Trolling crankbaits with leadcore is one of the best ways to target deepwater walleyes quickly and efficiently. We reached out to fishing guide Brad Hawthorne, one of the best leadcore fishermen we know, and picked his brain on how he approaches the tactic.
You can watch the video above or read the Q&A below. Enjoy!
When do you bust out the leadcore?
“I’ll bust out the leadcore when I start seeing walleyes off structure in the basin or out on the mud flats. Let’s say I’m out on a mud flat that tops out at 24 feet. If I’m marking fish up on top of the flat and they are suspended two or three feet off the mud, I’ll likely start trolling leadcore for those fish.
“Whenever you’re looking at fish on your fishfinder, you should be able to quickly determine your preferred way to target them based on how they relate to the structure they’re on. They might be spinner fish, jig fish, rig fish, or trolling fish. It all depends on how they are positioned.
“Trolling fish are suspended off structure or loosely scattered across structure. Also, when you start seeing suspended bait or bugs, usually the fish will be somewhere close by.”
How do you know how much line to put out?
“I take that for granted sometimes. A lot of it’s memory by now, but I do rely heavily on the Precision Trolling app, because I can’t retain the hundreds and hundreds of dive curves on every crankbait. The guys that have generated that app have really gone above and beyond.
“I’m not sponsored by them or anything, it’s just a tool that I use a ton. My customers are looking at me thinking that I’m answering a text, but I’m not. I’m looking up the dive curve on my 20 feet of tip line because I haven’t used this bait in six years.”
How do you know how much line to put out?
“I like leadcore line where the leadcore is really supple. Sometimes you get leadcore line where the inside lead is really rigid and ends up poking through. I’m not a big fan of line like that.
“I have a bunch of leadcore setups. I like 5-foot color setups, I have four of those, and I also have four 7-foot per color setups, too. I’ll use different setups depending on the body of water I’m fishing. I’ll use 5-foot lead on Mille Lacs and 7-foot lead on Lake of the Woods because the basin on LOTW is anywhere from 7 to 12 feet deeper than it is on Mille Lacs. Less line out = less time.
“Tip line (the leader) varies, too. I run fluorocarbon on half of my setups and 832 braided line on the other setups. I make use of both options because they each give the crankbaits a different action. So if I’m over rocks, I tend to lean on the superlines in case you get a plug caught in the rocks.”
What characteristics do you look for in a rod/reel setup?
“I like to run 10 foot medium-fast action rods that still show the vibration of the lure. If I’m running a bait with a subtle action like a #5 Shad Rap, I want to be able to see it’s vibration on my rod tip. It’s important because you can pick up a tiny piece of grass, drag it around on your bait, and it will prevent you from catching fish. You’ll know that tiny piece of grass is there based on the vibration of your rod tip if you have a good rod.
“Reels: I like heavy-duty ball bearing line counter reels with good drags. Shimano Tekotas are good, my Daiwa 17’s, 27’s and 47’s are great reels, too. You want something that will hold up over time. The $25 to $35 line counters are good for the beginner, but I’ve found they don’t last. I can only get a season or two out of them.
“If you’re going to get into leadcore fishing and make the commitment to do it, you’re better off sinking a little more money into top performing equipment.”
What are your favorite baits to pull on leadcore?
“If you looked at the crankbait compartment in my Lund, you’d say I don’t have a favorite bait (I own a lot of cranks). That said, I do have a few favorites. I like Thundersticks a lot. They catch fish on every body of water I fish and they come in such a wide variety of colors. We can all thank the Great Lakes fishermen, because they demand a lot of colors, and if they want a hot pink and purple pattern and they scream loud enough, they are going to get it. That benefits everyone.
“My “B” lure would have to be the RS Shad, the rattling shad. It has the tried and true shad profile and action with a little rattle added in. It’s a dynamite bait, and it’s also underutilized.”
How do you determine your trolling speed?
“Ultimately, you need to play with it. But before I mess with speed, I like to dial in my lure, color choice and amount of line. Once I have those factors figured out, I’ll start adjusting my speed.
“The object is always to catch fish faster. If the walleyes are hitting my RS shad at 1.8 mph, I’ll creep it up to 2.0 mph. If they are still biting, I’ll bump it up to 2.2 mph. From there, I’ll go up to 2.4 mph. If I start catching less fish on that same area, I’ll bump it back down to 2.2 mph.
“One of my best trolling speeds, which is a little out of the norm, is 2.4 to 2.6 mph. It works great when the fish are high. Just smoke it over their heads and they will drill it.
“Dial in the other factors first, and then see how far you can push your trolling speed. The faster you can cover water, the more fish you’re going to catch. If you can get away with running 3.0 mph, you’ll have the opportunity to find a lot more fish in the same amount of time.”
What is the biggest mistake anglers make with leadcore?
“First off, some anglers use rods that are too stiff. Pulling treble hooks out of a fish’s mouth should be a non-issue. If you do it three times in an outing, something is wrong. You either need to upsize your treble for the speed you’re going, or you need to slow down. Guys who pull hooks are typically using pool cues for rods — maybe they pulled out their stiff 4oz bottom bouncer rod and slapped on a leadcore reel. That’s no good.
“Another mistake is using the wrong length of lead line. You can get away with a short lead line on a lot of lakes, but sometimes you want something longer. On Mille Lacs, I’m using 30-50 feet of fluorocarbon tip line. Sometimes it will make a big difference, especially when the fish are line-shy or you’re on pressured waters.
“This last one isn’t a mistake per se, but I still see a lot of anglers who are counting colors instead of using calibrated line counter reels. You can be a lot more precise with the latter, and the former is like shooting from the hip.”
What is one of the biggest misconceptions about leadcore fishing?
“A lot of guys think leadcore line goes down to the lure in a straight line, which isn’t true. You might see it illustrated like that on graphics, but that’s not the case in reality. Your leadcore line will actually bow in the water column, and the amount of bow will depend on the speed you’re trolling. Once you get to the end of the leadcore, you get to the tip line (leader) and the dive curve of your crankbait.”
What’s your opinion on leadcore vs. superlines?
“Leadcore is to get shallow diving baits down deep. Some crankbaits will diver super deep, like the Tail Dancer series, and you don’t need leadcore. Just send them down on 10lb Sufix and they will dive to 30 feet.
“Ultimately, I’m going to play with my Precision Trolling app and determine the least amount of line I need to run my bait at the desired depth. The more line you have out, the more likely you are to lose that fish before it gets to the boat.
“You also need to consider the action of the bait. Sometimes the lure you’re pulling will work better on different setups, whether you’re using superlines or various leadcore/leader combinations. Good trollers will carry multiple setups with both leadcore and straight superline. Both have their time and place.”
How do you approach trolling the basin vs. structure?
“If you’re trolling structure with leadcore, you’re typically not going to be using planer boards. Structure is erratic, it has high spots and low spots, and you can’t run at a consistent depth.
“Let’s say I’m trolling around the outside of structure. I’ll run a leadcore setup on the outside (the basin side) and I’ll use a 50/50 setup on the inside near the structure. With a 50/50 setup, I’m taking my line and snapping an 8oz weight on it and letting it go. This setup works just like a downrigger, and I’ll adjust the depth level up and down as we troll along the ever-changing structure.”
Is there anything you do with leadcore that’s unique?
“If I had to say I do anything different, I don’t hear a lot of anglers talk about calibrating their setups. It’s real simple, here’s how you do it: Take two identical setups, open up the bails on both and set them next to each other. Next, grab both of the lines and walk out 150 feet, then drop the line and go back to your line counters. If one reel reads three feet more than the other, you simply shorten the tip line by three feet. Now both of those counters are going to be reading identically.
“In my opinion, you need to be doing this with your long line setups, your three color setups and your full leadcore setups. That way, you know without a doubt in your mind exactly where your baits are running in the water column. You should be able to consistently put your lure within a range of a couple feet and calibrating your setups will help you do that.”