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Crankbait Trolling 101

An effective way to catch every species of game fish in Colorado
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I admit it. I am a crankbait addict. I can't walk past the bargain bin in any bait store without searching for something that I don't have or to find a bargain so I can afford more of what I do have. I have to try the newest bait or color. It might be the lure that the fish haven't seen before that makes all the difference – but maybe not. I just have to try it to be sure.
A sampling of Author's crankbait collections
A sampling of Author's crankbait collections
The crankbait, also known as a plug, lure, or hardbait, has become one of the top big fish producers in walleye tournaments all over the country. The name, crankbait came from bass anglers – cast them out and crank them back. Whatever you call them; crankbaits are an effective way to catch every species of game fish in Colorado.
Another walleye falls victim to a trolled crankbait
Another walleye falls victim to a trolled crankbait
While casting crankbaits into cover is one of my favorite ways to fish, trolling is more efficient – the bait is always in the water. Trolling a crankbait is the fastest way to cover water to locate active fish. Trolling is more than just throwing some lines out, putting the boat into gear, popping the lids on some cool beverages, eating chips, and waiting for something to hit. Some I know have even compared it to mowing the grass. However, it does require some thought and experimentation on different baits, depths, and locations.

Crankbait types
The fat, round-bodied lures like Rapala's Fat Rap or a classic Bomber Model A are more popular with bass anglers than walleye anglers, though plenty of walleyes have certainly been caught on them.
Typical Fat CrankBaits
Typical Fat Baits
The traditional minnow-shaped lure, like the Rapala Floating Original, Husky Jerk, Smithwick Rogue, or Storm Thunderstick are popular with both bass and walleye anglers in colder water. They have a subtle wiggling action rather than the wide, side-to-side action of the fat lures mentioned above. This slower wiggle works well when the fish are lethargic due to cold water. Bent bodied baits such as Reef Runner's Ripsticks and Little Rippers have become popular as the water begins to warm somewhat and the fish become more aggressive. Although, these baits can be trolled very slowly in cold water and still have action when the more traditional minnow imitators have stopped wiggling at such slow speeds.
Minnow Shaped Lures
Traditional minnow-shaped lures
As the water begins to warm the more aggressive wobbling baits become more appealing to fish. The shad shaped baits such as Rapala's Shad Raps or Reef Runner's Ripshads imitate the shad-based forage in most of our reservoirs. Baits such as Reef Runner's Deep Little Ripper, Cotton Cordell's Wally Diver, and Rapala's Tail Dancer are all effective alternatives when the pure shad bodied baits aren't working.
Shad and alternate shaped baits
Shad and alternate shaped baits
Occasionally, extreme action can be the ticket to catching fish. Storm's Hot ‘N Tot and Dave's Kaboom have an erratic, wide-wobbling action that sometimes is what the fish want. The traditional fat, round-bodied lures mentioned above can fill the bill in these cases as well. Normally, the extreme action lures work best in warmer water. Their action can set them apart from other lures being dragged through the water and may be just what is needed to attract fish.

Every different type of lure mentioned is available with or without rattles. Sometimes it's what the fish want, sometimes it's not.

Trolling methods
Long-line trolling is just what it sounds like. Let out 100 feet or more of line and engage your reel. You can set the rod in the rod holder or you can hand hold the rod so you can work the bait to vary the action. Work the bait by holding the rod horizontally and sweeping the rod slowly forward (still horizontally), toward the front of the boat and then dropping it back quickly, but not so quick as to allow slack in the line. Long-line trolling at night, while following the 10 foot depth contour is an effective method for catching walleyes, smallmouth bass, wipers, and trout.

Once you get more than 2 or 3 lines in the water it really is necessary to find a way to spread these lines in order to avoid getting tangled. More lines in the water are also a chance to experiment with different lures and depths. Spreading lines is also a great way to cover even more water. Here's where planer boards come in.
Planer board in action
Planer board in action
The planer board is cut in such a way that it acts as a rudder. The boards are marked as either right or left based on how they are made. Your line attaches to the board, and if using a board marked ‘right' and placed on the right side of the boat, it pulls your line away from the boat.

The two main types of boards are the board and mast type and the in-line type. The board and mast type use a separate line to run the planer board off of a mast that is mounted in the boat. The fishing line is attached to the line that runs to the board with a release, similar to the type used in down-riggers. When a fish hits the bait the release pops and you fight the fish. The big disadvantage is the cost and storage of the mast and boards when not in use.

In-line planer boards attach directly to the fishing line. The lure is let out, the board is clipped on and set in the water to be drawn away from the boat.
  Disadvantages of the in-line boards are: bites can be difficult to detect, particularly with small fish; when fighting the fish you get to fight the board too; unclipping the board at the boat, if not done properly, may result in lost fish; and sometimes the boards do release and you have to go back to get them. But in-line planer boards are cheaper and take up less storage space.
Side Planner
Side Planner
Rods and reels
Trolling rods do not need to be expensive. If flat-line trolling, you can use any rod that is capable of handling the stress of pulling a bait through the water. For example, you might need a stouter rod when pulling a deep diving crankbait. You will need a stronger rod for pulling planer boards, something in a medium heavy, bait casting style will work. Fiberglass rods are fine for this.

Reels should be able to handle at least 100 feet of 8 to 10 pound line for flat line trolling, 300 feet or more for planer boards. Line counter reels are not necessary but are convenient for knowing how much line is out and repeating that line length when you catch a fish. Clip-on line counters are available or you can use other methods – know how many feet of line goes out with each pass of the line leveler on a bait caster and count the passes, or mark your line every 10 feet, or use the length of your rod and count the number of times you've swept it forward.
Reel equipped with line counter
Reel equipped with line counter
I highly recommend the book, Precision Trolling, by Mark Romanack if you will be doing a lot of trolling with crankbaits. The book has dive curves for over 100 different crankbaits. These dive curves will tell you the depth that your bait will run on 10 pound test Trilene XT based on how many feet of line you have out. The book has a lot of information on trolling with lead core line and snap weights as well.

Now it's time to experiment. Assume that you are fishing a shad-based reservoir in mid-June. Shad will generally suspend over open water and predator fish will follow. Using your electronics you should be able to mark baitfish (shad in this case) with larger fish either in or below the baitfish.

"Matching the hatch" is often the best place to start the search for what will catch fish. A Shad Rap in a shad color would be the bait to try first. If there are perch in the lake, then trying a different bait in perch color might be a good choice. You could pick a larger or smaller bait of the same style and color. Look up their dive curves in Precision Trolling or another reference book. Let out the proper amount of line that will run your bait at or above the fish that you have marked on your electronics, clip on your planer board and let it pull away from the boat. Repeat with all your other lures.

It's always a good idea as you are doing this to check your lures to see if they are in tune, in other words, that they run straight and true. Nothing will make a bigger mess than two baits running side-by-side when one wants to go right and the other wants to go left and they run into each other. You can "super tune" your bait by placing it in the water on a rod-length of line and pulling it through the water faster than the boat is running. If it runs right, use pliers or Reef Runner's Tuner Fork to bend the eye to the left or visa versa. The rule is, bend it a little at a time in the direction you want it to go. Always check the tune of your baits every time you put them in the water.

You can run some baits higher (shorter line lengths) or some deeper (longer line lengths). Run your outside planer boards as far away from the boat as you can get away with without interfering with other anglers or other boat traffic. Run the shallower lures on the planer boards further from the boat. Sometimes the passing of the boat will push fish away and toward your planer boards.

Here's where the work starts. If you're not catching fish start thinking about what you would like to change. Experiment with different baits and different colors. Experiment with speed.

In colder water, start trolling at less than 1 mile-per-hour and speed up or slow down. As the water warms, start trolling at 1.5 mph and speed up. Four mph is not out of the question at times. If you are using planer boards, an easy way to vary speed is to run the boat in a series of ‘S' turns. The outside boards will go faster than the inside boards. If you catch fish on the outside board on a turn, you should speed up. If you catch fish on the inside of a turn you should slow down.

What happens if you catch a fish? You will notice that one of the in-line planer boards is trailing the others. It's either a fish or some debris has fouled your planer board or crankbait. If you're not using in-line planer boards you will notice that a rod tip is bent way over. You don't need to set the hook unless you are going very, very slow. When trolling, the fish will hook themselves on good, sharp hooks (you checked them didn't you?).

Once someone has picked the rod out of the holder and has a tight line on the fish you can slow the boat down. It's much easier to reel in an in-line planer board when the boat is barely moving. Don't stop the boat unless all other lines have been cleared or you will make a big tangled mess. If you catch a fish on an outside board, you can reel in the inside board so they don't get tangled. Boards on the other side of the boat don't need to be brought in.

If using in-line planer boards reel the fish slowly, keeping steady pressure toward the boat. Lift the board out of the water and let your partner unhook it from your line. Keep constant pressure on the fish while all this is happening. Any slack in the line will likely result in lost fish. Reel the fish to the boat and scoop the water under the fish with the net, making sure the head goes in first. Netting fish while the boat is in motion is a hard thing to learn. It takes practice.

When the fish are cooperating trolling can be a lot of fun. It's a great way to get the whole family out in the boat fishing together. Planer boards allow you to run 6 or 8 rods at a time. Everyone will have one or two that they can watch. More rods mean more opportunity to experiment and more baits in the water. Let the kids pick a crankbait that you've never used – you just never know what might work. The excitement really picks up when you get a double or a triple on planer boards!
Author with a beautiful walleye caught on a trolled crankbait
Author with a beautiful walleye caught on a trolled crankbait


© 2024 Dan Swanson
About the author, Dan Swanson:
Dan Swanson is a multi-species guide in Northern Colorado. He is an instructor and seminar speaker on fishing techniques with a specialty around the use of fishing electronics. Dan competes professionally in walleye tournaments around North America. He is on the Pro-Staff for Ranger Boats, Evinrude, Lowrance, St. Croix Rods and Costa Del Mar.