Forgo the Trolling Woes

There’s a lot more to pulling baits than just an aimless
forward motion of a boat with offerings in tow.

By: Mark Martin
Overall, the tactic anglers employ most is trolling. It’s the technique used by more professional tournament angers, charter captains, guides and weekend warriors alike, no matter what species they are targeting. It’s the simple strategy of pulling both lures and live bait behind a boat that anyone can use to catch fish.

Wait, did I just type the word “simple”? I really shouldn’t have. I’m here to tell that, just because most every angler trolls, doesn’t mean that everyone that does it is going to catch fish. It’s all because there’s a lot more to trolling than just an aimless forward motion of boat with offerings in tow.

Successful anglers know that paying attention to the most minor details, such as boat control and knowing the exact location of their baits in the waters column is crucial, as well fishing where fish swim. Sounds like a lot to remember? Not really.

Lure me this, bait me that

One of the first questions anglers who attend one of my many fishing seminars asks me about is the lures and rigs I use most often. So that’s where I’ll start. But I warn you, it’s not just about a brand. It’s about shape, dive curve and action.

More often than not, the first lure I tie on is one of the many styles of Rapala crankbaits, because these baits allow me to cover a lot of water quickly so as to find active fish fast. And I always use a Berkley Snap (not snap-swivel) when using crankbaits as the open ring allows the lure to keep its full erratic action without any added weight to its nose.

Whether I decide to use a shallow-running crankbait, one that swims to a medium depth or a deep diver that plummets into the darkened depths will depend on where I am marking fish on my Lowrance sonar. No matter my target species, I always want my lures to be swimming at the same exact depth or just above the fish, never below. This is because fish rarely rush downward to attack their prey. They will, however, scuttle skyward to sabotage forage.

After I figure out where in the water column the fish are and choose lures by their dive curve so as to get them in the right depth, it’s time to narrow the number down even more and pick out ones via their shape. In general, I’ll grab a long, slender-shaped Rapala—like a Scatter Rap or Down Deep Husky Jerk—in waterways where forage such as shiner minnows, herring or other narrow-shaped baitfishes swim. If shad, bluegills and crappies are the main food source, wide-bodied cranks’ like Shad Raps and Scatter Rap Shads will be clipped on first.

A lure’s color, although important, is what I worry about after deciding on diving depth and shape. And it’s color choices where an angler’s options are endless. By and large, I’ll run lures with bright colors or ultra-violet (UV) paint jobs in stained water first, while the more natural, life-like colorations get picked from the pile first when fishing lakes or rivers with clear water.

Speed and placement

Once I have my lures picked out and clipped on to the snap, it’s time to troll. And making sure the lures are swimming at the correct speed and through the strike zones is imperative. With my Lowrance HDS Carbon 12 in multiple screen mode, I can see 2D sonar, StructureScan HD and GPS/mapping/tracking (aided by a SD card filled with Navionics mapping in the unit’s card reader) all at one time. This allows me to know my speed, if there are any fish in the area as well my boats exact location at any given moment.

First thing’s first, and that’s getting my speed down pat. Right off the bat I’ll start trolling at 1.9 to 2.4 MPH, and will hold one of the rates in-between for at least twenty minutes; all the while watching for fish on the sonar. If I don’t get any strikes, I’ll then either slow down or speed up in increments of about .1 MPH to see if that triggers any fish.

One thing to watch for, which will help you determine if you need to go faster or slower, is if you get bit during a turn. If a lure running on the inside of the turn gets bit, then I know I should slow down. The opposite holds true if an outside rod goes off, then I know to speed up.

If I find the fish are attracted to speeds slower than my crankbaits will run properly, say 1.3 MPH or under, I’ll then switch to lures and/or live bait that can handle the decreased speeds. When trolling for walleyes, for example, I’ll run a Northland Baitfish Spinner Harness, nipped with lively night crawler. And if panfish are being pesky and nipping the tail off my crawlers, I’ll opt for a Berkley Gulp! Night Crawler.

Ready, aim… troll!

So, I now have my boat in position… But are my lures where they belong? In shallow water, for example, a boat running over top breaklines and structure will more than likely spook fish. This is why I use Church Tackle in-line planer boards to get my baits out away from the boat and in front of fish un-spooked.

Another must is to make sure I have that aforementioned SD card with Navionics mapping loaded in my Lowrance’s card reader. The detailed lake maps that show up on the screen behind my chart plotter are precise, and this allows me a perfect troll along breaklines. And why do I need to be so particular when it comes to following contours? Because it’s right along these very drop offs, no matter how major or minor, that fish will swim most often; thus if my lures are following the contour to a tee, they will be in the strike zone and in the faces of more fish.

No trolling? Know trolling!

There’s a good reason anglers troll: They are able to get a bait in front of more fish, and fast. It’s a simple strategy of pulling both lures and live bait behind the boat that anyone can use to catch a lot of fish. But it’s the little details that mean a lot when it comes to catching. Boat control, knowing the exact location of their baits and knowing they are running correctly, all the while actually fishing where fish swim, is crucial.

Mark Martin is a touring walleye tournament pro, as well an instructor with the Fishing/Vacation Schools, who lives in Michigan’s southwestern Lower Peninsula. Check out his website at for more information.