As we move into the spring and the early summer months walleye are on the move. This can be one of the best times of year to get on an amazing bite while these fish are feeding heavily after the spawn. With very few small fish to prey on until mid-summer, insects, fly larva and small minnows are what’s on the menu. Much of this bait will be found up shallow and on or around mud flats where much of the insects burrow in for the winter and new hatches come from. However, if you find yourself on the Missouri River system you will encounter countless miles of shoreline that fits this description and determining where to look can be the biggest challenge.
“Covering lots of water and covering it fast until you locate active fish is the key to a successful outing.”
Covering lots of water and covering it fast until you locate active fish is the key to a successful outing. Trolling small crankbaits and spinners are my methods of choice for doing this. Walleye will be on the move early and often this time of year in search of anything that might pass as a meal. So staying mobile and covering lots of water is crucial. Trolling allows you to do just that. Cover lots of water at higher speeds looking for a pod of active fish. With today’s advancement in electronics, this has become even easier. With the use of my Humminbird Helix 10, I can scan up to 250’ using side-imaging out the back of the boat while trolling at speeds under 5 mph. Not only is side image great for seeing what’s out to the side of the boat vs. only what’s below the small sonar cone below the boat, I can identify fish that may be too shallow for traditional sonar to pick up as well as suspended fish in the water column. Just imagine cruising a mudflat at 2 mph and covering over 200 feet of water with your electronics. Think you might be able to find some fish a little sooner than later?
For covering shallow water and a lot of water while trolling you will want a few new tools at your disposal. Off Shore Tackle Planer boards are just those tools. Planer boards will get your baits out away from your boat so you’re not spooking the fish that may be shallow as well as enabling you to deploy your lines in a system that will not only cover a lot of water but keep you clear of tangled lines. Planer boards are designed to either run Port (passenger side) or Starboard (driver side) of the boat. Once you have your lures to the designated depth you want to target you then clip on your Off Shore Tackle Planer board and slowly let it out until the lines are spread apart as you like them. This is a relatively easy process but will take a little bit of a learning curve to get used to. Most of the learning will come once you hook up with a fish and have to figure out how to get the fish in without clearing the other lines if it’s an outside board. There are several YouTube videos out there for you to watch that can visually explain this process much better than the written word, so I suggest viewing those for further instruction.
Planer Boards have been around for a while yet I get a lot of questions from people at sports shows and seminars about how they work and where they might use them. I for one will assure you that if you are fishing the Missouri River system you will definitely want to invest in a set. When I’m searching for fish along a long mud flat or in shallow water (less than 6 feet) I will be running my planer boards. As a tournament angler and guide being efficient on the water is important to me. Efficiency comes in the form of time. The faster I can locate the active fish the faster I can figure out what it’s going to take to catch more of them. Adding the use of planer boards to your arsenal allows you to also cover different water depths by sliding a planer board all the way up shallow attached to a shallow running crankbait while deploying a deep diving crankbait hooked up to a planer board running out to the river channel. In this set up you might be covering a 100 to 300 ft. area. Determining if the active fish are deep or shallow will help you decide your next step in the process.
A few tactics I like to deploy early in spring is pulling bottom bouncers behind my planer boards in depths under 10 feet. Usually only moving at speeds at .8-1.2 mph I will use a 1 oz. to 1.5 oz. bottom bouncer teamed up with a Northland Tackle Baitfish-image spinner on a crawler harness is deadly. Nightcrawlers are not native to the reservoir but early spring runoff and rain showers wash night crawlers into the system making them an easy and tasty target. If I’m lucky enough to find some new vegetation growth on these flats I will use this same system but without a bottom bouncer. Either a 1/4 oz. or 1/2 oz. in-line weight hooked to my main line and then the crawler harness hooked to that will keep my spinner up over the top of the weeds enticing those walleye to come up to strike it. Depending on the wind and current I will occasionally hook my crawler harness directly to my Lead Core line leader using the Lead Core line as my weight. This has been very effective on a few occasions. Early in the year and if clear water is present look at keeping your blade size fairly small such as a #3 Indiana or Colorado. The Colorado blades will give you a bigger thump putting off more vibrations traveling through the water column. A smaller blade will resemble the size of bait in the system.
Trolling small to medium size crank baits (5 cm-7 cm) will allow you to even cover more water at a faster pace—2 mph and greater. Crankbaits offer a few advantages and speed being one, another is if the fish are in-active a crankbait can cause a reaction bite. It’s hard for a lethargic walleye to pass up an easy meal swimming erratically by its face. Keeping the packaging or labeling the lid of the box you keep your crankbaits in is a great way to ensure you know the depth that your crankbait will run. This is very important when using crankbaits in conjunction with planer boards. I personally use the Precision Trolling Data App on my smartphone which has more lure dive curves on it than I’ll ever own.
Planer boards aren’t the only way to spread your lines out to cover more water. Typically what many anglers on the river do, including myself when the circumstance calls for it, is use long rods, anywhere from 10 ft. to 14 ft. trolling rods. Personally, I use an St. Croix Eyecon 12 footer out the side and 5 ft., shorties as I like to call them, out the back at a 20º angle. This is covering an area-wide as 32 feet out the back of the boat. This is typical for us Lead Core line trollers but I will assure you that the Lead Core line can be hooked onto a planer board as well if you wish to spread it out beyond the 32 ft. span.
Getting your baits spread further away from your boat many times is all it takes to get the fish to bite especially highly pressured fish. By spreading your lines out away from your boat covering more water you will become way more efficient with your time on the water and hopefully, that means more successful outings.