Why Go Lead Core?

Why Go Lead Core?

If you haven't tapped into lead core for your big-river trolling, you're out of control!

The Missouri River brings several premier opportunities for anglers pursuing walleye. The fish that live in this environment are extremely nomadic, here today and gone tomorrow as river flows fluctuate and change. As a result, tactics that cover water are often extremely effective for finding these moving schools of fish.

Author Jason Mitchell with a walleye caught trolling with lead core line. Lead core gives you more control over the depth of the lure where there are contours and structure.
Photo courtesy of Jason Mitchell.

Traditionally, spring on the Missouri River meant targeting structure with slow, methodical presentations, like vertically jigging river channels or pitching jigs up onto shallow structure. Walleye anglers long believed that early season walleyes would be reluctant to chase crankbaits or other presentations that were worked at faster speeds.

Over the past 10 years however, anglers have embraced trolling as an extremely effective tactic early in the season.

Several tournaments held on the Missouri River opened up many anglers' eyes as to the effectiveness of trolling crankbaits when commonly held beliefs dictated crawling at tedious slow speeds with a jig. If there is one craze to hit the Missouri River in the past few years that has changed trolling dramatically, it would have to be trolling crankbaits with lead core line.

The reason for the popularity of lead core stems from the fact that lead core line is an easy-to-use system that lets anglers put a lure or crankbait at almost any depth.

  • Most lead core line is coded with a different color every 10 yards. Anglers often refer to "colors of lead" when describing the amount of line out behind the boat. Because of the color code, anglers can become quite proficient at trolling without a line-counter reel, which, of course, saves them even more expense.
  • While lead core line is a cheap way to fish lures deep, don't discount its effectiveness at catching fish. Lures track differently when pulled behind lead core. Instead of lead core, there are several ways to get a crankbaits to run deeper: downriggers, snap weights and trolling weights come to mind. But none of these methods follow contours, or can be adjusted, with speed like lead core line.
  • Lead core line also imparts a fluid and natural action to the lure that is impossible to duplicate but incredibly effective, particularly early in the year before the water temperature warms above 60 degrees.

Most walleye anglers seldom have to fish deeper than 40 feet early in the year, in fact the most common application where walleye anglers use lead core line early in the season is not to get lures down through extremely deep water, but rather to get smaller profile, subtle or shallow-running lures down to moderate depths.

Spreading out and staggering lines is crucial to avoiding tangles. Lead core line will often snag or bog down inline planer boards. Anglers often use extra long trolling rods out the side of the boat and extremely short rods off the transom to prevent tangles. It also allows you to make sharper turns, which helps you stay on structure.

A handful of rod companies manufacture trolling rods specifically designed for lead core. Two well-known companies are Scheel's All Sports (www.scheelssports.com) and my personal favorite, for obvious reasons, Jason Mitchell Elite Series Rods (www.jasonmitchellrods.com).

Both offer 14-foot and 5-foot trolling rods that allow anglers to spread out lines while trolling lead core line.

Guide Cory Jueneman runs two 14-foot trolling rods out the sides and two 5-foot rods from the stern. "we cover more water because the two outside rods are essentially spread out over 30 feet apart from rod tip to rod tip," said Jueneman. -- Jason Mitchell

According to river guide Cory Jueneman, who is renowned for his abilities to catch walleye on Lake Oahe by trolling crankbaits, most anglers could spool up about six colors of lead core line and have ample amounts of line for most trolling applications early in the season.

"What we are doing with lead core line is using this trolling system to put lures that might dive to 10 or 12 feet with traditional braid or mono and putting these same lures in 20 feet or more of water," said Jueneman. "Lead core line gives the angler much more versatility."

Jueneman usually uses 27-pound test lead core line, sometimes spooling up with as many as 10 colors. To the end of the lead core line, Jueneman attaches a 12-foot leader of no-stretch braided line, like Vicious Braid, for better sensitivity. With the braid, it's easier to feel if the lure is working properly.

If you're looking for guidance on basic lead core trolling rigging, check out www.hudsleadcore.com.

