Trolling: The Ultimate Fishing Technique
Jul 28, 2021 | 11 minute read Comments
12
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Trolling is arguably one of the most effective ways to catch fish. Not only does it fill the cooler, but it’s equally exciting for beginners and experts alike. Trolling may be one of the most popular fishing techniques out there, but there seems to be a belief that it has a lot to do with luck. Today, you’ll see how good preparation and a few tricks up your sleeve can make any trolling fishing trip a success.

a picture of several trolling rods with a view of the water from the stern of a moving boat

What is trolling?

In a nutshell, trolling is a fishing technique that employs dragging a hooked lure or bait through the water from a moving boat. You can have any number of lines in the water, but the principle is the same – you’re supposed to trick the fish to think that your bait is moving prey. 

Of course, trolling has a lot more to it than just dragging a few lines through the water. Depending on where you’re fishing – and the species you’re targeting – you can troll for fish in a wide variety of ways. From essential fishing gear to picking your spots and presentation tactics, the options are endless. 

A Marlin hooked by trolling anglers

We’re about to cover all of these factors and much more. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know everything you need to make the most out of your next day on the water.

Where to troll?

One of the great things about trolling is its versatility. You can troll out in the ocean, on a lake, and even on a river. What matters is that the water is deep enough for a boat. Well, some fish would be good, too – but more on that in a bit.

There are two things you’ve got to pay attention to when trying to find a good trolling spot. Number one, getting close to your fish. You can do this by either using a sonar to find schooling baitfish, looking out for birds swooping into the water, or tracking down floating weed lines.

a picture of birds flying over an underwater school of fish
Birds are an excellent indicator that fish are near

Number two, hitting the right depth. There are several tricks you can use to lower your baits to exactly where the fish are. To do this, you’ll need a few pieces of equipment. Some are fancier than others, but they all get the job done. 

We’ll get to trolling equipment in a minute. Before we do, let’s see what fish you can hope to catch with this technique.

Common Catches

As we mentioned, you can troll for fish in a variety of waters. It makes sense, then, that the list of species you can catch is a pretty long one. To be honest, it’s more like a book than a list, but that’s what you get with a fishing technique as effective as this one. To give you a glimpse of what you can expect, we’ll cover a few signature species for each type of water you can fish in.

angler holding a fish he caught while trolling on lake michigan

Freshwater trolling can land you a number of Salmon and Trout species, as well as Bass, Walleye, or Sturgeon. In saltwater, the nearshore trolling staples are Kingfish, Wahoo, and Barracuda. And then offshore, you can find exciting big game species like Mahi Mahi, Tuna, Sailfish, and Marlin. With A-listers like these, it’s easy to see why so many bucket list memories were made precisely on trolling trips.

a smiling angler holding an Albacore Tuna on a boat

Alright, that’s all well and good, but how do you go about catching one of these fish? Well, first, you need to gear-up.

Essential Gear

Whether you’re chasing giants offshore, or fishing on a lake, there are a few items you should always have in your trolling arsenal. Quality rods, reels, and tackle are number one, and will go a long way in getting your fish onboard. And then there are the riggers, which you can use to place your bait at the right depths. Let’s cover each of these, one by one.

Rods

A typical trolling boat can have anywhere between two and six rods. Each has its own place on the boat, which is usually in one of the rod holders on the boat’s gunwales.

Fishing rods and reels on the side of a boat cruising on the sea
Nothing beats the thrill of heading offshore on opening morning.

For inshore or freshwater trolling, you can get by with pretty much any type of reasonably stiff rod. When it comes to offshore fishing, however, your gear will need to be a little more specialized. 

Heavier and stiffer rods in the 6 ½ to 7 ½ foot range tend to work best if you’re going for big fish. You might be able to get away with a lighter rod nearshore, but a heavier one will handle fish hitting and darting in the other direction much more easily. 

Modern offshore trolling rods usually come with add-ons called “guides.” The purpose of these is to essentially create less friction on the line when the rod is bending. Two common types of rod guides are roller guides and turbo guides. Both work well, but roller guides tend to work better for bigger fish. Turbo guides, on the other hand, are much lighter, making the rods easier to handle.

Reels

Trolling reels are a topic of endless debate among anglers. Again, targeting bigger fish offshore will typically require more sophisticated reels. Still, that doesn’t mean that you should get any old reel if you’re fishing in freshwater.

If you’re wondering whether to go with a conventional or spinning reel, the answer is simple. Conventional reels typically give you a lot more line to work with, which is crucial when trolling. But that’s not all there is to it.

