As a youngster, I remember trolling as being some sort of last resort. As a passenger, the only time it didn't seem aimless was when we were headed toward the boat landing. I even recall an early revelation of sorts that occurred while trolling about 40 years ago: "When you're trolling, the only one fishing is the guy driving the boat." I know now, even that is questionable sometimes.
But it doesn't have to be.
I know lots of anglers who are instantly turned off by the mere mention of trolling. To many, it might be considered the polar opposite of fly fishing. Maybe they had the same early revelation I did. But, truth is, those anglers who are yearning for a fish they can cast to might save lots of time and catch more fish by first locating a bunch by trolling, then resorting to their more preferred methods.
The beauty of trolling is the efficiency with which it allows you to cover water, both horizontally and vertically. Whether you are checking water you already know, or trying to fish and evaluate new water at the same time, trolling is often simply the most efficient means.
Looking at trolling in the broadest sense, you can boil it down to two categories: 1. Precision trolling for fish tightly related to structure and/or cover; and 2. Not-so-precise trolling for fish that are suspended over open water and not closely related to cover or structure.
This might seem like a tidy, simple little picture that can be followed by a formula for certain success, but it's not. The problem is, fish don't always do what they're supposed to do. Dahlberg's second immutable law of angling: The fish are where they are, not where you wish them to be.
A good troller needs substantial mechanical and strategic skills. These skills include the ability to: 1. Accurately define the borders of the structural element or basin being fished; 2. Control the boat so the lure goes where it is supposed to; 3. Keep accurate track of what has been covered and what hasn't; 4. Make observations while trolling that weigh the relative value of each spot against the next; and 5. Identify those features that are currently holding active fish or have the most potential to hold fish at another time.
Obviously, accurate observations are critical and your observations are only as accurate as your electronics allow. You are at the mercy of your depthfinder. Buy the best you can afford.
Some of the earliest precision trollers I know of were the Mississippi River rats who dragged L&S Bassmasters on metered lead-core line. The guy running the boat knew where he was going and how much line to let out in order for the lure to get to the bottom. As the depth changed, he would call out "colors" to his fishing partners so they could let out or retrieve line to compensate.
Some of the problems with this method were the sheer weight of the lead line and the size of the reel needed to hold it. Plus, it was tough to avoid snags even if you were very hip to the program. Also, because of its relatively large diameter, lead-core has a great deal of water resistance. Achieving the de-sired depth or speed often required the lure to be so far behind the boat that it became hard to keep track of.
The father of true precision trolling is Buck Perry. A physics professor by trade, Perry developed a series of lures called Spoonplugs that are actually swimming/diving plates. Each size is designed to run at a given depth with a given amount of line out.
Perry recognized the problems of maintaining close control of the lure, and even developed a metered no-stretch line to help overcome the problem. Unfortunately, it had the same approximate formula as the nylon used for toothbrush bristles. When even greater depths or tighter control were required, Perry recommended using wire line instead of mono.
Partly because it has weight, but mostly because it has a very small diameter and zero stretch, wire can get a diving crankbait to remarkable depths with the absolute minimum of letback. You can use wire to scrape the bottom in 60 feet of water or more with a lot of line out, or you can use it to bang a crankbait against bottom along a 20-foot weedline with the lure practically under the boat.
Wire gives you absolute precision and control, although when a big fish nails your lure, it'll yank you out of your tennis shoes if they're not laced up tight. Likewise, if you try to horse a fish on wire, you may pull the hooks free.
Other thoughts on wire: Use seven-strand, not Monel, because it's thinner and less likely to kink. Use the reel with the largest diameter spool you have, and leave the clicker on all the time.
Finally, wire cuts- use a roller-tip rod.The relatively new superlines are a good choice, too. Their capabilities lie almost right between mono and wire.
Because water resistance is such a big factor in determining how deep a bait will run, it's best to use the smallest snaps and swivels you can, or to avoid using them entirely. When tying directly to a lure, use a split ring or loop knot, or you'll kill much of its action.
