Lake Trolling Strategies and Tips to Help You Land More Fish

Last updated on November 24th, 2020

trolling rods bent fishing in lake

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Why Troll?

Trolling a lake is a great way to get to the fish rather than wait for them to get to you. The tactic of trolling has been used commercially and recreationally for a long time and is probably the reason you are eating that salmon you bought at the store. Why is trolling used extensively? To put it simply, it works.

Trolling is the art of using watercraft to take large sweeps of an area while dragging lures, bait, or nets behind the watercraft to catch fish. There is an art to it, and it is not as simple as it sounds. It yields better results when fishing due to the more area that can be covered and the ability to follow feeding patterns which we will explain in this article.

The following are some of the strategies and tips I use to get the most out of my trolling on the lakes here in my home state of Montana, but the principles are universal and should work almost anywhere. Many of these examples follow simple biology that can be easily understood and used to an angler’s advantage.

Water Coverage

Trolling covers much more water than fishing from shore. Not that fishing from shore is bad mind you, but you will have better luck from the back of a watercraft most of the time. Most lake dwelling freshwater fish feed in a pattern that you can predict and follow from a boat.

When I troll, it is not uncommon for me to run half a mile up and down a shoreline repeatedly. This tactic gets me on the fish faster and with better accuracy. Especially with today’s technology which we will discuss later.

Other than the fact that it covers more area, you are also able to get to a new area very quickly if needed. This is very handy for covering multiple fishing spots that you may want to hit while out fishing on a given day.

Use of Technology

Sonar has been around for a long time for recreational fishing. When I was a kid, I used one in my little boat and I also stuck it in the hole while ice fishing, so I will be the first to testify to its usefulness. Today, technology offers so much to the modern-day angler and it all ties in very well with trolling.

Modern-day fishfinder sonars can detect signatures in most depths, tell you your speed, water temperature and other key information that you will need to better help you fish. These things are important for predicting fish activity and forecast their movements.

Sonar helps with depth obviously and this is very important to monitor your location and what is best for fishing but it also warns you of rises that can snag your line and possibly even hit your hull. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

We all know that bass are notorious for hiding in cover, especially when temperatures are high. Sonar can help you detect objects as good fishing spots for bass and other cover-loving fish species. When using sonar, use this data to your advantage to get on the fish.

Trolling is a very speed-determined operation. Too fast and the fish will not be interested and if you are too slow, your lure or bait will not operate at the right depth which increases snags. Typically, most anglers operate their boat with an outboard trolling motor.

Following Fish Patterns

pike caught trolling in lake

Fish of all species have a feeding pattern that changes with the sun, temperature, and barometric pressure. It is quite common for fish to drastically change their behavior and sometimes it can be hard to determine these factors. Trolling is a great way to take advantage of this behavior.

Most fish typically like to run cold and they will seek deep water for cooler conditions as temperatures rise. Trolling is a great way to take advantage of this and can make or break a fishing trip.

Fish naturally move deeper and deeper as temperatures rise throughout the day. Trolling offers the opportunity to “follow” their pattern as they move downhill to deep water. To do this you can simply start fishing early and slowly work your way deeper as the temperature rises.

Using sonar or a depth finder is especially useful in this situation but not necessary. If you are not using technology, simply understand that lakes naturally gain depth towards the center of the lake. Move your trolling run 50 yards towards the center of the lake every hour and a half to two hours.

Rod Layout

Rod layout while trolling is important to be successful while fishing. Different tactics are used in different types of vessels, but the general philosophies apply. When trolling the simple rule of thumb is to avoid tangling your fishing poles and crossing lines.

Laws in many areas limit the number of poles you may fish with which makes trolling alone hassle-free when trying to not get tangled. I fish with friends, however, and we all have poles in the water, which can be a pain. I always put rods to the side and straight behind the vessel.

Rods directly off the sides of your boat are simple enough to maintain however the poles on the sides of the boat will not tolerate sharp turns as well as the poles you pull behind the boat so try to minimize turns as best you can. Trolling has always worked best for me in long straight, sweeping runs so plan your run well.

Some trolling setups that are utilized can call for less line in the water. When fishing with this method try to stagger your rear-facing poles off to the side of the motor to avoid the motor negatively impacting the action of your setup. You will not have to stagger the line far, however, about a foot and a half to the left or right of the motor.

When charter fishing it is common for many poles to be trolled from directly behind the boat. This tactic works very well in saltwater applications and allows you to use more poles this way to maximize your chances.

What Should I Use?

An extremely broad spectrum of answers is appropriate for this question however there are a few setups that work best when trolling. Spoons are successful when trolling as they can utilize the current best for their action.

Here in Montana, an artificial lure that works wonders for me is called a KastMaster. These little spoons work well here as trout trolling lures in stillwater situations and are likely the same elsewhere. Try shining lures such as this that can catch the light and really stand out in the water.

Nightcrawler and leeches work well in deeper applications in my experience so try making a run through some seep water or try them when it’s hot and the fish are deep to draw them out. There are several brands of scent products that work well such as Carp Spit that can add that extra attractant to your setup.

Plugs and crankbaits work well when trolling but pay close attention to the action. I use a floating Rapala with a good diving action. This gets my lure deep without dragging. Sinking crankbaits can be used but I recommend putting it in the water when the trolling run is in motion to prevent it from sinking to the bottom.

Practice Runs

trolling trout lake at sunset

Many bodies of water have a topographical map available of the lake bottom to help plan good areas to make runs. You can also take practice runs of an area you are interested in fishing and use your sonar and other tools to see what the bottom looks like.

Take a few trolling speed sweeps of an area keeping an eye on depth while keeping an eye out for any debris on the bottom. Depending on the species you are pursuing, debris at the bottom may be good cover for them and a good place to troll.

Fish of most species run for deeper, cooler water in the summer heat. Keeping this in mind, look for any draws or areas of drastically changing depths that are relatively close to shore. I have had great success running the length of these areas in the past due to the cooler water found in them.

When running in deeper water of any kind keep in mind the amount of line you are letting out. Keeping this in mind and being conscious about it can be the difference between fishing and dragging the lure across the bottom of the lake, especially with any diving lures.

I like fishing but I hate waking up early like most people. Rather than getting up two hours earlier to go fishing, try these practice runs at the end of the fishing day before you head home. Go check out a new area and maybe the next time you head fishing you will give it a try.

Keep in mind that this strategy works best with sonar but can also be ascertained with the help of a depth chart and lake bottom map. Word of mouth is a great way to find a good spot as well if you can get them to tell you. Bribery is not a shameful act at all when it is about fishing spots.

Be Considerate

This goes without saying but when trolling, always remember that your vessel is much wider and so is the other angler’s vessel. Giving each other a generous amount of room is the polite thing to do. Do not worry, you will still be close enough to see what he is using.

Sometimes an area will be spoken for already. If this is the case, look to see if he is catching anything or simply ask. Often fish can be found at great distances along a shoreline and you can simply move down the shore and catch fish.

Why is Trolling So Effective?

Trolling is a great way to not only get on fish but also track and stay on them as the day goes on. The ability to cover a vast area and distance makes your chances far greater than shore fishing’s limited area and capabilities.

One reason trolling lakes works is simply the direction you fish. When shore fishing your bait or lure is drug towards the shore whereas trolling fishes with the shore. With this advantage, changing your depth is easier and more managed than shore fishing.

Some species in general do not typically come to shallow water and are difficult to catch fishing from shore. In these situations, fishing in deeper water is the best way to fish for them. If you are like me, it does not matter what I catch or if I catch anything but if you want better chances learn the biology of what you are after.

One misconception I see sometimes is that people think fish behave the same and this could not be further from the truth. Some species you are simply going to catch better trolling.

Learning to Troll

Many reading this article already know how to troll but, for those who do not, I hope that this article has shown you the many advantages to trolling and entices you to give it a try. As I have stated above, you do not need the bells and whistles in your boat to troll. A map and a little practice and you will have it down. Learning is as simple as going fishing.

Anything worth doing is worth doing right so take your time, make a few practicing runs and see what is down there. From the surface, an area can look perfect but the terrain under the water may tell a different story. All in all, just have fun with it and enjoy yourself. Even if you do not catch a thing,  a day of fishing still beats a day at work!

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