By: Spence Petros
I view casting verses trolling like a carpenter putting together a house. A skilled craftsman might be able to do it with six specific tools. But if he had a dozen different tools, the work would probably be done faster, better, and more efficiently. Same with musky fishing. By combining both casting and trolling you are able to fish more spots faster, more precise, and with controls that would be missed if you were just a caster or troller.
I’ve fished just about all the top musky areas in the north. In areas where casting is prevalent, many think trolling is darn near “un-American”. “Anybody can drag a lure around long enough behind the boat and catch a musky”, seems to be the logic of many. Truth is, precision trolling is harder to do than cast. My feelings about those who doubt trolling is too easy is they don’t know how skip a lure over a rock-strewn bottom, brush it over the top of deep fringe weeds, accurately tap a ridge 15 to 20-feet down, or jam a crankbait into the sharp corner of a point then run it off the edge of the structure to check for suspended muskies. If an angler can do this, they would know I am correct is saying precision trolling is much tougher than making some good casts.
Now you have the other side of the fence. Many anglers in places where trolling is the featured presentation think casting is pretty much a waste of time. They too are incorrect, as many areas that can’t be reached by a trolled lure can be checked by casting. And this includes big open waters such as major lakes and rivers in the east, where a high percentage of anglers troll. Now I’m not saying casting is better than trolling in “trolling” waters, or visa versa. But without question, reaching fish with a presentation that might be under-utilized in an area, or getting to muskies that rarely, if at all see a lure, will definitely put more fish in the boat. And a lot of the time it’s the hawg we dream about.
Why to Troll
The primary reasons to troll are to reach depths and speeds that are hard, if not impossible, to obtain with a cast lure, to more effectively fish a more expansive snag-filled or weedy area, to enable you to check spots that casters would generally pass up, to cover a lot of water, and to learn the best areas to cast.
One major reason we get a lot of follows is that the lure isn’t going fast enough to trigger a strike. I learned this many years ago on bass after I heard structure-fishing legend Buck Perry once say “sometimes you can’t retrieve a lure fast enough to trigger a strike”. And he was talking about bass, not the much faster musky. It was proven to me on bass, so I had no problem kicking up the speed with muskies. And if you re a regular reader of Musky Hunter Magazine, you’ve read how trollers commonly go 5 to 10-miles per hour and faster. Try retrieving a lure that fast! You might have also noted how some veteran musky hunters troll a spot as a last ditch effort to catch a fish that just followed a cast lure.
One of the major things I’ve learned in recent years is how muskies usually still keep blasting fast-moving lures with water temperatures all the way down into the low 40’s. In the mid 1970’s during a late October day I was retrieving a crankbait at a medium speed so the musky “wouldn’t have a hard time catching it”. A 15-pounder begin to stalk the lure, and in a blink of the eye it flicked it’s trail and caught it. I haven’t slowed down since unless muskies are not aggressive, which usually doesn’t have that much to do with water temperature.
Another great reason to give trolling a try is it gets certain lures such as crankbaits and jerkbaits deeper than if you were just casting them, and you can keep them right on a fish-holding edge. Most popular crankbaits are going to run 3 to 10-feet deep on a retrieve. Many of the same lures will easily strain the 10 to 20-foot levels if trolled. A real sleeper presentation is a trolled jerkbait. I’ve caught lots of bonus fish with this tactic, including several over 30-pounds. On several outings this technique saved the trip, as almost all the fish were caught while trolling jerkbaits AFTER casting to the same areas. And while this is deadly on muskies, watch what it does to the biggest pike in a system.
Think about this presentation; you just finished casting a jerkbait. Chances are it was presented from deeper water towards shallower water, and the lure was running 1 to 6-feet under the surface. Even if fishing from a moving boat a slight bow in the line probably existed. This hurts hook-setting a bit, and the lure may not always be running at its best to trigger a strike. After casting out a spot with a jerkbait, I almost always make a trolling run along its edge with a jerkbait. Now instead of the lure coming over an edge such as a weedline or rocky drop, it’s going parallel to it while running deeper and with a more consistent action. And when a musky hits you generally get the fish. My confidence with trolling came from trolling areas with crankbaits, jerkbaits, or bucktails after first casting. I quickly saw how many fish were being missed by not using this other set of “tools” that were at my disposal!
When to Troll
My favorite times to troll are when trolling gives me an edge over casting. Obviously big weed beds, long drop-offs or edges, or checking open water for suspended fish are all key situations. But there are certain trolling options to consider for each situation. If low light conditions such as early or late in the day, high winds, dark skies, or dingy water exists, and I’m faced with a weed situation such as a big weed bed or a long band of weeds, I’ll generally troll over the top with a bucktail or spinnerbait. If fringe weeds exist a little deeper, if the main weeds are only half way to the surface, or if I just want to check a little deeper, jerkbaits or shallow-running crankbaits would be my choice. The final assault, if need be, would be along the deep edge and out with deeper running crankbaits.
Some of the same logic would apply when fishing a hard bottom drop-off, except blade baits wouldn’t be used. Jerkbaits or shallow-running crankbaits would be run on the flats (if cover such as rocks, short weeds, etc. existed) adjacent to the edge, and on the edge itself if it were fairly shallow. Deeper cranks would be trolled along the drop-off itself at various levels, which can range from the top of the edge, down its side, and to the breakline where hard bottom fades to softer bottom (more of a shallow lake or later fall situation). The one wrinkle I would add to this is to run a “de-tuned” crankbait up on a shallower edge that would be difficult, if not impossible to troll with a lure running directly behind the boat because it would be dangerous, or you’d be running over muskies in very shallow water. .
I once wrote an article about this off-beat trolling technique, which is basically running a lure to the side. This is a great technique that allows you to troll dangerous wind-blasted, shallower reefs, bars, and weedlines while staying 5 to 30-feet away from the edge. While an eye tie, lip, wire arm, etc. are usually bent the opposite direction of the way an out of tune lure is running, bend the same part in the direction you want the de-tuned lure to run. I generally run a de-tuned lure towards the shallows, and a straight-running plug behind the boat following the edge.
Without question trolling gives you the most effective way to fish for suspended muskies. Whether you troll off the tip of a point an extra 25-50-yards, troll around baitfish schools over deep water, in the open water between structures, over open basins in shallow weedy lakes, or a bunch of other suspended musky situations, casting generally doesn’t come close to duplicating the results you’d get by trolling.
Over Looked Hot-Spots
One of the great features about trolling is that it enables me to effectively fish spots that are generally by-passed by a casting angler, and for most part, by trollers too. How many times have you seen a situation and thought about casting it, but didn’t because it seemed like it would take too much time and there wasn’t much distinctive structure or cover? Let’s examine a few of these situations that may open your eyes about some key trolling situations. A deep sandgrass coated flat is very common, yet few anglers will cast these flats with this low-growing weed. I was once with a local expert on his home lake where he volunteered to show me some spots. As we ran across the mouth of a large bay he pointed to the back end and said there was a good cabbage bed there. I had noticed the slow-tapering flats outside the cabbage had scattered deep clumps of sandgrass (actually a low-growing algae 1 to 3-feet high that doesn’t need direct sunlight to thrive). While he was talking I slowed the boat down a bit and fired a jerkbait back into the wake. I hadn’t gone 20-yards and given it 4-5 pumps when a musky smashed it. The fat 47-incher was close to 30-pounds and had probably never seen a lure before in the area where it was staging. It was one of many I’ve caught over sandgrass-coated flats.
Casters would commonly fish a weed bed in the back of the bay and out towards the point as long it had some width. But if the band narrowed and maybe even thinned out a bit, most would quickly leave to find a more expansive and better looking weed bed. But this thin sparse strip of vegetation that could easily harbor a musky, generally receives little fishing pressure other than a few half-hearted casts. But it can run for several hundred yards and hold several fish. Another perfect trolling situation.
Big sub-surface weed beds are great areas to troll with blade baits. If there is a lot erratic weed growth, an L-armed spinnerbait would be my choice of lures to troll. If the weed growth was more consistant, let’s say a foot or two under the surface, a straight shaft or in-line bucktail would work. The majority of the time I’d use the l-arm model blade bait.
The best times to troll expanses of weeds with a blade baits is under low light conditions. Early or late in the day, heavy winds and/or dark skies are all high percentage times to try the tactic. One dark day on Eagle just before a storm was moving in we had two quick muskies with this tactic; one was 45-inches, the other 51.
Although Eagle is mainly thought of as a “casting lake”, I spend about 20% of my time trolling it, which accounts for about a third of my fish . On that same trip I had two 48-inchers one day on de-tuned crankbaits.
My final example of how trolling can help you deal with an over-looked situation involves a slight edge that might be a drop of just 1 to three feet. Let’s say a shallower area such as a bay or shallower stained lake is generally pretty flat. But one area has a slight breakline. It may run for several hundred yards, and probably not in a straight line so you can’t effectively cast parallel to it, let alone get a lure deep enough. And a deep to shallower presentation would be slow and leave a lot of gaps between casts that would miss muskies. Short-line trolling with a crankbait would be my first choice of tactics, but I might long line a shallower runner if the water were clear. If a patchy weeds existed along the edge, a slightly slower presentation with a trolled jerkbait might be the ticket as it’s easier to present and it gives the fish a little more time to react and dart out of cover.
We almost all know when to cast, and many times trolling “explains” a structure to me so I can more effectively cast it. Casting is for hitting those “spots on a spot” where a special touch is called for, to deal with less aggressive muskies, to work the real shallow water, for smaller areas, to get at fish that’s impossible to get a trolled lure to, and to help develop patterns by seeing following fish. Most of my muskies are caught by casting, and I love to see one explode on a top water, grab a bucktail on a figure 8 with 18-inches of line out, or jump out of water on a hook-set. But the fact of the matter is, trolling if done correctly, will drastically help you put more muskies in the boat!
Spence Petros teaches fishing classes in the Chicago area starting in early March. Visit his web site www.spencepetros.com for more information