Whoever said that you can't win them all was right. But that person probably never watched a $50,000 walleye shake the hooks 10 feet from the boat in a major tournament, either. It's frustrating and even downright gut-wrenching, and it always leaves the angler wondering what he or she could have done differently to prevent it from happening.
Everybody loses a fish now and then, and they aren't always the biggest ones. That's especially true when trolling. With as much as 100 feet or more of tenuous line between you and a fish angered by a mouthful of hooks, the potential for escape is considerable. Add big waves and the elements of equipment failure or human error, and it happens.
However, when every fish counts and some are literally worth their weight in gold, almost catching the winning fish is worth about the same as never hooking it to begin with.
Over the years, I've lost my share of fish while trolling everything from spinner rigs and crawlers to crankbaits. I've also learned a few valuable lessons that help reduce those losses to a minimum. Some are common sense preventative measures. Others are on-the-spot adjustments that might just bring the fish of a lifetime to the boat.
Every angler recognizes the importance of sharp hooks, yet not every angler addresses the matter. More than once, I've seen somebody pull a crankbait from the box, look at a rusty or bent hook and decide that it's good enough.
On the tournament trail, we don't need to get every fish to the boat during our prefishing outings. In fact, most of the time we'd rather not make a scene that might tip others off to our bite.
But once we determine which crankbaits seem to be particularly effective, we tend to the hooks on any of those lures that we might use during the tournament, and there's no reason recreational anglers shouldn't do the same thing.
In some cases, it's as simple as honing the hooks to a lazer-sharp point. In other cases, it means replacing the original hooks with a premium treble. And in still other cases when the mood of the fish comes into play, it might entail replacing the originals with a size larger for big, aggressive fish or a size smaller for more finicky walleyes.
One of the most frustrating ways to lose a fish is by a broken line or a bad knot that breaks loose. It's also one of the easiest things to prevent. Before I ever wet a line, I check the guides on my Berkley and Fenwick rods for nicks or rough spots that might weaken my line. A good way to do this is to run a cotton swab around the inside of the guide. If it hangs up at all, you have a problem.
After every fish, I inspect my knot and the next six feet of line or so. If I feel any nicks or abrasions, I strip off some line and re-tie. In some waters, the proliferation of zebra mussels is an additional consideration. When that's the case, I inspect my line nearly every chance I get. Matching the wrong rod and line is another good way to lose fish when trolling. In most applications, I use Berkley Trilene XT, although there are situations where I need the strength and abrasion resistance provided by Berkley Fireline.
In either case, I like a long trolling rod (7 feet or longer) with a fairly soft tip. Monofilament line provides some margin for error because it stretches where Fireline doesn't, but in both applications I think a soft rod tip allows the lure or spinner rig to move with the fish as it shakes its head and tries to throw the hooks.
Patience is another virtue when trolling. It's human nature to grab a rod right away when a fish hits, but the goal is to let the fish hook itself. I prefer to wait a few seconds until it's obvious the fish is on, then slowly and carefully remove the rod from my Tempress rod holder.
Once the rod is in hand, I like to employ a steady turn on my Abu Garcia reels rather than use a pumping motion. The idea is to keep constant pressure on the fish and to keep a consistent angle between the end of the rod and the fish. A pumping motion or sudden changes in rod angle can give a walleye just enough slack line to shake the hook. Changing the angle of the rod tip during a fight can also tear hooks loose.
In general, don't be in a hurry to get that fish to the net. The only exception is when small fish come immediately to the surface and begin thrashing about. These fish are actually doing us a favor because we can lift the rod tip high and skip them across the surface at a rapid pace. I've seen a lot of fish escape when allowed to thrash about on top of the water well behind the boat or submerge over and over again during the battle.
When you get a hooked fish near the boat, be prepared to give ground. It seems like every big walleye saves enough energy to create havoc once it is within sight. Again, try to keep the rod angle consistent, but low to the water where it is easy to go with the surging fish and give line as necessary. There are a couple of other considerations that can help land fish hooked while trolling with planer boards, which is a deadly tactic in situations where the fish are scattered over wide areas or boat shy because of clear water and motor noise.
I use Off-Shore boards and there is no question that the Tattle Flag additions help me detect the presence of light-biters and debris. Without them, there are fish that I would never know had hit.
Still, when you add another piece of equipment to a line, such as a planer board, it does create one more obstacle between the angler and the fish. The most difficult situations are those where big waves are a factor. Countless times, I've seen fish hooked on the far outside board in 3- to 4-foot waves come undone because of the difficulty in moving that board across the waves toward the boat while the fish is trying to go a different direction. One solution that often helps is speeding up the boat until the board is behind you rather than out to the side. The idea is to remove the angle between the rod and the board.
Neutral fish create additional issues. Many times, they will smack a lure or a spinner rig and be on for a few seconds, but they don't stick. When that happens, it can help to change the boat speed. Slowing down may give the fish a better shot at the lure. Speeding up sometimes evokes a reaction strike. Adding a trailer hook to a crankbait can sometimes be the answer, too.
A good way to deal with spooky fish is Panther's new Navigator trolling motor that literally rides piggy-back on the big engine. With 55 pounds of thrust, the 24V system has plenty of power to push a 20' boat all day.
While it's not a replacement for my four-stroke Mercury 9.9 horsepower kicker, it is a good alternative on smaller boats or when extreme stealth is an advantage in my Triton 205. Once you've solved every other problem, it's time to put that trophy in the boat. That requires a good net person who waits until the time is right and makes the first attempt count.
First of all, I let the angler with the rod decide when the fish is ready to net. That person alone knows how the fish is acting and when it is tiring. When it's ready to net, don't stab at it. Get the net underneath it or let the angler lead it into the net head-first. Then, rather than raise the net out of the water and risk breaking the handle, pull it toward the boat. The net bag will fold around the fish where it cannot escape and it can be lifted safely into the boat vertically rather than horizontally.
Occasionally, an angler does everything right and a fish still finds a way to escape. That's fishing.
All we can do is strive for the perfect landing.
Editor's note: John Kolinski is the reigning Professional Walleye Trail Angler of the Year, the RCL's 2003 winner on the Illinois River, and an 11-time championship qualifier during eight years of pro fishing on the PWT, RCL and MWC. His articles can be found in many Midwestern publications and at several web sites. Kolinski is sponsored by Triton Boats, Mercury Motors, Lowrance Electronics, Normark/Storm Lures, MinnKota, Lindy Legendary Tackle, Flambeau, Tempress Rod Holders, Off-Shore planer boards, Berkley Trilene, Optima Batteries, and Panther.