Mid and Late Summer Crankbaits
The 4th of July is now behind us, summer is heating up and the fishing on Sakakawea is going strong. In my last few trips to the lake I have noticed water temps over 70 degrees on the main lake and approaching 75 in the bays. The lake is in a very interesting transition at the moment. The last few weeks have proceeded some major thunderstorms and with it, lots of rain. Due to this rain and runoff, the lake has risen a few feet. Normally this time of year, you will see majority of the fish leaving the bays, heading to main lake structure like deep edges, humps and deep points, but with the rising water, plenty of fish are still in the bays.
When these fish do finally make their way to the summer depths, my absolute favorite way to fish them is with crank baits. A couple things happen that make this pattern successful. The fish will get on deep structure and spread out. You might mark a fish on your finder and then go a hundred yards or more before marking the next fish. While you can catch these fish on a live bait rig, you are slowing down the frequency of when you get your bait in front of them. This is what makes crank bait fishing in the summer so effective, you simply come into contact with more fish.
Lets talk about the "where" in this pattern. This pattern can be effective from 20 all the way down to 50 or even 60 feet of water. I find that most of my success comes from 25-40 feet. Look at your lake map and find any place with deep drop offs, especially if it is close to the main river channel. The smelt use this as their highway when traveling, and when the smelt travel, the walleyes will be right with them. The steep edge below is a great place for this tactic.
I attack these fish using planer boards and if necessary trolling weights. First, lets talk about the planer boards. I don't see them used very often on the lake, but they are such an asset to have. If I have a partner in the boat and can fish a total of four rods, they really help in keeping crankbaits from getting tangled up, and also help cover different water depths. Here is a scenario I run frequently with my partner. I will troll a planer board off each side of the boat, and flat fline a trolling rod off the back corner on each side. The board on the inside(shoeline side of the boat) will be running more shallow than the depth the boat is in. So imagine I am keeping the boat in 25' of water, but the inside board is now far enough to the side, it's in 20' of water. Now I have two rods flatlining back in 25' of water, and then my outside board(side of the boat facing away from shore) can be let out far enough to cover a different depth, maybe 30-35' of water. So now just by using the boards, I am able to cover multiple depths at one time.
The trick I have learned using boards, is that the amount of line behind the board needs to be more than the amount let out on the flat line rods. This works because, majority of the time when a walleye hits a crankbait, there mouth gets forced upen and they plane to the top of the water. If you keep your engine in gear, the walleye will come to the top of the water and come in right behind the boat and stay over top of your other lines. It's effective because you can keep trolling while you are fighting the fish, and the resistence the boat creates on the fish by moving forward will help keep the hooks firmly in place.
The above picture is an example of how I run my boards. You can see the one rod with the board out to the side and the other is flatlined back behind the boat.
The second big point I want to make here is now is the time to put away the lead core. I keep two extra reels spooled with no stretch line and make the switch this time of of year. Don't get me wrong, lead core works and is a great solution to getting crank baits down to deeper depths, but it has limitations, the biggest of them being your trolling speed. Lead core is great for trolling around 2.0mph or slower, but once you start to to go faster, due to the thickness of the line diameter, lead core will start to rise in the water column from the increased drag. And believe me, you want to start trolling faster. These fish are in some of the warmest water temps they will see all year, their metabolism is fired up and they are hungry.
Trolling speed, why do I mention it? Well, it's a big key to this tactic in this lake. First, more speed means you cover more water and will put your baits in front of more fish. Secondly, this lake is so full of smelt right now, that there are times you just need to make them bite. I have caught so many fish these last few years that on the cleaning table have 4 or more smelt in their stomach but still hit a big crank bait. I don't think it is because they are still hungry, but that they just reacted to a bait screaming by them. How do I make them bite? Well, I pick up my trolling speed, 2.5 to even 3.0mph is where I live. I will admit, I have had some goofy looks from other boats as I cruise by as 3.0mph, rods about bent in half pulling my baits along. Their faces change very quickly, when the boards get yanked back and rods about get pulled out of the holder on the bite. At these speeds, the strikes are violent. The fish just smash these baits. I think at these speeds it doesn't give the walleye as much time to think about eating and strike at the bait the same way you get a reaction strike from a jigging rap. It's an absolute blast!
The other items I keep in my trolling game are my trolling weights. I keep 1oz, 2oz and 3oz weights in the boat. This is why I saw you can get away from lead core. At these speeds you need something to help get those small baits down when you are fishing 25' or deeper. I use my 2 and 3oz weights religiously for this. Say I'm wanting to get a small #5 flicker shad down to 30 feet. In the lead core world, I might need 180' of line or more depending on if you run a leader, but if I let out 30' of line and clip on my 3oz weight, I might only need to let out another 50' for a total of 80'. It keeps things so much simpler and faster. When I get a fish, I don't have to take so much time to reel in, and when I'm letting my bait back out, the process is much faster. The weight really allows me to be more efficient in keeping my baits in the water. Also, that 3oz weight stays down at the speeds you are running. Of course, if you slow down that weight will start to bump bottom, but at 2.5 to 3mph I can clip on that 3oz weight, let it out until it hits bottom, reel up about 10' of line and go. I now know my bait is in the strike zone and will stay there no matter what speed I run.
Lastly, lets talk about baits. Fishing this deep and using boards and trolling weights really gives you the option to fish any bait you want. I may run a reef runner 800 or flicker minnow #11 behind my outside board since these baits can get to 30' on there own, while running smaller baits off my flat lines with trolling weights to keep them down and closer to the boat and then maybe a medium size crank like a flicker minnow #7 or 9 behind my inside board. Fishing this way really lets me mix and match the size and profile of the baits I'm using until I find what it is that they want to eat. I do find though that as summer moves on into August the bigger crank baits become more effective and catch some really big fish.
Give this tactic a try next time you are out or when the live bait bite gets tough and you may just get hooked on trolling cranks.
See you on the water an happy fishing.