Detroit is the kind of place where people work with their hands.
Back in the day, when most folks worked in the auto industry, everyone knew how to make things. And that experience served sportsmen well; they could take old machines and turn them into fishing gear. And a unique fishery grew up around Detroit, where guys learned that you didn’t even need a fishing rod to catch walleyes.
You could do it with a hand line.
Hand-liners hold on to a line (usually of wire) that’s dragging a lure or two (or in some cases three) near the bottom of the river. The anglers constantly lift and drop the line—which is dragging a considerable amount of weight as well as the lures—as if they were jigging. When a fish strikes, the angler simply begins hauling the line in.
This is a testament to the genius of Depression-era southeastern Michiganders, who were able to see potential uses for items that were made for entirely different purposes: most notably, old crank-up phonographs and window weights. The spring-powered turntables became reels that would collect the line as the angler hauled it in. The window weights kept the baits down.
Fast forward nearly a century and many of the things that the old-timers had to create for themselves are now available commercially. And anglers are still out there doing it.
I had the chance to spend an evening last spring on the Detroit River with Theron Hoffman, a 32-year-old machinist who learned hand-lining “from my dad, who learned from his dad,” and a self-described river rat.
“I’ve been on this river since I was five-years-old,” he said as we shoved off around mid-river. “I started hand-lining when I was eight or nine years old. It’s a very effective way to produce numbers of fish.”
Although the weather was little tough (i.e. windy) Hoffman basically trolled upstream, slowly (around 1.2 to 1.6 miles an hour) sitting in the back of the boat steering his tiller outboard with his left hand, holding his line with his right. I sat on the gunnel for a while but eventually wound upstanding, facing Hoffman (so I could see him while we talked) and holding my line in my right hand, too.
I scored first, though I could tell when I hooked up that it wasn’t a walleye by the way it fought. It was a white bass, one of a number we’d catch before we started hitting the ‘eyes. Hoffman slowed down—when the whites are around you have to slow way down or you can’t keep them off, Hoffman said—until we started catching walleyes (though we continued to catch some whites, too.) It was pretty simple stuff; feel the bite, haul in the line, swing the fish into the boat.
By the time darkness arrived, about two and half hours after we started, we had seven walleyes in the live well, all of which took either a Rapala or a Pencil Plug (another Detroit creation; Hoffman’s grandfather made and sold pencil plugs). We both dragged one of each behind about 1½ pounds of weight in anywhere from 18- to 30-plus feet of water, using a 60-pound wireline with 25- to 30-pound leaders, which are important, Hoffman said.
“You’re moving fast and you’re on the bottom and you don’t want your lures to break off,” he explained. “I used to use lighter line. I lost a lot of lures
“I usually fish with 1.5 pounds of weight, but when you start fishing deeper, you can use bigger weights. In the St. Clair River those guys use two or even two and a half pounds because there’s more current up there.”
We trolled into the darkness without success for about an hour, gradually moving into shallower water. Next thing you know we caught five ‘eyes in 30 minutes; Two were short (less than 15 inches) and we had two doubles.
“There’s always a little bit of dead time right at dark,” Hoffman said. (And I agree with him on that.) I guess it takes the fish a little while to get their night vision going.
Hand-lining is quite popular with anglers who fish the rivers (both the Detroit and the St. Clair River) at night and it’s the go-to presentation when the water is dirty and the jig-fishing bite gets tough. Hoffman said it will produce all summer in the river, though many Detroit River anglers abandon the area after the spring jig bite slows.
“I think hand-lining is easy to learn,” Hoffman said. “There’s really not a lot to it. The biggest thing is not getting tangled up and there are tricks that you learn to help with that. It’s one of the oldest ways to fish for walleyes in this part of the country. I know my grandfather was doing it in the ‘40s.”
Hoffman said he always likes to run a Rapala (a No. 5 to No. 11) and a pencil plug at the same time.
“Pencil plugs are all around the same length, around five inches,” he said. “But there are thick ones and skinny ones and I like the skinny ones myself. And you don’t have to tune them—they pretty much run like they’re supposed to.”
What makes hand-lining so effective is you’ve got the bait right down there in the fishes’ faces and you’re constantly moving, according to Hoffman.
“It’s glorified trolling, really,” he said, “but it’s like using two or three rods in one hand. I like to follow break lines and troll upstream. Trolling downstream is a little trickier because of the current. You have to go across the current. And we catch everything from walleye to smallmouth, muskies, heck, I’ve caught snapping turtles.”
We didn’t catch anything but ‘eyes and silver bass, but I’m not complaining.
It wasn’t the first time I went hand-lining. I’ve been doing it, maybe a day or so a year, for almost three decades now. It’s a different experience.
Years ago, I spent a great night on the St. Clair River (upstream from Lake St. Clair, with Stan Bydlos, who was an old-timer even then, but who now, at 84, still gets a kick out of and hand-lining. He said he used to drift fish, but “I’d see these guys come in at night that would have tubs full of fish,” and he knew he had to give it a try.
“It’s kind of a lost art that more people should take up because when it’s on, it’s deadly,” he said. “This year was the greatest year ever.”
Bydlos said hand-lining is easy to learn if you have someone—who knows what he’s doing—show you the basics.
“This is really unique—I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where they do it,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys doing it on the Detroit River.”
One of the keys is understanding the equipment.
To the end of the wireline, you attach a shank, which is another piece of wire to which you attach leaders and lures. Bydlos builds his shanks from the same wire he has on his reels. “Some guys use really heavy wire, but that makes no sense; if you get into trouble and you break off, you lose everything,” he said. “Hey, Rapalas are up to about $9 apiece now.”
Bydlos makes his shanks usually about six feet long, to which he attaches leaders of, typically, five, 15 and 30 feet. He uses 30-pound test line for leaders. Heavier line is easier to work with than light line, he said.
What makes hand-lining so deadly, Bydlos said, is that it produces even when the water looks like chocolate milk.
“You don’t have to worry about wind and muddy water,” he said. “When the water gets like that, the fish raise up in the water. They’re not on the bottom—that’s why those jiggers have so much trouble when it muddies up a little bit—they’re fishing beneath them. They’re out of business.
“But if the water’s really clear, or you’re fishing shallow, you can just use longer leads to get your baits away from the boat.”
Like most hand-liners, Bydlos doesn’t like to mess with a net, he just flips the fish into the boat. But if he’s got a good fish—say, six pounds or better—he will net them for safety reasons. If the hook rips out, he said, you’ll have baits flying through the air. You don’t need that.
One tip from Bydlos: Do not troll in straight line. Make a lot of turns.
“I’m basically doing Zs,” he said. “Most of our hits are on the turns. They walleyes follow that bait and then when it darts away, they clobber it.”
Even some die-hard jiggers acknowledge there are some advantages to hand-lining. Professional walleye angler Mark Martin, who will fish a jig anytime he can, has outfitted his boat with a pair of wire-line reels when the jig bite isn’t happening.
“When the water gets dirty you don’t even have a choice,” he said. “You can sit there and jig your brains out, but that’s all that you’re going to do. You’ll snag one instead of catching one. If the water’s clean, the jiggers are going to out-catch you. I’ve caught them on hand lines when the water’s clean, but I’ve never caught enough of them doing that to say, ‘Hey, I need to be doing that.’
“But it can dirty up on you at any time, like if the wind gets up or you’re trolling past a dirty-water tributary, so you have to be prepared to go to it if you suddenly get into dirty water. I’d say any time you have less than 18 inches of visibility, you need to get out the hand lines.
Martin often catches bigger fish when he’s hand-lining, “because you’re using bigger baits—like No. 13 Rapalas.”
Martin says a key is making sure you’re close to the bottom.
“You’ve got to touch bottom every once in a while,” he said. “If you’re not, you’re not fishing right. You want that bait darting off to the side after it hits bottom. That triggers strikes. If you’re not breaking the lips off of them every once in a while, you’re not fishing right.”
Another tip from Martin: “When you deploy them you don’t just drop them in the water. After you drop the weight in the water, you drop the shortest leader first. And make sure your lures are running straight because if they’re not, you’re going to be tangled up.”
Martin, who is a big Rapala fan, says floating/diving minnow baits are the ticket.
“I don’t want to say you can’t catch fish on other lures, but they’re all I ever use."
“Hand lines are like fishing with giant bottom bouncers,” he continued, “but you’re not using a rod. And keep tension on that weight all the time. You can’t let them go slack or you’ll hang up.”
Martin said boat control is an important factor, and while most hand-liners troll upstream diagonally, he mostly likes to fish cross current.
“When you do that you’re actually dropping back downstream as you fish with the current pushing you downstream. Then you don’t have to run, you just speed up a little and you go back through them again. You don’t ever have to pull your baits out of the water.”
- written by Robert Gwizdz