Bruce DeShano seems laid back enough–until he talks about his passion for speed. The founder of Off Shore Tackle likes to drag race a souped-up Mustang with 700 horses under the hood. He reaches speeds over 140 mph in a quarter-mile.
He has another passion: the tactics he uses to pinpoint the location of monster walleyes on the big water of the Great Lakes.
He has a lead foot in the boat, too. He trolls fast until one of his Off Shore planer boards darts backward and throbs, signaling, “Fish on!” After that first catch, he slows down just enough to entice more strikes from the school. But he keeps the speed up to cover as much water as he can.
“When the water is warm, you can’t take a bait away from a fish,” said DeShano, who spent 20 years as a charter captain and competed on professional walleye circuits. “They get fat chasing minnows. If they want your bait, they sure as heck can chase it down.”
DeShano’s approach to fishing is the same one he used in the early days of Off Shore Tackle when he could carry his company in a shirt pocket. He keeps things simple.
When he started Off Shore as a side business to his full time job as a powerhouse mechanic with an electric company, his first product was a clip to hold weights to take baits down deep for salmon and lake trout. Unlike downriggers on the market at that time, his clip release let fishermen see the rod load up when they had a hit.
He first thought he’d sell clips to companies that were already making downriggers and planer boards. But when they weren’t interested, he went it alone. He made his own boards, after walleye professionals Gary Parsons, Keith Kavajecz, and Mark Romanak lent their expertise to the design. Al Lindner soon dubbed DeShano “the chairman of the boards.”
DeShano added weighting systems for trolling to his product line as well. Off Shore’s mission evolved into helping anglers cover big water fast, from top to bottom and side to side. These are the keys to finding fish fast, so these tools arrived on the scene at the right time. Anglers were hungry for the right tools and the information on how to use them.
Fish finding secrets
DeShano’s method for finding fish begins before he launches the boat. He starts by sitting at the dinner table with a chart. He uses his knowledge of seasonal walleye movements and information to get a general sense for where fish might be. Fishing websites are another great source of information.
He narrows the search by finding reasons for fish to be in a certain area–namely breaks and holes. Big waters like Lake Erie or Lake Huron are different than your neighborhood lakes, which may have breaks of several feet. Dropoffs in the Great Lakes may be extremely subtle. Even a foot or two is enough to hold fish. Electronic mapping coupled with GPS is a great tool to find and follow breaks in the middle of nowhere, far from shore.
Next, DeShano stops at bait shops on his way to the launch. He asks for the latest information on where fish are relative to shore and landmarks, such as islands. He asks how deep they are and what baits they’ve been hitting on. Popular baits give you a starting point, from which you can do your own experimenting. DeShano warns us not to live and die by this information. Sometimes, “something different” will trigger more strikes than old standbys.
He also urges us to find out what the main walleye food source is for the body of water. If it’s shiners, the fish will likely be closer to the surface. If it’s shad, more in the middle zone. If it’s suckers and creek chubs, you will usually do better getting baits close to bottom.
Once on the water, DeShano spends more time looking for balls of forage fish than the hooks which could be walleyes. Find the food, find the predators! He gets especially excited when he sees tight, round balls of baitfish on his sonar unit. The ultimate are balls of bait with gaps in them or holes. That usually indicates panicked bait, a clue that walleyes are in attack mode around that food source.
There is a need to be precise. What good does it do to catch a walleye if you don’t know how you did it? The two most important questions to answer after that first fish or two are: where was your lure, depth-wise, and how fast was it moving?
“The biggest mistake weekend fishermen make,” says DeShano, “is they don’t know where they caught the fish. You have to be able to repeat it.”
Getting to the right depth
Weighting systems are critical for accurately duplicating depth. Thanks to Off Shore, you need just two kinds in the boat most days, namely Guppy Weights and bottom bouncers.
Guppy Weights can be used as snap weights and/or as in-line weights. Start with the snap weights. First, let out your lure 50 feet (line counter reels are crucial for this). Then snap on a weight, let out 50 more feet, and finally connect an Off Shore planer board so your lure runs out to the side of the boat.
Repeat this process exactly, changing only the size weight. Employ 1-ounce, 1.5-ounce, 2-, and 2.5-ounce weights in your spread. When you’re done, four baits are running at different depths. (Guppy weights also come in a half-ounce size, and up to three ounces. They’re made of zinc, a metal that allows Off Shore to be more precise about the weight. Lead tends to vary considerably.)
When DeShano gets a hit on one lure, he duplicates that weight on one of the other three lines. Two are now running at the depth that produced, while two are running at other depths. If he gets another strike at the productive depth, a third line is put at the productive depth.
He always reserves the fourth line to experiment. If the action slows, weights are adjusted to run four different depths again, until a new productive pattern emerges. For very deep fish, Off Shore’s Tadpole weights will get baits down 30 feet.
Dialing in the bite
DeShano also experiments with lure color, but lure action and speed are the two most important variables. Once lines are set, DeShano puts the hammer down–not as fast as he does in that Mustang, but quick in trolling terms. In summer when the water is warm, he speeds along at 2.8 to 3.5 mph, making “S” turns, which speed up the outside boards and slow the inside ones, until he gets a strike. When that strike comes, he’ll know what depth and speed produced the fish so he can repeat the process precisely. The GPS and electronic mapping systems allow him to mark exactly where fish were caught so the boat can stay with active schools.
Snap weights are good when trolling spinners and ‘crawlers for suspended fish. Let the spinner back five to 50 feet behind the boat, then add a 2- or 3-ounce weight and let out a known length of line, say 30 or 50 feet. You can repeat the successful combination that way. Bottom bouncers are often used to take spinner rigs all the way down to the bottom.
Spinner blades come in different styles, shapes and colors, too. Use big Colorado or willow leaf blades. They have an erratic action that makes a minnow, leech or ‘crawler irresistible. Spinners work best down to 0.8 mph and up to 1.7 mph.
DeShano uses in-line weights when fish are consistently at the same depth over a long period. But weather can change that. When it does, he returns to snap weights. In-line weights also are good when walleyes are shallow. The baits can be run 10 to 12 feet back from the boards which allows for quicker turns.
The same concepts work on smaller lakes, too. Off Shore’s mini planer boards are perfect for local, small inland waters.
Big waters like the Great Lakes can churn up fast when a storm blows in. Make sure you keep an ear to the weather radio and an eye to the sky. Don’t venture out without a GPS to show you the way back to the launch if fog obscures shoreline details.
But don’t let big water scare you. A lot of fun and big fish are waiting off shore.
Image courtesy Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson