Trolling to Find Fish

The Case for Faster Trolling
by Richard Cleek

Trollers divide into two major classes -- dedicated and desperate. The former run to fancy electronics, exotic downriggers and esoteric explanations why fish didn't bite. The later prefer to cast and complain bitterly about the boredom of trolling, so they troll only when all else fails.

A more temperate approach seems in order. Troll fast and shallow and you cover the water. No other method can find fish so fast. Pick water at the proper temperature for the species you seek and use appropriate tackle and technique and you can find action without a major investment in gear or a long learning curve. High speed trolling produces!

For me, the realization that fast trolling works was accidental. I started catching fish with a hand line off the back of a sailboat. Today, when we houseboat or cruise on displacement hull craft which get there most efficiently at speeds from 5 to 10 knots, we always troll something even if our primary intention is passage rather than fishing. So when we fish seriously we troll at high speed too. 

Ever cranked a lure too fast for a fish to catch? I doubt it. Many baitfish swim one MPH per inch of length and gamefish such as brown trout or muskie have no trouble at all catching lures whipped along at six or seven MPH. Retrieving that fast quickly kills wrists and arms, but you can troll fast without problems. If you troll at least three MPH you clearly cover three times as much water as is the case for slow trollers who poke along at one MPH. Covering more water improves your chance of whipping a lure past fish, such as black bass, pike or muskie that stake out an ambush position. High speed trolling also just about eliminates light hits from fish, such as trout, salmon or steelhead that cruise the middle of lakes. Such fish see dinner escaping and pounce. At least this happens more often than not.

As a guide and outdoor writer with 40 years experience as a fisherman, I see all sorts of high tech solutions to the basic problem all fishermen face -- locating willing fish. But traditional "low tech" methods work too! 

If you troll fast and shallow you can catch most fish species without fuss if you take the time to think about basics. For example, gas-saving 6-knot hull speed on pontoon houseboats seems just right to troll up brown trout or stripers in the spring or fall. Sailboats under full sail offer perfect trolling speed for offshore species.

Do realize that most of the need for high tech gear comes when fishermen insist on taking a particular species from a certain water no matter what. If you spend more time searching for water where fish bite best, you can take more fish.

Water temperature remains the most important single factor. If the water is colder than optimum, fish slow their activity and feed less frequently. If water is warmer than optimum, fish head for cool springs or colder, deeper water.

Granted, there are apparent exceptions to this rule. The temperature preferences of gamefish and some of the bait fish and insects which those gamefish eat may not jibe. So gamefish will enter water warmer than their optimum to feed at times.

In summer, this period is usually after sunlight leaves the water and before the sun hits in the morning. This tendency is reinforced by the fact that fish can't contract their pupils. So they are often photophobic and avoid bright sunlight. This is one reason why we find fish under the edges of weedbeds or floating cover such as docks.

Water temperature also varies during the day. It peaks in late afternoon and reaches its minimum around dawn. So, if the temperature is lower than optimum, fish from late afternoon until dark. If water temperature is higher than optimum -- as is usual in summer -- launch before dawn and troll until the light hits the water.

Water temperature varies in different parts of lakes and impoundments too. For example, coves that face south tend to be warm earlier in the year than those that face north. Light rocks at the waterline reflect heat from sunlight into the water.

Coves with live streams often seem cooler than coves sans inlets. Cool incoming water flows down and under warmer surface waters. So troll the cooler options if the overall temperature of the lake is above optimum and the warmer options when it is below the "action number" for the fish you seek.

For short periods in the fall and spring after "turnover", lakes tend to have more constant temperatures top to bottom. It is no accident that such periods are the traditional hot times of the year to fish before they warm or cool outside optimum temperatures. Other factors which influence water temperature interest mostly deep trollers. For example, wind across a lake tends to move warmer surface waters toward the lee shore and depress the cooler thermocline. Shallow trollers operate better at the upwind shore. This attracts aquatic insects blown offshore.

Do realize that, while lakes, streams and all other waters reach their optimum temperature on different dates each year, they also always peak in the same order. As a general rule, smaller lakes warm and cool faster than larger lakes at the same elevation. Lower elevation lakes warm earlier than higher elevation lakes. And, for example, streams which drain slopes that face south warm and clear earlier than those that drain slopes that face north.

It's also important to realize different species generally bite in the same order. In two story reservoirs, trout, striped bass and landlocked salmon are often most active in the winter. As these fish move deep, smallmouth bass become active; then largemouth. So it's important to key your trolling to the species as well. Use your thermometer to find water that's the right temperature and take the other factors we mentioned into account and your freshwater trolling results improve.