WHAT IT IS
FIGURING IT OUT
Before I had a big enough boat for Lake St. Clair and the Great Lakes I liked to troll for pike in inland lakes. It was just like miniature muskie fishing. I used a 12 foot johnboat, Swim Whizzes and Believers, and a combination of long rods and downrods and downriggers. I had a little gas motor on the back and an electric on the front. My technique was to troll around the shoreline in various little lakes like Devil's Lake and the Halfmoon Lake chain. One day I got the brilliant idea that it sucked always getting snagged in weeds and sunken debris. By the time I would see the crap on my depthfinder it was too late and I would be hearing all my drags going off at once. I realized that the problem was that I could not "see" where I was going with my transom mounted transducer. All I could see was where I had been. It was like trying to drive a car by looking in the rearview mirror. So, I got another transducer and stuck it on the electric motor up front. That worked a lot better. Then I figured out to tilt the front motor up a little so that the transducer was pointing slightly forward. That was it, forward looking front mounted sonar! All of a sudden my ability to follow the structure improved immensely. My rate of snagging went way down and pike catching went way up. I became the Terror of Patterson Lake and my Coleman Crawdad johnboat became Slimetime Jr.
Eventually I got a bigger boat. The first year I had it I went up to Elk Lake for a week vacation. Of course, I spent some time trying for muskies but I was right back to the same old crap of getting weeded all the time and not catching many muskies. I did have a bow mounted foot-control electric on that boat (Slimetime I) so I bought another transducer and mounted it angled forward on the electric. All of a sudden I could actually follow the "structure" which, in the case of Skegemog especially, is the deep edge of the cabbage weeds. I started to catch muskies with some regularity. One day I went out in Skegemog and it was terrible cold front conditions with high winds and brilliant blue skies. But it was a full moon day and the prime time was 2:00pm to 4:00pm so I figured I would try it then. I was doing my thing like usual and really paying attention to following that submerged weedline as closely as possible. While going around the deep basin I discovered this little pocket in the weedline. It was so small that there was barely enough room to turn the boat around in it. I had never even noticed it before I had that forward looking front transducer. Just as I was coming out of that little pocket the inside downrod went screaming and the next thing I knew there was my first 30 pound muskie lying in the bottom of the boat. I would never have caught that fish without the ability to follow that deep weedline with total precision. That's boat control to the max!
THE REST OF THE SETUP
When trolling an area with steep drop-offs and a lot of contours I have found that the downrods are the hottest setup going. If you can run more rods then make the additional ones downrods too. If you have them, downriggers are also a good option. Both downrods and downriggers can be run with short lines, like about 10 to 15 feet of line on the downrods and about 6 feet of line back from the cannonballs on the downriggers. Set them short like that and the lures will follow the track of the boat perfectly. When you are trolling that kind of intense structure long lines will cut corners and not stay in the zone and obviously boards will be way out of it. Stick with your downrods - and downriggers if you have them. When trolling around inland lakes, or in areas of Lake St. Clair with steep drop-offs, you can also set the lines differently depending on which side of the boat the rods are on. The downrods on the deeper side can be set a little longer and/or with more weight to get the lures down more. You can set the cannon balls at different depths too. The goal is to keep the all the lures as close to the structure as possible. A typical set up might be like this:
As you can see from the picture a few feet of deviation in the boat path would cause the lures to get weeded, hit bottom or get out of the fish zone. If you reverse course then you will need to reverse the way the lines are set. I have found that for inland lakes it's easier to troll in a clockwise direction. That way I can keep an eye on the shoreline while fishing, which is a good idea if there are docks and rafts and other hazards to navigation. As you drive around the lake, or down the structure line, and you are doing it right you will be constantly steering the boat and making turns. This will cause the lures on either side of the boat to speed up and slow down. I believe that this erratic action of the lures adds even more fish catching effectiveness. Once you get good at this technique you can keep your lures in the fish zone nearly 100% of the time. You will also find all kinds individual structures that you probably never realized were there. You will be able to see which ones are holding fish, and even identify specific big fish. If you find a big one you can loop around and go over it again, even more than once. I have done this many times and got strikes on the second, third, and even fourth pass over the same fish. I guess that eventually the muskie got pissed off with the lures in it's face and it hit. The only drawbacks of this technique are that it is difficult to do alone and it tends to burn you out after a while. That's why you need to have your buds along to watch where you are going and to take over driving when your eyes start bugging out of your head from watching the screen too long. Of course, MuskieBabes are nice to have along provided that they aren't dressed in an excessively distracting manner.
The Belle River Hump is also an interesting area. It is actually a long sunken point that runs north and south. If the wind is from the west (or east) that can cause different conditions on either side of the hump. There have been times when a distinct water color break would develop on the downwind side of the hump. The key to catching fish then was to run parallel to the hump and watch the color break visual structure rather than the water depth. Other times the fish might stack up on the sides or top of the hump and catching them is more a matter of staying on the right part of the hump rather than staying at a certain depth.
One time while salmon fishing we totally pounded them by trolling the thermal structure. There was a temperature break with the surface temperature dropping about 10°F in a very short distance. On the warm side the prime salmon temperature of 54°F was down about 60 feet deep. On the cold side it was down about 40 feet deep. The wind was blowing the warmer water over the colder water so there was this weird diagonal thermocline that we could see on the graph. At the surface there was a huge slick where the warm and cold water met. There were a bunch of charter boats fishing right in the slick but they weren't doing well at all. We wound up fishing about 100 yards off to the side of the slick in the warm water with our lines down at 50 feet deep, exactly between the 54°F depth in the warm and cold water masses. As long as we kept that thermocline at 50 feet on the graph, and kept the lures right there at that exact depth, we were getting one on every few minutes. The charter boats on the radio were going nuts trying to figure out what we were doing. This made me really appreciate the value of other types of structure. I have remembered that lesson and have had some exceptional days in Lake St. Clair trolling a similar temperature and color break "structure" way out in the middle of the lake.
The other situation where boards are good is when the fish are in very shallow water. I mean water that is so shallow that running the boat there would spook the fish or destroy your prop. An example of this situation is during the fall frog migration. In Lake St. Clair this occurs sometime between mid-October through early-November. The frogs will migrate from land to the water where they will go bury themselves in the mud for the winter. They only need to get into deep enough water so that it will not freeze all the way to the bottom, and that means only 2-4 feet deep. The muskies take advantage of this situation and go right there in that shallow water and chow on the little buggers. If you want to catch these shallow water muskies one of your best weapons is your planer boards. Towards evening you might want to try trolling with your boat in about 5 feet of water and running lures off the boards with real short line and no weight. The board on the shoreline side might only be running in a couple feet deep water so that side will need to have the lures set with only about 5 - 10 feet of line out. It seems like this works best on nasty drizzly or rainy evenings and in areas where the shoreline is swampy. Run frog patterns and hang on. If the deep side board is getting the hits then move your boat out into deeper water because obviously the muskies haven't moved up shallow yet (duh!).
Other shallow water structure areas that you can troll with planer boards are lilly pad or reed edges or sunken logs. In this case it's important to run your board pretty close to the boat and steer the boat so that the board stays as close as possible to the edge of the vegetation or the sunken logs. Don't worry about the water depth the boat is in; pay attention to where the board is instead. Again, you will need to run your lure on a short line. These areas usually produce best in low light conditions and/or when there is an onshore breeze. If you find areas like this with some deeper water close by then so much the better. In all these very shallow water situations the key to effective trolling is to use your planer boards to fish structure that you can't get to with your boat.
DIALING IT IN
I hope that this information helps to improve your fishing success. If you have any additional super-effective secret tricks that you would be willing to share then send me an email and I will try them out myself first for a couple years....just to verify that they work of course.