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Late Fall Crankbait Trolling - Speed selection

by Mike Schlimgen 08 Nov 2022

As much as I love fishing in the Spring and Summer, it is pretty hard to beat the fall walleye fishing on the Great Lakes (including Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and the SCR).    A significant portion of the fisherman are out in the woods trying to shoot something, so the ramps are generally not quite as crazy as they are in the spring (yet they are getting worse every year).   

The toughest part for me is deciding where to go and which method to use.   My “first-love” when it comes to walleye fishing is jigging on the D-River.    The feel of them inhaling your jig on the fall, setting the hook and fighting them on light tackle is very addicting.    That said, my hands can only take so much cold weather before they start going numb.    My shoulders also get fatigued after a few hours of jigging.   It sucks getting older, but the alternative is worse.  

 Therefore, when the weather is just a bit too cold, or my hands and shoulders have had enough jigging, I throw on the rod-trees, fire up the kicker and start pulling some cranks around.    Seeing boards go back is almost as much fun as feeling them inhale your jig.   Almost…

There is no doubt, however, that the size of fish produced by cranks is much better than the average size produced by jigging.   It’s not even close, from my experience.   

As the water begins to cool, the general consensus is that you have to troll your crankbaits much slower than you do in the summer.  While that is true to a degree, I have found that you can troll them faster than most people think.      When I first started doing the cold-water trolling, I was told that you needed to keep the speeds between 1 – 1.5 mph when the water temps are below 50.     Those speeds may work well on some days; however, I have found that they work even better with speeds from 1.5 – 2 mph.    I have to give credit to a friend of mine that I met through the Michigan Sportsman’s Forums.    He goes by “Taizer” on the forum.  Some of you may recognize this name or have seen his videos.   He is one of the best walleye fishermen on Lake St. Clair, IMO.     He went fishing with me on my boat a couple years ago in mid to late January.  We were dodging ice chunks in the canal on the way to the lake and the water temps in the lake were 36-37 degrees.    A few days earlier I had done very well pulling cranks, so I set up in the same area and set my Terrova to pull us along at 1.2 – 1.4 mph.    Those speeds had worked well over the previous few trips.   

After about an hour, we only had 1 fish in the box and only one other “drive-by”.  Since it was Taizer’s first trip on my boat, I think he was reluctant to make any suggestions at first.   Finally, he said “do you ever try trolling faster?”.    I said “sure, in the summer or when the water is warmer, but usually, when the water is below 40, I keep it below 1.5 mph”.    He said, “I’ve been hammering them at 1.7 – 1.9 mph, into the current, which means the action on the baits is even faster”.    I am never shy about trying new things when the action is slow, so I replied, “well in that case, let’s fire up the kicker and give it a shot!”.     Within a few minutes we had boards going back left and right, and by the end of the trip we were tossing back 4 and 5 lb fish, as we already had our 12 in the box.     We also landed two 40”+ muskies (note: I always use 30# test leaders in LSC for this reason).

 I learned a valuable lesson that day:  Do not be afraid to troll relatively fast in cold water.    Especially in the fall.    The fish are doing their best to fatten up for the winter, so they are usually more aggressive than you might think.  Especially the big females.  

What I have been doing ever since then is experimenting with various speeds to see what the fish want that particular day.   I can do that several different ways:

  • Make wide, slow turns: The outside boards speed up, while the inside boards slow down.   If you get bites on the fast side, you may need to speed up.   If you get bites on the slow side, you may need to slow down.
  • I-Troll System: I installed an I-Troll system on my kicker this summer.   It helps me control the speed of my kicker much better than before.    With one button, I can drop it to idle speed while fighting a fish and then hit the button again and it goes back to my previous speed.   If I get bites while the boat is slow, then I may want to slow down a bit. 
  • Ultrex Remote: I like to troll with my kicker and my electric at the same time.    That way, I have two options for dialing in the right speed.     With the Ultrex, I can hit the “rabbit” button, take it up to full power for a few seconds and then hit it again to return to my previous speed.     It is amazing how often multiple boards will go back after doing that. 

 If you have never had the opportunity to experience fall crankbait fishing for walleyes on Lake St. Clair or Erie, do yourself a favor and book a trip with a guide who knows what they are doing.     For example, Captain “Juls” (Julia Davis) in OH, is a great option.    (If she has any open dates).   If I can ever afford to quit my “real job”, I may be out there as well.   

See you at the ramp! 

Mike Schlimgen (aka Slimshady)

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