I assume because it's not legal to troll in bass tournaments, not many anglers troll lures for bass anymore. In my experience, there's no more effective way to put a whole bunch of big fish in the boat than to grind diving lures into the bottom at a rate faster than anyone in the world can crank.
This is especially true in natural lakes, after bass have finished spawning and have set up on weedlines or main-lake structures.
Those who've tried speed-trolling know it can be deadly on pike, muskies, stripers, walleyes and trout as well.
Figuring out the best speed to trigger fish is important, but the most critical factor is getting the lure tight to the best cover on the structure. This means super-accurate mapping and marking.
I used to use dozens of marker buoys placed exactly on every point, inside bend and especially on spots where the primary breakline and weedline occur together. Now I use GPS. You'd think that the process would be simpler with GPS and loads of waypoints, but I've never been able to maintain the same accuracy with GPS as with actual physical markers.
Another critical factor is boat control. Precision trolling is almost impossible with a non-tiller boat because the turning radius is too long and throttle control requires a spare hand.
Most of the time, when you want to scrape an inside corner, you have to overrun the corner, then turn the boat sharper than 90 degrees, while at the same time gunning the throttle to keep the lure moving and get the boat back where it needs to be.
This is also difficult with large-horsepower tillers because they do not have a tight enough turning radius, either. I've seen tillers built for commercial use that allow much tighter turns, which would solve this problem, but as far as I know they are not available to the angling public.
Fact is, for precision trolling it's hard to beat a 14-foot aluminum V-hull with less than 30 horses pushing it.
Don't hesitate to make several series of "strafing" runs at different angles when fishing points and small, isolated spines off larger structures. And again, above all, make sure the lure is ticking bottom.
Backtrolling is popular among Midwest walleye heads, but it totally baffles the rest of the world. The boat is pointed in the front; anyone with even the slightest bit of sense can see it's made to go forward.
Actually, backtrolling was invented by Al Lindner back when he was a walleye guide. The logic behind it was so Al could get his leech to the walleyes before his customer did. Just kidding. Obviously, it's a way to decrease both speed and also reduce the turning radius of the boat.
If you're locked in to a large boat with a big motor, it will be more difficult to be super precise. It's especially hard with a console rig. One solution is to tie a drift sock to the nose of the boat. Use the shortest amount of rope you can. This will allow you to turn the boat in about one-tenth the distance you'd be able to without it.
When fish are tight to cover, total precision is the key. Anytime your baits are running off of it, you're wasting time. If I can't troll an inside corner as precisely as I'd like, I often bomb right through it until my lure gets gobbed in the weeds. At least then I know I've presented it in the right area.
Your follow-up is critical, too. Most people are unwilling to crank up, spin around and dig through a specific area immediately after passing through a first time. Too often, fishermen make slow, wide, lazy turns in areas where total precision would be more effective.
A precision troller could be compared to a bird dog with his nose to the ground, following a scent trail. Instead of his nose to the ground, he has his face buried in the locator as he zigzags along in an effort to keep the boat on a specific contour line.
Open-water trolling requires a different set of skills and mindset. It's more like mowing a field than it is like weed-whipping around the bushes. I like to think of it as rubbing the silver off a lottery card.
There are hundreds of open-water techniques, many of which employ rather ingenious devices. Downriggers. Side planers. Diving planes. An added complication of open-water trolling is the fact that the fish are most often suspended, so getting the lure to the right level is critical.
It's difficult to monitor the exact depth a lure is running because it isn't ticking off the bottom to give you a reference. When fish are suspended in deep water, the challenge becomes three-dimensional, and you have two more edges or breaks to monitor; temperature and also, possibly, oxygen.
Many serious trollers rely on the book "Precision Trolling" by NAFC members Dr. Steven Holt, Tom Irwin and Mark Romanack to help them determine the running depths of specific lures with different speeds and amounts of letback. It's a very useful tool for open-water trolling.
Often, fish species we associate with cover and structure use "open water." The best place to look when this occurs is usually off the edges of the structure, sometimes as much as several hundred yards, typically at the same depth as the primary breakline. This is especially true of fish with non-vented bladders like bass, pike, muskies and walleyes.
