Walleye are prisoners of their environment. Once these popular fish complete their spring spawning runs, finding food becomes their primary motivation all summer long. One of the places walleye frequently seek out their next meal are sprawling flats. Aquatic insects, minnows and crayfish all live on the flats and provide walleye with easy pickings during the summer months.
Sometimes the fish using these flats hunt the bottom and sometimes they suspend. It’s a safe bet however that any flat that’s holding large numbers of walleye will also be producing a consistent bottom bite.
The problem with flats is they are often large and there are no obvious features that concentrate fish in particular spots. Instead, walleye tend to roam over the flats in search of minnows and other forages that are roaming themselves.
Catching fish in this situation boils down to identifying presentations that are not only productive, but mobile enough to cover water effectively. The answer to this problem can be summed up in a word; trolling. Trolling is the only logical fishing technique when faced with the burden of covering large amounts of water on flats.
One trolling technique in particular is well suited to targeting wandering schools of summer walleye. A live bait presentation that incorporates bottom bouncer sinkers, crawler harnesses and in-line planer boards is tough to beat when fishing flats for walleye.
Fishing Spinners On Flats
The common bottom bouncer is one of the most useful tools a walleye angler can own. Little more than a piece of wire bent into the shape of an upside down “L”: a bottom bouncer has a chunk of lead weight molded onto the longer of the two arms and a snap swivel that accepts a nightcrawler harness attached to the short arm.
Bottom bouncers range in size from 1/2 ounce to three ounces, but I typically use just three sizes including 1, 2 and 3 ounce models. These three readily available sizes will work well in all the common water depths an angler is likely to encounter. My rule of thumb is to use one ounce weights in water up to 10 feet deep, two ounce weights in water up to 20 feet and three ounce weights in water over 20 feet deep.
The best crawler harnesses for fishing with bottom bouncers are versions that feature two No. 2 beak style hooks tied on a 48-60 inch leader. Most harnesses are tied using monofilament, but 12-15 pound test fluorocarbon is tougher and less visible to fish in all water conditions. Wolverine Tackle, makers of the Silver Streak Spoon, produces a wonderful harness that’s designed especially for the hardcore walleye angler. The hooks are No. 2 red beak style and the leader is fluorocarbon, but what sets these harnesses apart are the unique blade colors. All the popular spoon colors we’ve come to depend upon are available in No. 4 and 5 Colorado style blades, making these harnesses ideal for targeting walleye on Saginaw Bay, Lake Erie, Little Bay de Noc and other Great Lakes Waters.
The simple design of the bottom bouncer and spinner combination presents the trailing crawler harness just off bottom where the bait is in full view of nearby walleyes. Also, the bottom bouncer imparts a stop and go action to the spinner that does an excellent job of triggering strikes.
To get the most from a bottom bouncer, anglers must set these weights carefully to insure the sinker rides upright in the water and only contacts the bottom occasionally. If the weight drags constantly on the bottom, the trailing spinner harness is likely to contact the bottom and increase the risk of fouling.
When setting a bottom bouncer and spinner rig, it’s important to set the boat trolling speed first. The best speed for summer walleye tends to be about 1.5 MPH. A small gasoline kicker motor is the most commonly used tool for trolling these lures, but an autopilot style bow mounted electric motor is a hands free method for trolling spinners. With an autopilot style electric motor, just point the electric motor in the direction you want to travel, push the continuous on switch and punch the autopilot button. It’s that easy to maintain a course and free up your hands for fishing.
Once the speed is set and the boat moving forward, free spool the bottom bouncer and spinner to the bottom. The moment the weight hits the bottom the line will stop playing off the reel. Click over the reel bail at this moment and continue trolling without letting any additional line out.
After a few seconds of trolling forward, water resistance will cause the bottom bouncer to be lifted up off bottom making it tough to lower the rod tip and feel the weight hit bottom. At this point, free spool the reel a second time until the weight hits bottom and then engage the reel again.
The second time the weight hits bottom, enough lead has been let out to keep the bottom bouncer in contact with the bottom, without the weight actually dragging all the time. The angle the bottom bouncer tracks back behind the boat should be approximately 45 degrees.
The most common mistake made with bottom bouncers is using a model that’s too light for the water depth or trolling speed. Use enough weight to contact the bottom at about a 45 degree angle behind the boat. Using too much weight is better than not using enough.
If this delicate balance is not maintained, the bottom bouncer will not ride upright in the water and the trailing harness will foul on bottom or catch few fish.
Adding In-Line Boards
Once the bottom bouncer is running properly, this line can be held in your hand, placed in a rod holder or better yet attached to an in-line planer board that takes the rig out to the side of the boat to increase trolling coverage.
It takes a larger in-line board to effectively pull bottom bouncer and spinner rigs. The favorite on the walleye tour continues to be the Side-Planer produced by Off Shore Tackle. This bright yellow board features a contrasting red flag that helps in keeping track of these boards while fishing.
To hitch up a Side-Planer, simply pinch open the line release located on the tow arm of the board and place the fishing line three quarters of the way back into the rubber coated jaws. Repeat this process with a second release located at the back of the board to provide a two position attachment.
The top walleye pros replace the existing releases that come standard on the Side-Planer with a stronger tension OR-16 Snap Weight Clip to insure the board stays on the line, even if the bottom bouncer or spinner momentarily snags or when fishing in rough water.
Once the board is attached to the line, place it in the water and slowly let line play off the reel until the board is positioned 25-50 feet out to the side of the boat. A good four rod trolling pattern incorporates a board set off each side of the boat and two flat lines held in the angler’s hands or in rod holders.
Not only do these Side-Planers increase lure coverage, the function as handy strike indicators when a fish is hooked. Normally when a fish is hooked on a bottom bouncer rig, the planer board slowly sags backwards in the water from the weight of the fish.
Avoid the tendency to grab the rod and set the hook. Instead, simply get the rod from the holder and start to reel in the board and fish together. Keep the boat moving at the same forward speed and there is a good chance you’ll be fighting a double header.
When the board is within reach of the boat, have your fishing partner clip the board off the line. At this point it’s a fight between angler and fish.
It only takes a few seconds to hitch up an in-line board. These trolling aids have literally revolutionized the way anglers fish walleye on flats.
Spinner fishing is the kind of trolling that requires a lot of maintenance. The spinner rigs occasionally catch bottom and tear off the nightcrawler. Also, unwanted fish such as yellow perch, drum, white bass and others can peck the crawler to pieces before walleye have a chance at the rigs. The only way to combat this problem is to check the lines often and rebait as necessary.
If unwanted fish such as yellow perch are especially difficult, try using a Berkley Power Crawler instead of a live nightcrawler. Tougher than natural crawlers, this trick helps to insure bait remains on the hook when needed.
Staying On Fish
Flats that attract walleyes can range in depth from six to 20 feet deep or more. The key to catching fish is staying on the areas that have fish on them. Frankly finding the first school of fish can be a hit or miss affair, but once you catch a fish staying on that spot is going to make the difference in how many other fish are caught.
When I land a walleye caught on an open flat, I immediately punch in an icon on my GPS unit. This electronic reference provides me invaluable information that is the key to fishing featureless flats. If after a catching a fish a few minutes passes without catching another, I pull my lines and motor back to the area where the fish was caught. Normally I set up about 1/4 mile directly upwind of the icon and make another trolling pass across the spot.
To navigate with a GPS unit it helps to zoom in to a very small map scale. This provides ample detail that helps you understand where your boat is in relationship to the icon you’re targeting. Remember, missing your intended target by just a few yards can result in missing the school entirely.
When navigating with a GPS unit I also monitor the sonar screen. Normally I split the screen so I can see half GPS and half sonar. This helps me identify if there is a physical feature that’s holding fish in a particular spot. Often times a gravel outcropping on an otherwise smooth sand bottom will concentrate walleye. When I notice these kinds of details, the spot is saved as a permanent waypoint and named in the GPS for future reference.
Wrapping It Up
In both shallow and deep water flats it’s hard to beat a bottom bouncer and spinner rig fished properly. Be use to use enough weight to maintain bottom contact, keep your harnesses 40-60 inches long and only let out enough lead to allow the bouncer to touch the bottom occasionally.
Check your bait frequently and add an in-line planer board to improve lure coverage. Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be amazed how effective fishing the flats can be.