Learn the details of a professional walleye anger’s set-up and technique to improve your walleye trolling success.
While interviewing walleye tournament pro Sammy Cappelli, I recalled early childhood memories of accompanying my father on walleye trolling outings. Dad’s 5 1/2-foot solid steel rod sported a knuckle-buster casting reel spooled with black Dacron line, to which a Flatfish was attached, along with two dog-ear clamp-on sinkers squeezed tight to the line.
My gosh, how walleye trolling has changed since the 1950s! The only thing in common between then and now was dad and Cappelli both cut their walleye-fishing teeth on Pymatuning Lake on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border!
Hailing from Youngstown, Ohio, Cappelli still makes an occasional pilgrimage to Pymatuning. However, most of his walleye fishing now is scattered around the country on tour with professional walleye circuits. Following are his tips to becoming a more effective crankbait troller.
Rods, Reels & Line
Pause for a moment to consider Dad’s single trolling rod compared to the specialized rods Cappelli carries for planer boards, Dipsey Divers, Jet Divers and lead core.
“All my rods are 8.5 feet long – except two 12-foot lead core rods. Every rod is telescopic, which makes them easier to store on the boat,” Cappelli said. “I have all my rods numbered so if I lose line or need to repair a reel then I can write down the number of the rod in order to take care of the issue after fishing. All rods are outfitted with line counter reels.”
Cappelli said the most important consideration in choosing line is the diameter of the line because diameter plays a huge part in determining the exact depth your crankbait will run.
Information in the Precision Trolling Data app (available online as a download to your phone) provides exact line amount to let out for all popular crankbaits. The data was arrived at by testing crankbaits on a line diameter of .013, which is the diameter of several popular 10-pound test monofilament lines used for trolling. The app also includes information for braided line. Braid is thinner than monofilament for same pound test and will allow a bait to dive deeper.
“I only use 10-pound monofilament with a .013 diameter when pulling crankbaits because it matches up with data in the app. I use mono line because of the stretch; that way you don’t lose as many fish. Pulling cranks with braid results in more fish lost because there is no give.”
However, when running a Dipsey or Jet Diver, then Cappelli employs specific rod & reel combos spooled with braid. Those reels have been calibrated to the trolling app for braid.
Lead core takes a lure down approximately five feet for every color segment of line out when running 2 mph. Cappelli employs 18-pound-test lead core line with a 12- or 14-pound fluorocarbon leader to troll small, shallow crankbaits at depth far greater than they could possibly dive. “If you snag up on something, it is far better to break the leader and loose a crankbait than to lose lead core.”
Each line counter reel must be calibrated to make sure that when the counter says 100 feet, that the line out is exactly 100 feet. “If you are pulling a Deep Walleye Bandit on monofilament and trying to catch fish that are 19 feet down in the water column, then you need to let out 100 feet of line. But if your reels are not calibrated, the counter may say 100 of line out when there is only 70 feet – in which case your bait would only be 14 feet deep and well above the walleyes. There are YouTube videos detailing the line-to-reel calibration process.”
“Once a reel is calibrated, I unwind 500 feet of line from the reel, cut the line and install a #14 barrel-swivel to join the two ends. Then I wind the 500 feet of line back onto the reel. The next time I have to change line, I simply strip off old line to the swivel, and reel on fresh 500 feet. The reel is already calibrated and you do not waste line.”
This tip is absolutely crucial. Tune each crankbait to ensure it runs straight. If it does not run straight, it will not achieve desired depth. The old-fashioned way was bending the line tie eyelet with a pair of pliers; too much pressure and the eyelet might crack the bill or come loose. But crankbait tuners are now available that are far less likely to over tune or damage the eyelet set in the bill. Google Crankbait Tuner for information on this tool.
The first time out with a new bait, Cappelli snaps it on a rod, drops it in the water alongside the boat while moving forward at a trolling speed of two miles per hour. Then he gently pulls the rod forward to speed up the bait’s movement.
If a crankbait pulls right, use the crankbait tuner to gingerly bend the eyelet on the bill of the bait to the left, or vice versa. Always bend the eyelet opposite of the direction it is pulling.
“One of the major reasons I run Bandit baits is, they hardly ever need tuning!” stated Cappelli unequivocally.
Cappelli relies on the original Bandit Walleye Shallow and Deep, Bandit Generator, Bandit B-Rotan, and Bandit B-Shad. “And don’t forget the Smithwick Perfect 10,” he added.
Bandits are preferred because they rarely require tuning right out the package. But another equally important reason is because the company has introduced a couple unique crankbaits that are ideally situated to special conditions which walleye trollers encounter.
“For example, the Generator with glow sticks is a game changer for walleyes in dirty water,” Cappelli said. “I used to avoid dirty water with less than 2 feet of visibility, but with glow sticks installed in the Generator, I can catch walleyes in stained or dirty water.”
How about a loud bait that runs at slow speed? With dual rattle chambers, the B-Rotan is a very loud bait. “These baits can be pulled at speeds less than 1 mph, and still provide a great rattle and wide wobble. I run them up high for spring and fall walleye. I also like to run them behind a Dipsey Diver on a number 1 or 2 setting.”
Although the Smithwick Perfect 10 may have started out as a bass bait, walleye anglers claim it as one of their own. “The Perfect 10 is a very good walleye bait in the spring and in the fall. During the early and late season, don’t be afraid to run them high in the water column…I’m talking really high, like five feet or less below the surface. I also like to run the P-10 behind a Dipsey or on lead core.”
Cisco fishing systems rod holders secure Cappelli’s active trolling rods. “For pulling my Offshore Tackle planer boards, I use triple trees with three tubes per tree. I like all my board rods in one area rather than spread out. With higher trees, the boards stay in line with one another, and in big waves the boards don’t hop over each other. Lead core or Dipsey rods are run in cradle holders at 90 degrees out the side and 45-degree angle out the back.”
Sammy prefers to keep things simple if possible. “During the summer I mainly run mono rods with Deep Walleye Bandits – either unassisted on boards, or with Snap-Weights. When pulling original Bandits, Generators or P-10s on mono, I always run boards. I can run up to five boards on a side, but for tournaments we do four rods on boards – two on each side.”
“I always run my outside (furthest) board as the longest lead and try different leads till I start catching fish. So, my inside board may be 60 feet out, the second board at 80 feet and third board at 100 feet. Absolutely vital to have your reels calibrated and crankbaits tuned! However, I generally prefer to run shorter leads than mentioned in above example for better control.”
Trolling speed is vitally important, too. “For summer, my speed for pulling cranks is between 2 and 2.2 mph. In the spring, it usually 1 to 1.2 mph. Come fall, it’s typically 1.5 to 1.7 – but you’ve got to play around with that sometimes. The only time I pull crankbaits faster than 2.2 is when targeting saugeye. These super aggressive fish will hit baits at 3.5 to 4 mph.
Colors of the Rainbow
In his keep-it-simple style, Cappelli’s color guidelines for baits are easy to follow: darker colors in dirty water, brighter colors in clean water, and shiny colors when the sun is high and bright. And to ensure he has backup in the event of a specific hot color bite, he carries in the boat six of every color Bandit, Generator, P-10 and B-Rotan available.
All crankbaits are organized by color and stored in labeled boxes. “If I get a hot bait working, then I can quickly find another one just like it. I carry an empty box for damaged baits so I can keep them separated for repairs when I get in from fishing.”