Learn to handline - Major League Fishing

Learn to handline

Image for Learn to handline
2002 Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Circuit Angler of the Year Tim Minnema of Markesan, Wis., displays one of the fish he's so famous for catching. Tim's father Jim (at left) is also an accomplished pro walleye angler. Photo by Dave Landahl. Anglers: Jim Minnema, Tim Minnema.
September 25, 2002 • Dave Landahl • Archives

Old walleye-fishing method gaining new popularity

Walleye fishing is one of the fastest-growing sport-fishing endeavors in this country. Sure, walleyes are generally limited to the Midwest, Great Lakes, some southern reservoirs and the Columbia River basin; but those who pursue this elusive fish are growing in numbers and so are the methods they use for hooking walleyes.

The days of just dragging the bottom with a split shot and crawler are long gone, although that technique still works. However, even with the arrival of so many new techniques and different ways of employing them, one of the oldest methods of walleye fishing is gaining renewed popularity throughout the walleye world: handlining. This method of vertically presenting a lure, primarily a stick bait, is one of the most effective ways to fish fast-flowing rivers.

The origins of handlining are believed to be traceable back to the mighty Detroit River. But this method will work whether you are fishing the Illinois, Mississippi, Columbia, Missouri, Fox or almost any river where walleyes live and you have enough depth for a vertical presentation.

One of the rising stars in the world of competitive walleye fishing is the 2002 Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Circuit Angler of the Year Tim Minnema of Markesan, Wis. Minnema employed the handlining technique during the qualifying tournaments this year to capture the prestigious Angler-of-the-Year title.

“I am from a fishing family, and the tradition of fishing has been passed from generation to generation, all the way back to my great-great grandfather,” says Ranger Boats pro Minnema. “I feel blessed to have a father who started me fishing at such a young age. He even asked me to join him as his tournament partner when I was only 14 years old, which means I have been fishing walleye tournaments for 15 years.

“My fishing practices have become rather extensive,” says Minnema. “I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades and, even sometimes, a master of none. However, the one technique I had not yet made a part of my fishing arsenal until recently was handlining. As long as it is legal to use in tournaments, I will keep it in my arsenal.”

Another newcomer to handlining, Ranger pro Julia “Juls” Davis of Port Clinton, Ohio, feels this method is ideal in a heavy current.

“It is hard to beat handlining for a vertical presentation in heavy current,” says Davis. “I have only been using this technique for a few years, but it is becoming a very effective tool for me.”

Handlining requires a spring-loaded reel. What this means is that the reel will take up, or let the line out, as you need it. If you let the wire slide through your fingers, it lets the line out. As you pull the line in, it takes up the slack by itself. There is no handle to turn on this reel. The reel is mounted on a rail on the side of the boat or can be attached to the boat by the means of a rod holder. The angler sits in the back of the boat with his or her arm over the side, working the line.

The most common wire used on the reels is 60-pound coated wire. Attached to the end of the main line is a shank. The shank can be any length desired, but the most common length is anywhere from 3 to 6 feet long. There are many different types of shanks around and many anglers make their own. The shank has clevises crimped on every 6 inches to a foot for attaching leaders. At the end of the shank, a large snap swivel attaches a 1- to 2-pound weight. This weight is used to maintain bottom contact.

Factors that affect the size of the weight are current conditions, speed and the depth targeted. The leaders used to attach your lures to the shank play an important role. In most cases, the length of the leader should always be doubled. For instance, using a 7-foot leader on the bottom of the shank would require that the next size leader be 14 feet long.

The last piece of equipment needed is the lure. The most common lure used for handlining is probably the No. 9 Rapala. Other stick baits will also work.

Slip the current for effective handlining.

“Slipping the current is very effective when handlining, but, if there is not enough current to do this, your next best tactic is to cut back and forth across the river, from bank to bank, diagonally,” says Davis. “Watch the electronics to see the changes in the bottom contour, and adjust your line so that you always keep contact with the bottom.

“The idea is that walleye and sauger will hold in areas with less current and wait to ambush any prey that comes their way,” says Davis. “The bottom of a riverbed usually has less current than the water flowing just above it because rocks, sandbars and other structures cause the water to flow around them, leaving pockets of slack water. The fish will sit in these pockets, waiting to feed.”

Handlining can be used anywhere: very strong current, dirty water, fish holding tight to small, deep structures, or small current breaks.

Keep your confidence levels high.

“Do not be intimidated; the technique is really quite simple,” says Minnema. “Just remember to maintain a slow, forward movement; try to maintain a 45- to 60-degree angle of the cable, and work the cable forward with you hand anywhere from 4 to 6 inches to give the lure a starting-and-stopping action, allowing fish to have time to react to the presentation.

“I was able to teach all of my co-anglers a brief explanation of how to handline in the boat in the morning, which I called handlining 101,” says Minnema. “All of my co-anglers had a great day on the water, and all had no problem getting fish into the boat.

“For any cynics out there, do not underestimate the effectiveness of the technique,” he says. “I, myself, used to watch and snicker at the handliners and think to myself, `why?’ However, after watching a championship tournament won in 1999 and having seen the technique work in other areas, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be handlining sometime, somewhere.”