Cranks and spoons rule the Saginaw Bay

Every dog has his day and every fishing lure has a window of opportunity to make it or break it. On Saginaw Bay, that window is open wide for anglers who troll with crankbaits and spoons. During July and August when walleye are feeding actively — but schools of fish are scattered — covering water becomes the key to both finding and catching fish.

Collectively crankbait and spoon trolling covers more water than most of the other popular walleye fishing presentations combined. Trolling also provides anglers the best odds of triggering strikes from walleye that can and often are found anywhere in the water column. Add in the fact that trolling enables anglers to fish multiple lines, lures, depths, colors, etc., and it become obvious that the “go to” method for catching summer walleye comes in the shape of crankbaits and spoons.

It’s In The Mix

In the world of walleye trolling some lures mix better than others. Trollers largely have three lure groups to choose from including crawler harnesses, crankbaits and spoons. Mixing the art of trolling crawler harnesses with spoons or crankbaits is a match not made in heaven. Harnesses function best at speeds too slow to bring out the best action in most crankbaits and certainly with spoons.

Crankbaits and spoons are one of those match ups that does make sense for summer walleye. Both of these lure groups function best at speeds from 2 mph to about 3 mph, making them easily interchanged in a trolling pattern.

Crankbait Sorting

All crankbaits are not created equal and for the same fishing purposes. For the purpose of better understanding this enormous lure group, view crankbaits as four distinctive lure groups including shallow diving minnow baits, minnow divers, shad baits and high action cranks.

Shallow diving minnow baits like the Salmo Sting, Rapala Husky Jerk, Bomber Long A, Reef Runner Ripstick and others feature a modest action and diving ability that tends to work best in cool to cold waters.

Minnow divers like the Storm Deep Jr. Thunderstick, Reef Runner Deep Little Ripper, Bomber 24A, Rapala Deep Husky Jerk and others have a somewhat more aggressive action compared to shallow diving minnows and can mine walleye gold all summer long.

Shad baits are perhaps the most common group of “walleye style” crankbaits and they feature a moderate action that works well in a wide variety of water temperatures and fish moods. The amazingly popular Rapala Shad Rap, Salmo Executor, Berkley Flicker Shad and Reef Runner Rip Shad are good examples of lures that routinely produce well on summertime Saginaw Bay walleye.

The final group of crankbaits are collectively known as high action lures and the name is self explanatory. This group of lures shines best in the warmer months when walleye are more likely to chase aggressive lures trolled at high speeds. The always popular Storm Hot ‘n Tot and Salmo Hornet are both excellent examples of premier summertime walleye trolling lures.

Any or all of the lures outlined in these categories are potentially productive summer walleye trolling lures, but it’s the minnow divers, shad baits and high action lures that do most of the work. To further refine this listing, shad baits and high action lures are routinely the top producers when the water temperatures spike above 60 degrees.

Line Counters Rule

A number of factors determine how deep a crankbait will dive, but lead length or how far behind the boat they are fished is the primary variable to be concerned with. Minor changes in lead length can and do effect lure running depth and ultimately fishing success.

A quality line counter reel is the only practical way to monitor lead lengths accurately in a trolling situation. The best approach is to use line counter reels of the same brand, model and size loaded with identical line and with each reel filled to capacity. If you mix and match these options, the consistently from rod to rod will be poor and so will the angler’s ability to develop a consistent pattern and to duplicate that pattern.

Understanding Walleye Spoons

The concept of the trolling spoon has been around forever, but the walleye specific spoon is a relatively new phenomenon. These lures were designed especially for open water trolling applications and they match the hatch perfectly in both size and action.

Walleye trolling spoons range in length from about two inches to a little over three inches. The average width is approximately 1/2 inch, making this lures ideal in size to mimic common forage minnows like emerald shiners.

Some of the most popular walleye specific spoons include the Wolverine Tackle Jr. Streak, Michigan Stinger Scorpion, Dreamweaver WD and Yeck Lures Y44 Little Walleye. All of these spoons come in a plethora of colors and chrome plating options.

Diver Options

At trolling speeds of 2-3 mph, spoons come alive with fish attracting wobble and flash. Because a spoon doesn’t dive like a crankbait, these lures must be fished in combination with a diving device used to target specific columns of water. The popular options are mini diving disks including the Walker Deeper Diver 45mm, Big Jon Mini Disk and Luhr Jensen Mini Dipsy.

A second category of divers known as floating diving devices are also popular options for spoon trolling. The Walker TripZ Diver and the Luhr Jensen Jet Diver have this category covered.

A third group of diving devices has recently surfaced as a serious walleye trolling tool. The new Off Shore Tackle Tadpole is a sinking/diving device that is ideally suited to trolling spoons.

The Advantage Of Trip Divers

Some of the divers in these categories are designed to trip when a fish strikes so the angler reeling in the fish is not fighting the resistance of the diver. The Walker Deeper Diver has a trip arm mechanism that can be adjusted for various trolling speeds and line types. The TripZ Diver also by Walker is a floating diver with a similar trip arm mechanism. The third option is the new Off Shore Tadpole, which uses an unique tow arm that allows a snap to slide from the diving position to the in-line position when a fish is hooked.

All three of these trip style divers allow anglers to enjoy the fight of the fish without fighting the resistance of the diver. This benefit is never more apparent than when fishing small to medium sized walleye so common on Saginaw Bay.

Leaders, Lines And Swivels

Spoon trolling cries out for fluorocarbon leader material. All of the divers outlined above function best when a six foot leader of 12-15 pound test fluorocarbon line is used to connect the spoon to the back of the diver.

