Advance spinner/crawler tactics
For years spinner/crawler rigs, otherwise known as crawler harnesses, have been my go-to walleye trolling presentation. Reason being; they produce more consistently in wide variety of conditions than any other trolling tactic out there, bar none. When spinners are deployed into the strike zone of walleyes, in most cases, the odds for success are maximized. The main reason why the vast majority of my clients enjoyed limit catches of fine walleyes last year was due the use of spinner/crawler rigs. Harnesses can be fished either on the bottom or for suspended fish with equally good results. With spinner/crawler rigs, all you really need to know is what depth most of the walleyes are active at and after that it’s just a simple mater of putting the meat right in their faces for limits of prime eating filets.
Some years ago, while on a Saginaw Bay walleye charter with some long time, repeat clients, we started off the morning in somewhat typical style for June out of Au Gres with some world class fishing action. We were catching big walleyes, small ones and every size in between for a perfect mix of walleye nirvana. I was trolling eight spinner/crawler rigs behind bottom bouncers using Church Tackle Walleye Boards to spread out the lures. Some of the rigs were ticking the bottom, but some were suspended in the water column and everything was getting hammered. After just an hour of non-stop action my four clients were approaching their limits, so just for something different, with their approval, I decided to do some experimenting in catch and release mode. The fishing conditions were perfect with all day sunshine and light winds predicted. With the stable weather, those fish were going to bite well all day, so that is the perfect time to experiment with different techniques and tackle.
I pulled up all the lines and changed over to a 100 percent crankbait spread putting out a bunch of old favorites that produce well in those conditions. We were fishing in about 25 feet of water, so I had to use some weight to take some of cranks down near the bottom, and I tailored my speed to those crankbaits, which optimized the presentations. We caught and released some fish for sure, and some nice ones too, but the action was still not nearly as good as the spinner/crawler bite.
After a couple hours of pulling plastic I decided to switch over to spoons, so I pulled everything up and redeployed a 100 percent spoon spread. I used Jet divers to take the spoons down to the strike zone and mixed up the depths by adjusting the setbacks so we were pulling them at about the same depths where the spinner/crawler rigs did the damage. The spoons certainly also produced some walleyes too, even more than the crankbaits, but they still only produced a small fraction of the fish that the spinners had done.
After a while of pulling metal, I changed back to the original spinner/crawler rigs and as soon as those rigs hit the water they were getting pounded non-stop. That experiment taught me an important lesson: Even when the walleye bite is on fire, a fine tuned spinner/crawler presentation will out produce the competition big time.
When Crawlers are a Disadvantage
There are going to be some instances when using meat will not be the smartest choice. During the very early spring, or during the cold periods of fall and winter months when the water is very frigid, slow trolled crankbaits will rule. I typically won’t start pulling meat until the crankbait bite dies during mid to late April on either Saginaw Bay or Lake Erie. Another big drawback to fishing with meat is dealing with bait steeling, “junk fish”. If white bass, white perch, sheephead or other non-target species are too abundant, then that’s when spoons or crankbaits trolled at faster speeds are ideal.
The Mess Factor
When compared to fishing with spoons or crankbaits, crawlers are much more of a pain in the butt to deal with. First, they can be expensive when you use them a lot. You can save a lot of money though by buying in bulk, or you can even pick them yourself on rainy nights during the spring for free.
Crawlers can also be very messy to deal with and they also make setting lines a lot slower. I minimize this by keeping a small cooler on the boat for crawlers. If the water is not too warm, I simply dip some lake water into the cooler and toss a dozen crawlers at a time into the water, which cleans them up nicely and also gives me a convenient place to rinse the dirt and crawler crap off my fingers. If the water is hot, I add ice to the crawler cocktail. When done fishing for the day, any unused crawlers swimming in the water are then put back into their dirt filled container until the next outing.
There are certainly a lot of color and size choices for spinner rigs that will catch a lot of walleyes. However, after trolling meat over thousands of miles of Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay, I have come to the conclusion that specific colors are not really a very important ingredient to success on most days. Sure there will be a few instances during the season when color is somewhat important, but most days one can run just about any color in the rainbow and catch equal numbers of fish on Erie or Saginaw Bay. What is certainly very important though are the components of the spinner/crawler rigs.
