Fishing 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Trolling

Recreational fishing boasts a variety of techniques and approaches, and trolling is a popular and effective method that has stood the test of time. This blog delves into the fascinating world of trolling, exploring its origins, benefits, necessary equipment, and the factors that determine its success.

What is Trolling?

Trolling is a fishing technique where one or more fishing lines, baited with lures or bait fish, are drawn through the water behind a moving boat. The origins of trolling are not well-documented, but it’s likely this technique was used by ancient civilizations. Evidence suggests that Pacific Islander cultures may have been among the earliest to use trolling methods in their fishing practices. In Europe, trolling is mentioned in fishing books as early as in the XVI century. 

Pros and Cons of Trolling

Until spinning reels were developed, towing behind a boat was the only practical way to keep a bait or lure in motion, imitating a naturally swimming prey fish, over distance sufficient to entice a predatory fish to strike. Even today, for all the variety of excellent rods and reels, there are things that an angler can do only with the help of trolling. 

You can only cast your lure so far using your own two hands, and it would be nearly impossible to make a meaningful cast with the lure big enough to seduce a tuna or marlin on a line strong enough to contain them. The length of the time that your lure can show the right play, especially if you want to run it deep, is even more limited. With trolling, you can use your rod, line, and lure as big as you want, and run the lure(s) at whatever depth you prefer, for as long as you have open water in front of you.

You can also run your lure really far behind your boat, which prevents the fish to associate the lure with the vessel, whose motion spooks the fish. Another big advantage of trolling is that you can run more than one line, with different lures or baits, through different water horizons and at different distances from the boat, at the same time. This helps you establish the preferences of the fish on a given day, or target different fish species. Last but not the least, trolling covers more water in less time, increasing the odds of locating fish.

A fishing boat on a river
Trolling works not only on the big seas but also on rivers and lakes.

The cons of trolling are, as it often happens, natural consequences of pros. Trolling is a “long” fishing scenario, where it’s not as easy to make adjustments on the go. When spinning, you can run your lure over the same spot at different speeds, reeling techniques, and depths in a matter of minutes. Readjusting your trolling setup takes considerably more time. 

Then, trolling doesn’t work everywhere. You need a long stretch of open, ideally deep, water with similar bottom structure. A small lake, a narrow winding river, or an area with rapidly changing depths is best targeted by other fishing methods. Trolling is the most expensive fishing technique, if you factor in the cost of a boat. Last but not the least, in the eyes of many anglers trolling lacks action. In fact, it’s often described as one of the most boring fishing techniques ever – but that’s only until the big one strikes. 

What Fish Can You Catch by Trolling?

For both freshwater and saltwater fishing, the prime quarries for trolling are the large predatory fish that prefers the deeper horizons of open water. In rivers and lakes, trolling is highly efficient for catching walleye, muskellunge, northern pike, and bass. Although salmon and trout are generally regarded as the domain of fly-fishing enthusiasts, trolling can be an efficient, and in some instances the most practical way of catching some of them. That refers first and foremost to lake trout, as well as some kinds of landlocked salmon and whitefish

For saltwater fishing, trolling is the method preferred for the pursuit of the biggest and most desirable “big game” fish species, such as tuna, marlin, sailfish, wahoo, and mahi-mahi. Smaller predators like Atlantic mackerel or striped bass can also be caught by trolling, and running your rig over reefs or wrecks can entice bites even from species like barracuda and grouper

What Gear do you Need for Trolling?

The most obvious piece of gear for trolling is, of course, a boat. Its size and other characteristics should be aligned with the waters and targeted fish species. Big-game deep sea fishing requires a serious, ocean-ready craft. Fishing for pike and walleye in the bigger rivers or lake calls for a typical “bass boat”, but may be carried out from just about any motorboat – when possible, equipped with a trolling motor. 

The usual targets for saltwater fishing, as well as their prey, travel at much higher speeds than the prey of freshwater fish, so that the boat can comfortably move by power of her main engine. For most freshwater fishing, lower velocity is wanted, and the craft is small enough to be propelled by a special trolling motor, designed for slow and controlled movement. Most of those are electric, which is easier on the environment, and make for a quieter ride without small clouds of smoke, which also prevents disturbing the fish.

a bass boat often used for trolling
A bass boat with a trolling motor on the front end.

A trolling motor is desirable, but not absolutely necessary, as most modern outboards can cruise at near idle speeds for long periods of time. And for those who want an old-timer’s experience, you can do trolling from a small rowboat, kayak or canoe. There is a special pleasure in gliding over still, calm water, powered by nothing but your own powers. 

The earliest descriptions of trolling don’t even mention the use of the rods. Fishers were usually holding the line with their hands, or, if there was only one person on the boat – and before outboard motors, one needed both hands to row or operate the sail – they would hold the line in their teeth. Some old books describe tying a lure to both sides of a long line and holding it in your mouth at the middle. Given how much dental work costs these days, the old way is hardly to be recommended. Nowadays the list of equipment for trolling should include fishing rods.

For freshwater fishing, as well as for smaller saltwater species, your spinning or baitcasting gear can do double duty for trolling. However, it’s preferable to get a couple of special trolling rigs, with center-axis reels and short, stout rods. For offshore fishing, you need special, heavy tackle: extra strong rods with large volume multi-gear reels. In both cases, the boat needs to be equipped with holders, where you can place the rods so that you don’t have to hold them in your hands all the time. 

Apparently, first trollers used bait rather than lures, most likely a dead fish fitted so that it appeared to be moving as the boat sailed on and equipped with one or more hooks. This method is still practiced successfully for many types of trolling, including the big game fish. Several ways of securing dead bait is known, including chin cap and tracing. A simple stripe of fish or squid may also do the trick.

Today most anglers prefer artificial lures for trolling. In theory, every spinning lure can be a trolling lure, especially those on the heavy side. It’s always best, however, to use specialized trolling lures, that most commonly come as big wobblers, with slide boards that direct them to a desired depth. Sinkers are essential to bring your lure or bait to desired lengths, and some sophisticated rigging systems, such as downriggers, have been developed.

Another important piece of gear for a trolling boat is the fishfinder. It’s not fish that you find with it, though: the device allows you to measure depth and determine the configuration of the bottom. This is the single most important component of success, and sonar takes the guesswork out of this equation. 

How to Catch a Fish by Trolling

Several factors determine the success of trolling. The first is the speed. This depends on the target species, the lure or bait, and fishing type. A speed of 1-3 knots (1 knot = 1,852 km/h) mph is common for freshwater trolling. Inshore trolling boats may reach up to 5 knots, and deep sea fishing boats travel even faster, between 5 and 10 knots. If you wonder whether you’re going too fast, let a spare lure out not far from the boat, where you can see how it performs. If it doesn’t seem to move naturally, adjust the speed. 

The second factor is the depths at which your lure or bait travels. This is dictated by the species you’re targeting and the water temperature and clarity. Speed and depth are interdependent: the slower the boat moves, the deeper the lure can sink, and vice versa. Additionally, depth can be regulated by adding sinkers, or choosing the lures with listed depth at a given speed.

Another question when trolling is how much line you let off behind. This depends on desired depth (the more line you let off, the deeper the rig goes), whether the fish are spooky or careless, the speed of the boat, and the course you’re making. When making curves, bear in mind that your lure or bait is rather far behind, and will cut the corner as you turn, so you can run it into a shore, shallow, or reef. Adjust your course for that, and keep your line shorter if you follow a winding course, while you can let off more if the boat moves in a straight line. 

But the critical factor is finding where the fish are. This is the situation that often have new to trolling anglers cruise for hours without the single bite. You can somehow simplify finding fish by starting out with a number of lines at different depths; once you have a bite on one, adjust the others accordingly. For freshwater fishing, your first choice is to follow an underwater channel or “wall”, where there is a sudden change of depth. Pikes tend to wait for their prey in ambush near banks and areas overgrown with reeds, so trolling along the reed line is often successful.

an angler reeling in a fish
Special gear, including safety belt, is required for reeling in the biggest fish.

Trolling inshore generally follows the same logic as freshwater fishing. Another option is to approach a known underwater flat, reef, or wreck, keeping the depth of your lure a bit above its highest point, or skirm at the sides or walls of it, this time keeping the rig deeper. Pursuit of the pelagic species like swordfish is pursuit of their prey; this, however, may refer to trolling in general. You can often identify locations of shoals of baitfish by amassment of seagulls and other birds who feed on them.

When the fish bites, the hook is usually set automatically, by virtue of the continued mention of the boat. Anglers who fish for walleye, northern pike, lake trout, or other freshwater species will then usually kill the engine and land the fish as the boat drifts on. The same applies to smaller saltwater fish. However, the tuna, marlin, and other big-game fish require a different approach. Here the captain often must give full steam ahead and pursue the fish, to shorten the distance to it and not let the line run out.  

Some people may find it boring, others – relaxing just to cruise around the sea or lake, but in any case trolling is a productive technique. Whether you’re a seasoned angler or a beginner, trolling is an adventure worth experiencing on your next fishing trip. To jump-start your introduction to trolling, it’s recommended to hire a good fishing guide or fishing charter: you can learn more from an expert in a day than during numerous attempts on your own. 


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