Walleye anglers must be in control of both the depth and the speed of their presentation in order to consistently put fish in their boats. One technique that can be used to target walleyes from shallow current-swept areas in rivers to the deep off-shore waters of the great lakes is trolling with leadcore line, or “pulling lead”. Leadcore line is often used as a delivery method for medium- to fast-paced crankbaits, but other baits, such as slowly-presented spinners rigs tipped with live bait or thin flutterspoons, are suited equally well to leadcore trolling. In this article, I will illustrate the methods I use to catch walleye and sauger by pulling lead in rivers, inland lakes, and reservoirs. I will describe how you should select and rig your leadcore tackle, how to deploy baits and land fish, how to manage multiple leadcore lines as part of a trolling spread, and how to identify times and locations where pulling lead can put more walleye and sauger in your boat.
Leadcore line, rods, reels, and rigging
Leadcore line is, in fact, two lines in one. The inner portion of leadcore line is a thin strand of lead. The lead ensures that the line itself will sink, but the lead affords no strength to the line whatsoever. All of the strength of leadcore line comes from the braided nylon sheath that encompasses the inner strand of lead. Leadcore line is commonly available in three strengths: 18, 27, and 36 lb test. While my days of pulling lead began with 18 lb test, I have recently transitioned to 27 lb test in an effort to rescue a few more cranks per year from cribs and snags. The color of the nylon sheath changes every 10 yards, which makes it possible to “count colors” when deploying baits rigged on leadcore…more on that topic later. Due to the amount of leadcore trolling that I do as a guide or while fishing tournaments, I tend to replace my leadcore on an annual basis.
Leadcore rods should have a sensitive tip section to allow an angler to read bait action without having to handle the rod or sweep the rod forward. They should also have enough strength and backbone to be able to handle the stresses that pulling lead can place on equipment. These properties can now be found in rods having a variety of lengths, allowing an angler to deploy multiple leadcore lines while minimizing the propensity for tangles. My leadcore arsenal features three different lengths of rods. First, I have a pair of Jason Mitchell “shorty” rods (JMST5LC), which are 5 foot rods specifically designed for use with lead. Next, I have a pair of 8 foot, telescoping Jason Mitchell trolling rods (JMST80MF), which feature a very sensitive tip section and do an outstanding job of telegraphing bait action. I have also used trolling rods from St. Croix (PGT80MM) of the same length with good success. Finally, I have a pair of 14 foot Jason Mitchell trolling rods (JMST14M) that I use on those occasions when pulling six leadcore lines is required, or when I want to move a pair of baits as far away from the boat as possible without using planar boards. My recommendation to anglers who are new to leadcore is to get set up with shorter rods first, and then add longer rods as their interest in (and success with) pulling lead grows. All of these rods (and more), in addition to leadcore line and the reels described below, are available from Dean Marshall at Everts Fishing Resort; ask about Dean’s “fish before you buy” program!
All of my leadcore rods feature linecounter reels. On my 8- and 14-foot rods, I have Diawa Sealine 47 reels (SG47LCA), while my shorties are equipped with Diawa Sealine 27’s (SG27LCA-W). When choosing a reel, ensure that it has solid construction to handle the physical stress of leadcore, as well as a good drag system. Although leadcore line changes color every 10 yards, I still prefer to use linecounter reels to ensure that I can precisely duplicate the amount of leadcore line I have deployed during an effective trolling pass, rather than relying solely on “counting colors”.
Rigging your new leadcore tackle with line is only slightly more complex that filling a spinning or baitcasting reel with monofilament or braid. First, the reel requires a small amount of backing: a monofilament layer between the spool and the leadcore, to prevent the nylon sheath from slipping against the metal spool. I lay down one or two passes of 10 lb test Trilene XT before I add my leadcore. Next, connect the backing to the leadcore. Knots to leadcore line are tied only with the sheath and not the lead strand. Pull the nylon sheath back to expose a 2-3 inch section of lead, pinch off the lead, and then use the lead-free sheath for tying knots. Use a blood knot to join the backing to the leadcore, neatly trim the tag ends of the knot, and then add the leadcore to your reel. The leadcore should be added relatively slowly and under constant pressure. It is also helpful to have the spool of leadcore line directly in line with the reel, so that no kinks or twists are generated as the leadcore is added to the reel. I can add about 10 colors of 18 lb test leadcore to my Sealine 47s, and about 8 colors of the slightly thicker 27 lb test lead; my Sealine 27s hold just about half as much line as the larger capacity Sealine 47s.
Once you have added the desired quantity of lead to your reel, attach a leader. Monofilament or a braid/superline can be used as a leader. I used Berkley Fireline Crystal (14 lb test) last year for my leaders and was very impressed. Fireline is more abrasion resistant than mono (which makes it a good choice in waters where Zebra Mussels are prevalent), and allows me to land more toothy critters like pike and musky than a mono leader would. Typical leader lengths range from 6-10 feet on the bodies of water I frequent, to 30 feet or more on ultra-clear bodies of water. To connect the leader to the leadcore, use a blood knot, a Willis knot, or a very small ball bearing swivel. I favor a swivel over the knots as the swivel helps to prevent messy line twists and kinks caused by a fouled crankbait or a small fish flopping on the surface behind the boat. Finally, add a small cross-lock snap using a Palomar knot, and you’re ready to go pull some lead!
Getting down to business: deploying baits and landing fish using leadcore line
No matter which type of bait (crankbait, spinner rig, or flutterspoon) you attach to that terminal cross-lock snap, it is important to recognize that the depth achieved by that bait will be influenced by two factors: the amount of leadcore line you have deployed behind the boat, and the speed at which your boat is traveling. A primary benchmark is that leadcore line will provide approximately 5 feet of depth for every color of line deployed at 2 mph. Thus, to reach a target depth of 20 feet, I will need to deploy about 4 colors of lead if I’m trolling at 2 mph. More depth will be achieved at slower speeds, and less depth at faster speeds, due to the balance between the drag of the relatively thick leadcore line being pulled through the water and the inherent sinking action caused by the inner lead strand.
Let’s imagine that you intend to pull a crankbait on lead…perhaps the most common application of leadcore trolling. To do so, attach your crankbait of choice to the snap on your leader, place the bait in the water to check its action/tuning beside the boat, and then start to deploy leadcore from your reel. Leadcore line will deploy slowly from the reel; loosen the spool tension to allow line to be deployed at a reasonable pace. Be aware that when line is deployed too quickly, a leadcore bird nest may result. Such bird nests are not only challenging to fix, but they also shorten the lifespan of the leadcore line itself, as kinks in the inner lead strand can easily penetrate the outer nylon sheath. Patience in deploying baits is a virtue and will help keep your annual bill for leadcore line to a minimum. I will often deploy baits at a faster speed than I intend to troll (keeping in mind the depth/speed benchmark noted above) to get the desired amount of line into the water faster, and then slow my troll down to my target speed once all baits are deployed. Once you reach your target speed in the area you want to fish, adjust the amount of line deployed to keep the bait at the desired depth. For example, if I am whacking bottom constantly at 20 feet deep with 4 colors of lead and a boat speed of 2.0 mph, I will crank up a few turns of line to eliminate most bottom contact (although, sometimes stirring the bottom up can be an effective way to trigger bites, especially from sumo Mississippi River sauger). Once you have your bait at the right depth , moving at the right speed, over or near the right structure, it’s time to place the rod in a holder and await the bite. Adjust the rod tip so that it is parallel to or pointing towards the surface of the water; doing so will eliminate some of the belly of slack line that can develop between the rod tip and the surface of the water.
When a fish bites, it is not generally necessary to set the hook; the forward motion of the bait and the action of the rod is normally enough to drive the hooks home. Part of achieving a good hookset is the drag setting on the leadcore reels. I have my drag set “snug”, which means that I can only remove line against the drag with a slow, steady, but forceful pull. It is this resistance that will assist in setting the hooks. A drag that is set too loose will result in more lost fish. While I tend to not change my drag setting, there are times when I will give a pronounced hookset when pulling lead. These times tend to be when I am pulling lead slowly, early or late in the season during the cool water periods. Such a slow trolling speed will sometimes not generate enough resistance for hooks to be set snugly without some assistance from the angler. A smooth, forward sweeping hookset is all that is required under these circumstances.
When landing a fish, a moderate paced, steady retrieve is all that is required. Resist the temptation to “pump and crank” or to reel so fast that the fish starts to ski on the surface, tens of yards behind the boat. The steady retrieve will ensure that the leadcore line is laid down evenly on the reel, which will be helpful when you redeploy the line after the fish is landed. Also, because leadcore line has no stretch, you want to ensure that the rod has the opportunity to absorb any surges or headshakes made by the fish.
Leadcore’s place in a trolling spread
When fishing with a guest, a tournament partner, or a client, I will often incorporate a number of leadcore lines into a multi-line trolling spread. In Wisconsin, where three baits are allowed per angler, I will routinely pull six baits when fishing with one other angler. These six baits will be rigged on a combination of leadcore lines and flat lines (often four leadcore lines and two flatlines), but sometimes on as many as six leadcore lines. Managing this number of lines and baits requires patience and attention to detail, if you intend to spend your time on the water by landing fish rather than by untangling nasty leadcore snarls.
Rod length and position within the boat are primary contributors to successful inclusion of leadcore lines in a six-line trolling spread. Your “shorties” should be in holders at the corners of the boat, where the gunnels intersect the transom. While you may choose to point your shorties straight back behind the boat, I normally have them pointed at a slight angle, perhaps 30 degrees, so that there is some bend in the rod. This bend will allow me to read the action of the bait, and will also help to increase hooking percentages. The next rods in the spread will be your eight-foot “middle” rods. These will be pointed directly out the sides of the boat, at 90 degree angles to the gunnels. Finally, your most forward presentations can either be a pair of flatlines (rigged on long rods, like the St. Croix Wild River WC106MMF2), or a third pair of leadcore lines rigged on long leadcore rods, like the Jason Mitchell 14-footers.
When setting up a typical trolling pass, my partner and I will start by deploying the flatlines. I often run smaller baits on the flatlines, like a #5 shad rap or #5 jointed shad rap. We run these baits 175-225 feet behind the boat. With that amount of line deployed, these small baits will run at moderate depth (10-14 feet) and be far behind the inner spread of leadcore lines. I run a pair of flatlines to target any high-riding fish that leadcore presentations (often in the lowest 5 feet of the water column) would miss. When the flatlines are deployed, we add the middle leadcore rods to the spread, deploying those baits off the sides of the boat. Finally, we add the inner “shorty” rods, taking care to ensure that these baits are deployed straight behind the boat and not tangling with the middle leadcore lines. As long as your boat is moving in a straight line and your baits are all in tune, you should be able to deploy six baits in this manner without getting tangled. Likewise, you can keep your lines untangled longer if your turns are wide and gentle, rather than fast and sharp.
When you start picking up fish with your trolling spread, it is important to land the fish in such a way that tangles are avoided. Thus, if you hook a fish on an inner “shorty”, keep that rod tip pointed out the back of the boat, bringing the fish to the boat directly behind the motor. A quality landing net with an extendable handle, like the Beckman BT222863, will make reaching for those “shorty” fish a bit easier. Keep fish hooked on the middle and forward rods off to the sides of the boat by maintaining a 90 degree angle between the rod and the gunnel, and net the fish at the side of the boat rather than out the stern. When a fish is hooked, do not throw the motor into neutral. Doing so will cause all of your remaining leadcore lines to sink and potentially get snagged or tangled. Unless you perceive that your fish is exceptionally large, keep moving forward at your original speed. Should you decide that a moving boat is placing too much stress on a hooked fish, quickly reel in your remaining leadcore lines before throwing the motor into neutral. You’ll be surprised at how many doubles (and triples!) you will experience when you leave the rest of your baits in the water while landing a hooked fish. You’ll remember your first “quad” for years to come!
When and where to pull lead
I pull lead successfully in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Rather than being a one-dimensional, deep-water technique, my experience with leadcore has taught me that pulling lead is as versatile a technique as other classic walleye presentations. I will leave it to you to discover how to best incorporate leadcore trolling into your walleye angling arsenal. However, here are a couple of hints to get you moving in the right direction.
First, anytime fish are scattered along a deep flat in a lake or reservior, break out the lead.
Second, anytime fish are scattered along in a current swept, washboard bottom in a river, it’s leadcore time.
Third, anytime fish are located tight to a steep dropoff, either at its base or along the face of the drop, leadcore can help those fish find the bottom of the net.
In closing, allow me to make a recommendation regarding a consistently hot bite that will help you move from a leadcore novice to an experience puller of lead. Lake Pepin hosts an outstanding leadcore bite for walleye and sauger once summer water temperatures rise into the upper 60s to 70s. Fish will orient at the base of near-shore drop offs in 22-25 feet of water. Use the wind to your advantage: pull lead along the base of the drop that is catching the most wind, and troll with the wind rather than into it. Pull baits from 2-3.5 mph (or faster), and vary the types of baits deployed until you find the hot colors and bait styles for that particular trip. I guarantee that you’ll have enough positive reinforcement from Pepin’s walleyes and saugers to help you gain experience and confidence in pulling lead.
So, get out there and pull some lead this season. Let us know how you’re doing, and feel free to drop me an e-mail at Jason@JasonHalfenOutdoors.com with your leadcore questions or success stories!
Daytime fishing for walleyes during the warm summer months often means live bait rigging near deep water structure, extracting fish from well-developed weed beds, or targeting suspended fish with cranks or spinners. As the sun dips towards the horizon, however, the shallow water areas that were devoid of walleyes during midday once again come alive with marble-eyed predators. Walleyes are drawn shallow under the cover of darkness because of the abundant food sources present along shorelines, particularly panfish and small perch. In this article, I will describe my primary presentation for these summer night shift walleyes, and how you can apply this presentation to your particular body of water.
Before I talk fishing, let me provide a bit of context. One lake that occupies my attention during the summer is a ~ 1600 acre “up north” lake with a 12 foot Secchi disk measurement….a very clear body of water. This lake features abundant shallow weedbeds extending to 12-15 feet, composed primarily of cabbage and coontail. Classic deep water structure in the form of humps, gravel beds or reefs, however, is essentially absent. Our daytime walleye fishing on this lake typically takes the form of pitching bait (leeches and crawler halves) to the weed edges on Draggin’ Jigs from B-Fish-N tackle. The short plastic hookguard on these jigs, designed to deflect wood and rocks in a river environment, does an excellent job of allowing the baited jig to slither along the weed edges, seducing walleye and largemouth bass from their weedy residences. After dinner, however, the jig poles find their way back into the rod locker, in favor of crankbait rods for our dusk and after-dark work.
Crankbaits fished under the cover of darkness will likely come as no surprise to you. A classic fall pattern for big walleyes is to longline troll stickbaits over shallow rock and weeds. Post-spawn male walleyes are typically susceptible to trolled cranks in the shallows as the inland seasons open in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My after-dark crankbait fishing during the warm summer months typically relies on casting, however, rather than trolling. In my experience, these summer fish do not tend to scatter over wide areas in the shallows. Rather, they focus their feeding efforts on a small number of key locations, and casting cranks to these areas is more efficient than trolling through them. Trolling would also miss the large numbers of fish that are found within a foot or two of shore…and I do mean LARGE numbers of fish. Later in this article, I’ll talk about one of the technological tools that helps me identify these prime shallow water feeding locations, making me a more efficient and successful walleye angler.
I start my hunt for warm water nighttime walleyes by looking for areas that feature 50-100 feet of relatively weed-free water between shore and the offshore weedbeds. I’m targeting areas with a distinct inner weed edge, rather than shorelines where the thick weeds start a few feet offshore and continue to the shoreline dropoff. Typically, my target areas feature hard bottoms of sand or gravel, rather than muck that would support lily pads or similar shallow water vegetation. Typical depths in these target areas are only 3-4 feet at the inner weed edge. My target areas also feature a relatively sharp shoreline “lip” rather than a gradual change in depth, like you might find at a sandy beach. The lip helps walleyes to corral baitfish against an obstruction, which likely explains the large numbers of walleyes that we catch within 5 feet of shore.