First let’s address taking the lure to the desired depth. 90 percent of the time I use heavy bottom bouncers for that task. By heavy I mean mostly three and four ouncers. About the only time I use lighter bottom bouncers or other types of weights is when I’m trolling over weed tops in shallow water or when I’m fishing suspended fish up high, near the surface. In those cases, I either use rubber core sinkers about five feet from the spinner or a lightweight bottom bouncer. Really, the only reason I don’t use a heavy bottom bouncer then is because my setback is too short to allow me to unhook the planer board safely or without loosing fish due to their close proximity to the fish. An 18 foot setback is the minimum I want to use.
I’m convinced that heavy bottom bouncers somehow attract walleyes, so if at all possible, that’s what I prefer to use. The only problem with big bottom bouncers though is that they can be very dangerous if the angler is careless. If a fish pops off and the rod is not in a safe position out to the side of the boat, those big lead weights, with a sharp wire protruding, become very hazardous projectiles that can easily put out an eye or worse. Therefore all fish brought in using them must be fought with a 90 degree bend in the rod out to the side of the boat so that a flying lure can’t possibly hit a person on board.
After trolling for walleyes with spinner/crawler rigs for over four decades, I have determined that walleyes just are not line shy at all. Therefore, there is no reason to use a light weight main line and especially the harness leader need not be anything but heavy duty. I use 25 pound test, Viscous, fluorocarbon line for all my spinner/crawler rigs these days. I would use 30, but I have found that 25 is the heaviest line that still allows the plastic clevises that I use to spin freely. The heavy leader is advantageous in that it is very abrasion resistant when trolled over rocks, zebra muscles, and other rough bottom materials that frequent the Great Lakes. It also holds up well on toothy fish too, like walleye and even pike that will shred lesser leader materials.
Hooks are critically important in any spinner/crawler rig. Most of the time I use single hooks unless I’m trolling for suspended walleyes in very deep water, which is when treble hooks get the nod. Treble hooks though are terrible when fished on or near the bottom where they tend to snag up on debris more. They also tangle in the net a lot worse than single hooks.
I prefer a pair of Eagle Claw, #4, bait holder hooks tied just two to three inches apart. I mostly use a half crawler threaded onto those bait holders so the barbs on the back of the hooks hold the crawler straight. I’ve done side by side testing a lot with whole or half crawlers and the halfs will out produce the whole crawlers nine times out of 10. The only time I use whole crawlers is in deep water on suspended walleyes with my treble hook rigs. Those rigs have a hook spacing of about four inches.
All of my spinners are Colorado blades with #3 size (nickel sized) being used the vast majority of the time. The only time I use larger blades is when I’m trolling for suspended walleyes over very deep water using my treble hook harnesses. On those rigs I like maximum visibility for the fish, so I go with #7 or #8 (silver dollar sized) blades then. Whole crawlers with heavier hooks are necessary to stabilize those big blades.
I can troll the smaller blades at speeds from .75 to 2.2 mph and I pull them at the fastest speed the fish will allow so I can cover more water and increase the hook to catch ratio. Bigger blades need to be trolled slower though, or they will tangle with speeds of 1 to 1.4 mph being most popular.
I use two main styles of beads on my rigs: One is just five beads strung between the hook and the clevis. This rig is what I call my more natural harness as it features beads and a blade that imitates the colors of baitfish. I also use a bright colored rig that features florescent colors for maximum attraction. Those rigs consist of a bead, then a foam rig float, then another bead all between the hook and the clevis. My favorite colors are chartreuse and florescent orange for these rigs with the blade color matching the beads/float. The rig float is much brighter than any beads and they increase the bulk and visibility of the lure.
I use a loop knot to attach the harness to a bottom bouncer or snap swivel. Hooks need to be kept super sharp. If I’m trolling them on the bottom I sharpen them every day and with the heavy leader material I use, I often wear out the hooks from constant sharpening before the line gives out. Still I can usually catch 100 walleyes with a rig before it’s toast and needs to be scrapped. When I scrap them, I keep the still usable components and recycle them.