When the bite is tough or the fish are holding on or near the bottom, crawlers are usually a top choice…
Spinner crawler rigs are certainly one of the most consistent walleye producers on the Great Lakes. Where I mainly fish on Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay, the walleyes there simply love night crawlers, and when rigged on a harness with a spinner, the attraction power of that setup is hard to beat. There are times when crankbaits and spoons will out-produce crawlers, but when the bite it tough or the fish are holding on or near the bottom, crawlers are usually a top choice.
When to Fish Crawlers
There has been a major change during the last five years with Saginaw Bay’s walleye behavior. Before then, it seemed like the walleyes suspended a lot during the day. Now days though, walleyes seem to be hanging out on the bottom during the day more times than not. Studies have shown that there are tons more shiners and minnows in the Bay now compared to years past. That abundance of baitfish seems to hang out near the surface during the day. All you have to do is look over the side of the boat on a sunny, flat day and you can often see massive schools of baitfish flittering around the boat. My theory is that walleyes are gorging on those shiners and minnows up near the surface at night and then hanging out near the bottom during the day. Occasionally, those fish will suspend, but they typically still stay within five feet of the bottom. When fish are holding deep, spinner/crawler rigs are going to be a top choice. You can mix in some other lures, but when the water temperature is over 50 degrees and I see the walleyes holding down low, crawlers are going to be my main game plan.
Walleyes on the Bottom
By far, over the last few years, we’ve caught more walleyes on my charter boat using bottom bouncers and spinner/crawler rigs that all other presentations combined. I developed my bottom bouncing, spinner crawler technique over 15 years ago and I defied common wisdom in the process. Before that I fished bottom bouncers the way everyone else did, very slowly using as light of a bouncer as possible. One day though I was pre-fishing for an MWT tournament on Saginaw Bay and we found a great spot with lots of big walleyes. Unfortunately though, we had to sort through a bunch of sheephead and catfish in the process of catching the walleyes. Then, just for kicks, I changed out the light bottom bouncers we were using for some heavy ones and bumped the speed up from one mph to over two mph. The results were amazing as we caught more and bigger walleyes and few junk fish. In that tournament we caught over 100 walleyes per day and ended up cashing a nice check in the process. That lesson also changed the way I fished bottom bouncers for ever.
Over the last five years, the lightest bottom bouncer I’ve used on Saginaw Bay is three ounces. Even in water as shallow as eight feet deep, I still use those heavy three ouncers. My theory is that the heavy weights pounding across the bottom actually attract walleyes. The bouncing wire kicks up clouds of silt and disturbs hiding bugs, crayfish and baitfish, which really turns-on the walleyes.
I also troll as fast as possible with bottom bouncer too. My goal is to cover as much water as possible while trolling to put my lures in front of the maximum number of active fish. By trolling as fast as possible, we also increase our catch to bite ratio as the faster moving trolling speeds result in much better hookups.
During the spring, those cold water walleyes usually won’t chase after a fast moving crawler harness, so then I adjust the trolling speed down slower until I find that maximum speed that will produce hookups. As the water warms up, I can gradually increase my trolling speeds to catch more fish. During April and May, when the water temperature is in the 50s, my typical trolling speed with bottom bouncers is 1.4 to 1.5 mph. During late May and early June, when the water temperature is in the 60s, I typically troll at 1.6 to 1.7 mph. In water temperatures that are in the low 70s, 1.7 to 1.8 mph is typically very productive and when the water temp hits the high 70s or low 80s, then I’m trolling at 1.9 to 2.2 mph.
As I mentioned earlier, my minimum bottom bouncer weight is 3 ounces. When I’m fishing deeper water though, I use even heavier bottom bouncers with four and five ouncers seeing action every summer. As the water temperature warms up and my trolling speeds increase, heavier weights are more commonly deployed. As my trolling speeds increase, my setback also lengthens too which keeps the wire ticking on the bottom. I typically set the lures back just far enough so they are ticking and not dragging on the bottom. This often requires adjustments in the setback when depths change during a trolling session. The best bottom bouncers I’ve found are from
walleyeschoice.com and I use simple, unpainted models.
My favorite deep water harness consists of two #6, Eagle Claw, bait holder hooks tied about 4″ apart. The front hook is tied on with a snell knot and the back hook is attached with an improved, half blood knot. I do not like three hook harnesses because I often use a half a crawler. Ahead of the hooks I string on five or six beads and then a quick change clevis. Never put a bead in front of the clevis as that impairs the spinning action of the spinner (a common mistake). My preferred harness leader material is 20# test fluorocarbon line and I prefer the crawler to run about 5′ behind the bottom bouncer down deep. The long leader serves two purposes: 1) It prevents customers from reeling the fish in too close to the rod tip for optimal netting efficiency and it also puts the bottom bouncer out near the rod tip when I hook the harness to my lure keeper, which is good in my boat when the rods are laid down against the splash well for running at high speed. I have found through much experimentation that the leader length is not really a big factor in hooking fish as long as it is at least two feet in length.
I only use #3 Colorado spinner blades on my bottom bouncer rigs. Those smaller sized blades spin better at high speeds. Using bigger blades at higher speeds usually results in a tangled mess.
When walleyes are up off the bottom during the day, I typically
target them with spoons or
crankbaits. Sometimes though,
those suspended fish are fussy
and will hit spinner/crawler rigs
For suspended walleyes I prefer to use my own specially made harnesses designed for that purpose.
The harness length is about five
feet and I prefer fluorocarbon leader material in 20 lbs. test. At the business end, I tie on two, #6, Eagle Claw, treble hooks spacing them about 4″ apart. In front of the hooks I string on beads and then a quick change clevis. The blades I use for suspended presentations are rather large (#5, #6 or #7). I’ve done a lot of experimentation with different weights and methods to take the harnesses down to the desired depth.
A lot of anglers use in-line fish weights, but in side by side testing, I’ve seen no benefit to using those compared to a plain sinker. These days I just use a rubber core sinker to take the harnesses to the desired depths. The sinkers are attached (twisted onto the line in seconds) about five feet in front of the crawler. If the fish are in the top 15′, then I’ll use a one-ounce sinker. If they are deeper, then I attach a 1.5 ounce sinker. If they are still deeper yet, then I just add multiple, heavy sinkers until I reach the strike zone. I adjust the speed and setback to achieve the right depth too. More line out equals a deeper presentation. The slower you go the deeper the lures will sink; going faster causes the lures to ride higher.
I vary my speeds a lot when
I’m fishing for suspended fish.
However, when using large spinners, any speeds over 1.5 mph often
causes tangles as big blades are not designed to go fast. My most consistent speeds for suspended fish are
1.0 to 1.4 mph.
On my charter boat, I typically run an eight rod trolling spread for walleyes. When I run crawler harnesses, I still almost always run a couple crankbaits (one of each outside board) just to mix things up. The middle and inside boards have crawlers and I also run a couple flat lines right behind the boat (no boards). Those flat lines typically have bottom bouncers and I use them to gauge how my other bottom bouncers are running by feeling for the bottom and then making speed and setback adjustments as needed.
The author offers fishing charters for Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes along with trips for salmon and trout at Manistee on Lake Michigan. Contact Mike Veine at www.trophyspecialists.com or 734-475-9146.