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Trolling For Trophies

Published By: Craig Ritchie

Trolling – dragging a fishing lure behind a slowly moving boat – might just be the simplest way to catch fish ever. Make a long cast, drop the rod into a rod holder and gently slip the boat in gear – what could be easier? 

It seems simple enough. But dragging a lure behind the boat is one thing. Actually catching some fish that way is quite another. To catch fish by trolling, you need to drag your lure where the fish will see it. That means you need to know a thing or two about the places that fish call home.

Fish don’t just distribute themselves randomly around a lake, but choose the places they live and the places where they hunt for food, very carefully. The best spots will have plenty of dark nooks and crannies where the fish can hide in ambush as they wait for prey to come by. Physical features like rocky points, islands, or reefs formed across narrow parts of a lake, are great examples. So too are things that define the bottom of the lake, like the edge of weed beds or sharp drop-offs.

One of the key advantages of trolling is it enables you to cover a lot of water in a short amount of time, so it’s the best method of fishing to use when you need to cover a large, expansive area where the fish could be anywhere. There’s no better way to work a lure along a sweeping rocky shoreline, for example, or a gravelly shoal connecting an island to the shore, than by putting the motor in gear and trolling your way along.

“Trolling is one of the most effective fishing techniques out there,” says Pete Bowman, who with Angelo Viola and Mike Miller hosts the Fish’n Canada Show on Global TV. “When fish are spread out on a big flat area, trolling is the most effective way of catching them because it keeps your lure in the water. If the fish are down deep and you’re casting, your lure is only at the right depth for about one-third of the time. When you first cast, it takes some time for it to dive down there and as your reel in your lure and it gets close to the boat, it will start to climb back up towards the surface. As a result, it’s only at the right depth for a few seconds on each cast. But when you troll, it dives down where the fish can see it, and stays there until it gets eaten. I can control the depth of my lure most effectively by trolling and that's absolutely critical.”

So how deep should your lure be? It depends what kind of fish you want to catch. Species like walleye, smallmouth bass, yellow perch and lake trout generally stay near the bottom, so you’ll need to pick a deep-diving lure or use supplemental weight to get it down where the fish will see it. Other fish, like salmon, rainbow trout and muskie, will often suspend in open water, lying just below the depth where the sunlight fades away. From there, they can look up and see smaller fish silhouetted against the bright sky, while their own dark-coloured backs provide perfect camouflage.

“Drive the boat from the shallows into deeper water, and you’ll come to a point where you can’t see bottom any more,” says tournament angler and charterboat captain Bob Alexander. “Note the depth where that happens. If you lose sight of the bottom in 20 feet of water, then you can expect fish like muskie to suspend 20 to 25 feet down, out in open water but still in the vicinity of points, bays or other shoreline features.”

Once you’re in the right spot, the final variable is to figure out the right speed. Start by taking a cue from the birds on shore – if they’re actively chirping and flying around, it usually means the fish are active too, and may be more responsive to a faster troll. But if things on shore are quiet and there’s not much activity, it’s often best to slow down, since fish are likely to also be in a quiet mood and unwilling to chase faster-moving lures. The key is to experiment and let the fish tell you what they want on any given day.

If you put yourself in the right spots, get your lure to the right depth and haul it along at the right speed, chances are pretty good you’ll have some success. Whether your goal is to boat a once-in-a-lifetime trophy muskie or just to pick up some walleye for supper, trolling can be the simplest – and best – way to fish.

- Craig Ritchie