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How to Troll for Fish: A Multi-Species Guide to Technique

Written by: John B
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As anglers across America will tell you, trolling is one of the most effective ways to catch fish.

And from the Great lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys to Alaska, fishermen are proving that true year after year.

Some fishermen think trolling is too simple to count as “real” fishing. They’re wrong. Learning to troll effectively is as much an art as it is a science.

Whether you’re spider rigging for crappie and trying to run a small armada of jigs just over a brush pile or precision trolling for walleye and working the speed of your boat and your downriggers to create the perfect presentation, I can promise you that it isn’t anywhere near as easy at it might seem.

If you want to improve your trolling game, we’re here to help, so keep reading!

Related:

What is trolling?

Trolling is a fishing technique in which a lure or bait is pulled behind a boat. 

Trolling for sailfish is the adventure of a lifetime!

As diverse as it gets in the fishing world, this can range from pulling a tiny jig through the water from a jon boat, to towing a crankbait from a kayak, to running a walleye spinner behind a downrigger, to trolling with live bait in the open ocean.

Trolling for walleye is the dominant summer technique.

Crappie, walleye, barracuda, wahoo, salmon, tuna, sailfish, and marlin: those are just some of the species for which trolling is common. You can even add largemouth bass to that list on some occasions, and it’s clear that everywhere you fish, and for almost anything you’d like to catch, trolling is an option!

Spider rigging is just trolling by another name, and it’s one of the most productive ways to fish crappie in summer.

Why Troll for Fish?

The answer is simple: it works!

Typically trolling is the solution to a problem. When there’s lots of water and the fish are widely dispersed, sitting still and casting won’t result in a catch.

Let’s discuss a few examples.

When the summer heat really turns on, lake water will heat up to the point that fish start to feel stressed by the rising temperature as well as the diminished oxygen content. Crappie respond to this by spreading out rather than clustering in just a few spots.

Hunting the likely spots for them - pilings, stumps, brush piles, and the like - simply won’t produce many fish. Instead, you need to cover a lot of water, offering lots of options, if you hope to catch a few nice slabs.

Spider rigging developed as a technique that allows for slow trolling at multiple depths with a variety of lure options, essentially allowing you to find the fish and figure out what interests them.

A similar thing happens with walleye in the summer. 

While quite tolerant of cold water, they simply can’t stand it once it warms up. That drives walleye deep during the summer, and when you’re looking at miles and miles of water, casting is just not going to get the job done on the Great Lakes.

Instead, anglers turn to trolling, using a variety of techniques in conjunction with deep-diving lures to reach precise depths and create perfect presentations.

Another great example is offshore fishing, where you’re working lures or baits at depth and hunting long submerged channels - or the tops of underwater mountains where deep, nutrient-rich water is pushed toward the surface, creating the perfect conditions for a thriving pelagic ecosystem.

When you’re after species like tuna or sailfish, trolling a lure or live bait is the most effective way to make a long, expensive trip out to deep water a fishing expedition rather than a sun-baked boat ride.

Trolling Tackle and Techniques

Obviously, the tackle you need is going to depend on the species you’re chasing, and you wouldn't pitch a fat mackerel to sailfish on a crappie rod anymore than you’d work a short, stout conventional rod for walleye. 

Spider Rigging for Crappie

For crappie, we like a rod like B'n'M Poles The Stick. At 13 feet, you’ve got plenty of length to keep your spider rigs from tangling when you get a fish on, and you’ll have more than enough leverage to simply lift a fat slab into your boat.

I like to pair these rods with a small reel like a 20-size Pflueger President and never look back. Since you’ll be buying as many as 6 rods and reels, price and performance matter, and this combo has you coerced on both fronts.

Keep in mind that spider rigging demands uniformity. As Barry Morrow, a crappie guide on Oklahoma’s Lake Eufaula, explains, "The key is to make sure the rods are all the same. All the rods should be the same length, power, and action, and they should be adjusted to the same height in the rod holders so that you are able to decipher the motion of the rod tips to detect bites. If you are using different types of rods, they're all bowed differently and respond differently to strikes, making it more difficult to interpret rod-tip and line movement."

Don’t mix and match your spider-rigging tackle; duplicate your set-up, and you’ll have a lot more success.

As you’d expect with slabs, minnows are always a popular bait option, and rigging each of your rods with a fathead is going to go a long way toward ensuring that you catch your limit.

The best lure options are probably jigs, and heads as small as 3/16 to 1/8 aren’t uncommon. Just be aware that you can’t go as light as you would when casting because the ultra-light jig heads in the 1/32-ounce range simply won’t fall when you’re trolling.

Sweetened with an excellent soft plastic trailer like the Bobby Garland Slab Slay'R, Bobby Garland Mo' Glo 2-Inch Baby Shad, or Strike King Mr. Crappie Grub, and you can almost count on a fish fry.

soft plastic trailers

Excellent soft plastic trailers like these, combined with the right jig head, produce amazing results.

Most anglers running a spider rig want hi-viz line to help them keep track of bites. Our favorite is Reaction Tackle’s 6-pound hi-viz yellow. It’s great for seeing a strike, ties securely, and can really take a beating.

Reaction Tackle Mono Yellow 6/2400

Amazon 

If you want to know more about the best techniques and tips for spider rigging, we’ve got you covered. Just check out this article:

Spider Rigging For Crappie: Are you Geared-Up for Spinning a Web?

Precision Trolling Tackle and Techniques for Walleye

When I’m trolling for walleye, I’m looking for a few things from my rod. 

First, it needs to slide in and out of a rod holder easily, and it must have a tough handle that’s long enough for serious security. Second, I want a blank that has enough flex left in it that when my lure or bait detaches from a downrigger, it snaps back, setting the hook. And finally, I want plenty of length to avoid tangling and a blank that’s going to handle a big walleye.

That sounds like a tall order, until you try the St. Croix Eyecon. Simply the best walleye trolling rod currently available, you need to give this rod a try.

For precision trolling, I reach for the Shimano Tekota 500 Line Counter. It has the drag, capacity, speed, and torque to match any walleye out there, and the line counter helps me get my downriggers right where I need them.

My trolling line of choice is Stren Original in 12-pound test. It’s not going to let you down, offering superior knot integrity, great shock strength, and tons of abrasion resistance.

Lures like Rapala’s Shadow Rap Deep 11, Bandit’s Walleye Minnow Jerkbait Deep, and the Moonshine Lures Original Spoon are almost impossible to beat. 

good lure choices for trolling

Good lure choices like these make all the difference when you’re trolling for walleye.

Of course, a high-quality downrigger like the Scotty 1106 Depthpower is essential, too.

The heart of this ‘rigger is a powerful motor that can raise a seven-pound weight at about four feet per second or a 15-pound weight at a bit more than three feet per second. There’s not much difference there, and you’ll be impressed with the power the #1106 can generate, especially when you’re trolling deep.

This motor is complemented by a fully adjustable clutch so that you can customize your descent speed.

We’ve had a lot to say about downriggers, and maybe this Scotty’s too big for your boat or too much for your wallet. But if you want to know about other excellent options, check out this article. It’ll help you find the right choice for your boat and budget:

Best Downriggers Explained and Our Favorites Reviewed

Remember that precision trolling demands that you calculate the amount of line you have out, the speed of your boat, and the weight on your line.

A simple way to do this is to use the ‘50/50’ rule: let out 50 feet of line, attach your weight, and let out 50 feet more. The slower you troll, and the more weight you use, the deeper your lure will run. Just take a look at the chart below:

pro weight and snap weight systems 50/50 method

If you want the full rundown on precision trolling techniques, check these articles out:

Walleye Fishing Tips: How to Fish for and Catch Walleye In All Seasons

How To Use A Downrigger: Tips and Techniques to Master Deep Water Trolling

Trolling for Salmon

The techniques used to troll for salmon are very similar to those used for walleye, but the tackle is a bit more robust.

My favorite rod for trolling for sockeye, steelhead, chinook, or coho is undoubtedly Okuma Guide Select. Expect 10-feet, 6-inches of carbon fiber with the power to fight big fish, long tough handles, and premium guides.

The moderate action on this rod is perfect for using downriggers, and it has plenty of pop when your lure or bait gets hit.

Lure options vary quite a bit depending on where you’re fishing for salmon, so it’s always wise to check with local anglers if you’re fishing unfamiliar waters. 

Popular choices for salmon trolling include Mepp's Flying C, the Abu Garcia Salmo, and the amazing Grand Slam Bucktail.

Mepp's Flying C - sngl,TBL, hot Pink-Silver, one Size (FC78TP HP-S)

Amazon 

My choice of a reel to pair with this rod is the Shimano Tekota 600 Line Counter. A line-counting reel is an essential tool when trolling for salmon, and with a little math (or a good chart), it can help you figure out just how deep you’re running your lures.

My choice of line for trolling for salmon is Berkley Trilene Big Game in the 30- to 40-pound test range. It has the knot integrity you need and shock strength that can take a hard hit and tough fight without giving in.

The techniques for calculating the running depth of your lures or bait is identical to what you do with walleye. You can follow the “50/50 rule” or break out your smartphone for a little high school math.

If you know the angle of your line and how much of it you have out, you can calculate your depth using trigonometry.

And you thought you’d never use math like that in real life!

calculate running depth for lures

You can calculate your depth using trigonometry.

fishing depth vs downrigger angles

Again, we strongly recommend that you read through our article on precision trolling technique. It will demystify the effect of weight, speed, and line length on lure depth and really help you get a handle on precision trolling for salmon.

How To Use A Downrigger: Tips and Techniques to Master Deep Water Trolling

Trolling for pelagic species like tuna, wahoo, sailfish, and shark

Offshore anglers chase a multitude of species. If you need one rod for all your offshore trolling, reach for EatMyTackle’s Black & Blue.

It’s simply superior in every respect when you’re trolling for big fish in deep water.

Paired with an appropriate conventional reel, you’ve got a winning combo for whatever you’re chasing. You’re really spoiled for excellent choices here, and from Penn’s Fathom Lever Drag, to reels by Avet and Daiwa, you can hardly go wrong.

A few 8-inch Rite Angler Pre-Rigged Tuna Dart Trolling Lures or Tuna Flashers are always a good idea.

Rite Angler Pre-Rigged Tuna Dart Trolling Lures 8' Set of 4 Big Game Offshore Trolling Wahoo, Tuna, Marlin

Amazon 

And variations on this theme, like High-Speed Wahoo Lures, will attract plenty of attention from multiple species.

High Speed Wahoo Lures 2 Pack Fully Rigged 6 Ft 280 LBS SS Leader + Bag

Amazon 

High-speed trolling lures like these attract lots of bites.

But that’s the issue in providing advice: the range of species you might be fishing for is so diverse that there are only a few general tips we can give.

One is that in addition to a stout, short rod and a powerful reel, you’ll need very heavy braided line like KastKing SuperPower in 100-pound test or Reaction Tackle Pro Grade in 150-pound or higher test. You’ll also need equally robust leader material, large hooks for live bait, and a wide array of lures depending on where and what you’re fishing.

Final Thoughts

While there’s certainly more to say about trolling, we hope that this article has answered some of your questions and helped you to appreciate just how much effort it takes to do well.

Easily one of the most popular fishing techniques anywhere you can get a line wet, the effort you spend learning the ins and outs of trolling will definitely pay off.

As always, we’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.

About The Author
John B
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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