Get In-Line For More Salmonids

In-line planer boards can help you box more salmon and trout on Lake Michigan, but no one board can do it all. You need to know which boards to use in certain situations.

The author used a crankbait pulled behind an in-line planer board to fool this chinook salmon.
Photo courtesy of Mike Gnatkowski

Twenty years ago, most Great Lakes anglers wouldn't have known what an in-line planer board was. Today, side-planers have become one of the most important pieces of equipment in the big-lake angler's arsenal. But not all side-planers are created equal. Some are better suited for pulling heavy lengths of lead-core line, which is a hot tactic for summer chinook salmon on Lake Michigan. Others are perfect for targeting brown trout in shallow water or steelhead cruising near offshore scumlines. Truth is, no one in-line planer board can do it all.

Credit for the first commercially made side-planer, called a Yellow Bird, dates back to 1975. Two Wisconsin-based charter captains came up with the idea of making a smaller version of the traditional planer boards they were accustomed to using. The original prototypes were made of wood, but as the mini-board's usefulness became apparent -- and the boards gained in popularity -- the partners decided to begin making them out of injection-molded plastic. Although the company has been sold several times since its inception, Yellow Birds remain one of the more popular in-line planers on the market. You can get more information by contacting Yellow Bird Products at 1-888-696-2473 or online at

In-line planer boards have numerous advantages over larger, more cumbersome conventional planer boards. One reason is their simplicity. Another is their size. Larger boards require a mast to run them, and plenty of room. In-line boards are smaller, take up less storage area on the boat and require only a sturdy rod holder, a 7 1/2- to 8 1/2-foot medium-action trolling rod and a quality levelwind reel to use them. There isn't a bulky mast or unwieldy boards to store when you're not using them. In-line boards really shine in tight quarters like when fishing inside harbor walls, working nearshore troughs, stitching the color line or maneuvering in traffic. Full-sized boards require a lot of room to turn. Pulling lines in closer with standard planers requires cranking in the tether line on the mast and reeling in each individual line. With the in-line planers you can just reel the boards in tight when making a turn or bring them in and quickly reset them after you've completed your turn. In traffic, you just need to reel them in closer to the boat, and once the boat passes, simply let the boards back out.

The smaller in-line boards catch more fish than the bigger boards, too. Full-sized boards tend to track smoothly, straight and in line, and trailing lures do the same. In-line boards can dart, jump, hesitate, skate forward and drop back in even the slightest chop or on a turn. This erratic action is imparted to the lures. The stop-and-go cadence imparted by side-planers triggers more strikes from following salmonids.

Once a fish strikes, in-line boards also produce more positive hookups. When a fish hits a line trailed off a traditional planer board, the line snaps out of the release on the tether line. Even if the fish is hooked solidly, there is a lot of slack in the line that needs to be quickly taken up before the angler is tight to the fish. With the smaller in-line boards the instant a fish hits the lure and begins to drop back with the lure the board drops back with it, keeping constant tension on the fish. Hookups are more consistent and your landing rate will skyrocket when using in-line boards versus the larger planer boards.

About the only disadvantage of using in-line planer boards is the fact that they stay attached to your line while you're fighting a fish. But when a chrome steelhead is tailwalking across the surface or a husky king salmon streaks off on one of those patented 100-yard runs, you hardly notice it. When running shorter 50- to 75-foot leads behind the smaller boards, the trick is to let the board trip or release and slide down to a stop positioned on your line 6 to 8 feet above the fish. Run a 10mm bead up your main line and then attach a barrel swivel before tying on a 6- to 8-foot leader to your lure. You can also use a stop called a Speedo Bead. When running long lengths of lead core behind larger in-line boards, it's easy to reel in the board and take it off while fighting the fish because the fish is way behind the boat and isn't likely to get tangled in other lines.

In-line boards are ideal when targeting brown trout. Brown trout naturally gravitate toward the shallower nearshore water early in the spring because it is warmer and that's where baitfish are likely to congregate. The trout will get into the troughs that parallel the shoreline and then herd schools of baitfish. The browns will be in as little as 3 or 4 feet of water. They are very spooky in the shallows, but using in-line boards to get lures away from the boat and into the shallow waters is a deadly technique.

Mini-boards also excel when searching for steelhead and other salmonids far off shore over deep water during summer. The nomadic rainbows are known for searching out scumlines created by temperature breaks over deep water. The trout are usually within a fathom of the surface though, and are extremely skittish in the ultraclear water. In-line boards make it possible to get lures in front of the edgy rainbows without spooking them and help increase your coverage area when searching for active trout in the vast expanses.

An ideal in-line board for shallow-water applications is Tru Tac Industries' Tru Tracker side-planer. The Tru Tracker has several features that make it the preferred board for trout and salmon. The Tru Tracker is constructed of hard durable plastic, is reversible so you don't have to buy separate boards for starboard and port applications, they're lightweight and their bright red color makes them highly visible. The Tru Tracker comes equipped with a Big Jon Jettison Release, which is quick and easy to set, produces consistent releases that result in good, solid hooksets, and the release doesn't wear out like pinch-pad releases. The sharp, beveled front edge of the Tru Tracker also helps it cut through the waves, which helps it track way out to the sides and makes it fishable in up to 5-footers. For more information on Tru Tracker in-line boards, contact Tru Trac Industries at (231) 845-7844 or online at

Deploying a board spread is easy. Captains put out a spread of four or five in-line boards on each side of the boat. Simply let out 50 to 100 feet of line behind the boat, attach the line to the snap swivel at rear of the board and then up to the release. Drop the board over the side and make sure the planer begins to angle away from the boat. The first board you let out should be the farthest from the craft and should b

e placed in the rod holder closest to the bow. When running multiple boards, place the rod holder farthest forward almost straight up and then angle each rod holder slightly outward as you move back toward the stern. The angle of the holder will help keep rods from getting tangled and allow you to clear a rod without catching an adjacent rod and flipping it overboard.

Once the outside board is set, you can set a second board to run just inside your farthest board. It's a good practice to keep the boards approximately 10 to 15 feet apart. Once you get three or four boards out, they should all be tracking in a relatively straight line or formation. This of course depends on the types of lures you're running on each rod. Body baits or crankbaits will dive harder and deeper than spoons and will pull the board back slightly farther. If you catch a fish or miss a strike, it's a simple matter to let the inside board out to take the place of the tripped board and then rotate them.

In-line boards don't work just for shallow salmonids or when trout and salmon are near the surface. Later in the summer, in-line boards can be useful when pulling heavy lengths of lead core to reach fish positioned near the thermocline. For my money, the Church Tackle TX-24 side-planer is the only in-line board that will effectively pull lead-core line. The TX-24 planer features an adjustable clip that holds superlines and monofilament securely and releases with one hand, a spring-loaded rear pin that makes setting lines easy and prevents you from losing your board, an adjustable keel weight that allows you to adjust the attitude of the boards when pulling heavy lead core and weights, and its catamaran-style minimizes the chances of the board diving or flying out of the water. To get more information on Church Tackle's TX-24 planers, call (269) 934-8528 or 1-800-990-8528, or go to

Varying the amount of lead core you pull behind in-line boards can help target salmonids when they go deeper. Adding various lead weights using Church Super Clips will even enable you to reach trout and salmon when the thermocline drops to 80 or 90 feet during late summer. Lead core pulled behind boards is especially effective on jittery kings.

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