By Tom Pettengill
Forver Utah DWR Sport Fishing Coordinator
When I think of open water trolling for walleyes I think of the Great Lakes. Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron and Lake Erie are known for their open water walleye fisheries, but here in the west it's hard to imagine open water trolling for suspended walleyes.
The gizzard shad introduction into Willard Bay Reservoir changed that. The shad provide an open water forage source that is uncommon for western walleye reservoirs.
My first experience with open water walleyes at Willard Bay Reservoir was about four years ago. It was a sunny afternoon in early July. Two of us had been trolling the dikes and couldn't get a walleye to bite.
Everything that had been working failed. The gizzard shad had been spawning for over a month but the young shad were still less than 2 inches long. I decided to try trolling off shore. There were lots of shad suspended in the upper half of the water column in 22-25 feet of water. Under those shad were big fish. We headed out towards the light pole in the Northwest corner and about a half mile off shore slowed to trolling speed. Not a real slow troll. We were probably going about 2 mph. We let out about 100 feet of line with deep diving crankbaits. The crankbaits we were using that day were the small sized Wally Divers in black and silver. We hadn't gone 5 minutes and we had our first walleye in the boat. That fish was followed by 6 more walleyes in the next hour.
Ever since then I have looked forward to the last half of June and first half of July for that special time when the newly hatched shad are becoming very abundant. They are ringing the walleye dinner bell but they aren't quite large enough to dominate the menu.
The first question is where are the walleyes and how do you find them? Willard Bay has almost 10,000 acres of wide open area away from the dikes. By late June there are shad almost everywhere. If you have a fish finder start cruising around at 3-5 mph. Don't troll and don't start fishing yet! Your going to see suspended shad and larger fish close to the bottom almost everywhere. Your search should be in 22-25 feet of water. You want to find an area where you're seeing good numbers of bigger, individual fish suspended at least 4 to 5 feet up off the bottom with many around the middle of the water column (10-12 feet down). Those suspended echo's are likely feeding walleyes. At times walleyes are going to be within 5 feet of the surface. You won't see those real shallow fish.
Until you find a concentration of suspended walleyes continue your search. A concentration may be 6-10 fish in a 100 yard stretch of water. Cruise for a ¼ of a mile watching your fish finder, if you don't see what you're looking for then speed up (full speed) for about ½ mile and search again. Try to do your search methodically so you're eliminating water.
Keep this up until you find those suspended walleyes. Remember, it doesn't matter how good your technique and presentation are — if you're not fishing where the fish are you won't catch any!
Just like the hot baits are going to vary from day to day, the trolling speed required to trigger strikes is going to vary. You'll want to experiment. It's amazing how a small adjustment in speed can greatly enhance your catch. One easy way to vary speed is to zig-zag your boat as though you are following a series of S-curves. You can set your motor at a constant speed but by changing direction you are changing the speed of your lures. The lines on the outside of the curve will speed up and the lines on the inside will slow down.If you start catching all the fish on the outside lines it should tell you to speed up. The fish want a faster bait.
If you are using sinkers and spinner rigs, those lines on the outside of the curve are also going to rise up in the water column as they speed up. If fish are hitting those rising spinner rigs you may want to try a line or two even shallower. Lighten your sinkers, or change to shallower running crankbaits. The lines on the slow side will do the opposite. As their speed slows the sinkers will settle deeper. Also adjust the speed of your motor occasionally to increase or decrease the overall speed of your lures. Always troll down wind if possible. You have better control of your boat and as you slow down to land a fish the wind won't push you back into your other lines.
Open water tackle
Level-wind reels mounted on longer trolling rods are really the equipment of choice for this type of fishing. Ideal rods are 7-8.5 feet long with a light, flexible tip and good, stout butt section (down-rigger and planer board rods). These longer rods allow the lures to work well in the waves and they are flexible yet stout enough to handle good sized fish that are immediately hooked when they hit. A rod that is too stiff can rip the hooks out of a fish as soon as it is hooked.
The secret to continued success, once you find the fish and find out what they are hitting, is to be able to easily get your bait right back to the same depth where you caught the last fish. Line counting reels or metered line (monofilament) really make it easy to get your bait back out to the same depth. If you don't have these reels or line, you can count passes on your level-wind reels or back crank your spinning reel and keep track of how many turns you let out. I use line counting reels with 10 # mono.
The diameter of your line affects how deep your lures/bait will run. By having the same line on all your reels you know that two identical lures let out on the same length of line are running at the same depth (part of the repeatability).
Tie a snap (not a snap swivel) to the end of your line so you don't have to cut lines and re-tie knots. This way you can quickly change terminal tackle. A snap will make it easy to experiment until you find out what the fish want. One other device that has greatly improved my catch the last couple of years is the use of in-line planer boards. These are not planing divers; these boards stay on top and pull your lures away from the boat. These boards allow you to spread lines out over a broader area of water and they get your lures away from the boat. Some days fish are spooked by the boat. I've had days (many) that I wouldn't have caught a fish without the use of planer boards. The boards pull your lures out to the side and intercept fish fleeing from the boat.
You're going to use the same types of terminal tackle you've been using along shore — spinner rigs and crankbaits. Don't use bottom bouncer sinkers out in the open water because you're not fishing on the bottom. Remember, you've been searching for suspended fish.
Replace your bottom bouncer sinker with an in-line trolling sinker. I prefer keel sinkers. Keel sinkers are designed to help prevent line twist. You'll need sinkers in a variety of weights from 5/8 - 2 ounces. Vary the weight of the sinkers but let out the same amount of line on all the spinner rig rods. You don't need sinkers on your crankbait rods unless the crankbaits you have won't dive down to where you're seeing the fish.
You can use the same spinner rigs you were using along the dike but you can also replace the single hooks with treble hooks. You don't have to worry about snags when you're trolling in open water for suspended fish. Treble hooks will help you hook more fish. I tie my own open water rigs with two size 4-6 treble hooks. You can also use longer rigs in open water and I make mine 4-6 feet long to get the bait further from the sinker. Put a ball bearing swivel between your sinker and your rig to help prevent line twist. Whether you're buying or making your rigs, use one equipped with a plastic, quick change, clevis. This allows you to easily change spinner blades. You can experiment with different styles, sizes and colors of blades until you find what the fish prefer.
Most spinner rig fishing is done with real nightcrawlers but Berkley's 6", Tournament Strength, Power Worms (walleye scent) can make a big difference in your catch some days. There are days when walleyes prefer the Berkley Power Worms to the real thing. If the little catfish are biting you can go through several dozen real crawlers in a day. The little cats cannot steal your Power Worms. Hook the rubber worms the same way you would a real night crawler but make sure the hook points are exposed for easier hooking. With crankbaits you need to remember that this is early summer. Walleyes are seeing and feeding on small bait fish. You don't want to use big crankbaits. I like a 2-3 inch bait. Shad Raps (#5) and Wally Divers have worked great.
The new, small-sized, Berkley Frenzy's in the shallow and deep divers should be good. Like the Wally Divers, the Frenzys have rattles inside them. Shad colors, either silver with black back or natural shad colors work most days. Occasionally some other metallic colors will work better (gold, blue, etc.).
Use both shallow runners and deep divers depending on the depth of the walleyes. Most crankbaits reach close to their maximum diving depth with approximately 100-120 feet of line out. You can vary the amount of line you let out to adjust the depth of your lure. One very useful book for this type of fishing or any trolling is: The Troller's Bible, Precision Trolling, by Holt and Romanack. This book has dive charts for about every crankbait you'll use. It also covers many other aspects of trolling.
Trolling: If two of you are fishing and you have your Two Pole licenses you can have four poles out. Begin by putting two rods out with spinner rigs and two with crankbaits. Vary colors. You want the walleyes to tell you what they prefer. Use crankbaits that dive to different depths. Maybe one shallow diver and one deep diver. Vary colors of your spinners and crankbaits. If the sun is out and the water is relatively clear use metallic colored spinners and shad or metallic colored cranks. In cloudy or turbid water try lighter or brightly colored baits. If you're fishing directly behind the boat let out about 100 feet of line to start with. If you're using planer boards you can fish as close as 25 feet from a board that is 75-100 feet from the boat. Length of line deployed depends on the depth of the fish. Troll between 1.5-2.5 mph.
With spinner rigs you cannot troll more than 2.5 mph without really twisting your line. Once you start catching fish you may want to throw out a marker as a reference point. Not to mark a specific spot but the general area of the concentration of fish. You'll need something to reference your location. It's amazing how far you can move over open water without realizing it. If you have a GPS unit with a plotter you can save a Waypoint where you caught a fish and re-trace your plotter's path without marking your spot for other anglers to see. Once you pick up a couple of fish on the same lure then switch most of the rods over to what they are hitting, with the same weight sinkers, the same amount of line out, etc. Notice I said most of the rods. Just when you think you have the walleyes figured out they are likely to change. So keep experimenting with one rod. Try different lures, different colors and different depths. If your bite slows or you really start getting the fish on something else then switch the majority of the rods to the new hot system. If the bite slows all together but the fish are still under you then start experimenting with the other rods.
So now you know the basics of open water trolling for walleyes. Get out on Willard Bay Reservoir this summer and enjoy some open water fishing.