Nowadays, many anglers use line-counting reels. This way, they can eliminate much of the guesswork, and replicate their presentation time and again. There are countless line-counting reel variations out there, even electric ones with LCD screens. But most anglers will argue that that’s overkill.

An electric deep dropping fishing reel with red fishing line

For battling species like Tuna, two-speed reels are a life-saver. With a single click, you’re able to switch to a faster, line-gulping speed, which is invaluable when trying to work against a fish racing towards you. Another advantage is that you’re able to get more pulling power when battling a behemoth that just took a nose-dive.

If you’re buying your first trolling reel, you don’t need to spend a fortune. Just make sure it can get the fish you want. And make sure you get a good “clicker.” A clicker is what makes that heart-jolting sound when the bite is on. This is the one sound you don’t want to miss, so make sure your trolling reel has one!

Line

As you might have guessed, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to trolling lines. Most anglers will agree that a monofilament is a good option when trolling at higher speeds. The stretch capacity of the mono will give it superior shock absorption, which can be a lifesaver when going after big game.

a braided fishing line on a trolling rod

On the flip side, braided lines are much stronger, and they typically boast a smaller diameter. This allows you to reliably troll your baits at a much greater distance. A braided line is also much less buoyant than a mono, so if you’re trolling at greater depths, this is probably the way to go. 

To learn more about the different types of fishing line, check out our in-depth guide.

Riggers

The great thing about trolling is that it allows you to cover more ground than any other fishing technique. You can plow through an impressive amount of water with just a single line out. But if you really want a consistent bite, you’re going to want a lot more than just one line. That’s where riggers come in.

Outriggers

Outriggers are nothing more than long poles fitted to the sides of the boat. Simple as they are, outriggers serve several purposes, and are an essential part of any offshore troller’s arsenal. 

Number one, they allow you to have more lines in the water. Number two, they spread out your lines, drastically reducing the odds of a tangle. And number three, outriggers enable you to present your bait in clear water, away from the bubbling spray created by the engine.

a trolling outrigger

When an outrigger produces a hit, the line is released by a clip, allowing you to battle the fish with your rod.

Downriggers

Similar to outriggers, downriggers are devices you can use to spread out your baits. The purpose of a downrigger is to lower your bait deeper underwater, using a heavy weight. Much like on an outrigger, the line is connected to the weight with a clip. Once the fish bites, the clip detaches, leaving you face to face with the fish.

a couple of trolling downriggers on a fishing boat

Downriggers are specialized contraptions, used by anglers in freshwater and at sea. They’re expensive, but they definitely get the job done.

Planer Boards

A cheaper alternative to downriggers, planer boards are another tool you can use to spread and lower your trolling baits. In essence, these are small, floating devices, through which a fishing line passes in a downward direction. 

You can use anywhere from two to six at a time, but in this case, it’s “the more the merrier.” Using more boards doesn’t just allow you to cover more ground, it also gives you a better idea of whether one’s lagging behind. If this happens, it probably means it’s time to grab the rod and battle.

Another great thing about planer boards is that they can literally tell you when you get a bite. How? By attaching the line to a spring mechanism that’s connected to a bright-colored flag. As soon as the fish bites, the flag starts to go down, signaling a strike. Many planer boards even allow you to adjust the sensitivity of the spring to match the pulling power of various fish. Pretty cool.

Lures and Baits

Choosing the right presentation will make a dramatic effect on your trolling hook-up rate. As with most fishing presentations, you’ll have to choose between using live bait, dead bait, lures, or a combination of lures and bait.

trolling bait: a small tuna on a fishing hook
Small Tuna are a great bait when trolling for big game

In shallow water, where trolling boats typically move at a slower speed, lures can replicate the same depth with remarkable precision. Here, the right lure will not only imitate a living fish, but it will also help you hit the exact depth you need to gain the attention of the predator you’re after.  

Some of the lures you can use are skirted lures, spoons, plugs, and soft plastics. Skirted lures are more effective for chasing bigger fish, while soft plastics are better suited for trolling for smaller game. Spoons and plugs are versatile options, and they fall somewhere in the middle.

For saltwater trolling, squid, ballyhoo, mullet, and mackerel are go-to baits for most anglers. These will allow you to chase an assortment of pelagic species. True jacks-of-all-trades in the live bait world, these will get you anything from Barracuda and Mahi Mahi to Wahoo and Tuna. If you want to learn how to catch your live bait, check out our complete guide.