According to Jueneman, some of the most effective lures on the Missouri River System early in the season include both stickbaits and shad-profiled crankbaits. Stick- or minnow-shaped baits, like Rapala's Husky Jerk, the Rattling Rogue, Salmo Sting and the Rapala X Rap, are popular. Shad-profiled crankbaits include the Salmo Hornet, Jointed Shad Rap and Berkley's Frenzies.

Jueneman prefers using lures that are tuned extremely well and put out a distinct vibration because fouled hooks are a common plague early in the season as there is typically a lot of debris floating in the water.

Last season, Jueneman said the Salmo BD6SDR Bullhead in the luminescent color was one of his favorite lures. "Often, we work these lures at slow speeds, trolling at speeds of 1.5 to 2.0 miles per hour. Trolling at speeds less than 2 mph is often critical early in the season," according to Jueneman.

Here are a few effective shad-profiled crankbaits for lead core line trolling. From left, Rapala's Shad Rap in Gold Fish, Salmo's Frisky in silver-blue-orange and Rapala's Jointed Shad Rap in pearl.
Photo by Jason Mitchell.

On the reservoirs, waves and strong wind might make boat control difficult. Many anglers have difficulties trolling at some of these slower sp

eeds with their outboard motor.

Jueneman offers these tips for anglers who don't have a smaller kicker motor:

  • Use the GPS ground speed to get an accurate reading of your speed.
  • To slow the boat down, especially in wind, put your bow-mount trolling motor down into the water. The resistance on the trolling motor will typically shave off a few tenths of a mile.
  • Use a small drift socks or sea anchor tied off the bow cleats to get more control of speed.

On both the reservoirs and the river, trolling speeds typically increase as the water warms up later into the season.

Changes in speed or direction often trigger walleyes, and this is exactly where lead core line excels. Lead core has a tendency to snake through the water as the boat follows the contour. Changes in direction are often exaggerated with lead core line. Lead core line is very speed-sensitive and will troll much deeper on slow trolling speeds, rising through the water column as trolling speed is increased.

Speed is a responsive method many anglers use to adjust their depth. Anglers can follow the contour down deeper by slowing the boat and letting the lead core line sink. Or anglers can speed up to lift the lead core line off the bottom to avoid snagging on a shallow reef.

For anglers attempting to keep lures on a specific contour, this snaking characteristic of lead core line makes following structure very effective. Because of the weight and resistance in the water, lead core line can follow contours much better than snap weights or down riggers. Because the lure depth can be adjusted by both the amount of lead core behind the boat and also boat speed, lead core is effective at following up and down break lines.

"Most of the fish are relating to the bottom, and if they are higher, we will see them on our electronics," said Jueneman. "With that being said, just let out line until you feel the lure periodically tick bottom ... if you can feel the lead core slap the bottom, you have too much line out."

Lake Oahe fishing guide Cory Jueneman used lead core trolling techniques to boat this walleye.
Photo by Jason Mitchell.

Lead core line also works extremely well in current. Strong current will sometimes have a tendency to blow trolled crankbaits up away from the bottom. Lead core seems to pin lures next to the bottom where most of the fish seem to be located in strong current.

Lead core doesn't take much in regards to specialized equipment, although some rod manufacturers do build trolling rods designed specifically for lead core. Because of the large diameter of lead core, use a level-wind reel with a large capacity.

Many anglers put on a few hundred feet of monofilament backing before spooling the lead core line. Depending on how deep you plan on fishing, some anglers spool anywhere from four to 10 colors of lead core line. Eighteen- to 27-pound test seems to be the most popular diameter for walleye anglers. A leader -- either mono or braid -- is then tied to the end of the lead core line.

Lead core is very stiff when new, but quickly softens and gets easier to work with after use. One trick to soften up the lead core is to dip the reel into water at the beginning of the day: it softens and pulls off the reel easier when wet.

Line-counter reels are helpful and give the angler the advantage of fine-tuning trolling patterns.

Rods should have a good backbone for handling the additional weight and strain of lead core. Still, they should offer some flex and cushion in the tip because lead core has little stretch and doesn't always pull off the drag smoothly.

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