The Art of HandlingBy Tim "Hutch" Hutchison
March 23, 2003
In the Beginning
Hand lining was conceived in Michigan on the Detroit and St. Clair rivers in the early 1920's, invented by commercial fisherman to increase their catches. Once mastered, they found it easy to sit in their rowboats and take in countless numbers of fish, without drawing much attention. The fisherman had no outboards and the current could vary from slight to as much as 11 mph. During certain periods of the year, they were able to anchor in a certain spot and fish by raising and lowering their rigs while slowly letting line out to further cover a certain area. Most of the time they would have to continually move around looking for schools of walleyes. You can just imagine the arm strength required to endure a days worth of fishing in this current. One real drawback to this type of fishing was hanging up on a snag or hooking a large fish, such as a sturgeon. Without the aide of an outboard, every split second was critical. If the fisherman wasn't paying close attention when encountering these problems, fingers could easily be lost due to the un-forgiving line. I'm told that's one of the best ways to identify what few of these original river rats there are left in the area.
The original reels were old victrolla boxes modified to hold their line. They would attach make-shift spools to the base, where the record would have been placed, and then crank on the victrolla to create line tension, necessary to keep the excess line in place on the spool. The line was quite often small diameter, braided copper wire. The weights used were pieces of lead or cast iron. They would carve plugs out of small pieces of wood, better known to us as pencil plugs. Some other popular lures of the time were McGinti and Peanut. Nets were rarely used for the simple matter of drawing attention. Although not legal in these times, most catches were sold to local restaurants.
Present Day Equipment
With technology being the driving force behind the fishing industry today, it's amazing how things change. There are only two reel manufactures that still produce these types of reels. The most well-known being used is the Riviera/Kachamn reel. They have been made to attach to gunnels, handrails, and can even be adapted to certain types of rod holders. Some are made out of space-age plastics, while others are stilll made out of metals. Most have automatic line pick-up to help keep the slack line out of the operator's way. This is done with spring "Motor" that keeps the same tension on the line, no matter how much line is in use. It's similar to a wind-up reel used for fly-fishing. The reels generally have 2 to 4 Ibs of line tension used to take care of this task. Most reels have a line capacity of 150 feet or more.
Most reels come factory-filled with 7-strand, stainless steel, vinyl-coated wire. The vinyl coating is preferred, due to less fatigue on the fingers and hands. Pound strength varies somewhat, but the 60-pounders seem to be the most widely used. The line is relatively kink-resistant. It's strong enough to land most any fish or free snagged lures or weights. Some fishermen have been experimenting with uncoated wire or super lines. While the uncoated wire works at cutting the water better due to a thinner diameter, it also increases the factor of severe cuts, or even worse, loss of fingers. Very little information is available on the use of super lines at this time, and reel manufacturers do not recommend it. Most people fishing using this technique use gloves, with the golf style seeming to be the style of choice. They are light and durable and don't hinder your ability to feel and maintain bottom contact.
Shanks are usually made of the same vinyl-coated line that is filled on most reels. The shank is connected by a heavy snap from the main line. The shank has 3 purposes. First, it is where you attach the actual fishing lines. Second, it aids in the height adjustment of the fishing lures. Third, the bottom of the shank is where the weight is attached. Shanks vary in length from 2 to as much as 5 feet. The fishing lines are attached to the shank with the use of clevises. The clevises are fixed on the shank with the aid of a crimped leader sleeve. Placement off the clevises can vary from just two per shank to individual clevises placed every 6 inches throughout the entire length of the shank. You can change the distance the lure runs from the bottom by moving them either up or down on the shank with the aid of multiple clevises.
Most all weights are made of lead and a wire. The weight is attached to the shank with the aid of a heavy snap swivel. The weight looks somewhat similar to a straight bottom bouncer. They are generally 11 to 14 inches In length, and the wire diameter varies from 1/8 to 1/4. The actual weight ia usually from 1 to 1-1/4 pounds, however, they can be as light as 1/2 to as much as 3 pounds. A key factor for choosing the correct weight is obtaining an approximately 45- to 60-degree angle of the line going into the water from your hand.
The choices of lines can vary dramatically here. Most people fishing with this technique are using monofilament. But line strength and diameters vary quite a bit. Some people are using lines as light as 15-pounds, while others are using lines as heavy as 50. Line strength seems to be dictated by the amount of snags encountered while fishing a given body of water. Some people have been experimenting with the use of SUPER lines. But there has been no real advantage proven over the use of monofilament. The length of the fishing lines, better known as leads, is one of the critical factors in achieving accurate lure depth. Leads can vary from as short as 5 to as long as 75 feet. Choosing the correct length of line is dictated by several factors. The boat and current speed and the style or types of lure are some of the major factors. Ideally, in most situations the lure should be just off the bottom by inches. Consistently achieving such accuracy can only be duplicated by countless hours of practice.
There are countless lures that can be used for handlining, with stick baits being the most productive. Rapalas, Reef Runners, Thundersticks, Smithwick and Mann's seem to be most anglers' favorites. However, for the past couple year's people have been using several different styles of shallow running crank baits with success. Shad Raps, Wally Divers, Rebel, and Bombers are showing good results, while others are using trolling spoons with limited results. Anglers have also used worm harnesses, both with and without blades in slower current situations. When it comes down to it, the sky is the limit on what lures can be effectively used. It's all just a matter of practice and presentation.
Handlining is normally done from the rear of the boat. The reel is ideally located 2 to 6 feet in front of the operator. The shank is attached to the reels line with a snap. The weight is attached to the shank in the same manner. Mono lines are attached to the clevises on the shank. Most lines are made-up ahead of time and have snaps on them so they can be repositioned on the shank easily. Each state's individual fishing regulations dictates the number of lines that can be attached to the shank. Generally, when using 2 1ines, the shorter one is attached near the bottom of the shank and the longer one towards the top. Now, the lures are attached to the lines. Some people tie their lures directly to the line while others attach the lure with the aid of a snap. If 2 different-style lures are being used, the shallower-running or smaller lure is usually attached to the shorter line.
First, put the shorter of the 2 lines in the water. Make sure the lure is running true, and it should be attempting to dive below the water. Now, the second or longer line is placed in the water. Usually it is thrown a few feet to the side of the boat to help keep the lines from tangling. Again, check to see that the lure is tracking and diving true. Grab the middle of the shank with one hand and the weight with the other. Slowly lower the weight in the water, and at the same time make sure that the lines leading to your lures are not crossed. Slowly let the line down until initial bottom contact is made. Never let the entire rig free-fall because that will surely cause tangles. After a few seconds you will need to let out a few more feet of line to make and keep final bottom contact.
Once the weight is in constant contact with the bottom, you can seat the line into your hand. Most anglers pinch the line between their thumb and index fingers, then take the line and weave it between the rest of their fingers. Never wrap the line around a finger or your hand, a this is an easy way to get a bad cut or even worse, lose a finger. As stated earlier, it's very important that you maintain a 45 to 60-degree angle on the line from your hand that is going in the water. Keeping constant bottom contact is a major key to success. Having a depth finder close by is very helpful ih accomplishing this. About every 10 seconds or so you should lift the whole rig up 1 to 3 feet. This helps to accomplish 2 things: It helps the angler to keep in contact with the bottom; and the lures are given extra action, and then paused for a second helping to produce more strikes.
A key factor can be following a certain bottom contour or depth. The driver of the boat plays a very critical role here. A good driver can literally make it so all fish are caught on one side of the boat or the other. Teamwork plays an important role as well. Another key factor is making "S"-curves with the boat. Quite often, the speeding-up of the outside line or pausing of the inside line can trigger strikes. The driver should be constantly updating the co-anglers of depth changes, obstructions, and fish being marked on the graph.
Often when the aggressive bite is felt, you'll come up empty handed. Many say that the fish comes from the side and just grazes the top of the lure. The feel of a fish on the lead 19 best described as a youngster tugging on your coat sleeve. When this happens, it's time to bring the whole rig in. The reel will take care of picking up the slack line. Once you've reached the shank, you will notice one of your lines is very tight and quite often going off to the side of the boat. Lift the shank out of the water and lay the weight on the gunnel or floor of the boat. Now grip the tight line, and bring it in hand over hand. Lay the line in the bottom of the boat as if you were bringing in a tow or anchor rope. Usually the fish will come to the top of the water, and the angler can basically ski the fish into the boat. Depending on how well it's hooked, most anglers don't even net the fish. They will just swing it in the boat In one quick motion. If the fish has the power to stay deep, it's almost always 6 pounds or better. Use your hand and fingers as though it were the drag. The mind set that you have heavy line on and a lure with multiple hooks will usually result in the fish tearing the hooks out of its mouth.
Handlining has been around for a long time. Its use on the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers has virtually never stopped. Only in the past couple years are we seeing this technique being introduced to the Midwest. There is no doubt that it's another valuable tool to use In the quest for walleyes. But on the other hand, this technique requires hours of practice just to understand the basics. The bottom line is that handlining is just another weapon in the arsenal of a serious walleye fanatic. There are times when it works, and, of course, times when it won't. It requires patience, time on the water, and money to successfully master this technique. There are those that ask how fishing without a pole can be any fun. I once had a client tell me at the end of the day that his face hurt from laughing and smiling after a day of handlining.
I would like to thank both Bruce DeShano and Larry Hartwick of Offshore Tackle and Riviera Downriggers. Without their help I would have never been able to complete this article, not to mention use this technique on a regular basis.
Please practice catch-and-release.