Handlining for river walleye: A heritage technique with modern tools

By on April 13, 2015
Handlining on the Illinois River (Courtesy Travis Hartman)

Handlining has been a favorite walleye fishing technique on Great Lakes region river systems dating back to at least the 1930s. Sometimes called “pulling wire,” handlining is an art that has recently been combined with the latest fishing technologies to renew interest in the heritage technique developed on the complex habitat of the Detroit River during the Great Depression.

It’s hard to imagine the original pioneers of handlining on the mighty Detroit River in the 1930s in small boats using early outboard motors that had only become widely available as recently as a decade earlier. These early handline anglers probably lacked the vision of their new technique more than 80 years later with space-age technologies in extremely advanced fiberglass boats with 300 horsepower outboards and 10 horsepower kicker motors for trolling.

While many Detroit River handliners still use tiller-style outboard motors on aluminum boats, high tech tools have shaped the current version of the technique. Make no mistake, the basic requirements remain unchanged, and for many of us the historical simplicity of handlining is what makes it attractive. Regardless of how many electronics or remote controlled electric motors you’re using to fine tune the presentation, in the end you’re holding plastic-coated wire wound onto a tensioned reel and connected to a 3-foot piece of wire. The wire is called a shank, which in turn is connected to a 1- to 3-pound weight. The shank normally has five large, evenly spaced clevises to be used as attachment points for leaders. A normal setup would include two leaders (usually 20 or 25 pound test monofilament line) with stickbaits running off of the shank. A good starting point is a 15 feet leader on the first position of the shank closest to the weight, and then a second leader around 30 feet long attached to the 3rd, 4th or 5th position above the weight.

A sauger caught while handing on the Illinois River (Courtesy Travis Hartman)

A sauger caught while handing on the Illinois River (Courtesy Travis Hartman)

The biggest advantage of handlining is directly controlling the depth of two shallow diving stickbaits off of one mainline. You adjust the depth by raising and lowering the heavy weight to maintain contact with the bottom. With a tensioned handline reel, you can pull line out until the weight is on the bottom, and then with quick motions of your hand pull the weight up as you get into shallower water. The reel will recover any slack line as you continue to raise the weight. The concept is simple, but without handlining reels and weights it would be impossible to properly execute.

Pinpoint boat control in strong river currents is the key to mastering handlining, in concert with a keen sense of feel while working the weight and lures. While the originators of handlining relied on their knowledge of the river based on landmarks and what they could feel with their weights, today’s handliners have the advantage of large screen sonar and GPS systems with built in bathymetry charts for most popular rivers. New advances such as Lowrance’s Insight Genesis mapping service allow you to upload your own recorded sonar logs to generate high definition, 1-foot contour maps that can then be loaded back onto your GPS unit. Even if your favorite fishing spots are well mapped you can add your own level of detail by recording every inch of your fishing trips for a better understanding of the area in future trips.

If new sonar and GPS systems alone weren’t enough to completely change handlining for all of us, remote controlled electric bow mount trolling motors sealed the deal. Now we can sit in the back corner of the boat and concentrate on working the handline while keeping an eye on the sonar and GPS, making small course corrections to stay glued to the best depth contour by using the autopilot feature.

Most handlining is done while slowly driving upstream into the prevailing current. Speed is controlled by setting the four stroke kicker motor at an appropriate throttle level and then making small adjustments in the power level of your bow mount electric. Then you can maintain the best speed of the day right down to the proper tenth of a mile per hour as measured by the GPS. A speed of 1.0 mph when pointed directly into current produces the most hits from finicky walleye.

The art of handlining is in determining the right boat control to maximize lure action while staying in the proper depth and current speed. Some days a slow, straight heading in a consistent depth will produce the most hookups. Other days, quickly cutting back and forth at more 45 degree angles while making depth changes up or down the drop off are necessary to trigger hits. A well placed pull forward with the handline can also trigger hits from a following fish or a fish waiting in ambush behind a rock or just off of a shelf below your lure. The beauty of handlining is finding a large concentration of fish and then working your boat back and forth across current to repeatedly put your lures in front of the school. Other days it can be most efficient to make short passes over the best area and then swing right back around and set up for repeated passes over the same spot.

For someone like myself who’s most comfortable trolling open water for walleye, handlining is a very attractive option for river fishing. It has all the excitement and feel of jigging, but adds in the efficiency of covering a lot of water until you can nail down the best spots of the day. I haven’t broken the elusive 10-pound walleye mark while handlining, but I’ve caught enough 7 to 9 pound fish that I’m addicted to the technique. Whether I’m catching 1 to 3 pound sauger in rivers outside of the Great Lakes region, or I’m near home chasing huge walleye in the Detroit River, you can bet that I will have handline reels on the boat if I’m fishing in a river.

Top image: Handlining on the Illinois River (Courtesy Travis Hartman)

About Travis Hartman

FishSens pro Travis Hartman is a two-time WBSA Lake Erie Walleye Trail points champion and 2015 Cabela’s MWC World Walleye Championship qualifier. He has 21 top 10 finishes and is also a licensed charter captain.

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