Trolling: Gear, Tackle and Tactics
First of all, if you clicked here wanting to learn how to harass people on the internet, I'm sorry, I'm not talking about that kind of "trolling." If, however, you are a fisherman, you are in luck!
Grab your reel, set your drag, set the boat in gear, crack open a drink, and get ready for a lot of new and useful information.
Topics we will cover:
- Basic gear
- Terminal tackle
- Tips and tricks to get more fish in the boat
Trolling is one of the most effective methods of fishing for a variety of species. It involves putting the boat into gear, either with the main engine or a trolling motor, and letting the lines trail behind in the water. Or you can paddle a kayak, canoe, or rowboat with the lines trailing behind.
Trolling is effective as it allows the angler to cover the most water in the smallest amount of time. Additionally, the lure is constantly moving through the water, without the downtime that comes with casting. Finally, with downriggers, trolling fishermen may target fish not only in a particular location, but also at a particular depth.
Basic Gear: Reels, Rods, and Line
What to look for:
- Casting/trolling style reel. Do yourself a favor and bypass the spinning reels here. The advantages with casting reels when trolling are more precise line control, more precise drag control, and higher line capacities. Spinning reels were simply invented for tangle-free casting, and you're not casting at this point. Again, go with a casting/trolling reel.
- Line capacity. This will depend on the type of fish you are pursuing. Remember, you can always catch walleye or trout on a salmon rig, but not likely vice versa, so err on the high side; but also keep weight in mind, because larger reels are quite heavy. Refer to the table for some general suggestions. Line capacities will be printed on the reel box, and sometimes directly on the reel. Having spooled hundreds of reels at my job, I know it's wise to assume you can only safely get 80% of the published capacity figure. Also keep in mind that all published values are for monofilament unless otherwise stated.
4 to 6 lb
6 to 8 lb
8 to 14 lb
20 to 30 lb
10 to 15 lb
25 to 40 lb (or use a braided line)
- Level-wind: This refers to the line guide that stacks the line evenly across the spool when retrieving line. In general, a level-wind is a good thing to have. It eliminates the need to manually guide the line (usually with your thumb) to stack evenly when reeling. However, not all line guides are created equal, and it is often the first piece to malfunction on cheaper reels. So really the option is up to you. The only situation where you should not use a level-wind is when dealing with exceptionally fast-running strong fish, like tuna. On occasion, the fish pulls line so fast that the level-wind can seize, which will usually destroy the reel. My advice: don't get a level-wind if you plan on tuna fishing; otherwise get a quality level-wind.
Unlike reels, rod selection will in part be controlled by the style of trolling to be done. If you are using downriggers, fiberglass rods are often useful for their very slow action. If simply using weights, or flat-lining (just pulling a lure, nothing else), a slightly faster graphite rod will be a better choice.
Downrigger rod. When fishing on downriggers, "load up" the rod as much as possible. This means you want the rod to bend in a big "C" shape from tip to handle. Most graphite rods are too stiff for this, so use fiberglass instead. Since you will not be casting, or feeling for a strike, a less-capable rod will do just fine here. And fiberglass rods are generally much cheaper than graphite.
What to look for:
- As many eyelets as possible: this helps load the rod evenly.
- Match the line weight on the rod to the line weight you will be using (which in turn is dictated by the fish targeted)
- 6' to 7' for small trout and kokanee, 8' to 9' for large trout and salmon
Caution: Be careful loading up a graphite rod on a downrigger; they occasionally fail under the stress, or upon release. (And when I say be careful, I mean I strongly suggest not doing it.)
Non-downrigger rod. If you will not be fishing on a downrigger, skip the fiberglass. You will be needing a stiffer rod to hold any added trolling weight, as well as any fish that hopefully gets curious about your lure.
What to look for:
- Casting/trolling rod, to match your casting/trolling reel.
- A medium to medium-fast action graphite rod. A faster rod is more sensitive, allowing you to see deflections in the tip of the rod as your lure works through the water, or bounces along the bottom.
- Line weight specification that matches the line weight you will be using (dictated by the fish targeted).
- Rod length: Generally a shorter rod is better here. However, if you are running more than two lines behind the boat, you can eliminate the need for planar boards or outriggers by running two short rods and two long rods off each side of the boat (say 6' and 11').
Caution: Again, fight the urge to put one of these graphite rods on a downrigger.
What's your opinion on using graphite rods on downriggers?
You have three main options here: braid, leaded, or mono.
- Braid: Use when you need exceptional line strength and capacity, or when deep trolling. The smaller line diameter means less water resistance, and therefore less weight to stay down. Remember when using braid to always have a mono component to the line, either a top shot of 20 feet or so, or at the very least a shock leader; do not run braid all the way up to the lure.
- Leaded Line: Use when you want to troll deep without any additional weight on the end of the line.
- Monofilament: Use in every other circumstance. Mono is the typical line of choice when fishing on downriggers.
Sometimes the fish are feeding right at the surface, other times they are much deeper. Therefore, sometimes it becomes necessary to move your presentation deeper in the water. Your main choices here are:
- Downrigger: A downrigger consists of a separate arm, spool, weight, and release, for the purpose of getting your line deeper. You let out some length of your fishing line behind the boat, then clip it into the downrigger release. You then lower the downrigger weight either by manual crank or electric motor to the desired depth, pulling the fishing rig down with it. When the desired depth is reached, you lock the downrigger spool into place. Finally, you reel up slack on the fishing rod, until the rod tip bends down towards the water, with the tension in the line held by the downrigger release. When a fish hits the lure, the line is pulled from the clip, and the fishing rod springs back. Then the fight is on.
Downriggers range in price from cheap $50 lake models, to multi-hundred-dollar electric boat models. If you are in the market for one, do some research to find which one is right for your fishing needs. (This is a very brief overview of downriggers. They really are their own monster, so I'll be covering them extensively in a separate hub in the future.)
- Weights: The most basic way to get your lure deeper is by adding weight to the line. This can be accomplished with either in-line crescent weights ("banana weights"), or cannonball weights. Be aware that crescent weights tend to plane somewhat in the water, so a 3-oz. crescent will not get as deep as a 3-oz. cannonball when the boat is moving
- Divers: Somewhat obsolete now that downriggers have become the norm, divers are inclined planes tied into your main line. The force from the moving water pulls the diver, the trailing leader, and the rigs deeper. If you do plan on using a diver, ideally find one with a "trip" mechanism, meaning that if a fish is on the line, the diver will turn over, and no longer attempt to pull the lines deeper.
- Diving lures: Some lures are designed to dive on their own. Generally, this is done with a lip, which not only dives but imparts action on the lure. Common diving baits are crankbaits and stickbaits. More on these later.
- No weight at all: As noted before, if the fish are shallow, sometimes a plain lure trolled near the surface is enough to get the job done.
Punny Poll #1
What's your favorite way to "get down"?
Dodgers, Flashers, and More
Aside from the lure or bait that will ultimately come at the end of the line, often times trolling rigs will have additional fish attracting components before the lure. Your options are:
- Flashers: Flashers are a rectangular piece of metal or plastic which serve multiple purposes of the line. First, they revolve in a wide circle, moving the trailing bait or lure in a wide circle as well, increasing action. Second, they often reflect light, creating a flash that attracts predatory fish. Finally, they move water, creating the sound of a struggling fish, also attracting predators. While they are very effective for attracting fish, they are a bit of a pain when reeling in, as the flasher often pulls more than the fish on the other side.
- Dodgers: Dodgers look very similar to flashers (although almost always metal), with the only difference being that dodgers only travel in a roughly 180 degree path, rather than a full rotation. The effect is a slightly more subtle presentation, while still having flash and vibration.
- In-line "flasher": This is not a true flasher as it does not impart any extra action on the bait or lure. In-line flashers consist of a rotation fin which spins around the line, creating far less drag than a traditional flasher. Advantages of this type of flasher include flash and vibration, with less pull on the line. Also, it is much easier to feel a fish when you have a bite.
- Pop gear: Pop gear, also called gang trolls, refers to a wide range of in-line plastic and metal components used to attract fish when trolling. They often consist of numerous spinner blades of various sizes, as well as beads and other various knick-knacks to bring fish closer to your line. These are primarily used when trolling in fresh water. Like in-line flashers, pop gear employs sight and sound, but does not impart any extra action on the bait.
While all of the above are ultimately optional in your trolling set up, the lure at the end is a must if you actually plan on catching anything. Some popular choices are:
- Spoons: Spoons are a trolling classic. Their random wobble closely resembles a wounded baitfish, triggering strikes from predatory fish. Some classic choices are Daredevils, Dick Nites, Luhr Jenson Needlefish, and Gold Star products (and yes, I am aware of my Northwest bias in these selections).
- Spinners: Primarily, these will be for targeting the smaller fish. Panther Martin, Mepps, and Rooster Tails would all be great choices here.
- Crackbaits and stickbaits: In non-fishing lingo, this means any of the wobbling fish-shaped baits. These are used to attract and catch larger predatory fish: large trout, walleye, pike, musky, stripers, etc. Options here are beyond numerous; nevertheless, Rapala boasts more World Record fish than any other lure company, so it would be a great place to start. One advantage of trolling this type of lure is that they dive due to their lip. This means they can be trolled at depth without any added weight. Most will publish how deep they dive, which will be affected by line diameter, rod stiffness, and trolling speed.
- Cut baits and bait rigs: I'm not really sure how often these are used in other places in the country, but it is a salmon fisherman's way of life in many places in the Northwest. A baitfish, herring for example, can be cut at a special angle, or rigged with a "herring hat" in order to make the dead baitfish spin through the water. Here, all the effectiveness of real bait is coupled with the effectiveness of lure-like action, creating a deadly bait. Often called a "plug-cut" herring, these rigs have accounted for countless salmon catches in the Northwest. Also, if you use a smaller baitfish, perhaps an orange-label herring or anchovy, you can target smaller predatory fish like large trout.
If Trout is Your Target, Be Sure to Read This
- Top 5 Trout Lures
Five proven winners, guaranteed to catch you fish.
Tips, Tricks, and More
Sure, driving the boat in concentric circles around the lake might land you a couple fish, but why settle for that?
- Remember that fish key in on certain water features, so hit these spots harder than featureless open water.
- If you have a sonar unit, troll parallel to ledges and drop offs, and cross over any underwater structure.
- In saltwater, follow the birds, and troll along the edges of any seabirds feeding actively along the surface.
- Vary the speed. Speed up and slow down. Check your speed when fish strike and key in here. Generally, move faster in warmer water, and slower in colder water.
- S-Troll. Turn in wide, looping S-shaped patterns in the water. The outside lure will accelerate and rise in the water column, with the inside lure slowing and sinking. This allows you to actively cover the water column.
- Fish the thermocline. If you can find it (usually with a more sensitive sonar unit) the thermocline will almost always be a hotspot for fish catching.
- Err on the high side. Most fish look up when they are hunting for food, so when in doubt fish a little higher in the water column to ensure that the lures are in the fishes' strike zone. Fish underneath them and your lure might go unnoticed.
- Give paddle-trolling a try. The pull-pause cadence of the paddling gives the lure a little something special in the water.
- Use planar boards to help keep lines from crossing when using multiple rods at once.
- Set downriggers at different depths, or use different amounts of weight, to help locate fish. Then switch all lines to similar depths once fish are located.
- In general, troll higher in the water column early in the day, then start to transition deeper as the day goes on. In the evening, again think shallow.
How Fast Should I Troll?
Relative Trolling Speed
2 to 4 mph
Salmon (not sockeye)
2 to 3.5 mph
0.3 to 0.6 mph
0.2 to 2 mph
3 to 5 mph
0.25 to 1.5 mph
7 to 10 mph!
Up to 23 mph!!