Offshore fishermen often like to combine cut bait and skirted lures when trolling for big game. This is because the skirt, usually a brightly colored tail, can attract predators from very far away. Once they’re close, they’ll likely swoop in to bite the cut bait. From then, it’s game on.

Mahi Mahi caught on a skirted lure
Skirted lures are very effective when trolling for bigger fish

How to Troll?

What’s the most important thing when presenting your bait? Ask any trolling angler, and you’ll get the same answer: speed. Trolling your bait at the right speed is crucial to making your presentation look realistic. Thing is, there’s no actual blueprint for the exact speed you need to reach to get a hook-up.

trolling on a lake: a fishing rod out on a moving boat

Theoretically, you want to match the speed of your baits with the speed of the fish you’re after. The thing is, looking at some random speed chart and setting your speed to match it only works to a certain extent. The reasons for this are twofold. 

First, the water conditions. If you’re trolling in a river, or out in the sea, chances are you’ll have some form of current to contend with. Setting one speed will get you completely different results if you’re moving downcurrent or upcurrent. You’ll want to adjust your boat’s RPMs accordingly. Which that brings us to the second reason.

Predator fish don’t really check their speedometers when chasing prey. All they care about is whether the thing they’re chasing looks like a living creature. And that’s what you should care about, too. So next time you set your speed, take a look at your closest lure or bait. If it’s spinning out of control, you probably want to dial it down a bit. Once you see the lure or bait swimming naturally, you’ll know you’ve hit the right speed.

a stern view from a trolling boat with lines in the water

Switch it Up

One common mistake among rookie anglers is staying married to a certain speed and direction. Moving your bait along a straight line at a constant speed can and will get you an occasional bite. But ask yourself, is this really how fish move in real life?

You know the answer, and you probably know the solution, too. 

Changing directions to mix things up will do wonders for your trolling success, and here’s why. As you “turn the corner”, your baits will spread out. Simultaneously, this will speed up baits on one side of the boat, and bring them up closer to the surface. The baits on the other side will do the opposite, giving you good variety in depth and speed, as well as a realistic change of direction.

a bird's eye view of a moving trolling boat with lines in the water

Of course, if you’re trolling around structure and you want to counter your lure’s upward motion, all you need to do is place a lower riding lure on your outer rig. That way, you’ll keep the outer lure at the same depth, increasing your odds for a hook-up.

Rules of Thumb

Most saltwater fishermen like to troll at speeds between 2 and 9 knots. Speeds in the 7-9 knot range will serve you well when targeting Marlin or other Billfish. Wahoo, who are known for their bursts of speed, are often caught when trolling around 10-12 knots. If you want to catch Tuna, it all depends on the species, but 4-6 knots tends to work best.

a marlin hooked on a fishing lure
Trolling at around 7-9 knots works well when targeting Marlin

These are all ballpark numbers and can be influenced by a number of other factors. Here are some useful trolling speed tips you can follow:

  • If you’re trolling live baits only, you’ll want to go slower so that your baitfish can have a chance to swim naturally. 
  • When the seas are rough, drop your baits further out and go slower. This will allow them to reach clearer waters.
  • Watch your wake. If you go too fast, you can create too much white water, which decreases visibility, and disrupts the movement of your bait. Inboard motors tend to create less white water than outboard motors, which allows you to go a bit faster.

The Ultimate Fishing Technique

Trolling is, without question, one of the best techniques an angler can try. Deadly effective and incredibly fun, this is one of the most addictive ways to catch fish. Now that you know how to troll for fish, you have all the tools for a memorable outing on the water.

a satisfied angler holding a wahoo

And now, let’s hear from you. Do you have any trolling tactics you’d like to share? What’s your favorite fishing technique? Let us know in the comments below.

Comments (12)
  • B E

    Jun 6, 2021

    I building a boat with my wife to pursue my dream of offshore trolling. This is an excellent article and this info has answered so many of my questions. Thank you for this well written, informative article.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Sean

      Jun 7, 2021

      Hi B E,

      That sounds like an awesome plan!

      I’m glad that the article was useful. Feel free to let us know if you have any other questions.

      Hope you have a blast on your offshore adventures – tight lines!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Cornell

    Apr 26, 2021

    Bottom fishing anywhere is my game, always a surprise. You can catch anything at any time. Course I do love going to Louisiana to troll for yellowfin tuna. But I’m just a deep sea fishing junkie.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Sean

      Apr 26, 2021

      Hi Cornell,

      Thanks for sharing – we can’t argue with that!

      Botton fishing can produce a variety of catches like no other fishing technique. That said, some people will prefer trolling for that one monster they’ve got on the bucket list.

