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February 2009 cover image of Davis Mountains State Park

Skill Builder : Trolling Essentials

If you want to catch fish, you can’t take a passive approach to trolling.

By Larry Bozka

Some offshore anglers believe that trolling is almost as exciting as taking a nap. Others are less enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, these are the same fishermen who reduce the age-old technique to slipping a pair of rigged-up rods into opposite holders, kicking the outboard in gear and then slowly dragging a pair of lures for hours on end. Sometimes they connect; sometimes they don’t. It needn’t be so randomly unpredictable.

“Flatlines” are only the starting point. Out on open gulf waters, where indistinct but productive fish-attracting structure can literally appear out of the blue, opportunistic trollers who use the right accessories can cover the water column from top to bottom. Ultimately, with patience and focused attention, they pinpoint the coveted “strike zone.”

From there it’s a matter of repeating what worked. Transom-dragged flatlines stretched straight off the stern can cover only two different water depths. The standard drill is to rig one line with a feather jig or high-running “Jet Head” soft plastic lure and the other with a diving plug. Often, fishermen combine dead or even live baitfish with lead-headed jigs that will track upright and true when coupled. Heavy-duty barrel swivels are a must, as they reduce a lure’s natural propensity to twist and wander under pressure.

Distance counts, too. Experienced trollers usually stop one lure just beyond the propwash and free-spool the other bait well beyond. To both broaden and double the presentation, modern-day trolling enthusiasts also use far-reaching extensions like the “SideRigger” to run two additional baits outside of the flatlines. Much larger “outriggers” are standard equipment on large billfish boats, but they are generally too unwieldy for anglers who own hulls in the typical 25-foot “mosquito fleet” class.

Downriggers were birthed on the Great Lakes. They’re now popular on the gulf, particularly for king mackerel fishing. Serious trollers usually have at least one downrigger affixed to one side of the transom.

Designed with a keel to stabilize below-the-boat tracking, a heavy lead weight is lowered to a precisely calculated depth via a downrigger’s steel cable. A calibrated meter displays the footage. The fishing line or leader is affixed to a quick-release clip on the weight. When a fish strikes the lure, the line pulls free and the fisherman enjoys an unrestricted fight.

Trolling speed is dictated by the choice of lures and baits and the preferences of the species. Soft plastic “jetheads” can be pulled much faster than plugs or most bait/lure tandem rigs. Boat speedometers are especially unreliable at slow speed, so most boaters rely on the tachometer to determine and record the most productive trolling speed.

“Bump-trolling,” slipping the gearbox into neutral and allowing baits to fall, is a true essential. Sportfish are more prone to hit a lure that is falling as opposed to one that’s on its way back up. Bump trolling is a can’t-miss strategy that increases the efficacy of most styles of trolling lures.

It’s critical to closely monitor the bait’s tracking and behavior. A lure has to be unencumbered. A single strand of sargassum weed snagged onto the shank of a feather jig’s hook will render the lure useless if not promptly removed.

Despite opinions to the contrary, broad-spectrum trolling requires focused patience. You can only repeat a winning combination of lure, depth and speed if you paid close attention to the specifics of the combined presentation that drew the attention of fish.

“Snooze and you lose” is a worn-out cliché. Still, it remains an extremely appropriate adage in regard to offshore trolling. The continuous sound of droning engines will indeed put you to sleep, if that is all you hear for the vast percentage of a day spent on the water. On the other hand, there’s not a wake-up call in the world like the high-pitched squall of a singing reel drag.

With due diligence, maintenance and observation, the last thing on the mind of an enterprising offshore lure dragger is the notion of taking a nap.

 

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