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Get the lead out

Get the lead out

Some anglers never get the lead out. They'd rather use standard trolling tools like monofilament line and snap weights than learn something new.

Others, like Mark Romanack, author of "Precision Trolling," the book better known as the troller's bible, prefer lead-core line over anything else.

"I live and die by the stuff," Romanack said. "Anytime I'm trolling, I have lead core in the boat."

Lead-core line has been around since the invention of synthetic materials, like Dacron and nylon. Dacron is typically used to make the sheaths that wrap around the lead in lead-core line.

Romanack, a multi-species angler, first tried "the stuff" years ago when he needed to get lures down to lake trout swimming at depths beyond the reach of standard crankbaits. Keel sinkers were about the only alternative at the time because diving discs and snap weights didn't exist. Lead core then made the transition from trout to walleyes when Romanack began to compete in tournaments in the 1980s. And it wasn't long before lead core was being used for everything from trolling spinners in shallow water to pulling cranks in rivers.

Lead-core advantages

The characteristics of heavyweight lead core give it many advantages over traditional trolling lines. The most obvious is lead core's ability to take crankbaits deep when trolling with very little line. And while the line is in the water, lead core will weave back and forth as it follows closely to the path of the boat. Especially around the tip of a point, the method by which lures are attached to lead core allows them to round a corner gracefully, rather than turning the corner sharply, as with monofilament, where the line is pinned to a single point on the lure.

When a fish decides to bite a crankbait, lead core offers an excellent hookup. There's little bend in the line with lead core because the weight is evenly distributed along its length, and it has no stretch. If using mono, the bow that often forms in the line forces walleyes to straighten the line before a bite is evident, and fish may feel resistance and drop the crankbait long before that occurs.

"Just about the time fish detect it, the hooks are being pulled home," Romanack said. "Lead core has great hookup percentages, much better than keel weights, snap weights or other weighting systems."

Lead core is also speed-sensitive. The faster it is pulled, the higher a bait rides in the water. But, once a fish-producing speed is found, baits can be returned to the same key depth at the key speed more consistently than with mono.

And when hitting that depth, anglers have a wealth of options for lures. Because depth is achieved by the lead and not the lure, any crankbait can be used. Deep-divers like Cotton Cordell Wally Divers or Smithwick Rogues are common. But even shallow-running baits will work.

Metal basics

Lead core is available in several line weights. The most common ones in walleye fishing are 18- and 27-pound tests. The lead centers in both are the same; the difference is the strength of the sheath. Romanack sticks with the lighter weight for most applications, and it will run slightly deeper because it is slightly smaller in diameter. Heavier is better for places with snags or rough, rocky areas that could wear the line.

The color of the sheath alternates every 10 yards. If someone said, "I used three colors of lead core," it meant they used 30 yards.

Because lead core has no stretch, long, medium-action rods are best to help absorb the shock of strikes and fighting fish. Large line-counter reels are crucial to hold enough line to do the job and to return baits to productive depths.

Lead core is rigged two ways. The simplest is to tie the core directly on the reel. The direct method can be used for every purpose, but it's the method of choice for trolling rivers. Add a mono leader and a crankbait snap, and the setup is complete.

Another option is to use mono backing, rather than tying directly to the reel. In the event of a snag, the mono is able to be broken and ditched if necessary, in order to prevent the loss of a rod and reel. The mono backing also preserves the lead core on the reel so it can one day be taken off and turned around to get twice the use from the same spool. That's important. Lead core isn't cheap.

A segmented rig sandwiches lead core between two lengths of mono or braided line. A 20- to 50-foot leader runs from a crankbait snap on one end to the lead core in the middle. The diameter of the leader doesn't really matter, but stick with 10- to 15-pound mono. Make it strong enough, depending on the situation, to have a chance to retrieve the lure if it gets hung up on the river bottom and to withstand abrasion from rocks. Save rigging time by starting the season with a long leader because it will be trimmed shorter in the coming weeks. The mono on the other end of the lead core goes onto the reel. "Precision Trolling" offers dive curves for a segmented rig using three colors of 18-pound lead core at three different trolling speeds: 1, 1 1/2 and 2 mph.

Replicating productive depth and speed are mandatory. With the direct setup, set the line counter to zero before letting out the lure. With the segmented setup, set the depth counter to zero when the lead core is in the water and the end of the segment touches the rod tip. Make sure leaders are the same length on all the rods.

The segmented rig is preferred for open-water trolling. The mono allows planer boards to be attached to spread the lines and cover more area. In addition, the entire length of lead core is in the water, leaving only the mono to rub against the rod tip. With the direct method, constant rubbing of the sheath against the tip can lead to wear and cause a break.

Tying lead core is easier than it looks. Rub the end of the lead core to loosen the Dacron backing. Then slide the sheath back and break off the lead. That leaves a flexible sheath to tie to the reel spool or another line.

When attaching lead-core line to a mono leader, start by peeling about 3 inches of lead out, and cut the tag end of the sheath so the edge is absolutely straight. Tie two small overhand knots in the lead-core line behind the empty sheath. Keeping the knots open and loose, insert the mono leader into the sheath until it touches the lead. Then, slide the two overhand knots over to where the mono is inside the sheath and tighten both knots. The resulting connection is strong, and the knot passes easily through rod eyes. However, this knot will not work with a braided-line leader.

A small No. 10 or No. 12 barrel swivel can be used as an alternative to attach the lead core. And when using a braided-line leader, be sure to use a light drag setting. This setup must be forgiving or walleyes will tear out the hooks.

When cutting lead core from the spool to run a short piece, two or three colors at a time, don't discard it when finished. Store the segments on a reel, and tie them together with overhand knots. The resulting line can be used when something longer is needed. It may not look pretty, but it works.

Down to the core

Lead core's unique qualities make it truly versatile. From rivers to the Great Lakes, lead core works.

Fishermen near Red Wing, Minn., have used the direct lead-core system for years as an alterative to trolling three-way rigs on the Mississippi River during spring and fall. They can cover more water faster with lead core to find active walleyes and saugers. Lead core can be used with bigger lures, usually No. 5 or No. 7 Rapala Shad Raps or Wally Divers. Larger lures might yield fewer bites, but results from tournaments on the Mississippi and elsewhere, like the Illinois River, show lead core accounted for some of the biggest fish more often than not.

Use 6- to 10-foot leaders of 10-pound braided line, and focus on main-river breaklines on bends. On the Mississippi River, check backwater breaks in 7 to 12 feet of water.

Troll against the current, letting out just enough line to tick the bottom then reeling up a turn so the bait stays in the strike zone.

Normal trolling speeds are 1 to 2 1/2 mph, but start at 2 mph. Constant speed is critical. Go faster, and the crankbait will rise out of the strike zone. Go slower, and the lure may get snagged. This leads to another advantage of lead-core line: Unlike mono, the rod tip stops vibrating immediately if hooks are fouled with leaves or other debris when trolling with lead core.

As noted earlier, lead core's historic use is to take lures down deeper than their normal range. Since depth is a function of the line and not the lure style, any type of crankbait can be used.

That's important, especially during the fall at places like Bays de Noc in Michigan when walleyes are deep and water is cold. Subtle-action stick baits like Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Rogues might take the bigger 'eyes, but these shallow baits would never get down to the fish without lead core's help.

Lead core has applications in shallow water, too. For example, Romanack uses spinners in the top 10 feet of the water column during a hot bite at Saginaw Bay, Mich.

"You can use snap weights," Romanack said. "But, I like lead core because it's an in-line system. I get better hookups."

And although snap weights, keel sinkers or Luhr Jensen Dipsy Divers would do, lead core is a good choice when trolling spinners for deep fish because there is no resistance from lead core when fighting fish.

It also shines when contour trolling. Stay tight on breaks by using the sonar with a bow-mounted transducer in tandem with one mounted on the stern. Start to turn as soon as the depth begins to rise on the front screen. Side-imaging technology is a plus to stay on breaks, and no matter what turns must be made, the lead core will follow.

If the idea of learning how to use lead core is intimidating, try this the next time there's a trolling bite or if headed to the river: Take only the lead-core rods and reels and leave everything else at home. Take no snap weights, no keel weights and no jigging rods and the advantages of lead core will soon be clear.

For more information about trolling depths and speeds when using lead-core line, consult "Precision Trolling." Learn to get the lead out, and enjoy the results.

Tags: ted-takasaki-and-scott-richardson  magazine-features 

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