There is nothing as exciting to me in fresh water fishing as watching a big musky blow up on a top water and tail-walk across the surface, or see the white flash inside a 50-inchers mouth as she grabs a lure 18 inches from your rod tip during a figure 8. These are certainly memories that will forever be cherished, but there are plenty of other a little less exciting ways to catch muskies. But hooking a good one, whatever legal method is used, is always a big thrill.
About 30% of the muskies I catch every year are caught by trolling. Would I rather catch these fish by casting? Of course! But the majority of these fish would not have been caught by casting. Some of the muskies came from the edges of rocky flats or weed beds that were pounded by strong winds that would have made boat control via an electric motor very difficult, if not impossible. Some were in depths not easily fished with a cast lure, and many came on speeds that would be tough to achieve or maintain with a retrieve. Then there were the fish holding over a slow-tapering flat with scattered cover, along almost non-descript breaklines, or suspended in a slot, bay mouth or basin that would be very difficult and time consuming spots to cast. Trolling also helps me learn a lake quicker, and to find out of the way mini-spots that would not likely be found by casting. As I said, I’d rather catch them casting, but I’d also rather catch more muskies than not.
A lot of anglers view trolling as something anybody can do; just toss a lure behind the boat and go. Precision trolling structure and edges, particular over cover-strewn bottoms, is a lot more difficult that casting and retrieving a lure. A good game plan must also exist when multi-line trolling with boards various distances from the boat Being precise, using the right equipment, and doing a lot of small things correctly will go a long way towards trolling success. Here are some of basics that will make trolling more productive for you.
All of the top of the line trollers I know are dialed in to the running depths of the crankbaits they use. A line counter reel is almost a necessity, but some anglers just count the back and forth passes of a side-to-side moving level wind on their bait-casting or trolling reel. Knowing EXACTLY how much line you have out is very important. It allows you to return to a productive depth level and to set other lines to that depth range. Another big key is precision lure control over a rocky bottom or sub-surface weeds. If you try to consistently bump a lure over a rocky bottom, a lot of snags will occur. I generally try to troll a crankbait a foot or two above a rocky bottom and just tap the high spots. By just making contact with the high spots you will avoid most snags, know you’re lure is running at the right level, plus this occasionally bumping will trigger strikes from following muskies.
Learn the running depths of several lures with given amounts of line out. When trolling an edge that breaks at 10-feet, I may troll a 9-inch Shallow Raider with 40-feet of line out on the inside line because it will get down to around 9-feet. The outside line that borders deeper water might be more suited for a deeper running lure such as a Grandma or Depth Raider. If trolling over the tops of a low weed bed, a Shallow Invader or 7-inch Shallow Raider that only goes 6-7-feet down might be my choice. When starting out and not knowing anything about a lure’s running depth, try trolling over flatter areas and note how much line is let out before a lure starts scraping bottom. Writing the information down is a great help in getting started. Knowing a certain lure contacts bottom with a specific amount of line out is also a great way to know if a lure is running correctly. If a similar lure is not tapping bottom, it’s probably not tuned as well as it could be, or has debris on it.
Running a lure in the prop wash really tests its ability to run straight. Lures that track perfectly when trolled to the side of the boat, may not run true right behind the boat due to the swirling waters caused by the motor. When you get one of these great runners, put an X on it and don’t use it for anything else!
All my trolling reels are spooled with braided line. I generally put on a core of 14 to 20-pound test monofilament and then about a hundred yards of 80-pound test Spider Wire Stealth. All my friends generally use braid when trolling with moderate to longer lines, but a few prefer heavy monofilament when trolling tight in the prop wash because it stretches a little under stress. I prefer braid, even on short lines, and just back off on the drag a bit.
A major key to hooking and landing muskies is the type of rod used. On my annual fall trolling trip to Lake of the Woods, I always seem to lose at least a couple of big fish. And I’ve used almost every type of rod imaginable from expensive tuna rods with soft tips , various “trolling rods”, fast tip bucktail type actions, plus some odd ball stuff. My partner, Mike Zielonka, almost never loses a fish, and he uses a cheap rod and line counter reel combo that cost about $50. Last year I bought the cheapest 8-foot 2-piece glass rod I could find that was more suited for fishing with boards or downriggers. After missing three fish on the first day of our fall trip out of five that hit, I switched to my new, cheap, flexible, all glass rod that was rated for 10 to 20-pound test. During the rest of our extended week I had 19 more musky strikes and landed 18 of them.
Stiffer, graphite rods just don’t hook and hold muskies when trolling with braided line as well as all glass rods that have a parabolic taper (rod bends the same throughout the blank). These softer rods allow the musky to take the lure and turn before pressure is felt, which generally results in more fish being hooked in the side of the mouth. This is much more desirable than bouncing a lure off the tough upper jaw, which is more likely to happen with a stiff rod. In addition, head shakes that could easily tear the lure free if using a stiffer rod are easily absorbed when using a more flexible rod with “forgiveness”.
I use 3-foot seven strand 60-pound test wire leaders when trolling that I make myself. These longer leaders prevent cut offs from rocks a lot better than a shorter leader. Cut offs may occur if you run up too high on a rocky structure, or if a hooked fish dives into the rocks or rolls up on the line as you fight it. I use to crimp the wire leader with metal sleeves, but I found a faster more dependable way. I put the wire through a snap or swivel, turn it around about 4 times like you were doing a clinch knot, then put it back through the loop towards the direction of the snap or swivel. Pull the tag end tight slowly with a pliers until it’s firmed up, leaving about a 1/8-inch tag end. I’ve not tried this with wire stronger than 60-pound test, but 60 works great for me.
A lot of anglers pay more attention to where the boat is rather than where the lure is running. Remember that when a boat turns the lure doesn’t follow the same path, but rather short cuts the boat’s path. One of the biggest trolling mistakes I see is sloppy passes on points. The bigger the point, the more potential for errors. When you come off the point and you see it drop off on the sonar, keep going straight for at least 5 to 10 seconds to make sure the lure runs off the tip. The longer the line, the longer you should go in a straight line. What I usually do is run off the point even longer than it takes the lures to reach the tip, then make a big loop over open water and come back down the opposite side of the point headed towards the shore. This big loop guarantees the lure comes off the tip, gives a following fish more time to react, and checks the open water off the point for suspended muskies.
Whenever you make a turn, the lure(s) on the inside of the turn slow down, while the lure(s) on the outside speed up. Many hits on a turn occur on the inside line, the one that’s going a little slower. If I’m holding an inside turn rod, I will rip the lure forward several times until the boat straightens out and resumes a straight path. This ripping action makes up for the loss of speed on that lure and triggers strikes. Coming out of a turn with a little burst of speed is another good trigger, especially if some of the lure’s speed has been significantly reduced by the turn’s speed.
Although many trollers put rods in holders, I usually don’t for several reasons. Most of my musky trolling is in Minnesota or Ontario where you are only allowed one rod. I also like to feel the strike, and I can usually catch more muskies with a hand-held rod than if a rod was in a holder. Last year on our fall trip I caught two muskies I probably would not have caught if the rod was in a holder. Both “hits” felt like someone lightly tapped my lure with a pencil. But since I knew the lure was running just over the bottom, I ripped the rod forward, dropped it back, and was greeted with a smashing strike! I’ve caught many muskies ripping the rod forward as I’ve motored over a point, sunken hump, or other spot that looked a little special as a musky lair. Controlling a boat with a tiller handle, or if someone else is operating a steering wheel makes holding a rod a lot easier.
When trolling rocky areas you’re going to get hung up once in a while, no matter how careful you are. When I get hung while holding the rod, I quickly sweep the rod forward towards the bow of the boat, then reverse the direction of the pull and throw some slack into the line. The object is to quickly create slack so the crankbait floats up out of the hang. Often the snag is just the bill getting wedged in something, and if you are using a buoyant crankbait it will generally come free.
If this tactic doesn’t work, turn the boat around and head directly back at the lure. Don’t jerk or put any tension on the line as you go towards the lure! And don’t make a wide swing on the way back that could wrap the line around the hang. Keep the slack out of the line and once you get on the opposite side of the hang start shaking the rod tip. These tactics work 95% of the time. The final option is to use a lure retriever. I’m not so concerned about losing a lure, but rather a fine-tuned lure that I thought was my best choice at the time!
Lure Options for Various Situations
Trolling is often the best tactic to both learn and effectively fish a large weedy area. When trolling large weed flats there are several lure options I consider, which are generally based on weather conditions, weed growth, perceived activity level of the fish and with some “gut feeling” tossed into the mix. During times of lower light penetration such as morning, evening, during over-cast or windy days, or at night, I expect the fish to be more active and cruising and will start with a presentation over the higher weeds.
If the weeds are 1 to 3-feet under the surface I generally start trolling with a blade bait such as a spinnerbait or bucktail. Prior to last year, spinnerbaits with two up-right single hooks would be used most of the time if fishing a weed bed that had erratic, uneven growth This style came through the weeds better than a bucktail having treble hooks. Last summer I started trolling “double 10’s” instead of spinnerbaits and the muskies crushed my Bucher’s Magnum Tinsel Tails! It seems that these big bladed lures “call” the fish better from farther distances and from cover than conventional L-armed spinnerbaits, the big churning blades push most of the higher weeds aside, plus this may be a trolling presentation in most waters that the fish haven’t seen. When fishing two lines have one running just under the surface just about where the bubbles from your motor start to dissipate, and the other one about twice that distance back.
When the weeds are 4 to 7-feet under the surface, I generally short line a shallower running crankbait such as a Shallow Invader or Shallow Raider, and try to keep it just over the weed tops. Another productive option, especially if the fish aren’t too active due to weather or water conditions, or if you feel a little slower presentation is needed to pull them out of the weeds is to troll a weighted Suick or Bobbie Bait. The most frequently asked question about trolling these jerkbaits is “how fast do I troll them?” Troll them at the same speed that duplicates the action you try to get when they are cast; jerk, slight rise, jerk, slight rise, etc. Do it at the side of the boat and when you get the right rhythm, toss the lure out and maintain the same boat speed.
The deep edge of the weeds is an important breakline to troll. Actually, most of my deeper trolling is along breaklines such as weed edges, and drop-offs, but I don’t overlook water color or current edges, or even the edges of suspended schools of baitfish. A lot of muskies have been caught trolling over “nothing”, but I always try to find something that may tend to be more attractive to the fish. This may be something as subtle as a slightly faster taper in an otherwise flatter area, a lip of just a foot or two in a shallower lake, or even a change in bottom consistency. The shallower the area, the more subtle the fish-holding edge will probably be!
Crankbaits rule when fishing most of these edges. I prefer slimmer and/or thinner crankbaits because I think they hook a higher percentage of muskies than fat-bodied cranks. I’m know I’m leaving out many good crankbaits, but I use what has produced best for me for many years. In the 4 to 7-foot range Shallow Invaders, along with 7-inch Shallow Raiders and 7 ½ in Grandma’s are my favorites. For the 7 to 14-foot range I like 9-inch Shallow Raiders, Grandmas, and Jakes. I will also short line Depth Raiders in this range. For most of my deeper fishing, I will long line Depth Raiders, and use 13-inch Grandmas. I also try different crankbaits, but these have been my “go to” lures for quite a few years.
Field Editor Spence Petros will begin his 41st year of fishing schools in the Chicagoland area the first Tuesday and Wednesday of March. Bass/Panfish classes are on Tues. while the Musky/Walleye/Pike classes are on Weds. For more info on the 5 week schools go to wwwspencepetros.com. or call 815-455-7770