Handlining Detroit River for Walleye

By: Keith Krych

hand line walleye

At the bottom of the deepest hole in the river, a walleye is waiting for a meal to swim by. Suddenly a juicy morsel appears within striking distance and the walleye attacks. But this meal has hooks. The walleye struggles to free itself but to no avail as she is steadily pulled to the surface. The old river rat in his boat has done this countless times before, and is not hurrying to claim his catch. He knows that a slow steady hand over hand retrieve will put this fish in the box.

Many anglers in southeast Michigan feel that handlining is the only way to catch those huge walleyes found in the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. It consistently out produces long line trolling, drifting, and vertical jigging. In fact most, walleye tournaments in the area are usually won by fishermen weighing in walleyes eight pounds or more caught by this method.

The History

How it all started was when the first telephone lines were being installed in the Detroit and surrounding areas before 1920. The spare copper wire line lying around was “appropriated” by the local anglers for fishing the river. Then someone came up with the idea of adding a heavy sash weight from an old window as a sinker. The old timers first used a wooden board to wrap the wire line around, until some one came up with the idea of using the innards of a broken Victrola player to wind the wire up automatically. The old “River Rats” placed the Victrola boxes in the front of their small rowboats and took turns fishing and rowing, and caught a lot of walleyes.

The Equipment

Today’s equipment is still locally made in the Detroit area but its a lot more user friendly than in years past. Lets take a look at what you’ll need to get started in handlining. Like anything else new, the initial concern can be the cost of equipping yourself. The basic reels and ancillary items needed run less than $200 with money left over for a plentiful supply of lures.

The only mechanical device needed is the trolling reel. This is a spring-loaded reel designed to hold 300 feet, of 60lb test plastic coated wire line. This allows the wire to be played out, and when retrieved, is automatically rewound onto the reel. Some of the more popular reels are made by A&S (my favorite) and Gold Cap. You will also need a couple of shanks, sinkers, leaders in several lengths, leader keepers, and of course lures. Let’s take a look at each one.

What’s a “Shank”

Shanks are 3 to 6 foot lengths of wire with clevises attached along its length, with a loop at one end and a large brass snap-swivel at the other. They are easy to make, so let me explain to you how it’s done. To make a shank I use 30lb test coated wire leader material from Berkley. You will also need several large clevises, the proper size crimps for the wire you are using, and some large brass snap-swivels. You want brass snap-swivels because when you snag the bottom, the sinker will pull free if it gets snagged up. That way you don’t loose all your leaders and lures attached to the shank.

To make a shank first thread a crimp and a snap-swivel on a three to six foot length of 30lb test wire leader material. The leader material should be half the strength of the main wire line. Form a loop and feed the wire back through the crimp with the snap-swivel in it, and crimp it down firm. Measure 12 inches up from the snap-swivel and place a clevis with a crimp in between the arms of the clevis and crimp that down firm. Now measure up 6 inches and place another clevis and crimp. Continue placing a clevis and a crimp every 6 inches on the wire. At the end of the wire form a loop and use a crimp to secure it. Congratulations you have just made your first shank.

By placing the clevises every 6 inches, it allows the angler to very the placement of the leaders to zero in on biting fish. As many as four leads can be used in Michigan at one time, though only two are normally used. Check your local laws to determine the number of lines and/or lures allowed in your state.


Handlining sinkers vary from eight ounces up to 2½ pounds. The weight of the sinker is dictated by the depth of the water that you’re fishing and the current of the river that day. Try to keep the wire line at a 45-degree angle to the water, and you’re in the ballpark for the right amount of weight to use. Handlining sinkers come in a variety of shapes too. Some look just like a giant bottom bouncer with a wire running through it, and some are without a wire. The ones with a wire through them are best suited for very rocky areas. The wire lets you skip the sinker over the rocks without hanging it up in them. Round bottom sinkers on the other hand are perfect for sand, mud and gravel bottoms. They don’t disturb the sediment as much as a wire does, so the fish can see the baits better.

Long Leaders

Next you’ll need to make your leaders. Purchase a spool of quality monofilament line in the 20lb test class. I use Mason hard type leader material. It coils on the bottom of the boat nicely so it doesn’t tangle up when you land a fish. Tie a number of 20 and 40 foot leaders for starters. On one end, tie on a quality snap-swivel and wind the leader onto a round leader keeper. Measure out 20 feet of line and tie on a snap (not snap-swivel) and one leader is complete. Make a couple more of the 20 footers, winding them onto the leader keeper. Then start making some 40 footers and put them on another leader keeper. You can try different leader lengths too. Other combos are 15/30 footers, and 10/20 footers. Just remember to keep the short leader half the length of the long one. I also use a third “kicker” line at times here in Michigan. A “kicker” is a 6-foot leader, off one of the bottom clevises on the shank. When you run one of these, you should also use a rubber snubber as a shock absorber and add some stretch while fighting a fish.


Lures change in popularity all the time, so ask the people at the local tackle store for what the hot bait is. Floating Rapalas are the predominate baits used in the spring and fall. You can also consider using spinners with a minnow in the spring or a piece of crawler when the water warms up. Other lure styles are available and some can be very productive depending on the time of the season. The Rapalas previously mentioned are my favorite bait for day or night fishing. Size 13 all the way down to size 5 work extremely well. I replace the standard hooks with a single #8 treble on the smaller size 7 & 9 Rapalas. Other baits to use are small flutter spoons, most shallow running minnow imitating lures, flat fish, and pencil plugs. Pencil plugs are the lure of choice for the nighttime fisherman. They are locally made in the Detroit area by small basement business. They imitate smelt and spot tailed minnows, the predominate baitfish for the area. Local bait shops will also have other locally produced lures that are productive like McGinties, peanuts and wobblers.

Boat Setup

The reel placement on the boat is very important. Try to mount the reels as close to the front of the boat as possible and near the edge. The reason to mount the reels near the front of the boat is so the wire line can run out in as straight line as possible from the fisherman’s hand to the water. This minimizes any friction from the reel, and maximizes your feel of the bottom. There are different mounting options available for the reels. You can use a rail mount, or use a mounting plate with a slide-in arm, or use a rod holder base adapter. They all work, you just have to see which one is best suited for your needs. You may also consider getting a “Mac’s Prop Saver” for your kicker motor. This circular metal device surrounds the prop on your kicker motor so the wire line doesn’t get entangled. This can save you a real headache when you’re first starting out.

Steering the kicker can be as simple as using the tiller or as sophisticated as using an autopilot. My TR-1 autopilot shines in this kind of river fishing. When a fish is on, all you have to do is hit the auto button, and the TR-1 steers the boat for you. You can point the boat upstream and the TR-1 will keep the boat headed in the right direction without turning in circles while you have more important things to do, like landing an eight pounder. Other options are the Panther Steer and using the new Min Kota copilot with remote control.

The Mechanics

Once on the water, turn the boat into the current and start trolling at a walking pace, 1 to 1.5mph. What follows is the hardest part of handlining but once it is mastered it will become second nature. Select one of your lures and place it onto the snap end of the 40-foot leader. Toss it over the edge of the boat and let the leader out till the snap-swivel end is in your hand. Fasten this end to the one of the top clevises on the shank. Within seconds the leader will be taut as the lure picks up action in the water. Now transfer the leader you just let out to the opposite shoulder from the side of the boat you are on. This will prevent it tangling with the next leader going out. Select another lure and place it on the snap end of the 20 foot leader, let it out and place the snap-swivel end onto a clevis approximately 15 to 20 inches below the first one. Bring the 40 footer back from your inside shoulder and lower everything over the side and into the water, holding on to the top leader as you lower the rig so the two lines don’t tangle. You can let the top line go a few seconds after you start lowering the rig slowly to the bottom. After the sinker hits bottom, lift the line up just a few inches and the fishing has started. Lower the wire line occasionally bumping bottom to keep in contact with it, but do not drag the sinker or it will snag up. Never wrap the wire around your hand. Wire line of 60lb test is hard to break, and if the sinker snagged it would injure the hand holding the wire.

Attention should also be placed on the feel of the wire in your hand because as experience is gained, it’s easy to tell when you are over sand, mud, gravel or rocks. Always keep an eye on your sonar unit at all times. You will be able to anticipate drop-offs, sandbars and rock humps before the sinker makes contact with them.

On the bottom, 10 to 40 feet below the surface, the walleyes will see the wire line with the shank and sinker going by. Twenty feet back comes the first lure, which if everything is going right, is swimming six to twelve inches off the bottom. Twenty feet behind this lure is the second lure, about two feet off the bottom. When the wire has a different “feel”, either a tugging, or a feeling of having picked up a dead weight, a fish is on.

When a fish strikes DO NOT SET THE HOOK, or you will tear the hooks out of it’s mouth. Slowly and steadily bring the line up allowing the wire to automatically rewind onto the reel. Before long the top of the shank will be seen, as soon as this clears the surface it will become easy to tell which leader the fish is on. If the 20 footer has the fish on, just swing the boat around a bit to try to keep the fish from being lost in the prop wash.

Most large Walleye are lost within six feet of the boat when they get some slack on the line and shake free. Small fish, up to 2 1/2 pounds can be swung over the side of the boat, but to be on the safe side, use a net on larger fish. If the fish is on the 40 foot leader, put that leader over the shoulder, bring in the shorter leader allowing the monofilament to loop around on the floor and place that lure out of the way somewhere. Now, the long leader can be pulled in using the same steady slow pull. Let the line fall onto the floor. When bringing the fish in, do not let it jump around or this will tangle the lines. Get the fish off and into the livewell ASAP and let the 40 footer back out, then the 20 footer.

Drop the rig down to the bottom, and if there is a school of Walleyes around the whole process will be repeated within minutes. When you have finished for the day, rewind the leaders onto their spools the same way they came off. This way they will be ready for the next trip.

Boat control

Boat control is THE KEY to handlining in rivers. Many in-experienced handliners run their boats directly into the current. While this will produce some fish, it is more productive to troll at a 45-degree angle to the current. Slipping the boat across the current to allow a more thorough coverage of the bottom and any structure that is there. This also gives separation to the baits so you’re covering more area as you troll. At the end of a tack across the river, gently turn the boat back the other way. Practice will keep the lines from getting tangled on turns. Once you get the basics down you can experiment with your boat handling. While handlining you can do circles, slides, stalls, drop backs and many more “advanced” techniques.

The basics of handlining have been covered in this article. After a while when you’ve mastered the basics you can proudly be called a “River Rat”.

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