A GPS unit is extremely useful for this kind of fishing. It allows you to keep exact track of the grid you cover and it gives you great repeatability. Plus, marker buoys aren't very efficient in water much deeper than 20 feet because they drift, are hard to see, get in the way of your lures, and are a pain in the butt to wind up in deep water.
If you spot good concentrations of large fish suspended off structure, but can't get them to bite, it's usually a good idea to return later to see if they've moved back to the shelf to feed.
Usually, fish that normally relate to structure move off for one of two reasons: 1. They've been spooked off the shelf and sought security in open water rather than cover; or 2. They moved out to feed on some organism that's presenting an easy opportunity.
This could be mayfly larvae or other insects coming out of a soft bottom and rising yo-yo fashion to the surface prior to hatching. Or, predators may be attracted to baitfish that are eating insect larvae or zooplankton in the upper surface layer.
A big spread of lures is usually advantageous when open-water trolling. That is, if you can negotiate it without becoming totally tangled. This applies both horizontally and vertically. Some of the most amazing spreads I've seen were developed more than a generation ago in the Finger Lakes in New York by commercial fishermen who used hook-and-line methods with very thin spoons to catch salmonids.
Although it's not practical or legal for the average fisherman today to pump down 20 lures or more at once like the commercials did, the details may be of interest.
One is the concept of trolling lure "sets." What this means is rather than putting out a whole mishmash of different lures to give the fish their choice, they trolled identical spoons. When they wanted to change, they changed them all.
The benefit? Not all lures work best at the same speed. When you're fishing identical lures, if you dial in the right speed for one, it's right for the entire spread. With a variety of different lures, it's unlikely they will all operate at optimum efficiency at any one given speed. It could be also argued that "sets" more closely emulate a school of bait, but I think the speed thing is more critical.
What is the "right" speed? For spoons you want a nice side-to-side wobble. You don't want them to spin. A good way to keep track is to run one lure right beside the boat, near the surface so you can see it. Vary your speed until you're comfortable you've got a feel for the range the spoon will tolerate. Obviously, you can do the same thing with other types of lures.
Tuna and marlin fishermen in saltwater have perfected open-water techniques that allow them to cover miles of water with great efficiency. Average trolling speeds vary from 8 to 12 mph! The system involves using a spread consisting of four to six lures and various hookless attracting devices. Most often, at least two of them are run on long outriggers that project from each side of the boat. Outriggers get the lures away from the prop wash, and give the baits action as they flex with the movement of the boat.
Most of the lures are designed to run on or very near the surface. The most effective ones alternate between plowing along the surface and diving to a foot or so. As they do, they leave a bubble trail behind them called "smoke," visible from a great distance underwater, which gives large predators the same impression as a school of fleeing baitfish.
I have no doubt in my mind this technique could be modified slightly to be deadly on a variety of freshwater species, especially in very clear water.
One of the most interesting and ingenious means of attraction I've seen anywhere is used by commercial fishermen off the coast of South Africa, who use powerful pumps and nozzles to shoot bursts of water into the air. The water falls to the surface, creating both sound and physical disturbance. The theory is that this brings in predators because it looks and sounds like a school of bait, and arouses the curiosity of a fish looking for dinner.
Another deadly saltwater concept begging for discovery by the freshwater crowd is the split-tail rig. This tactic involves splitting the tail of a dead baitfish, re-moving its spine and sewing in a keel weight and hook.
A bait properly rigged in this fashion swims like it's alive and can be trolled at almost any speed. I've rigged suckers and large chubs this way and found both very effective on hard-to-fool fish. I shudder to think what a split-tail rainbow (where legal) would do for bass and stripers in Western reservoirs and lakes where fisheries agencies stock trout.
Baits rigged in this fashion can also be cast and worked like jerkbaits.
A modification of the most popular way to catch sailfish is also extremely effective on brown trout and rainbows when they are near the surface in spring and fall. One method involves rigging dead smelt on a hook and trolling them just below the surface behind planer boards.
