As one of only two Canadian anglers to ever win a tournament on the prestigious Professional Walleye Trail south of the border, John Butts is certainly in lofty company. So why is the Dryden, Ontario, native so lonely when it comes to his winning technique for catching numbers of walleye, as well as monsters? Because so few, if any, fellow Canadians also troll with leadcore line. And that, laments Butts, is a big mistake, whether you’re a tournament pro or a weekend angler.
Using the leadcore line
Leadcore fishing line is nothing more sophisticated than Dacron line with a solid lead core to weigh it down-think of a spool of thin-diameter solder with a Dacron coating. The whole point is to get your lure down deep without having to use in-line sinkers, snap weights, bottom bouncers, downriggers or any of the other gadgets anglers use to sink their lines and lures.
The two most popular leadcore line strengths for walleye (18- and 27-pound-test) have identical cores. It’s important to note that it’s the outer coating of micro-thin Dacron that accounts for the difference in strength, not the leadcore. And contrary to what you might think, the lighter test, because of its thinner diameter, actually sinks faster and deeper than the stronger line. The same goes for monofilament-the thinner the line, the faster it sinks. It’s a simple matter of buoyancy and water resistance.
One very noticeable difference with leadcore line is that the outer Dacron coating is dyed a different colour every 10 yards. This makes it easier to count how much line you have out at any point in time, and to experiment with varying lengths of line to get your lure to different depths. And once you start landing fish, you can quickly set the other rods in the boat to the same line length.
It’s precisely because you can control the lure depth so accurately with leadcore line-compared with using weights attached to monofilament and braided lines-that Butts believes it’s the best trolling technique a walleye angler can use. In fact, most days he believes it’s the best tactic period. “Once you learn how to troll with leadcore line, you’ll use it more than any other system,” he says.
Butts explains that you can better control the depth of your lures with leadcore because it doesn’t immediately rise or sink when you speed up or slow down. If you slow down while using snap weights, bottom bouncers or in-line sinkers, meanwhile, they’ll crash to the bottom if you’re not careful.
Many walleye anglers think that leadcore line is only suitable for giant lakes and deep water, because it’s so enormously effective in such famous walleye hot spots as Ontario’s Bay of Quinte and Lake Erie. But that’s simply not the case, says Butts, who often trolls with leadcore in the small to moderate-sized lakes near his home in the walleye heartland of northwestern Ontario. And he favours the technique in water as shallow as eight feet—hardly the Great Lakes.
One reason Butts favours leadcore is that it lets him troll small crankbaits so effectively. He’s convinced that the smaller cranks catch the attention of walleye, especially moody or negative fish, and fool them better than bigger baits. However, the modest-sized lures don’t dive very deeply when trolled with conventional monofilament or braided line, while conventional weighting systems screw up their action. But with leadcore line, Butts says he can get the smaller lures to depths he couldn’t normally reach.
A good example would be trolling a shallow-running, Jointed Shad Rap along a break, with the walleye in 25 feet of water. “The most effective way to reach them is with leadcore,” says Butts. “I can stay on the break because leadcore will follow the path of the boat.” And by simply changing how much line he lets out, he can troll the same crankbait across a shallow flat or fish out in open water for suspended walleye. Concludes Butts: “Leadcore line is about absolute depth control.”
The rod & reel
While Butts carries eight outfits loaded with leadcore line in his boat at all times, he says the average recreational walleye angler only needs a single level-wind reel with a line counter and a spool capacity large enough to hold 90 to 100 yards of the fairly bulky line. Add to that an eight- to 10-foot-long, medium-soft-action trolling rod, and you’re in business.
Butts cautions against using a rod that’s too stiff. Leadcore line doesn’t stretch, so you need a long, soft stick to act like a shock absorber. This will soak up the head shakes from large walleye, allowing you to fight the fish carefully without the hooks wearing holes in their mouths and popping free at the side of the boat.
Butts normally ties on an eight-foot-long leader fashioned from 14-pound-test FireLine. Like leadcore, FireLine doesn’t stretch. As a result, the rod tip will vibrate like crazy as the line relays the lure’s action. If the lure picks up even the slightest piece of debris, such as a leaf or bit of weed, you’ll see the tip dampen or stop vibrating altogether. And when a walleye whacks the lure, there’s no mistaking it-you’d have to be asleep to miss the bite.
You’ll also be able to wobble your crankbait within inches of the bottom—intentionally scratching it if you want—and pull up if the action of your rod tip suggests you’re getting too close. Just increase your speed slightly and hop the lure away from the potential snag; the relatively short, eight-foot leader will respond to the burst of speed more rapidly than a longer one will.
On normal trolling passes, the short leader will also force the lure to follow the path of the leadcore line, tracking the boat like a heat-seeking missile. This makes trolling contour lines hassle-free. The bottom line: stick with a short leader. In fact, you can shorten it up even further-to as little as four feet-when you’re trolling in dark, stained or dirty water.
And don’t think you’re going to outsmart Butts by beefing up the strength of the leader. Fourteen-pound-test FireLine is the same diameter as six-pound-test monofilament; go any bigger and your lures won’t wobble as effortlessly. Besides, on the rare occasion you do hang up, it’s better to break the leader than the leadcore line.
The line length
Of all the details Butts has worked out in his quest to master leadcore trolling for walleye, none is as brilliant as his calculation for determining precisely how much line to let out. Namely, if you troll two miles an hour and let out three colours (30 yards/90 feet) of leadcore line, your bait will run at 20 feet. For every colour (10 yards/30 feet) of leadcore you let out after that, the lure will go down another five feet. If you let out a total of five colours, for example, your bait will be at 30 feet.
And it doesn’t matter what size crankbait you use-the depth will be the same. That’s because the amount of leadcore you let out determines the depth, not the crankbait. And that means you never need to use a deep diver.
The only other variable that can affect the depth of the bait is the length of your leader. While there’s little change when you use the short, eight-foot leader that Butts suggests, much longer leaders will cause the lure to run even deeper (for example, you may want a 50-foot fluorocarbon leader when the water is crystal clear and the walleye are extraordinarily spooky). To figure out how deep a particular lure will run on different lengths of leader, Butts recommends you consult the lure dive curves in the guidebook Precision Trolling, which he refers to as the walleye troller’s bible.
Given how long Butts has been perfecting his leadcore system, it comes as no surprise to hear him say there’s no time of year, no body of water and no weather condition that can deter him from trolling for walleye-especially with his beloved little crankbaits. Butts has such an abiding faith in these lures that he says he can troll them to catch walleye anywhere, any time. His favourites are Reef Runner Little Rippers, #4 and #5 Glass and Jointed Shad Raps and Cotton Cordell Wally Divers.
That said, Butts points to two specific situations when trolling small cranks on leadcore really shines. The first is when he finds walleye scattered across an expansive flat. It could be along a shoreline, in a bay or cove or on top of an underwater point, shoal, reef or bar. The type of structure or depth doesn’t matter as long as the area is relatively flat.
The other ideal situation is when the walleye are suspended in the water column. The fish might be relating to light levels, water temperature or schools of pelagic forage fish-whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. What counts is that the walleye are spread out across a horizontal plane, leaving them susceptible to your lures.
So what are the drawbacks to using leadcore for walleye fishing? After all, if hardly anyone in the country is using it, there must be a good reason. Butts does note that it’s important to let the line out slowly, because leadcore has a tendency to over-spool, tangle and make a mess. You don’t want to put a twist in it, either. So if you’re using a lure that spins-a crawler harness, for example-be sure to tie a quality snap swivel to the end of your leader. Other than that, Butts says he’s darned if he can figure out why leadcore isn’t more popular with anglers.
“I really don’t know of any negatives with leadcore,” Butts says, almost apologetically. “I love it. It is my favourite way to fish for walleye. Maybe I am just too positive.”
Maybe. But then again, only one other Canadian walleye angler has matched what Butts has been able to accomplish. And just maybe, that says it all.
Trolling leadcore line works wonders on many of Canada’s top walleye lakes, including Ontario’s Bay of Quinte. In fact, American walleye pro Keith Kavajecz used the technique to catch a 15-pound 15-ounce walleye there last fall while staying at Merland Park, one of the area’s premier walleye outfitters.
Attaching a monofilament, fluorocarbon or FireLine leader to the end of your leadcore line is relatively easy. First, you need to remove eight inches of the lead core from the end of the line, leaving behind eight inches of empty Dacron sheath. To tie your leader to the Dacron, you can use back-to-back uni-knots. Or you can slide one end of your leader into the eight-inch hollow end of the Dacron and tie a triple surgeon’s knot (a simple overhand knot with three wraps).
The other leadcore
Most walleye anglers who already troll with leadcore likely use what’s known as segmented leadcore. With this technique, you don’t put the entire spool of leadcore onto your reel. Instead, you first spool on 100 yards of monofilament or FireLine backing, then three or more colours of leadcore followed by your leader, which is usually 50 feet long.
Those who most commonly fish segmented leadcore use multiple rods to chase suspended walleye in crystal-clear waters, such as the Great Lakes. Planer boards are typically used to carry the lures away from the boat to cover a much wider swath of water, and to prevent lines and lures from tangling.
The planer boards are also good for catching walleye that are spooked by the boat as it passes over. Such easily scared fish are also the reason for the long leader—it places the lure a good distance away from the multicoloured leadcore.
While trolling with segmented leadcore is efficient and effective, it requires anglers to carry several rods and reels spooled with different lengths of leadcore to fish various depths. One rod may have three colours of leadcore, another four and still another five or six.