Walleye on Downriggers? You Bet
By: Mark Romanack
Walleye are one of those species that anglers rarely try to catch with downriggers. That’s a shame because downriggers are the ultimate tool for depth control. A host of popular walleye lures can be fished effectively for walleye in the spring and summer periods.
Most anglers would agree that downriggers are a tool for catching fish when they are found in deep water. Respectfully I would say downriggers are a tool for catching fish period.
When it comes to catching walleye, not a lot of anglers have their boats equipped with downriggers. As a result, not a lot of anglers realize that walleye can be caught on downriggers just as readily as trout, salmon or steelhead.
So the 98 cent question becomes, when is it a good idea to target walleye using downriggers?
SPRING PRE-SPAWN CRANKBAITS
Early in the spring before walleye have moved shallow to spawn, they are very vulnerable to slow trolling using a variety of crankbaits. Deep diving crankbaits, deep diving cranks in combination with Snap Weights and also shallow diving plugs in combination with Snap Weights are the most popular ways anglers target walleye at this time of year.
All of these presentations fish nicely with in-line planer boards meaning a large trolling spread that covers a lot of water can be created. In this situation, the only water that isn’t being covered is the water directly behind the boat. Here is a golden opportunity to use downriggers to fish deep and shallow diving crankbaits at very precise depths. One of the biggest advantages of using downriggers is depth control, not just the fact they can be used to fish deeper than traditional trolling tactics.
SPRING POST-SPAWN SPINNERS
Immediately after spawning, walleye go on the feed bag. In Lake Erie it’s common to find walleye suspended a few feet off bottom in 30-50 feet of water. While these depths can be targeted with a host of in-line trolling weights, downriggers are perhaps the most accurate tool for fishing spinner rigs on deep water post-spawn walleye.
During the mid-summer period Great Lakes walleye are routinely going to seek out deeper and cooler waters. In some cases these fish can be reached by using deep diving crankbaits in combination with Snap Weights, but in other cases these fish are just too deep for Snap Weight fishing.
Bruiser walleye like this one caught by Jake Romanack are readily caught using downriggers in the summer time when walleye go deep.
When walleye start showing up in water 40 feet or deeper, downriggers can play a critical role in catching these fish. The beauty of a downrigger is they can be used to fish deep diving crankbaits, shallow diving crankbaits, spinner or live bait rigs and also spoons. A diving planer could also be used to get baits to these depths, but divers take most of the fun out of catching walleye. Clearly hooking a walleye on a downrigger set up that allows the angler to fight the fish without or diver or weight on the line puts the fun back into deep water walleye fishing.
DOWNRIGGER TRICKS FOR WALLEYE
The line release used when fishing a downrigger is one of the most important elements of successful downrigger fishing. Line releases used for downrigger fishing must be matched up to the size of the fish, the trolling speed and also the water depth being targeted. If the release tension is too weak, false releases will result and fish that bite will not be hooked securely.
If the release tension used is too heavy, it will be tough to detect strikes and tripping the line from the downrigger line clip can be difficult.
For slow trolling applications the Off Shore Tackle OR4 provides the ideal amount of spring tension for trolling with spinner rigs or crankbaits.
When trolling faster with crankbaits or spoons, a heavier tension downrigger line release like the Off Shore Tackle OR1 is a better option.
When using downrigger line releases, I recommend setting the lure back the desired lead length, then grab the fishing line near the rod tip. Wrap the line around your index finger and spin your finger a few times to create a loop of line. Place the twists of line into the downrigger line release jaws, letting the loop extend past the jaws about an inch.
This method of placing the line into the downrigger line release provides more purchase so the line release can firmly hold the line, but when a fish is hooked, it’s easier to trip the line from the release than simply placing the line linear between the line release jaws.
Similar to the “loop trick” used for rigging in-line planer boards, this simple option makes using downriggers easy and flawless even for light biting species like walleye.
SUMMING IT UP
The downrigger is often thought of as a product only useful for catching trout, salmon, steelhead and other deep water species. Actually, downriggers are useful for catching any fish that swims. This includes walleye a species that is rarely targeted using downriggers.