An old friend of mine, Larry Presnell, demonstrated this to me almost 15 years ago on Lake Michigan browns.It was murderous.The other method, which I saw employed to catch 20-pound-plus rainbows on Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho many years ago, involves 4-inch-long tube flies pulled behind side planers.
The flies are made by stretching a Flash-abou Minnow Body over a flat piece of plastic, onto which a thin, plastic tube has been glued. A shock of Big Fly Fiber is tied to the front. The "fly" is designed to actually plane on the surface and makes a tiny, v-shaped wake.It doesn't wiggle. It doesn't flash. It doesn't move from side to side. None-theless, those giant bows came up and powdered it with more consistency and gusto that anything else we put behind the boat.
I suspect that in the crystal-clear water, the fish are pretty hard to fool. A bait that skims the surface appears as a silhouette, making it more difficult for fish to detect that it's artificial. Plus, because it makes a wake, it actually has more attracting power than a lure traveling just under the surface.
All trolling, whether on structure or off, is much more than tying on a bait, tossing it in the water, putting your rod in a rod holder and putzing along at high idle. I rarely use a rod holder in freshwater.
With the exception of times when you need a fleet of planer boards to cover a wide swathe of open water, you?re better off in direct connection with your line. This is especially true when grinding uneven bottom or fishing structure or cover along a winding contour line. Only by holding the rod and constantly adjusting the amount of letback can you hope to keep the bait in the right position. Too, you can feel if debris fouls your lure.
If you troll structure with a few buddies, it's absolutely crucial that the guy running the motor is the hippest to the area you're trying to fish- and that he fishes while steering the boat. You can't really tell what's going on with the lure or changes in depth, bottom content or current unless you're controlling the motor and hand-holding a rod at the same time.
Another big benefit to holding the rod- it's easier to pump the rodtip every few seconds to trigger strikes from fish that are following the bait but are reluctant to hit. I do it continuously.
Erratic movement trips predators' triggers. I learned this long ago in northern Canada, when I could see lake trout shadowing my spoon but they wouldn't strike. First one fish tagged along behind the spoon, then another and another, until I had a veritable parade going just behind my treble. I'm sure the lakers would have followed me all the way back to camp-had I not jerked the rod ahead. The instant the lure sped up, a fish attacked. Same pattern worked all day, and continues to work today.
Sometimes a slow glide-pause-glide cadence with a super-size jerkbait will outfish other presentations for lure-shy fish like big muskies, pike and stripers. Trouble is, to get a jerkbait to run more than a few feet below the surface, many anglers weigh it down with enough lead to sink a battleship. That kills the pause.
To achieve running depths of 10 to 15 feet without ruining a bait's action, I put a 20-foot section of 45-pound test lead-core about an arm's length ahead of the lure. You need a "soft" line in between the lure and the 'core so the lure can glide or rise when it stops or slows down after you stroke it.
Walleyes scattered along the top and edges of a flat are also prime targets for trolling. You can catch them by fishing the break with a spinner rig behind a heavy pencil sinker (up to 3 ounces or so, depending on depth). But if you really want to do some damage, try a technique I call the "Walleye Picker."
It works best with six anglers in the boat. All six fish three-way spinner rigs, but differences in rod length and rig weighting keep everyone from getting tangled up. The two up front wield 5- to 5 1/2-foot rods, and 2 to 3 ounces of weight. The middle guys hold 7-foot sticks and use 1 to 1 1/2 ounces of weight. The cleanup crew gets 7- to 9-foot rods, 3/4-ounce weights and snell floats.
Despite being last, the rearward lines are often the "luckiest." They have the lightest sinkers, so they're farther behind the boat. Plus, the inside line will stall on a turn (hence the float, which keeps the bait off the bottom). As a result, they pick up a lot of bites from walleyes that aren't aggressive enough to chase the lead spinners.
I must admit, it would drive me crazy to troll all the time. But messing around with different approaches and studying the techniques used by anglers for different species all over the world makes it extremely interesting- and also satisfying, when all the elements fall into place.
One last suggestion, if you get hooked on speed-trolling because of its effectiveness, be sure to scrape the bugs off your teeth before you go home.