Walleye are a bit of an oddity in the fishing world. Unlike pike, muskie, and bass, walleye rarely grow to any particularly great size and aren’t renowned for their fighting ability—even though the big ones really do pull. Even still, certain anglers pursue these fish with borderline fanatical dedication across much of the country.
Walleye have carved out their own unique niche of popularity because—despite being a bug-eyed, toothy, and just goofy looking fish—they’re often challenging to catch and are perhaps the finest eating creatures in freshwater. The night before a big walleye trip, there isn’t an angler out there nestled in their beds who doesn’t have visions of fillets and crispy walleye wings dancing in their heads.
From hovering over suspended schools of the fish with a jigging rod to sitting on the end of a dock and casting minnows by lantern light, there are many ways to catch walleye and all of them work at least some of the time. However, there is perhaps no more productive or simple method for anglers new to the walleye fraternity than trolling.
Why Troll for Walleye? For the uninitiated, trolling is the act of running a baited rig or lure behind a moving boat and towing it at slow speed until a fish grabs. For walleye, that’s most often done with diving crankbaits or spinner rigs behind some weight. On the surface, trolling might seem overly simple, and it does carry a reputation as a lazy way to fish in some circles. But none of that is true. Trolling is actually an incredibly technical and involved fishing method that stacks up a lot of walleye when performed properly.
Some hardcore walleye anglers prefer to fish with more stationary methods like jigging and bait fishing, which also can be fantastic techniques for putting a lot of fish in the boat. However, for these techniques to work well, you need to know exactly where the walleye are—which is notoriously difficult information to procure.
In the mid-summer when walleye are scattered along the deep edges of vegetation or continuously roving behind migrating schools of baitfish, trolling becomes my go-to method. You can cover a lot of water efficiently with rigs behind a boat and this allows you to fish multiple presentations at a variety of depths so you can find where the fish are hanging out and what they are feeding on. If you hook a fish on a pass, then you can turn around and hook a few more, isolating the exact area and depth where a walleye school is located, either to keep trolling or to jig or cast to them instead.
Trolling also provides a more serene fishing experience for new anglers or children. The pilot of the boat can do most of the work and monitor several rods at a time, then pass hooked-up rods to guests on the boat when the magic happens. It’s a lot easier and safer that four people casting at once.
How to Rig Bait for Walleye Trolling Trolling a plain hook with a bait will work for walleye but using a bait harness will work even better. Walleye are attracted to movement and color, so the addition the spinner blade on a bait harness helps to draw more strikes. I prefer to use fluorescent colors for walleye like chartreuse, hot pink, or blaze orange. Most bait harnesses come with two snelled hooks, so depending on which bait you prefer there is a different way to rig.
This method is known as bait rigging, spinner fishing, bottom bouncing, and more. Typically the goal is to work the rig along or just above the bottom using angled bottom-walker weights, tear-drop sinkers, Roach walker sinkers, bead chain sinkers, and sliding weights.
Worms are probably the easiest and most effective walleye bait. Live nightcrawlers are a go-to but artificial flavored worms such as the Berkely Gulp work extremely well. Additionally, these counterfeit worms can be more effective for fishing spots that have a lot of bait stealers like yellow perch and sunfish. In either case, to rig a worm on a bait harness, string the head of the worm (darker, thicker end) past the band onto the hook closest to the spinner blade. Next, simply thread the midsection of the worm onto the second hook, leaving a length of the tail to dance tantalizingly in the water. You can rig leeches in a similar fashion.
To rig a baitfish, alive or dead, stick the upper hook into the fish’s mouth and out through the nostril. Hook the second hook through the base of the anal fin near the tail and leave the bait free to swim naturally as it is towed behind the boat. Use a minnow that is a little on the larger side, such as a gold shiner or smelt, big enough to cover both hooks.
Before trolling either bait, give it a quick dip beside the boat to make certain the spinner blade in front of the harness can spin freely in the water. Most anglers add beads for separation between the blade and hooks. Some prefer a foam, floating pill or body to keep the hooks up off the bottom.
The Best Lures for Walleye Trolling There are a lot of great trolling lures out there, from spinners and spoons to soft plastic swimbaits. When it comes to trolling for walleye, it’s hard to beat a lipped crankbait. These popular lures come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. They have unique actions, can be fished at various depth, and get absolutely slammed by a big, toady, predatory walleye when trolled.
Most of the time I like to tow the old reliable—a classic Rapala Original Floater. This lure naturally dives form about 4 to 6 feet and with a weighted setup you can troll a Rapala efficiently in depths of 10 to 20 feet.
When fishing deeper water of 20 to 30 feet, I like to use a crankbait with a longer and deeper lip that dives deeper. For these situations, it’s hard to beat the Rapala DT series. These crankbaits dive to a specifc depth when trolled (between 6 and 16 feet) and take much of the guesswork out how deep you’re fishing. They’re essentially idiot-proof. Rapala DT’s have an erratic vibrating action that can attract a lot of attention from deep dwelling and suspended walleye.
Just like with the bait harness, I prefer to use fluorescent-colored lures, though natural colors have their times and places. Don’t be afraid to experiment. If my lure looks a bit too dull or I want to give my set-up a bit of pizzazz, I’ll stick a small strip of reflective tape to both sides of the lure. It adds more color, a bit more flash, and at least in my mind, a few more hook-ups.
Setting up a Troll The most important piece of equipment you need to troll for walleye is a boat. Any boat. While a 17-foot fishing boat completely pimped out with a low-idling outboard, trolling motor, sonar, rod holders, and downriggers is ideal, you don’t necessarily need all the bells and whistles. I’ve done plenty of walleye trolling out of a rowboat, canoe, and even a kayak. As long as your watercraft floats, has a means to control propulsion and speed, and room for a rod or two, you should be all set.
Trolling speed is absolutely vital to success: Too fast and the gear will look unnatural and rise out of the strike zone. Too slow and your baits and lures won’t have enough natural swimming action to attract the fish. The magic speed for walleye is somewhere between 1.8 to 3.5 miles per hour, about the pace of a fast walk or slow jog. The best trolling speed varies widely based on lure type and water temperature.
Rod placement is another important aspect of trolling that a lot of anglers neglect. When fishing multiple set-ups, you want to have everything within reach. However, you don’t want your rods so close together that when you stop moving to reel in a fish or have to make a sharp turn everything becomes tangled.
Always troll with your rods placed out the port, starboard, and stern sides of the boat. When fishing two, three, or even four rods at the same time, make certain to place your heavier, deeper diving presentations in front of the boat on the shorter rods and your shallower presentations on longer rods in back. This way the front lines slip underneath and inside the shallower rigs in the back and stop you from pulling your hair out and screaming every 10 minutes.
Planer boards are small pieces of wood or plastic that can be clipped to your line that drift out away from the boat when towed. Using planer boards will further aid in preventing tangles and can assist in spreading your lines apart to present your baits and lures to different areas of the water.
Walleye Trolling Equipment Walleye aren’t the type of fish that smash into your lure and go tearing off away from the boat, doubling over your rod and peeling line from the reel. Walleye takes are subtle. The rod suddenly looks like you’ve gone from trolling through water to trolling through maple syrup. Fittingly, the rods best suited for walleye trolling are 6- to 10-foot light-action rods that help you to pick up delicate walleye takes. A spinning or baitcasting reel strung with 15- to 20-pound braided line tops off the setup.
Whenever I’m trolling spinners or spoons, I tie a barrel swivel to the end of my main line, which helps prevent it from twisting or tangling. It also works as a stopper for my weights. I’ll tie one end of the swivel to the main line and add 3 to 6 feet of 10-pound fluorocarbon to the other end where I’ll attach my bait or lure. This not only makes your presentation appear more natural in the water, but also helps you break off the snags you can’t get loose without losing your entire setup.
There are a lot of different weights anglers use while trolling. Snap weights dangle below your line and simply bounce off the bottom, preventing snags. Inline weights help maintain consistent depth and speeds. However, adding a couple split shot to the line above the swivel will work just fine. Additionally, split shot can be added or removed quickly and easily when trolling different depths.
The Perks of Trolling No matter what anyone says about how boring or ineffective trolling is, when you’re out there doing it, it’s extremely satisfying. Whether you’re scrambling across the deck to get to a bent rod or simply cruising around the lake and watching the sun set over the water, trolling is a wonderful way to ensure that you have plenty of delicious walleye fillets for both the freezer and the frying pan.