Before Tom Cruise was jumping on couches, he said that he felt “the need for speed.” While Cruise may have meant mach three, speed for FLW pro John Gillman of Freeland, Michigan is a blistering 1.2 mph, and for Great Lakes charter captains, it could be 2.5 mph. Speed is relative; therefore, in this article, it will be classified as slow, medium, and fast. On paper this translates to 1, 1.5, and 2 mph for me. Walleye fisherman live in a game of tenths, and you will become a better fisherman by mastering these three speeds and the accompanying techniques for their range.
It’s hard to quantify how many different factors come into play when choosing a trolling speed or range. With this said, the most reliable piece of evidence is water temperature. Just after ice-out, dipsies and spoons have no place on the boat. Instead, use a little common sense and look to slow speeds. Playing devil’s advocate, common sense does not always apply to fishing or firetiger cranks and pink panty spoons would not be all the rage. With that said, sometimes experience is all anglers have to rely on. After all, on Bay de Noc, walleye in May are in different moods than on Lake Erie at the same time; however, this is mainly due to water temperature, not the calendar.
If I could only run one speed all year, it would be 1mph, and for two-thirds of the year, this would likely work out just fine. The other third would definitely have more than a few rough spot as no one tool will work for all jobs. Many techniques are just not feasible at this slow speed due to the lack of juice. Jets and Divers are some of the first things to come to mind, as they need speed in order to work as intended.
Start out at this magic number just after ice-out when water temperatures are in the upper thirties. These temperatures can make even the best lake trying. Luckily, it usually takes only a few weeks to get to the magical number of forty degrees. It is at this time that pre-spawn fish become more active and start to congregate near spawning their grounds. This time of year one need not be a rocket scientist to start out slower, but what does it take to trigger strikes? Walleye pro Bob Henton of Spartansburg, Pennsylvania, a died-in-the-wool spinner man if there ever was one, has proven the early period is best fished with crankbaits pulled extremely slow. “For whatever reason, big ‘eyes sure do react to plastic pulled slow right out of the gate,” Henton said.
This was the predominant pattern of the 2008 Lake Erie event of the Walmart FLW Walleye Tour presented by Berkley. Nothing lasts forever, and this bite was no exception. Both Henton and I used this technique to put ourselves near the leader board on day one. The caveat being that water temps where rising several degrees each day. On the Great Lakes, when water temps rise to the upper forties, fish tend to exhibit preferences for other or even multiple presentations. Many pros were experimenting with two cranks and two spinners in their trolling spread. I was not one of them and paid the price dearly. While I limped, and Henton narrowly escaped making this mistake, we both proceeded to pull nothing but spinners on day three. This decision allowed us both to put nearly three times the fish in the boat as the previous days. The fish still demanded a slow presentation, but giving them something a little different provided a day and night difference.
Besides spring, this slow speed applies in late fall as anglers see the same situation in reverse. As temps dip from the fifties to ultimately ice-up, the same preferences apply. Go slow. Spinners until temps approach the forties, and cranks until ice forms on the boards. Gospel? No. Rule of thumb? Yes.
As productive as 1 mph is, it’s not the end all be all of walleye presentations. The two advantages that come to mind with 1.5 are that you are going to cover more water, and nearly ever technique is suitable for this speed. Practically every crankbait runs properly at this speed, and it opens the door for mini discs, jet divers, and a host of other popular tactics. But that’s talk for a little later.
Typically this speed range still has most pro’s using snap weights and in-lines, just at a slightly higher speed. This was the scene just this summer on Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. Typically slower speeds have dominated, especially for larger fish on this body of water. Apparently rules are meant to be broken, as close friends dominated the top of the leaderboard, and they were all pulling in this “medium” range. Why you ask? Prior to the tournament, many of the contenders experienced a better grade of fish, and some experienced better numbers when the boards surged. This is a red flag that during calmer conditions that one needs to speed it up. A few of my cronies reported catching better fish on the fast side while conducting slight turns. Red flag number two.
Red flag number three, is water temperature. Not to be a politician, but one really cannot put a number on what tempurature this would dictate. Each body of water has a unique range in which walleyes seem to react best. On the Great Lakes, one should typically start to look at going “medium” when we hit fifty. But red flag one and two are a much better indicator than any number.
Another situation in which speeding it up a little is advantageous is when dealing with currents. Anyone that has salmon fished or used a product like a Fish Hawk knows exactly where this is going. More often than not, when dealing with even a slight current, one needs to troll faster or slower than what the GPS speed indicates, as your lure is not doing what you think it is. Henton agrees, “This year in particular I’ve had to run three to four tenths faster than normal just to get the blades to turn.” He is referring to pulling spinners in Pennsylvania and New York waters of L. Erie, but this also applies to river and reservoirs alike.
Now we’re talking fast. Much like our slow speed, this range also eliminates many presentations. Before I get any hate mail, what is meant is many presentations such as in-lines will still catch fish, but the number of cons outweighs the pros. In particular, depth control becomes extremely difficult and this limits some lure options, etc. A three or four ounce in-line weight greatly increases vertical swim and may rise or drop in the water column when the boat speed increases or decreases. This can be something as simple as wave surge or as complex as current. When one turns the boat to trough, or go into the waves, depth control is difficult at best, and nearly impossible to reproduce if it’s successful. Plain and simple: there are many ways to skin a cat, but one usually out shines the rest.
This means pulling leadcore, dipsy divers, and jets divers at higher speeds. This usually occurs in the summer months or when water temps exceed 65 degrees. Henton, known for his in-line and snap weight preference agrees that sometimes there is a need for speed. “While practicing for a major tournament this summer beadchains just weren’t producing. We made a switch to dipsies and spinners and saw big results. I’m not sure if it was the speed change or that the dipsys seemed to handle the current better, but probably a little of both”. For the record: Henton’s crew finished first, second, and fifth in this event. These tactics shine when pulling in both current and deep basins. The advantage being that one knows exactly where lures are running, even with current or in depths to eighty feet. The reason is simple, Dipsy and jets do not lose their diving capabilities like a balsa crankbaits or inline sinkers with a long lead length.
Getting away from the Great Lakes doesn’t mean one needs to slow down, just the opposite! Many of the rivers, reservoirs, and natural lakes in the Midwest and even into the northern shield lakes, see a need for speed during warmer water periods. This may mean fireline trolling small cranks over tree tops looking for an instinct strike. The practice of using leadcore and or fireline to troll cranks upstream in rivers such as the Mississippi has been a dynamite tactic for years. Sometimes a little juice is what it takes.
Decisions, decisions, it seems to be the thing that separates the men from the boys. One need only fish a couple times to realize that between finicky fish and Mother Nature, nothing stays the same for long. What we slaughtered them on one day goes fishless the next. While many of the ideas discussed are interrelated, the following four categories are what cause or should cause many anglers to change speed; fish mood, presence of junk fish, water clarity, and preferred delivery method. When fishing artificial presentations such as cranks, spoons, jigs and soft plastics, picking up the speed a bit seems to improve productivity.
A famous outdoor writer refers to junk fish as “non target species”. Whatever you call them, sheepshead, white perch, and even white bass can make ones hair turn gray in just a few hours. Don’t act like you haven’t been there. Speed can play a major role in keeping these “non target species” off and the walleyes on. While trolling during the warm water periods, it has been very productive to troll very fast as we spoke of earlier, many times this is done just to keep the sheepshead off. Simply increasing your speed dramatically reduces the number of drummer boys hooked. Even more mysterious is that more often than not we tend to catch more walleyes at the same time. Each lake and non target species seem to have a little trick to keep them at bay, and it usually deals with speed.
Water clarity is a factor that comes into play with everything from tuna to bluegills. Everyone who has ever wet a line has sat on a dock and watched dozens of small bluegills come up to one’s bait and just stare holes in it. Too clean can be bad, and too dirty can be even worse. Sometimes giving a fish too long to look at something is not a good thing. More and more, pros are slowing down with live bait presentations and speeding up with artificial presentations. But when faced with extreme clarity or dirtiness, look at speed as a major factor to improve your catch rate instead of a miracle lure.
The final factor in my decision making process is the delivery system. Early in my tournament career an event in which my two traveling partners who happen to be hall of fame anglers found themselves absolutely dumbfounded over our pattern. We ran spinners on everything from big boards, jets, in-lines, leadcore, all with the same spinner with lack luster results at best. Put that same spinner on a dipsy, and it was lights out! Mind you, they were run at the same depths, etc. You ask what does this have to do with speed? Well dipsy divers don’t tend to work real well at speeds less than about 1.7mph. So if the fish demanded a slow speed, dipsy are out. Certain baits and even more importantly delivery systems don’t work at certain speeds. Therefore, know the preferred speed with each presentation.
Getting a group of fisherman to agree is nearly impossible, but we likely can all agree no one speed does it all. The mastering of multiple speed ranges allows us to have a better handle on multiple presentations and varying conditions. Develop your own list of red flags for your given fishing situation in order to better adapt. After all, Grandma said the hurrier she goes the behinder she gets, but then again she never pulled leadcore or dipsies.