If you’ve spent any time on the water this summer, you’ve probably witnessed a boat slowly putting by with a series of fishing lines in tow. These anglers are utilizing the tried and true method of fishing commonly known as motor trolling. By pulling various lures, this technique combines speed and precision to maintain a bait in an optimal location in the water column, in the hopes of triggering a strike. This technique is used to primarily target game fish such as walleyes, bass, or muskies. Yet other species of fish are commonly caught as well, including panfish such as bluegills and crappies. This means of fishing can be highly effective and does not require a discouraging amount of expensive and specialized equipment as you will see in this beginner’s guide to motor trolling.
Is It Legal?
Trolling as a method of fishing in Wisconsin has not always been legal. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provides a definition of motor trolling as ‘fishing by trailing any lure, bait, or similar device that may be used to attract or catch fish from a boat propelled by a means other than drifting, pedaling, paddling, or rowing.’ Prior to 1923, this technique was strictly outlawed. Slowly the regulations began to loosen and as of 2015, trolling for fish was opening to all state inland waters.
The majority of Wisconsin counties now permit the use of up to three baits, hook, or lures per angler while trolling. The exceptions being Florence, Iron, Lincoln, Oneida, Sheboygan, Vilas, and Waupaca counties. These counties permit one bait, hook, or lures per angler. Also, specified waters in Sawyer county permit for a total of three baits, hooks, or lures per boat, regardless of the number of anglers. If this seems confusing, check out this quick reference sheet provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The technique of motor trolling does not come without controversy. Those opposed to this method argue it adversely impacts fish populations due to its effectiveness. Some see it as an unfair practice because of the ability to cover large amounts of water, thus interfering with other anglers. Others see it as a departure from the traditions of fishing, using technology and equipment to take the place of individual effort and patience. Whatever your personal convictions, motor trolling is permitted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Biologists have concluded through study, trolling has no appreciable negative on fish numbers and survival rate. As long as anglers adhere to established bag limits, motor trolling remains a legal and effective means of fishing.
What to Use
Perhaps the most important piece of equipment (other than a boat) required to effectively troll is a motor. Being able to adjust speeds permits for anglers to utilize various lures to target specific depths. This can be done with either a gas or electric motor. A gas motor ranging from 9.9 to 40 horsepower with a trolling feature is ideal. This permits the operator to truly dial in the correct speed which is often measured in tenths of miles per hour (MPH). However, an electric trolling motor can be just as practical. For those with larger motors, consider trolling in reverse, or back trolling, to slow your speed into this range. Trolling plates can also be installed which limits the amount of water displaced by larger motors, thus slower speeds can be achieved.
Which Rod and Line to Use
Ideally, a seven to eight-foot medium action rod with a soft tip should be used. This size rod can absorb the constant strain from towing a lure through the water. The soft tip permits for efficient hook-ups, thus fewer fish being lost. Remember, this method of fishing targets primarily game fish, those generally with teeth. This calls for a stout line such as 10, 12, or 14-pound test. However, the larger the diameter line, the more shallow the bait will run. Consider using a three to four-foot fluorocarbon leader attached to your mainline with a swivel for optimum invisibility. Toothy fish may require a stronger leader as to not get bit off. A baitcasting reel can be useful but certainly not necessary. Any reel which can handle your chosen line will be just fine.
Which Bait to Use
Now you need the bait. Here is where your choices are nearly limitless. To start simply, use your favorite crankbaits. Sizes five or seven can be highly effective. Choose bright colors in stained water and more natural colors in clear waters. You can’t go wrong with a black and white combination or the fan-favorite fire tiger. Vibration and sound are critical. Many crankbaits have a rattle feature that drives fish crazy and calls them in from afar. The larger the bill on the lure, the deeper it will run. When purchasing new lures, note the packing which will detail this information as well. And typically, the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish.
Other options of lures include spinnerbaits, swimbaits, and bottom bouncer rigs. These set-ups allow for bottom contact while dragging your chosen lure. Live bait, such as nightcrawlers or leeches, can be the ticket when the fish won’t be fooled by artificial baits. Here is where your creativity becomes king. Experiment with different presentations and find out what works best for each body of water on any given day. And be flexible. What may work motor trolling today, may strike out tomorrow.
Where to Start
Pre-planning can go along way when it comes to catching fish. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provides detailed survey maps for most lakes in the state of Wisconsin. Look to target points and deeper water drop-offs. Weed lines and submerged vegetation can be very fruitful. Remember the ideal depth your bait will run at your target speed when choosing locations. More simply, start in 9 to 15 feet of water and try to stay within this depth. Then move either shallower or deeper, depending on your success. The beauty of trolling is that it allows you to cover large areas of water quite effectively.
How Fast to Troll
Once you’ve chosen your locations, it’s time to get your speed dialed in. If your electronics do not have an MPH feature, free GPS apps are available which can provide this information effectively. Start in the 1.5–2.0 MPH range and increase or decrease your speed in tenths as needed. In cooler weather, and when fish are more actively feeding, faster speeds can be more productive. Conversely, in warmer weather, fish tend to gravitate to deeper cooler water and slower speeds are necessary. Again, experimentation is the key to success.
Lastly, once you reach your chosen location and ideal speed, put out your line and wait. The more line, the deeper your lure will run. Depth can also be affected by current as well as line diameter. Keep these factors in mind when assessing if your bait is keeping in the strike zone. Slighting ticking off the bottom of the lake or river can effectively add erratic movement to your lure. But be wary of snags which can cost you your bait if you are not able to free it- as I am all too aware.
Land that Fish
If trolling crankbaits, you should be able to feel a slight vibration in your line. Once you see the telltale bouncing of the rod tip, or the reel beings pulling drag, stop your trolling and start taking in line. You will initially be fighting the forward momentum of the boat, so keep this in mind. The drag on your reel should be set to an effective level. Not enough to lose line on the troll but tight enough to take out line if your fish tries to make a run. Setting the hook is not necessary as the forward movement of your lure has already accomplished this feat.
Motor trolling will never replace the traditional casting and retrieving methods of fishing. It is simply a more technological means of using lures and bait to cover large amounts of water in an effective manner. Many anglers will use trolling to first locate fish, then begin casting or jigging for maximum effectiveness. Regardless of your chosen techniques, consider giving motor trolling a try. Use the information in this beginner’s guide to motor trolling and may just land your that lunker you’ve been looking for your whole life.
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