At the terminal end, a high quality ball bearing swivel is mandatory tackle. Using lesser quality swivels prevents these small spoons from enjoying their full range of movement. Premium ball bearing swivels are expensive, but more than worth the cost. Cutting this corner is the primary reason that anglers who try trolling spoons often fail miserably.

Fluorocarbon leader material also has a place in crankbait trolling. A six foot leader of 12 pound test fluorocarbon leader terminated with a No. 3 round snap is the perfect way to marry the main fishing line to leader and lure.

The main fishing line is not as cut and dried a decision as using fluorocarbon for leader material. A growing number of anglers favor super braid lines for trolling because these lines are thin in diameter and allow their lures to reach maximum depth with minimal trolling leads.

The biggest draw back to fishing with super braids is most planer board line releases are not designed to function properly with these low stretch and slippery lines. For anglers who fish with in-line boards like the popular Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer, a simple fix is to replace the OR-19 line release the comes standard on the board with an OR-18 Snapper release designed to grip and hold super braid fishing lines.

Those anglers who fish braided line in combination with mast planer board systems will need to take a different approach. The ordinary line releases produced by Off Shore Tackle and others simply won’t function with super braid lines. The simple fix in this case is an ordinary office rubber band. Set your lure the desired lead length behind the boat and then take a rubber band and half hitch it over the super braid line. Pull the rubber band up tight and then place the rubber band into an ordinary line release like the popular OR-10 or OR-14 releases from Off Shore Tackle.

Monofilament line continues to dominate the trolling scene because this line option represents the best compromise of properties and cost. A high quality monofilament in the 10-12 pound test range is ideal for trolling both crankbaits and spoons. Fluorocarbon line in the same break strengths can also be substituted for monofilament. The cost of fluorocarbon is about twice that of monofilament, but fluorocarbon has the advantage of being more abrasion resistant and resists UV light better than mono fishing lines.

In the end all three trolling line options work and it’s up to each angler to decide which system makes the most sense.

Trolling Speed

Summer crankbait and spoon trolling is a fast paced game that boils down to contacting fish. Productive speeds start at 2 mph and more often than not faster speeds like 2.5 and even 3.0 mph are what it takes to trigger summer time walleye into striking.

Keep in mind that while trolling the goal isn’t to catch every fish in the water, but rather to trigger those that are feeding into striking. Active fish will readily chase and strike fast moving lures.

The overlooked benefit of trolling faster is that the lures cover more water and potentially contact more fish in the process. It could also be argued that the faster trolling speeds reduces hook-ups with non-target species like sheepshead and catfish.

The absolutely best way to monitor trolling speed is with a GPS unit’s speed over ground function. Modern GPS units update speed data rapidly, providing the angler with the most accurate assessment possible for trolling speed fluctuations. Other speed indicating devices are interesting for comparison, but rarely as accurate as GPS speed over ground.

Trolling In Cold Front Conditions

Thankfully cold fronts during the summer tend to be minor and short lived. However, in cold front conditions fishing action is bound to slow up a notch or two. The best possible trolling conditions are stable weather when the air temperature, wind and barometric pressure have been stable for two or more days in a row. In these conditions fish feed often and in a predictable manner that allows anglers the opportunity to strike walleye pay dirt.

When a cold front blows into town, it can and does slow the bite, but trolling is still the answer. There are a number of options for dealing with cold fronts and stubborn fish. The most simple option is to change nothing and be content with a few less bites. This is the option most anglers adopt.

Another option is to vary trolling speeds more diligently to determine the exact speed that seems to be triggering the most strikes. Couple this approach with a determined effort to use exclusively the lures and lure colors that are producing best. This common sense approach will maximize the fish catching opportunities.

Another important step is to pay particular close attention to the lead lengths that are producing the most bites. In cold front conditions, lure running depth is often the single most important variable to refining the bite and maximizing success. The steadfast rule among trollers is to experiment with lead lengths, lures and colors until something starts working. At that point, the smart troller duplicates the best combinations of trolling speed, lead length, lure and color options with additional lines. This approach effectively doubles, triples or quadruples the chances of catching additional fish.

Maximizing a trolling lure spread requires having multiple lures of the same size, model and color to choose from. The worst thing that can happen to a troller is to get caught with one hot bait and no way to duplicate what’s working!

When buying crankbaits and spoons, it’s best to purchase these lures in groups of two or four. For untested lures or colors, investing in a couple baits makes the most sense. For lures and colors that have proven themselves effective, an investment of four or even six identical baits is the smart option.

A final word on fishing in cold fronts suggests it’s best to fish known fish producing spots than to experiment with new water. During a cold front, pound the places that have been producing fish recently and be content to avoid fishing out in no mans land.

The Question Of Color

Anyone who has fished very long has developed some obvious color biases. These biases come from having success with certain colors and using them almost to a fault.

Lure color should be looked at as only one variable in the complex process of patterning walleye. Usually color is less important than lure type, trolling speed and the depth at which fish are concentrating.

Think of lure color as a refinement in a presentation that’s already working. Don’t depend on color alone to make things happen and don’t be taken in by other anglers who make excessive claims about a particular color.

In the big picture, lure color matters but not as much as the lure itself. Using the right lures and fishing them at the right depths will allow a multitude of lure colors to prosper.

Wrapping It Up

For summer walleye fishing on Saginaw Bay the obvious choices are crankbaits and spoons. Both lure groups are amazing walleye producers and the two lure groups can be mixed and match in the same trolling pattern. On any given day it might be the crankbait or it might be the spoon that shines brightest, but you’ll never know unless you fish both.