The characteristics noted above eliminate a considerable percentage of the shoreline in my 1600 acre lake. However, it would still take me many seasons of trial and error to find the key feeding locations within these target areas. The tool that helps me focus my efforts on the key walleye-attracting areas is my Humminbird Side Imaging sonar…allow me to explain how. Our years of past experience had taught us that we could reliably catch walleyes after dark in a limited number of spots, and that these walleyes were often concentrated in very small areas…perhaps the size of a boat. From the surface, these areas appear no different from other stretches of water within the same target areas. However, Humminbird’s Side Imaging technology demonstrated that there was something very different about EVERY SINGLE ONE of these walleye-attracting, “spots-on-the-spot”: wood. We found sunken logs in each of the spots that reliably produced walleyes for us after dark. If we continued fishing down the shoreline within the same target areas, the absence of sunken wood translated perfectly into an absence of catchable walleyes. Knowing that sunken wood along a particular type of shoreline was a key walleye attractant, we spent a few days scanning ALL of the shorelines, looking for a combination of appropriate depth, a distinct inner weed edge, and sunken wood. Now, we have a milk runoff 5-6 key “spots-on-the-spot” that we can hit after dark, providing consistent summertime walleye action for us in the absence of the blazing sun, water skiers, personal watercraft, and 95% of summer anglers. Sunken wood may not be the key for you on your body of water. Perhaps it will be an isolated patch of weeds or a rockpile along an otherwise featureless shoreline. Maybe it will be a small secondary depth transition between the shore and the inner weed edge. Whatever that walleye-attracting factor turns out to be, it will be something distinctly different than the surrounding structure, and Humminbird’s Side Imaging technology will help you find it.
Now that I have my spots identified, it’s time to fish. My favorite tackle combination for this style of fishing is my St. Croix Legend Xtreme 69MLF rod, paired with a Pflueger Supreme reel, spooled with 8 lb test Fireline Crystal. This combination lets me fire cranks towards the shore from considerable distances, preventing me from spooking these shallow water fish. The medium-light St. Croix rod is extremely sensitive, yet very forgiving with a big fish boatside. I use a cross-lock snap to connect the line to my crankbait of choice. With our lake’s shallow water panfish forage base, I tend to favor Rapala Shallow Shad Raps in the #5 (early summer) and #7 (mid-summer) sizes, although we have also enjoyed success with Rapala Team Esko cranks. A long cast followed by a steady, moderate-paced retrieve is typically all that is required to elicit strikes from these feeding, shallow-water walleyes. We try to place our casts within a couple feet of the shore, and fish the baits all the way back to the boat. Many strikes occur within the first couple of reel cranks, demonstrating that feeding fish can be found chasing bait tight to the shoreline. I will vary my retrieve speed, not within a single cast, but over a series of multiple casts to see if the walleyes are more responsive to a slow retrieve or to a more aggressive one. Keep your rod tip parallel to the water, and set hooks with a firm, sweeping hookset to move hooked fish rapidly away from any remaining fish that are still on the feed.
Before you hit the water on a summer evening, ensure that you are prepared for your nighttime angling experience. I stow all of the extra gear (rods, tackle boxes, etc) that I know I won’t use that evening. I make sure that my navigation lights are in working order, and that PFDs are available for and worn by all of my guests. Headlamps and flashlights are must-have items for nighttime angling…and don’t forget a camera with a good flash! Make sure that the net and unhooking tools are accessible too, as you’ll likely need them. Drive to and from your spots slowly and with care. Finally, when you release fish in the warm shallow waters of summer, please spend the time necessary to ensure a successful release. Larger fish in particular will need some time boatside with your support before they can swim away on their own. Summertime walleye fishing after dark is a GREAT way to cap a warm summer day. You will likely enjoy some multi-species action as a bonus, with largemouth and smallmouth bass, musky, and pike also being available in the shallows once the sun goes down. So get out there and enjoy…and let us know how you did!