      It all comes down to personal preference. The good news is that both techniques work.

      Thanks again for sharing, and tight lines!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Dwain Raney

    Mar 26, 2021

    If you are a west coast tuna fisherman, most catch blue fin, yellowfin tunas as well as yellowtail and dorado.. it is usually for the freezer til the next summers trip.. For those who fish for other reasons such as record size fish, catch and release, or enjoy the time offshore with other like-minded people, it’s a great way to relax and/or enjoy nature.. You can make it what you will. I’Ve had great whites gobble up my100 lb. tune off my line, unknown monster fish strip my reel clean and never know what it was, and just stop fishing to allow smaller fish to get bigger. But trolling is how you can determine where concentrations of fish are.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Sean

      Mar 26, 2021

      Hi Dwain,

      Thanks for reading.

      West Coast anglers really are blessed with what they can catch offshore, aren’t they?

      But you’re right, fishing is about a lot more than just catching fish, and there’re so much to be said about the actual experience of it. And since trolling doesn’t require you to constantly have a rod in your hand, you get to enjoy the views and conversations a lot more.

      Thanks for sharing, Dwain.

      Have a great day!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • John

    Mar 24, 2021

    Enjoyed your article and it brought back a lot of good memories when I was a kid. I grew up fishing the Chesapeake. Trolling for Rockfish (striped bass) was always more of a social event and with my family a right of passage. I’m in my mid 60s now and generally do 1 trolling trip in the spring with kids and grandkids. Funny thing about trolling, in my opinion its my least favorite technique. Very little challenge compared to casting, jigging, or live lining. winching in a fish on tackle suited for much bigger fish just isn’t very sporting for me. Its just a boat ride dragging lures.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Mar 25, 2021

      Hi John,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m glad we could bring back some good memories for you!

      I agree that trolling isn’t exactly the most exciting technique out there. You can’t beat it for effectiveness a lot of the time, though.

      I hope you enjoy your yearly trip out with the family!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Neal

    Dec 30, 2020

    We have taken up trolling only recently over the last two fishing seasons here on Lake Erie. We have invested in the equipment and we fish off a 24 foot Key West. Personally, I think we have all the tools to successfully troll for walleye… except one – the knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I have gone to seminars, read the walleye blogs, asked fellow fisherman, etc, etc. I get discouraged reading the blogs about people going out and always “limiting out”. Then I realize, these guys/gals are all charter captains. They have been doing this for years! Your article is a good overview but it does not tell the details of trolling.
    My point is simple – to learn to troll, you need time, patience and knowledge, as well as the equipment you point out in your article. So is it easier to throw a bobber in the water and wait for it to go under water? Absolutely!
    Do you want to take your fishing to the next level? Trolling is the next level! Be ready to invest more than just money!

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Dec 31, 2020

      Hi Neal,

      Couldn’t agree more!

      The greatest tool in any angler’s arsenal is experience.

      The truth is that you can’t really explain the details of trolling in writing without going in to way too much detail. It’s so species and location-specific, and something you’ve got to learn on the water. Because of this, we made this article as more of a primer for people to get their heads around what trolling’s all about.

      If you really want to up your game, a great way to do so is to take a charter and tell the captain that you want to focus on honing your skills rather than actually catching fish. Practice makes perfect, but a few hours out with a pro can give you a major head start.

      Thanks for getting in touch, and tight lines!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Christopher

    Oct 27, 2020

    I’m a purist and if you’re the same trolling isn’t for you. If you like to personally hook the fish yourself and unhook it yourself this will not happen if your trolling. It can be boring whizzing round the ocean which in most in lumpy seas waiting waiting waiting. It’s not like sitting on a bank or shore and quietly taking in the wildlife and waiting for your float to bob under. There is no finesse in this type of fishing no guile just pulling a lure along.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Sean

      Oct 28, 2020

      Hi Christopher,

      Thanks for sharing.

      I completely understand your point of view – few things are rewarding as catching a lunker on pure angling skill. Spending time on the water without the roar of a 500 horsepower engine is certainly a bonus, too.

      However, there’s no doubt that trolling is one of the most effective ways to catch a fish. For beginner anglers, and especially for people who want to get their kids into fishing, this technique can be a lot of fun. For example, trolling allows one to experience the thrill of fighting big game, even if it’s their first time on the water. Travelling families can catch tasty fish that they can enjoy for dinner once they’re back ashore. For someone who doesn’t fish that often, that doesn’t sound like a bad deal, right?

      Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *