The Need for Speed Control: Techniques for minding boat speed when trolling for walleye

By on December 2, 2014
Travis Hartman shows off a Lake Erie walleye (Credit Travis Hartman)

The first major mistake I made when I started figuring out how to consistently catch walleye while trolling on Lake Erie was assuming I should always troll at the same speed. I had a few trips where 1.8 mph was exactly what the walleye wanted and I had some of the best days of fishing that I had ever experienced. But those few trips kept me from catching fish the following spring, at least for a few days. I had missed the point that boat speed, like most variables, needs to be carefully considered and experimented with each trip.

The boat speed that triggers bites changes throughout the year. A Cliff’s Notes strategy for that would be to troll slowly early in the year, speed up through the summer, and then slow back down as the water cools off in the fall. Of course, the finer points get much more complicated.

Embedded within the seasonal standards for speed is the need to run the appropriate speed for the technique that you’re using. Besides figuring out the speed the fish prefer on any given day, you need to carefully choose your lures based on the speed you’ve chosen, or the reverse where your lures dictate the speed you run.

Well outfitted boats should have a 9.9-horsepower gas kicker engine. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Well outfitted boats should have a 9.9-horsepower gas kicker engine. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

My “normal” year starts out running anywhere from 0.8 mph to 1.4 mph trolling crankbaits in March and April. There aren’t a lot of choices to make, except for deciding how slow you need to go to get hits from fish living in 35- to 45-degree water. But as the water warms up, you have more options and need to start paying attention to detail. If I’m following open water fish and sticking with fast-running crankbaits like Reef Runner deep divers, I’ll speed up as the water temperature rises, ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 mph depending on how the fish react.

But if I’m fishing worm harnesses on rocky structure or in isolated open water areas, I’ll keep it at 1.1 to 1.5 mph. Reef Runners are more effective at higher speeds when the water warms up, so I won’t run them when I’m fishing slow with harnesses. It’s perfectly fine to experiment with a slower running crankbait, such as a Rapala down deep husky jerk, if the fish don’t want your harnesses, but make sure to match your lures to the speed you’ve chosen. It’s much easier to keep things simple and run all harnesses or all crankbaits.

As the season progresses back to cooling temperatures in the fall the choices get easier again. I’ll switch back over to all crankbaits and let the water temperature dictate what speed will work, all the way down to 0.9 mph in sub-40-degree water. The speed that they want will help dictate which style of crankbait is going to work best.

So, how do you control your speed? On a tournament-style, multi-species boat in the 20-foot range, you have lots of choices. Well outfitted boats will have a 9.9 horsepower gas kicker engine, a bow-mount electric trolling motor with autopilot and remote control, and could have other options such as an engine-mounted electric motor, RPM control of the main outboard through gauge controls, and helm autopilot for the main motor. You can also help control your speed with large trolling bags that are bigger versions of drift socks. A pair of trolling bags is a must for any walleye trolling boat on large water bodies.

My general rule on my 20-foot fiberglass Lund is that I can troll nearly all day on my electric bow mount alone if I’m trolling downwind and I stay under 1.5 mph. If I need to stay at 1.5 mph or higher, I’ll run my gas kicker motor to control my speed and run my bow mount electric to steer with its autopilot. If waves are pushing the boat and I can’t consistently stay as slow as I want too, then it’s time to put out both trolling bags. There are times that, even though I’m going less than 1.5 mph, I will have both the electric bow mount and kicker running with the trolling bags out.

Hartman's sonar, GPS and custom autopilot. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Hartman’s sonar, GPS and custom autopilot. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

No matter how you control your speed on your boat you need to measure it accurately. The easiest, most consistently accurate measurement is speed over ground on your GPS. Most boats have a combo sonar/GPS unit, but you can also use apps on your cell phone to double check your speed. As long as your phone has an internal GPS and you’ve previously downloaded an app that measures your speed, you won’t even need cell service to utilize your phone’s capabilities.

Walleye trolling success can hang in the balance of one tenth of a mile per hour. By learning how to consistently control your speed you can start determining how to trigger more hits on every trip. Keep an open mind each trip and have all the tools necessary to set your speed exactly on the tenth of a mile per hour that is magic on each day.

Top image: Travis Hartman shows off a Lake Erie walleye (Credit 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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