What do you get when you put FLW Walleye Tour professionals Dean Arnoldussen, Tom Keenan and John Gillman together? How about 60 years of spinner pulling and over 1.5 million dollars in career earnings! Gillman has more top-five finishes in Great Lakes tournaments than the next five guys combined. Meanwhile, Arnoldussen and Keenan are one, two in all-time money winnings. You can see why I was a little eager to find out what they do different when money is on the line.
Impressive resumes aside, I have been fortunate to spend a little water time which each pro and see what exactly they do differently. I can relate as many of my own guide clients expect to see me pull out a secret box of spinner blades, or scent. Now here I was asking the same questions that have had me giving weird looks to clients for years. When asking the talented trio questions such as, what makes you so good at what you do, I received surprising responses. It is not a magical blade, color, or rock pile, but put simply, know what you do, and do what you know. Most of us would agree there is no substitute for experience rather one cuts wood or fishes for a living. The keys that allow these Pros to consistently produce are taking advantage of what they get, and their incredible work ethic.
One in the hand – worth two in the bush
Shocked is the best word to describe what the trio believes is the easiest and best thing to improve success with spinners. In Keenan’s own words, “I’ve seen more than a few good fisherman have more than forty pounds hanging on their boards and never know they were ever there”. A bold statement, but unfortunately true. So how does an angler go from oblivion to bite recognition? The answer is board modification and knowing how they should react to bites, weeds, small fish, etc. Arnoldussen is a fanatic when it comes to adjusting his tattle flag springs. “A spilt shot, ½ oz and 1oz in-line will all act differently on the board, by fine tuning it not only will you see bites more easily, it allows you to stay more productive by not dragging around weeds or small junk fish. Gillman agrees that adjusting flags is productive, but opts to keep his tattle flags on the same “custom” tension regardless of what he pulls. “I definitely see an advantage to the tattle flags, mainly because of the way it changes the direction the fish pulls the board. But, I’ve spent so many hours pulling those yellow things around; I just have a feel for what’s right and what’s not”. Then there is Keenan, who doesn’t use tattle flags at all, which he was quick to point out that he has been pulling boards around longer than I have been walking. While that may not exactly be true, it does illustrate that if you do anything long enough you will develop a certain comfort zone. While all three Pro’s don’t agree on how to set up boards, they were in agreement that the easiest way to shorten the learning curve is to use tattle flags and spend time on the water. While it seems silly to think one doesn’t know that they have an 8lb plus fish on, as a guide I see it almost weekly. Often times the largest fish in the system will just hang on or swim with the boat, which leads us to the next problem, the hookup.
I was very interested myself to hear how the trio handles the initial strike and the moments just after. As this is something that I play with constantly in order to improve my landing ratio. Keenan was quick to remind me that ones landing ratio should not look like a 3pt shooting percentage at the local YMCA. Funny, but true. Keenan admits that he can count the fish he’s lost on spinners in the last few years during tournaments on one hand. “The first few seconds after the fish strikes is where most fish are lost. Even if the fish isn’t lost right away, the wrong move at this time will cause one to eventually lose the fish.” While all three are quick to say that they believe that no one system will be best for all situations, they fall back on their preferred methods. For Keenan and Arnoldussen, this means waiting a few seconds and then reeling down quickly with the rod still in the rod holder. Arnoldussen believes that this allows them to get better hook penetration, or if the fish comes off, they can quickly free spool, which they frequently get the fish the second time. In Arnoldussen’s words, “by getting the good hook penetration from the beginning, I feel more confident when fighting the fish back to the boat”. Gillman is the black sheep on this one as he quickly picks up the rod and reels down on the slack and gauges how much pressure he can put on the fish with a slow short sweep of the rod. Gillman uses this method because he believes that under a wide array of circumstances it allows him to most quickly adapt. “By having the rod in my hand I can judge how much pressure to put on the fish, or if he is coming at me, and most importantly drop a few feet of line if the fish comes off immediately”. If it’s any consolation to Gillman this is my personal preferred method as well, the caveat being that a little experience is required to determine what is “allowed” pressure, and unfortunately that means losing a few fish to shorten the leaning curve.
Now that we have them hooked up the trio has a few rather unconventional ways of getting them into the boat. Chuckling, Keenan says, “I’d like to think I’m smarter than my drag, only to have teammate Gillman chine in with “Tom I know I’m smarter than my drag”. End result is three guys that fish with a drag so tight you’d need a pair of channel locks to get any more out of it. My jaw about dropped as I have always fished with a rather loose drag. Don’t however believe that these guys horse the fish in. Before Keenan even opened his mouth I knew he was going to pick on Arnoldessen, “Dean plays fish so long he has hooked them in one area code only to land them in another, sometimes I think he just puts them to sleep he plays them so long”. It is common for both Keenan and Arnoldussen to free spool a running or head shaking fish, especially in the warmer water periods. Gillman, who also fishes with a slightly looser drag, tends to use his arms and the rod as the shock absorber.
The one thing that all three can agree on is rod selection, while they all use different manufactures, they have identical characteristics. They all run 8’6 soft tipped rods with enough backbone to hold and ride the planer boards. The length allows for more of a shock absorber, and keeps the line off the water as to not allow the line to catch in a wave and surge the lure more than necessary.
The success of these Pro’s goes to show one that you need not have certain brand equipment, but more importantly know how to use what you have and have a system to duplicate. This allows one to more effectively benefit from their experience. All three Pro’s echoed each other by impressing on me that the best way to get more fish in the boat is a not a radically new lure or device, but taking advantage of the bites you got and the ones you didn’t know you had.
The harder you work– The luckier you get
When I return from guiding or fishing a tournament many of my non-fishing friends ask me if I had a nice vacation, not knowing how much work is involved in spinner fishing. After watching Keenan and Gillman in the boat for a day I can only conclude that Ranger must change out the carpeting on their boats several times each year. Personally fishing with hundreds of people each year no one is even close to me when it comes to setting lines out, until you see Keenan and Gillman in the flesh. Gillman freely admits that he often puts out six of the eight lines when he is running slider lines, not to impress to fishing partners but because he has caught so many fish as soon as he sets up through the years, that it’s an advantage to get lines in the water quickly. “I try and go full speed everyday, not just on tournament days, its just how I’m wired, and I believe that I catch more fish because of it”. One thing that Gillman has become known for is “crashing”, which essentially means driving your boat into structure until all lines are hung up or hooked up. The disadvantage is that it takes a lot of work. “In a typical tournament day I may pick up and crash thirty or more times”. I personally have witnessed Gillman’s track lines, which more closely resemble a bowl of spaghetti than anything else.
Keenan believes that the number one mistake made by spinner fisherman new and old alike is not checking lines enough. On lake Winnebago this may be due to weeds, on Erie it may be due to small white bass, whatever the case keeping lines in the water clean of junk with a fresh crawler is priority one.
Arnoldussen feels that becoming complacent will seriously hurt ones fishing. “It seems like there is a fine line between being patience and being flat out lazy. I think the thing that works best for me is switching three out of my four lines to the “productive number”. This allows me to get that extra bite or two in a day. But some days it just flat out wears you out”.
While we touched on it earlier strike/board detection is extremely critical. Those that wait for boards to go under or think that it isn’t a strike unless the flag goes down will miss countless strikes. Paying close attention to your boards will pay huge dividends in the livewell. My day in the boat with Gillman led me to believe he was part chicken as his eyes constantly patrolled the boards. Just another example of how little things often make the biggest differences.
While still in my teens I was jig fishing with a true legend of the sport and was being out fished about ten to one. When I asked him what I needed to do different he responded by asking me to get the net, again, and told me to give it another ten years of boat time. It wasn’t until several years later that I really understood what he meant when I was in the same situation, with the shoe being on a different foot. The advice from the talented trio is different because one can go out and immediately implement their “system”. Fishing with spinners can be made much easier when making a few simple changes in your current system. At the risk of sounding like an after school special, you have to admit there is a problem before you can solve it.
Here are some spinners to check out: