Hand Lining for Detroit River Walleye

Hand Lining for Detroit River Walleye

by: Brian Zadorecky

As winter fades into spring, many anglers thoughts turn to pencil plugs, wire line and Walleye. Michigan anglers are blessed with some of the best Walleye fishing the country has to offer, and South East Michigan seems to be the epicenter of it all. From the St. Clair River to Lake Erie’s central basin, SE Michigan fisherman are just a short drive away from some of the finest trophy Walleye fishing in the world.
You can’t talk about spring Walleye fishing without mention of the Detroit River, and you can’t talk about the Detroit River without the conversation turning to hand lining. Until I moved to the area a few years ago, I was like most people and didn’t know the first thing about hand lining. Fortunately, through my work I was able to meet and fish with several professional Walleye fishermen and even some local Detroit River experts. I’ve also learned a lot from the growing amount of information available both in print and on the internet. With the growing popularity of this style of fishing, more and more information is available every day. I’m still no expert; learning more with every hour spent on the river. The following should clear up some of the mystery surrounding what hand lining is all about.
Hand lining was born out of necessity before the days of powerful electric trolling motors. The swift, deep currents of the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers made vertical jigging as we know it nearly impossible. Some techniques were moderately successful but there had to be a better way. Enter hand lining. The technique was to be the most effective and efficient way to keep crank baits and spinners glued to uneven bottom while trolling against the rivers swift 3-6 mph current. It allows anglers to cover water while raising lures over obstructions and instantly dropping them into crevices and holes where these river Walleye lie.
A hand line reel is a large diameter, spring loaded reel that holds coated wire line (usually 60#) and attaches to the boats gunnel on either side. Only two reels can be fished at one time.

Attached to the end of the wire is a “shank”. The shank consists of a section of the same 60# wire, usually about 3-6′ long that has clevises fixed along it’s length every 6″ or so. The shank has a loop on top to connect to your main line, and a snap on the bottom to attach your weight. Weights or sinkers are cylinder or torpedo shaped and typically weigh 1-2 lbs. The weight used will depending on the water depth and current speed. One or two leaders are snapped on to the shank’s clevises above the sinker. Depending on how long your leaders are and to which clevis you snap it to, your lures should run near the bottom, one behind the other. Shorter leaders go on closest to the sinker and the longer one goes on higher up the shank. A common leader set up would be a 20′ leader on the 3rd clevis and a 40′ leader on the 6th clevis (from the sinker). The general rule is for every inch from the weight, increase your leader length about 1′. Leader selection can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. All you want is your lures in front of the fish without tangling one another! Leaders are made of stiff or hard mono (“Mason’s” is a favorite) so that as leaders are thrown into the bottom of the boat when a fish is being landed they don’t get knotted or tangled.
The traditional lure for handlining is a long thin hard minnow plug called a pencil plug. The lure resembles a pencil with three treble hooks and a popper style face. It slowly slides through the fast currents without to much action or pulling too hard. Other favorite lures are any of the minnow stick baits like Rapalas, Rogues, or Thunderstiks. Additional popular baits when “pulling wire” are crawler harness spinners, and even small trolling spoons.
Hand line reels are mounted forward of each fisherman on the side of the boat. The boat is positioned downstream of fish holding areas and is slowly moved upstream and side-to-side. When fully rigged, the entire set-up is sent down with the current pushing it behind the boat at an angle. The coated wire slides through your fingers until the tell-tale thump of the sinker hitting the bottom is felt. The reel lets the line come out smoothly, and when stopped keeps a light tension on the line. The lures trail behind the wire and stack one behind the other. As you slowly move upstream and side to side, the lures are brought past fish at an irresistible pace. Anglers will feel the sinker tapping the bottom, and you should always attempt to keep in close contact. If contact is lost, simply lets a little wire slide through your fingers until contact is regained. An angle of about 45 degrees is considered ideal and keeps the sinker from snagging too much while getting lures back behind the boat. If the angle gets too flat (as a result of shallowing depths or too much wire out) simply pull up some wire and the reel will take up the slack.
Hopefully during all this you’ll eventually have a Walleye grab your lure. When he does, you’ll feel either a heavy slow weight or a sharp jerk on your hand/arm. The latter is more exciting (unless it happens to be a Musky or Steelhead and then you’re in trouble!) and both will be followed by the unmistakable head shakes Walleyes are known for. The wire is now pulled in, with the reel taking up the slack, until the top of the shank reaches the reel’s opening. Now you’ll need to pull the leaders in hand over hand until the fish is aboard. The trick is to get the leaders on the boat deck without tangling them. When the fishing is hot or if you’re a beginner you may want to fish only one leader at a time.
Sounds easy, right? Sometimes it is. But just like every other type of fishing, there are subtleties that can lead to consistent success. The best anglers pay close attention to boat speed, lure action, color and noise based on water clarity and other factors. Boat control seems to be the most important factor to consistent limits. To sum it up, hand lining is a deadly but specialized technique that can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. For those who think it’s boring or takes to much skill… I’m here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth! You know what’s boring? Not catching fish. Hand lining lets you feel every little bump on the bottom directly through your fingers. You’re constantly making adjustments to your lures and the boat. When a fish strikes, you feel it telegraphed through your whole body along with every surge and headshake. You feel very connected to the river and the fish. So if you’ve never tried it, you should. It’s a trip! If you’re still a critic, that’s fine too. More Walleye for the rest of us!

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