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Simple Fish Trolling Technique Basics

How to get started trolling for fish


Photo © Ron Brooks

Dolphin Junior trolling lures come in a variety of colors and work very well trolling for - what else - dolphin!

Photo © Ron Brooks
Simple Trolling Basics Trolling, whether near shore or offshore, is often the most productive method for catching a variety of saltwater gamefish. From blue water pelagics to close-in bottom fish, trolling is often the key to a good catch. Yet, many anglers don’t use this method either because they have had little success in the past, or because they simply never learned the basic techniques.

For the average angler, trolling can be broken down into a combination of four simple categories – fast or slow, shallow or deep. It really can be that simple if you know the habits of the fish you are pursuing.

The Terminal Equipment

First of all, a wire leader is almost a necessity in the trolling world. The wire prevents pelagics from cutting your line either from their mouth or from their strong tail kicks. Five to six feet of wire leader from the hook should be connected to ten feet of double line. I prefer using a Bimini twist knot for the double line and I tie that to a strong, Sampo snap swivel. I use snap swivels to allow a quick change-out of leaders. More often than not, a good fish will put a kink in the wire and the snap swivel lets me put another pre-rigged leader on without stopping.

The hook size needs to match the bait. Small hooks on large baits or large hooks on small baits simply do not work. I carry several pre-rigged leaders with hooks from 5/0 to 9/0. I may be trolling ballyhoo using an 8/0 hook and get into a school of smaller fish. That’s when I will switch to a leader with a 5/0 hook, allowing more hookups on the smaller mouths.

Shallow Trolling

This method refers to the bait, not the depth of water. In blue water – the Gulfstream – the water will be several hundred feet deep while your bait is literally on the surface.

This trolling method is used by anglers and charter boats looking mainly for billfish, wahoo, or mahi mahi (dolphin). All of these species of fish feed on schools of bait that stay on the surface. Ballyhoo, flying fish, even schools of small bonito run close to the surface, and they provide ample food for these blue water predators.

The natural escape mechanism for these baitfish it to run fast on the surface and literally skip along out of the water for some distance. Flying fish will go airborne and glide for a hundred yards or more to escape a predator. I have seen them bank on a windy day and actually glide up and over my T-top.

Your trolled bait needs to imitate the natural bait. A fast troll that “skips” the bait along the surface is ideal. Five to six knots – I use my tachometer to keep the engine speed constant – will keep a ballyhoo or flying fish up and skipping on the surface of the water.

Trolling with natural bait means rigging that bait, and shallow trolling is no exception. Whether live or dead, the hook has to be placed in or on the bait in such a way that it will not break free. Numerous sites on the web have excellent descriptions and illustrations teaching anglers the basic rigging techniques.

I use a nose cone or skirt on the nose of the bait I plan to skip. The colorful nose skirt acts both to attract the fish and to keep the bait secure on the hook.

Trolling anglers, particularly for those looking for billfish, are using artificial baits more. Sails and marlin are attracted to a trolled bait spread by big artificial lures called teasers. Often the teasers have no hook; in a spread of several trolled baits, the fish will usually strike one of the trailing baits, and those are the ones rigged with hooks.

I troll in my comparatively small 25-foot center console with a spread of six baits. I call the spread “two back, two out, and two up”, and sometimes I put two more lines down. This means that I have two flat line baits skipping well “back” behind the boat, two baits skipping “out” on outriggers wide of the boat’s propeller path, and two flat line baits skipping right in the prop wash. A flat line goes directly from the reel to the bait and does not use an outrigger.

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