One of the key tips from pro walleye fishing is that crawler harnesses are extremely effective in a variety of waters, a variety of depths and are absolute walleye catching machines.
At one point in my life, I thought about pursuing pro walleye fishing. As a step on this discernment, I fished as an amateur in the former Professional Walleye Trail (PWT). Eventually teaming up with a group of pro anglers to helpthem with pre-fishing, I had the chance to fish walleye waters all over the U.S. with some excellent anglers. One of the key takeaways that really helped me to become a more effective walleye angler was the fact crawler harnesses are extremely effective in a variety of waters, a variety of depths and are absolute walleye catching machines.
The bottom bouncer
There a number of ways to get your crawler harness down into the fish catching zone. 90% of my crawler harness fishing is done with a two ounce bottom bouncer. This bouncer can be pulled in 5 feet of water or as deep as 30 feet of water effectively. This versatility allows you to work up and down drop offs, on the edges of reefs or along a weedline effectively while maintaining contact with the bottom.
The two ounce bouncer also works well pulling over rocks and rubble. Much of my fishing happens on Lake of the Woods. Fishing famous reefs like Starren, Knight and Bridges, Arnesen’s or Archie’s or up at the NW Angle where the 14,552 islands of the lake begin, the bouncer can ride just above the rocks avoiding snags. I let my rod tip back periodically to feel the bouncer touch bottom. By touching bottom periodically, I know exactly where my bouncer is at, yet I don’t drag the bottom which avoids snags.
Bouncers are even effective in sparse weeds where many walleyes will hide out a good part of the year. The bouncer will ride through and over weeds which also can be an attractant for the spinner and crawler following close behind.
On a rare occasion I will go to a heavier bouncer. For instance, out in the 32’ basin on Lake of the Woods, I will go to a 3 ounce bouncer to maintain more of a 45º angle which provides me more control while still maintaining my desired speed of 1.25 mph.
There are a lot of great harnesses on the market today. For most situations, purchase a variety of two hook harnesses and you will be in good shape. I personally tie my own for a couple of reasons. First off, I don’t trust the individual who tied the harness when I am fishing a tournament. Secondly, I can tie my own bead patterns, choose my line, length of harness, etc. With that being said, most don’t fish tournaments and the majority of harnesses you can purchase have quick change clevises for the blade, fluorocarbon line and effective bead patterns matched with a blade.
Most of my harnesses are 4 – 6’ long. With the properties of fluorocarbon line, I can get away with 15 – 17 lb test. Not only do I have the advantage of stronger line for the fish’s teeth, pulling through rocks and wood, etc, but it actually keeps the harness running straighter with less tendency of tangling up. The line is virtually invisible in the water, thus, thicker diameter doesn’t seem to matter. It is also a benefit when the fish shakes its head in the net, the line doesn’t break.
I like #2 or #4 octopus style hooks. I normally tie the hooks about 1.5” – 2” apart. This allows one hook in the head of the crawler and the other near the band of the crawler. Ideally, I want the crawler running straight in the water. If you have an interest in tying your own harnesses, I would recommend looking at YouTube, where there are many great examples.
Match the bait with beads, quick change clevises & A variety of blades
I like to tie harnesses with a variety of bead sizes and colors. If you are fishing with a partner, start out with different bead color patterns and spinners and begin to “hone in” on what the fish want that day. It is not a bad idea to “match the hatch” if you know what the walleyes are feeding on.
By tying or purchasing your harnesses with a quick change clevis, you have the ability to very easily change the size, style and colors of blade. My personal tendency is to use a smaller blade in the early season or in very clear water. As the water temps increase, I will increase my blade size. When I say small, I mean a #2 Colorado style and when I say big, I mean a #6 Colorado. The blade size I use most often is a #4 Colorado. The go to color on Lake of the Woods and many bodies of water is hammered gold, with pink being my second choice.
Speed and Angle
The go-to speed for pulling a harness is 1.25 mph. I will range from 1.0 – 1.6, but most of the time, 1.25 is key. I really focus on having about a 45º angle of my line from the end of my rod to the water. A 45º angle allows me maximum control to feel the bottom. The opportunity to periodically drop my rod tip back to touch the bottom with the bouncer, yet not drag the bouncer on the bottom, is key. I prefer having the bouncer ride just above the bottom even if the fish are tight to the bottom.
The 45º angle also allows me to avoid snags verses pulling the harness farther behind the boat at a flatter angle.
What rod & reels work the best
Although any rod and reel will work to pull a harness, the ideal set up is a medium action bait casting set up with a flipping switch. The flipping switch allows you to open the spool to let out more line as you drift or troll into deeper water to maintain contact with the bottom and not have to turn the reel handle to engage the spool. With the flipping switch, the spool automatically engages which makes life a bit easier.
A spinning rod and reel will certainly work. Whichever way you go, make sure to let the bouncer and harness down slowly and do not let it free fall as it will tangle.
The Storage System
The easiest system I have found to store harnesses is by wrapping them around swimming noodles you can pick up in the toy department for a couple of bucks. Find a sealed container used for storage that will fit the desired number of noodles and the storage compartment of your boat and cut the noodles in lengths to fit the container and you are set.
I suggest taking a filet knife and make 1/2” grooves around the noodle every inch or so. This allows the harness to stay secure while on the noodle.
Tips on hooking more fish
Over the years, I have learned a few things that help my hook set percentages. When a walleye grabs on to the harness, it normally is not a violent strike, but more swimming weight. Slowly drop the rod back without giving any slack and after about 2 or 3 seconds, sweep the rod forward for a hook set.
The other option is leave your rod secured in the rod holder. The rod will “load up” and the fish often seem to hook themselves. I know some tournament anglers who will not tell their amateur partner when a walleye is biting until the fish is actually hooked.
When a walleye whacks your harness, but doesn’t stay engaged, try dropping your rod tip back and let the harness sit idle for a couple of seconds. Often time this hesitation will cause the trailing walleye to eat.
Live crawler or artificial crawler
It is only my opinion, but live crawlers are the best. I like to pinch off the crawler with only a few inches of crawler hanging behind the back hook. My reasoning is with a 2 – 3” tail, the crawler still has incredible action and when the walleye hits my presentation with less crawler off of the back hook, my hooking percentage goes up as the back hook will end up in the walleyes mouth more often. Experiment on the boat, but normally a whole crawler is not needed.
Regarding artificial crawlers, I have tried numerous brands. The time I really prefer an artificial crawler is when there are an abundance of panfish that quickly eat my bait. I prefer to have more “hook time” over being out of the water re-baiting often.
Whether you fish The Walleye Capital of the World or another body of water, crawler harnesses are fish catching machines. If you don’t currently use crawler harnesses, break out of your comfort zone and try them. Adding crawler harnesses to your walleye tool belt this summer will absolutely put more walleyes in your boat.