Handlining tips from 'Chairman of the Boards'
Mike Norris Outdoors - March 27, 2003

Though Mark Meravy of Shorewood and John Broncato of Coal City garnered first place and $30,000 by pulling three-ways with No. 9 Rapalas for 31.56 pounds in last week's Masters Walleye Circuit tournament on the Illinois River, it is hard to overlook the successes handliners had pulling similar lures.

The team of Joseph Fisher from Chicago, Minn., and Chad Swanson from Mahtomedi, Minn. handlined similar Rapalas and snub-nosed Cotton Cordell minnow imitating crankbaits to a second place finish with 27.54 pounds. Their catch was anchored with a 7.05-pound walleye caught during the first day of the two-day competition.

First developed by Detroit River anglers with a need to keep crankbaits on the bottom of the river while trolling against a voracious six mile per hour current, veteran Detroit River handliners originally improvised by using old Victrolas to hold and retrieve the wire line.

Today's handlining equipment consists of a retractable reel filled with a heavy wire cable. At the end of the cable is a shank, which holds multiple swivels and a snap for attaching a heavy weight, which depending on current, can range from 1-1 1/2 pounds.

Shallow running crankbaits are attached to lines of various lengths and are tied to the stacked swivels which are usually six inches apart. The crankbaits and weight are dropped to the bottom of the river and the angler holds the wire cable in his hand, pumping the heavy weight up and down along the bottom of the river.

Intrigued by the handlining phenomenon, I recently spent a morning on the Illinois River sampling this technique with Bruce DeShano, whose company, Off-Shore Tackle, manufacturers the retractable reels, and supplies the wire, terminal tackle and weights utilized in this technique.

The 56 year-old DeShano, a former power house mechanic for Detroit Edison and currently a touring walleye pro, formed Off Shore Tackle 22 years ago. Known as the Chairman of the Boards, his side planer boards, utilized in trolling crankbaits in open water, are employed by walleye pros and weekend anglers everywhere.

"What makes handlining so effective is regardless of the wind, weather or current your presentation is the same all the time," said DeShano. "The heavy weight utilized in handlining keeps your lures right where you want them all the time."

Most jiggers can't react fast enough to drop a jig lower when encountering subtle river bottom changes. With the heavy weight incorporated in handlining all one has to do is let out more line and he's instantly back on the bottom.

On our Illinois River outing, DeShano and I tied No. 7 and 9 Rapalas to six and 12-foot lengths of 25 pound test Berkley XT monofilament and connected them to the first and third swivels of the wire shank. DeShano said leader length is relative to water clarity. He goes with 15 and 30-foot leaders when fishing clearer water, and 20-40 leaders in ultra-clear water.

"The swivels on the shank are set six inches apart," DeShano said. "For each six inch rise in the swivel, I can expect a shallow running Rapala to run two inches higher in the water column. Other lures may vary, so the rule simply is, if you are catching debris on your hooks, then raise the lure up to the next highest swivel."

DeShano also suggested trolling in S-curves rather than straight runs. "Straight runs place each lure on the same glide path," DeShano explained. "By trolling in S-curves, each lure spreads out on a horizontal plane which allows you to cover more water."

Caution should be used though not to get the wire caught in the trolling motor prop when making turns. DeShano recommends placing a Troll Prop Saver over the kicker motor. The units are available from Macs Prop Savers at www.propsavers.com or call (888) 658-4700.

During our two-hour jaunt on the Illinois River and amongst a pack of other fisherman, mostly jiggers catching very few fish, DeShano and I picked up 14 saugers utilizing the hand lining technique trolling upstream at one mile per hour. Despite the fact we were fishing a rocky bottom, we never got snagged.

"The heavy bottom weight has a thick wire footing and rarely hangs up," said DeShano. "This technique is built to keep lures in the fish catching zone and to keep them running."

Who can argue with the results?

For information on Off Shore trolling boards, handlining equipment and trolling masts, visit their website at www.offshoretackle.com or call them at (989) 738-5600.

Outdoors with Mike Norris is heard every Thursday from 3-4 p.m. on AM1280 WBIG. Mike Norris can be reached at wallimike@aol.com