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Getting the Most from In-Line Planer Boards

Mark Romanack

Getting the Most from In-Line Planer Boards

They say that history repeats itself. In the case of sport fishing on the Great Lakes, history actually repeats itself over and over and over again... until someone finally gets it right! My first recollection of an in-line planer board dates me back to the mid 1980’s. I was fishing with Don Parsons who would later become my father-in-law on Lake Winnebago in central Wisconsin.

At the time the in-line board of choice among serious anglers was a product known as the Rover Board. The Rover was a fabricated wooden planer that featured a rather complex metal tow arm bracket and a metal stability fin mounted near the back of the board. It also featured a rather crude stick flag that simply mounted in a hold drilled in the top of the board.

On the bottom of the board a strip of soft lead amounted to a crude, but effective ballasting weight. Rover boards came un-assembled in a plastic bag and no doubt this is a big part of the reason they never became popular. Cannon Downriggers later purchased the Rover Board and updated them with modern pinch pad line releases and flags, but the ship had already sailed and the Rover never made it as a fishing product used widely by the mainstream Great Lakes troller.

Ironically, the Rover ran very well and worked nicely in a host of Great Lakes trolling situations. Unfortunately at the time the majority of the anglers using boards were convinced that traditional planer board masts and ski systems were a better option.  It wasn’t until some years later that newer and more modern in-line planer boards fashioned from injection molded plastic and foam started debunking the widely held belief that big board/ski systems are better than in-line boards.

BIG BOARD VS SMALL BOARD

For anyone interested in the history of board fishing in the Great Lakes, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of both mast systems and in-line boards. Essentially both planer board fishing methods accomplish the same goal of getting baits out away from the boat. Both a ski/mast system and an in-line board help anglers spread out their lures and target fish that might otherwise be spooked by the presence of the boat.

The “devil” is in the details and in the case of planer board fishing there are lots of details the average fisherman simply doesn’t consider when choosing side-planers. Ski/mast systems function best at normal to faster trolling speeds. In cold water -- early and late in the year -- when it becomes necessary to slow the boat down to get bites a ski/mast user is going to suffer. At slower trolling speeds the fish that bite tend to not get hooked solidly.

Also, the process of tripping the line from a planer board release gives the fish just enough slack line that at slow speeds a fairly significant number of fish are going to bite, but not get hooked solidly or landed. The moral of this story is that a ski/mast system isn’t the best option for trolling slowly or in cold water conditions.

Cost is another obvious shortcoming of ski/mast systems. Depending on the brand and whether an angler is using a manual, electric or spring fed automatic reel retrieval system, a set up costs from a few hundred dollars to several hundred dollars!

Then there is the issue of needing a boat load of quality line releases to make a ski/mast system function properly. Cost effective homemade line releases, rubber bands and other urban myth type line releases tend to fail miserably. Meanwhile, manufactured line releases work well but are expensive and a well equipped boat is going to need at least 100 to get through a long day of big water fishing.

The way a big ski system functions also makes it tough to fish with some of the modern gear Great Lakes anglers favor such as lead core line, copper line and the new weighted stainless steel fishing lines. These special purpose lines are fished using a section of sinking line, sandwiched between a fluorocarbon leader and a backing line of monofilament or super line.

To avoid tangles with sinking lines, anglers fish the shorter and shallower diving segments as the outside lines and longer/deeper diving segments as inside lines. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to accomplish this important positioning of sinking lines with a ski/mast system. When a fish is hooked and landed using a ski/mast system, that line is reset as the inside line. 

There is no way to reset an outside line that caught a fish to its original position on a ski mast system. So, ski/mast systems don’t work well with sinking lines set ups that have become so overwhelming popular on the Great Lakes.

The evidence here is mounting and it’s becoming easy to see why anglers across the Great Lakes have abandoned ship when it comes to ski/masts and are using and endorsing in-line boards more than ever before. In-line boards can be fished at literally any speed from lake trout slow, to musky trolling fast. The hook-up to landed fish ratio with in-line boards is off the charts good and just about any angler can afford two or three pairs of these side-planers.

In-line boards can also be fished with literally all the common trolling set ups used on the Great Lakes including all the forms of sinking lines, deep diving crankbaits, spoons/spinners on mini-divers and on and on. In short, no matter what an angler is likely to put in the water, there is an in-line board capable of trolling it out to the side.

STACKING BOARDS

If in-line boards have a weakness it’s that normally anglers don’t fish as many in-line board lines as they might have when using a ski/mast system. In part this is true because a lot of in-line boards on the market are not set up to facilitate fishing three, four or five lines per side of the boat! Thankfully, some in-line boards are factory rigged for the purpose of stacking boards.

To stack several in-line boards on each side of the boat requires using a board that can be tripped when a fish is hooked. If the board isn’t capable of tripping, it’s difficult or impossible to pull fish hooked on outside lines, over top of the middle and inside board lines.

The line release used on the tow arm of the board is critically important when it comes to the ability to trip the board. Many of the releases that come standard on in-line boards do not function as line releases, but rather as line clips that are designed to actually hold the line firmly.

To trip an in-line board requires having a line release on the tow arm that is strong enough to allow the board to plane out to the side and fish in rough water without false tripping. At the same time, this release must be soft enough that when a fish is hooked, the board can be easily tripped by simply giving the rod tip a little snap.

This delicate balance has proven to be a challenge for most board manufacturers who struggle to come up with line releases that offer that “Goldie Locks -- Just Right” tension adjustment settings.

Just as important as having a line release on the tow arm that functions flawlessly, in-line boards work best when they are tripped, they remain pinned to the line. Most boards on the market feature a snap swivel or other configuration at the back of the board that the line is passed through when rigging.

When the fishing line is tripped from the tow arm release, the board is free to slide down the line towards the fish. To prevent the board from eventually reaching the fish and knocking it off the line, most manufacturers recommend rigging a bead in-line about three feet ahead of the lure.

Rigging a board to release and slide down to the fish seems harmless enough, but there are some dirty little secrets to this rigging method many anglers don’t realize. For one, reeling in a fish hooked on a board that has released and slid down the line forces the angler to fight the resistance of the fish and also the board. Not only is this cumbersome, it robs the angler of feeling every head shake and wiggle.

Secondly, when a board releases and slides down the line slack is created in the system. This is similar to the slack line that is created when a fishing line rigged to a ski/mast system is released. The end result is fish tend to escape far more often when the board releases and slides down to the fish.

Thirdly, once the board reaches the fish it creates resistance that the fish can use to tear free. When a powerful fish like a salmon or steelhead makes a power run near the boat, dragging the board along for the ride, routinely this is all it takes for these fish to tear free and escape.

The answer to all these problems is having not one release on the board, but rather two releases on the board. The release mounted to the tow arm must actually function as a line release. The release at the back of the board should function as a line clip that securely holds the line and pins the board in place. If the release at the back of the board isn’t strong enough to hold the board on the line securely, the board will pop off the line, float away and potentially be lost.

Off Shore Tackle was the first company to recognize the need to equip in-line boards with a release on the tow arm and a line clip on the back of the board. Rigged in this manner, the board can be released when a fish strikes.

When released the board in turn spins around in the water and is no longer planing out to the side, but is held in place by a second line clip known as the OR16 Snap Weight Clip. This clip has rubber pads to protect the line, but a small plastic pin that when the line is placed behind this pin, the board is ingeniously held in place on the line.

Rigged in this manner an angler can trip and retrieve any of the boards in his spread without having to clear any other fishing lines. Effectively this allows an angler fishing in-line boards to fish three, four or even five lines per side of the boat without fear of tangling all those lines!

There is another advantage of having the board release, but remain pinned to the line. Once the board releases it stops planing to the side. The angler immediately feels the fish struggling at the end of the line and the fish is able to make drag sizzling runs without pulling the board under water or creating additional resistance. In essence the rod is doing the work to tire out the fish as it should be and the board in the tripped position is simply going along for the ride. Once the board is reeled within reach of the boat it can be removed in a matter of seconds and the fight is continued as normal. Slick and deadly effective is the only way to describe fishing in in-line board that can be released and yet pinned to the fishing line.

ARTICULATING FLAG SYSTEMS

Something that is becoming increasingly common on in-line boards are flag systems that fold down when a fish is hooked. The benefit of these articulating flags is they make it easy to detect bites when fishing at slow speeds, in rough water and also when hooking small fish or even floating debris.

Anyone who has fished one of these flag systems immediately sees value in the investment. The problem is that not all these flag systems are adjustable enough to function flawlessly with a wealth of trolling gear.

Most of the guys who equip their boards with articulating flags are targeting walleye and fishing at the slower speeds essential for trolling live bait. When these anglers switch gears, speed up and start trolling crankbaits the spring settings on the flag systems generally aren’t capable dealing with the extra resistance. A deep diving crankbait like a Reef Runner 800 series is going to fold down the flag just from the resistance of the lure!

Off Shore fixed this issue by introducing a second generation of their popular Tattle Flag system that features additional spring tension settings on the stem of the flag. The improved Tattle Flag system functions with all trolling gear from ultra slow and ultra light set ups for walleye, to extra heavy salmon gear like lead core and copper line set ups!

The Tattle Flag system is sold as a kit or angles can just purchase the improved flag and retro fit to their existing boards using the releases and hardware they already own.

A salmon troller might question why do I need articulating flags? The answer is as simple as detecting when a small fish is hooked. Everyone who trolls the Great Lakes has issue hooking immature one year old fish and not knowing that a fish has been hooked. These articulating flag systems solve that problem cold, making trolling an evenly more efficient pursuit.

SMALL, MEDIUM, LARGE

As the in-line planer board has grown in popularity, manufacturers have responded by introducing different board sizes. Most of the manufacturers currently offer at least three different board sizes including a “mini”, “standard” and “magnum” version.

The mini boards are designed for light duty trolling chores. The standard boards are really the workhorses in this line up and can be used to fish for a wealth of species and trolling presentations. Magnum sized boards are largely used for hauling extra heavy gear like long lengths of copper line or  weighted stainless steel wire. Musky trollers who fish with oversized crankbaits at high speeds will also appreciate the magnum sized planer boards.

CUSTOM TOUCHES

Another interesting feature to note is that more and more in-line boards have adjustable features worth investigating. The ballast weight on the bottom of many in-line boards can be moved to change the weight distribution of the board. By sliding the ballast weight forward, it tends to bring the nose of the board down in the water giving the board additional bite and better outward planing ability.

Anglers who are pulling heavy gear will appreciate this feature. A word of caution must however also be mentioned. When sliding the ballast weight forward boards are more susceptible to catching a rogue wave and diving.

The way to avoid this situation is to only move the weight forward when towing the heaviest gear and moving the weight into the factory setting when trolling with normal gear.

In-line boards also readily accept a number of aftermarket line clips and releases designed for specific trolling applications. For example, when trolling lead core set ups, many anglers prefer to use super lines because the thin diameter makes it easier to load more backing on the reel. Normal line releases don’t function with super lines, but a number of aftermarket releases do work nicely with super lines.

Noteworthy releases designed to be used with super lines include the Sam’s Release produced by Silver Horde and the OR18 Snapper Release produced by Off Shore Tackle.

SUMMING IT UP

The in-line board isn’t a new invention, but it’s fair to say that the ways anglers are fishing these boards is something news worthy. From modest beginnings, the in-line board has become the “go to” board fishing choice of countless tournament pros, charter captains and serious weekend warriors. 

Modern in-line boards evolved to the point these products have effectively solved all the problems associated with earlier generations. In short, if an angler hasn’t fished an in-line board lately, they could very well be missing out on one of the best things to ever invade the Great Lakes.

Mark Romanack is the host and producer of the Fishing 411 TV series seen weekly on World Fishing Network. Each week Mark and his Fishing 411 staffers visit popular fisheries and showcase the latest in fishing techniques and gear.
His broadcast team has visited Lake Ontario several times in recent years and will continue to sing the praises of the 5th Great Lake. For more fishing information visit www.fishing411.net.

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