Aug 10, 2017

Crawler Harnesses

By: Jeff B.

When trolling for walleye with crawler harnesses, it’s knowing the finer details that will help you catch fish. A harness can be very simple. The main choices of blades are; Colorado, willow and hatchet, or you can pick from any one of the other types of blades. Fishermen use one of these blades with a combination of beads and hooks. Sounds simple but, depending on the situation, your choices can make a difference between coming home with dinner, or coming home empty. My top two choices for the Bay of Green Bay are Colorado and willow blades. You can run these in conjunction with inline weights, bottom bouncers, snap weights, or a split shot. Add in multi-colored blades and multiple colors of beads and you have an unlimited combination of presentations.

A Colorado blade is typically what most people use for Great Lakes walleye. A #5 or a #6 are the most common size for trolling for walleye. A willow blade has a tighter spinning radius than a Colorado and will give a long, slim presentation with less of a vibration. I try these when the water has cooled due to a cold front or when a northeast wind has blown in cold water. The hatchet blade will make a much larger vibration than either the Colorado or the willow blade. These will get the fish’s attention, and work well when the fish are active but scattered. Walleye can feel the vibration of a blade rotating from a long distance.

One of the most important parts of crawler harnesses is the line. I use a good 17 lb. fluorocarbon. This will hold up to the zebra mussels as well as the sharp teeth of the walleye. Learn how to snell a hook and tie your own harnesses. There is nothing more frustrating than being on the water and you only have one blade with a certain color of beads that is catching fish. Blades also come in a variety of colors, non-painted blades are generally plated with gold, brass or silver. Painted blades will either have one or both sides painted over the metal blade. To keep it simple, good choices for the Bay are purple, white, chartreuse, pink antifreeze, orange and perch colors.

Stock up on quality beads, swivels (every harness should have a swivel which will help eliminate line twist), hooks and an assortment of blades. Beads come in multiple colors and sizes. I like to keep that part of my harnesses simple, I use a #5 bead on my harnesses. Green and orange beads go together with a perch color blade in order to simulate a perch. Purple blades are good to pair up with purple beads and maybe a gold or pearl highlight bead. Build yourself 8 to 10 combinations of bead patterns that match your blades. I use five beads for a #5 Colorado and three for a #3 Colorado. With willow blades, I like to make the beads one bead short of the length of the blade. When attaching the blade to your line, use a good plastic quick-change clevis, or Kokanee makes a very nice spring quick clevis. This will allow you to make a quick blade change on any bead pattern. Do not use steel clevises that you would find on a spinner bait, these will cut your line over time.

The last part of this is a quality hook. I use a #2 or a #4 wide gap hook. For larger fish, I use a #2 on both the front and rear hooks. At times, I also use a #6 treble hook. I tie these on when I seem to be losing fish before they get to the boat. A #6 treble is very small, but it is also much sharper than a #2 hook. This will penetrate the hard bone in the walleye’s mouth and put more fish in your boat.


Inline weights are most commonly used for trolling. These attach to your line, then the harness is attached to the weight. The 1 oz. weight is used most of the time, simply because the formula is easy to remember. A 1 oz. weight, trolled at 1 mph, will drop 1 foot for every 2 ft. of line out. (Example: 26 ft. of line= 13 ft. down at 1 mph). A ½ oz. weight will drop 1 foot for every 4 ft. of line out. (Example: 24 ft. of line= 6 ft. down at 1 mph). This works great for trolling large flats and covering area. If you’re coming upon a reef that rises a few feet and are afraid of snagging your harnesses, speed up, weights are very speed dependent. Going faster will raise the bait right up. Going from 1 mph up to 2 mph will cut your harness depth roughly in half. The biggest mistake fisherman make is they put their baits too low in the water column. They see fish on their locator, and they want to put the harness right in front of the fish. Walleye will travel up 5 to 6 ft. easily for a meal. If you’re marking fish 18 ft. down, don’t be afraid to set your baits at 12 ft. or 14 ft.

Snap weights; I generally use snap weights under two conditions, when the water is rough and when it is clear. When the water is rough, the waves start moving your planer boards up and down, with an inline weight your crawler harness moves up and down with your planer board. In order to eliminate this, you let out 20 to 30 ft. of line, and then attach the snap weight. You can use a 1 oz. weight attached to a planer board release clip, and then attach it to your line. The formula is the same as far as line out to depth as an inline weight. In clear water, I prefer to use snap weights because in these conditions you want your weight far enough in front of your bait to not spook the fish.

Bottom bouncers can be used for trolling in place of an inline weight, or can be used with a spinning reel off the side of the boat and are used to “feel” the bottom. A general rule is 1 oz. of weight for every 10 ft. of water. If your bottom bouncing in 15 ft. of water, you would like to use a 2 oz. weight. Also, you want to set your speed so your line is at an angle of 45 degrees or greater. This is a great presentation for that “spot on spot” or if you’re fishing a small area to where you can maneuver your boat over edges and humps. I also like to use a much smaller blade like a #3 Colorado when bottom bouncing, fishing in shallow water, or when those fish seem to have lock jaw. A #3 will spin at slower speeds. Bottom bouncers also come in 10” and 24” lengths. I prefer using the 24” just because I know my crawler is just above the walleye, right in striking distance.

Lastly, is a split shot. When you’re fishing the top 5 to 6 ft. of the water column, you can add a small split shot about 6 ft. in front of your harness. Generally, it will be 10 ft. of line out to every 1 ft. of depth. This will get your harness far enough back from your planer board as not to spook the fish. If you find your harness is going too deep, change to a smaller split shot. The size of split shot will vary depending on the size and type of blade you have on. What most anglers don’t realize is that walleye can be feeding up near the surface, even in deep water.

Understanding how weights and speed affect your presentation helps you put your bait in the feeding zone. When the fish are biting on a certain color pattern, I tie up crawler harnesses all of the time while I’m on the water. Having a good supply of blades, beads and hooks will help you be more successful.

All these presentations are typically fished using planer boards. I like the TX 22 by Churches Tackle Co. This board runs very smooth, it also stays standing when stopped, this helps to eliminate line tangles, and it has an easily adjustable spring for the Double Action flag system. Having flags on your planer boards is very important. Sometimes walleye just come up and nip at your crawler. Without a spring on the flags, you would never see this. When walleye nip at your crawler, you will see the flag take a very slight bounce back. When this occurs, let 5 to 10 ft. of line out very quickly. This will let the crawler start to fall. Many times, walleye will come right back and hit it harder. When the TX 22 starts moving forward again, the flag might be all the way down. This is a great technique for a light bite.

Time spent on the water is always special, so enjoy it, have fun and, most importantly, be safe.

I’ll see you on the water,

Captain Jeff Boutin