The Science of Trolling in Fresh Water
How-to tips from Florida’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
from the Fishing Wire
In Florida, trolling is one of the standard bluewater techniques for offshore fishing. Many northern anglers also employ trolling in lakes routinely. So why isn’t this method of fishing more popular in Florida’s fresh waters? First, it’s an illegal method for tournaments—which should tell you something about how effective trolling can be! Also, our fresh waters simply aren’t deep enough for trolling techniques like downriggers or diving planes. Finally, the abundant vegetation in Florida lakes and ponds can interfere with traditional trolling methods. However, under the right conditions and with proper selection of lure or bait, trolling can be practical here. Whether you’re on a first visit to a new lake or returning to your favorite pond for the hundredth time, trolling is an effective way to find and catch fish.
Trolling motors — They’re actually called “trolling” motors, so why not use them as such? The heart of a trolling system is indeed going to be the motor. Anglers today enjoy a broad selection of electric motors that are more convenient and more powerful than their predecessors, with a number of available options to make trolling that much simpler. Make sure that you choose a motor adequate to the size and weight of the boat; a careful choice will allow you to maintain a steady troll in the face of diverting winds or currents. Both bow and transom mount styles are available. A trolling motor will last for years if properly cared for. Remove the prop and check for fishing line after each trip; if line works past the seals into the electric motor itself it can ruin it. When the prop is removed, hit any exposed lower unit bolts with a shot of WD-40 to prevent corrosion during storage. When on the water, remember to raise the trolling motor before jetting off to the next spot, because the forced turning of the prop can burn out the electric motor.
Trolling gear — Most spinning or casting outfits are suitable for trolling (even flyfishing gear). For most trolling, anglers will want to keep their hands on the rod rather than place it in a rod holder. Longer rods have the advantage for more precisely controlling the path of bait or lure as you troll past an enticing looking stump or patch of lily pads. They also provide for more distance between baits when running two lines off one boat. If you’re a light tackle angler you might wish to switch up a couple pounds in line test, as the forward momentum of the boat coupled with a fish’s strike may lead to more breakoffs than you are accustomed to.
A depth finder is a tremendous aid in trolling. It will help you monitor the bottom to ensure that you are maintaining the ideal depth for your lure of choice. It will also reveal bottom structure (and even fish) so that you can prepare for a couple of bumps (or a strike) on the line. Depending on the lure or bait, it will also give you enough warning to lift your rod tip and raise your bait clear of an obstruction. Some trolling motors even come with depth finders built in.
A speedometer can also be very helpful to track your actual trolling speed (relative to the water itself) when wind and current are either speeding or slowing your boat. It also allows you to maintain the best speed for a given lure (which of course you tested beside the boat before beginning your troll).
Batteries — A few thoughts on batteries are in order . . . first of all, you should have a dedicated trolling motor battery. Hooking those alligator clips up to your starting battery might leave you furiously hand-cranking that 90 HP outboard as the sun sets with you still ten miles from the ramp. Only buy a deep cycle battery engineered to handle a steady drain (the reason starting batteries don’t perform well for trolling is because they are designed to provide only short bursts of power). Modern technology has created a number of advancements in the type and efficiency of trolling batteries, but pay attention to the manufacturer’s instructions for charging and depleting your battery in order to maximize its longevity.
Trolling for bass — Bass are one of the easiest Florida fish to troll for. There are already a variety of weedless lures available, which help offset one of the primary hurdles to trolling in Florida’s fresh waters. A Carolina-rigged plastic worm is possibly the most weedless trolling lure there is, able to bump and slither its way over and around a broad array of obstacles. When trolling with plastic worms, run dead slow with frequent stops. Hold the rod tip forward of your sitting position; when the familiar tap-tap-tap of a strike occurs, you can instantly drop the rod tip back and give the fish some slack as you stop the motor and prepare to set the hook. Other weedless bass lures to try include spinnerbaits, Johnson Silver Minnows, curly-tail grubs, and weedless spinners like a Snagless Sally (be sure to use ball bearing swivels with the latter).
In more open waters, a shallow-running Rapala or Rebel minnow is hard to beat (though you can use any of the lures listed above); Rat-L-Traps are another great choice. Speed-trolling these lures as fast as they will go without rolling will sometimes produce fish when other tactics fail. For deeper locales, use crankbaits to get down to the fish. Choose crankbaits based on the desired depth, but keep in mind that a trolled lure will run deeper than its rated running depth (which is usually based on cast-and-retrieve). For any lure except plastic worms, keep your rod tip back instead of forward and set the hook instantly when you feel a strike.
Trolling with bait can be very effective. Shiners and shad are the temptations of choice. Always hook the bait through the lips. Troll slowly enough so that the minnow can swim naturally and isn’t being dragged through the water. If a bait begins to roll on the surface, you’re going too fast. In weedier waters, use a hook with a weedguard. If you need to get your bait deeper, add split shot a foot or two up the line; if the bait keeps diving into vegetation, a tiny streamlined float will keep it near the surface. As with worm trolling, keep your rod tip forward so that you can yield some slack and allow the fish to take the bait before you set the hook.
Trolling for sunfish — Most of what was said about bass trolling applies equally to bream, but on a smaller scale. (You might pick up an occasional crappie too, but they are usually too deep and too closely associated with cover to troll for easily.) Fewer appropriately-sized weedless lures are available. However, Beetle Spins are excellent and weedless curlytail grubs in the smaller sizes also do well. For hard baits, the selection is also more limited. Tiny crankbaits draw strikes, as do small spoons and spinners. However, trolling speeds need to be slower and you must pay more attention to make sure the lures are not rolling. One trick with spinners is to tie a foot or two of line to the treble hook and then put a small nymph or wet fly on the end; fish leery of the spinner will often pick up the fly. You must use a swivel if trolling a spinner, and will probably have to untwist your line periodically by cutting off the lure and letting the line trail freely behind the boat for a few minutes.