The Basics of Trolling for Saltwater Fish

A fishing rod trolling in the oceam
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Whether nearshore or offshore, trolling is often the most productive method for catching a variety of saltwater fish. From blue water pelagics to close-in bottom fish, trolling is usually 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, 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. Use a Bimini twist knot for the double line and tie that to a strong, Sampo snap swivel. Snap swivels 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 allows you to 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. Carrying several pre-rigged leaders with hooks from 5/0 to 9/0 is recommended -- you may be trolling ballyhoo using an 8/0 hook and then you find yourself in the middle of a school of smaller fish. That’s when you switch to a leader with a 5/0 hook, allowing more hookups on these smaller mouths.

Shallow Trolling

The shallow trolling 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 right on the surface.

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

The natural escape mechanism for these baitfish is 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. You may see them banking on a windy day and actually gliding up and over your boat.

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 – use your 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. Learning the basic bait rigging techniques is vital for any angler.

Use a nose cone or skirt on the nose of the bait you 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 those looking for billfish, often use artificial baits. 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.

One good setup when you have a comparatively small boat (25-foot or under, center console) uses a spread of six baits. Some call the spread “two back, two out, and two up." You can also put a couple more lines down, which means that you 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.

Sometimes fish will simply follow a bait and refuse to strike. If you've been trolling in a following sea and watched a school of mahi-mahi swimming in the water, following behind the baits. When that happens,  give them a “hot” bait. Increase your speed to make the baits run fast and skip wildly. Often that draws the strike. If they continue following, stop the boat and allow the baits to slowly sink. Sometimes a strike will occur when the baits are drifting downward. If not, kick it back into gear and speed up, simulating bait that is trying to escape. At some point in this effort, the fish will usually strike. It becomes a matter of determining what the fish like best at that given time.

Slow Trolling

Trolling shallow and slow usually means a live bait of some type. Whether Pogies (menhaden shad), ballyhoo, or goggle-eye, live bait needs to be able to swim a little. That means trolling as slowly as your engine will allow, often moving just enough to keep the bait behind the boat.

Live baits can be trolled on a free line behind the boat or on a downrigger. The same leader arrangement is necessary, but where the law permits, a treble hook on six inches of wire leader is attached to and dangling from the main hook. This “stinger” hook is often the hook that catches the fish, since live baits tend to kick out of the way of a predator’s attack. That treble catches a lot of fish!

For boats whose engines idle faster than the desired trolling speed, drift bags tied to the stern can slow the boat dramatically. However, when a fish is hooked, make sure to pull the bag or bags into the boat to avoid tangled lines and lost fish.

Kite Fishing

One specialized live bait method that can be considered trolling is kite fishing. While not technically trolling in the true sense, it does involve keeping the boat in motion enough to keep the kite properly positioned behind the boat.

Kite fishing requires a special rod from which the kite is flown. A clip up the kite line holds the line from the actual fishing rod and the live bait is down on the surface under the kite. When a fish strikes, the fishing line is pulled from the kite and the fight is on! The kite acts like an outrigger in the sky, releasing the fishing line when the bait is taken.

The key to successful kite fishing is maneuvering the boat and the kite so that the live bait, hooked in the back under the dorsal fin, is in and out of the water, swimming right on the surface. Wind gusts and wave action will take the bait just out of the water, and the splashing and commotion made by the bait to get back under the water is a dinner bell!

Deep Trolling

Trolling well under the surface can be accomplished in several ways. Some artificial lures are designed to dig down and run deep – sometimes as deep as thirty feet unassisted by weights. Wireline, with specialized fishing tackle, can take baits down in the water column. Perhaps the easiest and most common method of getting bait down is a downrigger.

Wire line requires a rod designed to handle wire line, and really can’t be considered a “simple” trolling technique. Proper use of leaders, trolling weights, and shock leaders make this type of trolling more difficult than other methods.

Aside from deep running lures, the downrigger is the easiest way to get a bait down deep. Just as a kite rig acts as an outrigger in the sky, the downrigger acts as an outrigger under the water. The analogy refers to the fact that the fishing line is clipped to the downrigger and that the line is released when a fish strikes.

Rigged natural baits need to run true – meaning that they should not spin under the water when trolled. Spinning is unnatural and will actually prevent a fish from striking. So, paying particular attention to your bait and the hook placement can mean the difference between fish and no fish.

The Bottom Line

Trolling can be as complicated or as easy as you want to make it. Remembering the basics, and keeping it simple will lead to success. Trolling covers more fishing area in a shorter time than any other method. It also generally means larger fish, so prepare accordingly! Put some lines out, set a course, and sit back and relax. Leave the rest to the fish following your baits.

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