During the off season many of the questions I am asked at sport shows and seminars pertain to trolling. I know many of our Wisconsin friends can not troll due to local regulations and there exists a legion of musky hunters who believe trolling is sacrilegious. If you don’t have severe pain at the end of the day you are not musky fishing, right? I am with you on many respects. I would rather catch a fish on a retrieved lure. The violent smash of your bait by a big fish or the follow of a fish taunting you as she approaches the boat is indescribable. However, under certain circumstances trolling may be the most effective tool we have to put more, and sometimes bigger,fish in the boat. Every year many of the largest fish caught are fooled by trolled baits. You can cover a lot of water and present large baits to fish that are difficult if not impossible to cast. It is very probable that the next world record musky will be caught by trolling, most likely on a Great Lakes system.
Days have long passed when we would jump in the boat, toss back a bait and aimlessly motor around the lake. When I hit the water I have a game plan whether casting or trolling. The two techniques are very similar in that we follow forage fish seasonal movements. You can fish the same type of structures. You can cast or troll weeds, rocks, wood, break lines, inside turns, points, large sand flats, mid lake humps, and suspended open water fish. In both techniques we are trying to establish a pattern. What do the fish want? What size, type, color or speed do the fish prefer? You may have an idea due to recent experience on the water, or you may have to experiment and come up with the equation that moves fish. Today with modern electronics, rods, reels, line and other paraphernalia anglers have fantastic tools to help put fish in the boat.
I use e-glass rods for most of my trolling applications. These blanks are a composition of graphite and fiberglass that work well for trolling. The rods have a forgiving tip flex with plenty of back bone to land any size fish. These rods shine when trolling with planer boards and also with the very large baits sometimes used when targeting big fish. I have two Thorne Bros custom rods made from St. Croix blanks, one is 9 feet long the other 8 1/2. I also use Fig Rig trolling rods. They are also e-glass and work very well with planer boards. All of my reels are line counters. I use Shimano Tekotas on my custom rods and Daiwa 27’s on the Fig Rigs. The Shimano Tekota reel is in a class by itself. You can easily crank in any size bait with ease. Important is the drag system regardless of the make of reel you use. Backing off your drag is also important. Only bad things can happen when a big fish smashes bait on a tight drag, especially when the rod is in a holder. A smooth steady drag is a must and helps put more fish in the boat. Line counters make life easier when establishing a pattern to determine the depth fish are holding. With experience you will learn the amount of line you put back to run certain baits at desired depths. For example, with 80 lb. Tuff Line Plus, Jakes run about 14 feet in depth when 100 feet of line is let out. Having these facts at hand when trolling over a reef that tops out at 15 feet will put your bait in the strike zone without getting hung up. Experiment with your favorite baits to gauge the depths they run in relation to the line length. You do not have to go out and spend a ton on equipment to be a successful troller. Your standard casting rod will work fine. When using a rod holder it helps to have a loud clicker on your reels. Not only will the clicker alert you to a strike, it will also let you know your bait may be hung up. An inexpensive Ugly Stick makes a great trolling rod. Just as in casting, longer trolling rods are desired. The long rods get the baits further out from the boat. They also help in fighting big fish especially important as the fish nears the boat.
I use super braid and mono line, depending on the situation. Super braid line works well under most situations. Whether casting or trolling super braid lines with no stretch make for good hook sets. The small diameter allows baits to run at greater depths with less line out. I use mono when I attach planer boards. I have had greater success with mono in the planer board clips. I would suggest using leaders that are at least 4 feet long. Fish have a tendency to roll and the long leaders prevent break offs. I have experimented with fluorocarbon leaders and use them if no rocks are present. When trolling rocky areas I use wire leaders. In either case check your terminal tackle often and replace any defects without hesitation.
Rod holders make life easier while trolling. There are several good holders on the market. I use Scotty’s and attach them on the rails of my Ranger. Down East makes a great product and has many different models to fit your needs. Put several rod holders on your boat if you can. This allows you to set up different presentations. You can troll in the prop wash, put out 1 or 2 planer boards, or run long lines.
I have used planer boards for several years. I am here to tell you that if you don’t use planer boards you are missing a valuable tool. The obvious use is to spread out your lines when multiple baits are used. When using planer boards vs. long lines the majority of my fish come off the boards. In windy conditions the erratic bouncing of the boards puts action on the baits, many times triggering strikes. Planer boards allow you to run baits along break lines, weed edges, rocky shorelines and reefs. You can also use spinner baits, in-line spinners, top water baits, and jerk baits over large shallow flats or rock reefs too shallow to run your boat without spooking fish.
I use the orange Church Tackle boards. I like the release on the Church board. I also like the rear attachment which allows the board to slide down the line if the release does break free. Another important aspect of the Church board is the adjustable weight system. The weight system can be adjusted to off set heavy baits. Off Shore has come out with a new release called the “Snapper”, it holds the line more secure than the original releases. The Snappers can be converted to fit on almost any planer board. A couple of hints I have picked up using boards. Let out the number of feet you want your bait to run. Put clicker on and then attach the board. Put the rod in the rod holder and let the board out to the desire position. Flip the lever on the reel and you are ready to fish. This simple procedure keeps you from having to fight the pressure the board causes when placing the rod in the holder. Always check the drag and make sure it will hold the tension from the board. When a fish hits you will have to take the board off. With two anglers have the rod man step back allowing your partner to get into position to take off board. It is important to keep a tight line. It will be hectic the first few times you go through this procedure but it will become second nature. When you bring in the board, reel the board in about a rod length away from the tip. Then swing the board toward you and release the clips. Don’t reel up to the tip, this action will cause you to set down the rod or stretch out to release the board. When using heavy, large lipped baits a mast system is a must. I have used the system in friends’ boats and find them very user friendly. The only negative aspect is they take up a lot of room and makes switching to casting a hassle. In line planer boards are simple to store and not a big investment.
The sonar/GPS units today are simply amazing. I use the Lowrance X 111. This unit has a large 10 inch color screen. The unit has thousands of lakes downloaded on a 20 Gig hard drive. The real advantages of the new units are the use of map chips. The chips hold hundreds of lakes. The chips will usually contain the best lake maps available. Many have depth contour lines some in 1 and 3 foot increments and show great detail of bottom content. You can purchase chips for any region you fish. The chips are also available for many of the Canadian lakes. As your boat travels across the water a trail plotter draws a line of your travel. The plotter line is a valuable tool to show you where you have traveled. Great information when trolling open water, it allows you to completely cover a large area. By using icons you can instantly mark any school of bait fish, sunken reefs or humps, or even individual fish you may have discovered. It is similar to throwing out a marker buoy that was common practice before the GPS units. The GPS units also give you accurate speed over ground readings. This reading is more accurate than the paddle wheel speed devices many units come with. This information is very important when establishing a pattern of speeds that move fish. I usually start out with 3 1/2 MPH and increase or decrease the speed as necessary. If a permanent unit is not in your budget there are several very good hand held units available on the market. Many of these units are capable of using the same chips that are used in the permanent models. Some have color screens and are very user friendly. The hand held units can be used ice fishing, hunting, or traveling in your vehicle. The map chips also contain detailed road maps with gas stations, restaurants and other commonly sought information we all use. Not only is GPS a great fishing tool, it is also an important navigational tool and can get you back to the dock during bad weather, fog, or at night.
Another piece of equipment I use from time to time is a downrigger. I use the downrigger to troll large spinner baits and in-line spinners in the 15 foot range. I do not use the downrigger in deep depths. I believe it is always better to fish above the level of the fish.
Crank baits, jerk baits, buck tails, in-line spinners, spinner baits, and even top water baits can be trolled. Just as in casting, situations determine the best tool for the job at hand. Most trollers use crank baits in trolling presentations. There are several good cranks on the market, and more are introduced every year. Ten inch Jakes, Grammas, and Believers are good baits to use in conjunction with planer boards. They do not put too much pressure on the boards and track well. When I desire more depth I use Slammers. They have a great wobble and the paint schemes suit my purpose. In the fall when bigger profiles are desired, I use Wishmasters and Basin Baits. Drifter Tackle introduced some 14 inch Jakes and Believers last year and they put a few nice fish in my boat. I have almost every crank bait made and use them periodically from time to time. Spinner baits are great for trolling weeds and shallow flats. I also use 10 inch Reef Hawgs behind planer boards, they have a great swing and only go down 2 or 3 feet. I have experimented with trolling top water baits and plan to play with them more this season. Large Bull Dawgs work very well in trolling around reefs and weed edges. Hold your rod and pump the baits as you slowly work the edges of the structure. I am talking the Mag and Pounder size Dawgs. As far as the color of baits goes, experiment. Natural color baits have worked well for me on Leech which is a Cisco based clear water lake. I do add some odd ball colors in the presentation when multiple lines are put out. Throw a little color into the mix, especially when trolling around large schools of bait. You want the fish to see your bait so why not let it stand out from the hundreds of bait fish present.
Summary and Other Stuff
Windy conditions can cause boat control problems similar to the trouble you may have when casting. When trolling rocky shorelines or shallow reefs that could put a hurt on your boat, caution and some awareness are a must. Have a game plan on what to do if a fish eats your bait. Get the free lines reeled in and think about controlling the boat away from danger to fight the fish. With experience, you will want to put your baits close to rocks. That is often where the fish are, but you can get hung up on occasion. When this happens you obviously will want to retrieve your favorite bait. This can be very exciting in big wind so use caution. Generally, if you go back past the bait, it will come out. When trolling open water, large flats or weed edges, use the wind to your advantage. I always troll with the wind if it is strong. The natural movement of the boat will keep a taut line on a hooked fish. When using boards, you can leave the baits in the water on the opposite side of the boat and fight the fish as the boat drifts forward. I will troll across the waves but rarely into big waves. It just makes life much easier.
Some food for thought. During the hot days of summer when the water temps are in the high 70’s or low 80’s the bait fish and subsequently muskies will move to deeper water. Last year on Leech Lake we had surface temps of 78. I put down a thermometer and the same 78 degree water reached 38 feet. As I stated earlier, I always troll my baits from the surface down to 15 to 20 feet. I believe that muskies will come up a long way to eat your bait. This may not be a good thing in warm water. I have experienced some problems with releasing fish that came up from the depths. I do not troll for suspended fish during these conditions. I know I can catch these fish and many times it is the only presentation that is consistent during the light of day, but it is not worth killing the fish. They may swim away but do they make it? An interesting question that we should ask ourselves when using certain presentations. We found out what the results were in cutting line on single hook sucker rigs. We believed that the hook would dissolve and the fish would be fine. Now, when faced with the warm water, I troll only in the evening hours. The zoo plankton and other organisms that the Cisco feed on rise, and so does the entire food chain. You can see this occurrence in the photo. Notice the deeper bait, probably Whitefish, the upper bait is Cisco’s’, they were surfacing and jumping while feeding on the small organism. The night I took the picture of the graph my clients caught 3 fish ranging from 44 to 47 inches. All of the fish ate a 10 inch Jake attached to a planer board. That evening we also caught a 30 inch Walleye on the same bait.
Just as in casting, erratic movement of your bait is desired to trigger strikes. Make several “S” turns, increase and decrease your trolling speed. Try coming to a complete stop allowing the baits to rise to the surface, and then speed up. Experiment with your presentation.
I hope this article answered a few questions you may have had about trolling. It is like the TV commercial “It’s not your fathers Buick anymore.” You can get as high tech as your budget allows or simply scale, down but I encourage you to try trolling. With the pressure many of our waters receive these days, it is another technique you can use. There have been several great trolling articles in Musky Hunter in past issues. I encourage you to re-read them and apply this knowledge on the water this season. Trolling may not be your cup of tea but there is great excitement and anticipation when the clicker on your reel starts screaming.
Jim Murphy is a full time professional guide on Leech Lake Minnesota. For more info please visit his web site at: