverse situation occurs. Walleye become lethargic, and while they are highly effective predators, they begin to ignore fast-moving baits and baits with too much wobbling action.
To many anglers, the concept of a crankbait having too much action is a complex idea to wrap their mind around. After all, why wouldn’t the baits that destroyed walleye all summer long work just as well in the fall and early winter?
The right stuff
The anglers who have mastered the art of crankbait trolling have learned that only a handful of popular crankbaits have the subdued action that walleye react best to in cold water. These lures with the “right stuff” are all either stickbaits or minnow profile diving baits.
What these lures have that others do not is a subtle action best described as a rocking or top-to-bottom rolling action. Baits that roll give off a lifelike but subdued action walleye can’t resist even in cold water. Most crankbaits have some roll, but the action is dominated by a defined side-to-side tail wobble.
In the stickbait category, many popular crankbaits have the “just right” action for cold water trolling applications, including the Rapala Husky Jerk 12, the Husky 14 and the Smithwick Perfect 10. These baits are shallow diving lures that must be fished with weight systems like the Off Shore Tackle Snap Weight or lead core line to get them to target depths.
In the minnow diving category, a few essential baits deliver excellent results repeatedly. The Rapala Deep Husky Jerk 12, the Bill Lewis Precise Walleye Crank and the Bandit Deep Walleye 5/8 are the three baits that generate the necessary roll, while having only modest tail wobble.
Because these select crankbaits also deliver a pronounced dive profile, they can be used without added weights much of the time. Some might argue that the advantage of using diving minnow baits is they can be fished effectively with and without added weights. For the depths walleye are commonly found in the fall, these lures dive deep enough to reach most of the fish quickly. For deeper fish, adding a Snap Weight is a simple way to get even deeper without changing the bait’s action.
Besides using baits that feature that all-important rolling action, catching walleye on crankbaits when the water is icy cold also requires a slow trolling strategy. When the water temperatures dip to the low 40s or colder, the most productive trolling speeds will range from a snail’s pace of 1.0 to 1.5 MPH.
At slow speeds, anglers can use either a gasoline kicker motor or an electric trolling motor, or it might make sense to troll using both the electric and gasoline motors. Modern auto-pilot electric motors have some huge advantages when slow trolling for walleye. Besides being quiet and stealthy compared to gasoline kickers, establishing a trolling course and staying on that course heading is a huge advantage.
Auto-pilot electric motors create hands-free boat control that allows anglers to concentrate on setting lines, switching out lures and lure colors, changing lead lengths and other gear manipulations that help put more fish in the boat.
The only disadvantage to controlling the boat with an auto-pilot electric motor is the motor may not have enough power to push the boat into the wind. Combining an auto-pilot electric motor with a gasoline kicker motor is the answer in this case.
Use the gasoline kicker motor to set the trolling speed to within two- or three-tenths of a mile per hour slower than the desired speed. Follow up by using the electric motor to fine-tune the trolling speed and provide a course heading and steering control.
Adjustments to the electric motor are best made using a key fob that can be conveniently hung around your neck. This way, it’s easy to steer around other boats, get quickly back on course and make necessary tweaks to trolling speed.
Adjusting trolling speed by just one or two-tenths of a mile per hour can often be the difference between catching fish at will and only catching the occasional fish. Fine-tuning trolling speed is a job best accomplished using the electric motor. After-market digital throttle controls are available for gasoline kickers but are expensive and tricky to install. Boats too large and high-sided to accommodate an auto-pilot electric motor are good candidates for a digital kicker motor throttle control.
Boards deliver maximum lure coverage
In-line planer boards are invaluable for setting up a trolling spread covering maximum water. These flag kits make it easier to detect strikes, and they can also telegraph short strikes when the flag drops momentarily and then pops back up.
After-market articulating flag kits become a very useful planer board accessory at the slow trolling speeds required to get bites in cold water. Not only do these flag kits make it easier to detect strikes, but they can often telegraph short strikes when the flag drops momentarily and then pops back up.
This occurs when a fish makes a halfhearted effort at the bait and doesn’t get hooked solidly. When this happens, it often indicates that the trolling speed is too fast.
A winning scent strategy
Natural scent products are slowly gaining traction among walleye trollers. Scent products are especially beneficial when used in the fall and winter when the water is icy cold and fish are naturally lethargic. Creating a natural scent stream in the water helps entice bites and encourages walleye to strike with more authority.
The problem with many scent products is they are made from ingredients that are not natural to the fish’s environment. Also, many scents tend to be water soluble, meaning the attraction benefits of the scent wash away quickly.
Pro Cure Bait Scents produces the Super Gel series of fishing scents made by grinding up natural baitfish and mixing in a greasy stabilizing agent that keeps the scent from spoiling and washing off quickly. The result is an oily and scent-rich paste that gives off a natural scent stream for more extended periods. Super Gel comes in different formulas that are made from oil-rich baitfish common to the Great Lakes region. Some of the most popular Super Gel formulas for late-season walleye trolling include smelt, emerald shiner, gizzard shad and alewife. All these forage species are commonly found in Great Lakes fisheries where walleye thrive.
A few drops of Super Gel is enough scent to attract walleye for 30 to 40 minutes before a fresh dab of scent must be applied. Scent products do an excellent job of triggering strikes from lethargic walleye, but using scent also requires adopting a regimen of cleaning lures to prevent cross-contamination.
At the end of the day, it’s necessary to wash the Super Gel off the baits using a soft brush and a bleach-free and non-scented dish soap. Joy dish soap, commonly found at discount stores, is the ideal soap for cleaning baits. This common dish soap helps eliminate contamination from foreign odors and prepares lures for applying scent products on the next outing.
Enjoying fishing success using scent products is as much about eliminating unnatural odors that can repel fish as it is about imparting natural-smelling scents that attract them. This is why anglers must get on board with the regimen of cleaning hard baits before and after applying scent products. These critical steps ensure that scent products enhance the trolling experience.
Wearing latex gloves or washing hands frequently using a fragrance-free soap also helps to prevent scent contamination. While few walleye fishermen go to this extreme, trout and salmon anglers swear by not touching baits with bare hands. It’s widely known that the natural oil in our skin, known as L-serine, is highly repulsive to fish. Other products commonly used by anglers are equally hated by fish, including insect repellent, nicotine, petroleum products, suntan lotion, skin care products, and scented soaps.
In short, the best way to avoid contaminating fishing lures with unnatural odors is to clean the baits before applying fishing scent products. As alien as this may seem to Great Lakes anglers, serious anglers across the Pacific Northwest have been washing baits and using fishing scents for decades.
Wrapping it up
Catching walleye on crankbaits when the water is icy cold requires applying several skillsets. It’s essential to pick the right lures with that vitally important but subtle “rolling” action. Success depends on trolling slowly enough that lethargic walleye can’t resist striking. Finally, it’s essential to use scent products that entice walleye to strike and do so with more authority.
The rewards are exceptional for those who follow these simple rules of late-season crankbait trolling. Ironically, while the masses focus on winterizing their boats, a hardy group of anglers enjoy the year’s best fishing!