Everyone knows trolling is deadly effective for a wide variety of pelagic predators that routinely chase down fast moving prey, most notably dolphin, tuna and billfish. The logic behind trolling is simple. Pull a spread of natural and/or artificial baits to mimic fleeing forage. When the resulting spread is picture perfect and tailored to the conditions, the action can truly be fantastic.
Seasoned crews manning the cockpits of custom sportfish yachts equipped with incredibly long outriggers are clearly adept at trolling. This elite group of anglers scour the world’s oceans in search of blue water glory and need no help from us. With decades of experience in the pit, they look at trolling like a science with particular lure shapes and tracking characteristics positioned in very specific locations in the spread based on prevalent conditions, forage and the nature of the targeted species. Towering outriggers with multiple release clips allow big game crews to create extremely realistic trolling spreads with effective multi-bait patterns that are also relatively easy to manage. Rarely will you see these professionals dealing with crossed lines and tangled baits.
Many small to mid‑size boaters still don’t comprehend the whole trolling concept, often finding themselves dealing with a frustrating experience leading to poor results.
That being said, only a small percentage of Florida fishermen have this level of experience. Many small to mid-size boaters still don’t comprehend the whole trolling concept, often finding themselves dealing with a frustrating experience leading to poor results. This is especially true during deteriorating conditions with choppy seas and blustery winds when lines and lures are blown all over the place. Fortunately, frustration can turn into fortune with a little planning and a small amount of know-how.
First things first, it’s important to note that from a distance game fish recognize your vessel’s dark hull and shadow as a tightly packed school of baitfish with the disturbance and white water created from your props mimicking an ongoing feeding scenario. Include a pair of erratic teasers in the wash to simulate large predators racing in and out of the melee, and it is easy to see how the stage could be set for some serious action.
You must also understand that trolling patterns and ideal speed vary greatly depending on prevalent sea state and what baits you’re pulling. Because there are so many factors that vary from coast to coast, from species to species and from crew to crew, there is no perfect trolling spread that will work for everyone all of the time. The bottom line is that you have to be ready to adapt while constantly striving to determine what sort of trolling spread works for you and when, and more importantly why it worked for you.
Taking all of this into consideration, increased results can simply be a numbers game. Logic says pull more baits and your chances of connecting immediately increase. Sounds simple, but producing consistent catches on the troll requires much more than simply increasing the number of lures in the water. It all starts with the spread, which refers to exactly where each bait or lure is positioned behind the boat. Novices don’t give this factor enough consideration, which is a direct path to tangles and trouble.
If all of your lures are positioned at the same distance behind the boat and all are running at the same depth, when you veer to starboard or port the lures have a high chance of crossing and tangling. Instead, an easy to manage trolling spread consists of a combination of varied distance and depth. A perfectly spaced spread is practically impossible to tangle. The logic here is simple, with the longest baits running the shallowest and the shortest baits positioned the deepest. When you turn from one side to another, the long baits will swing over the deeper running lures that are closest to the boat.
Another very important tip to keep in mind is to keep the boat moving when you hook a fish. Your natural reaction may be to immediately shift the engines(s) into neutral. This may seem like the appropriate action, but what actually happens is that you lose control of the boat’s direction of travel and you also lose control of your lures…neither of which are conducive to trouble free trolling. If you have another angler in the boat he/she can help clear lines after you hook up, but this should be your last priority rather than your first. Instead, do not stop when you hook a fish. In fact, it is beneficial to continue trolling as you may entice a second or even a third fish to strike. After you hook the first fish, give it a ten count before pulling the throttles back, but always keep forward momentum and only turn the boat slightly to the side the hooked fish is on. This gentle arc actually draws the remaining lures away from the hooked fish and minimizes the chance of a tangle. Continuing forward momentum also keeps steady pressure on the fish to keep the hook planted.
For those looking to expand their blue water repertoire, a six-rod trolling spread is the most common and something that must be mastered before advancing. Here are a few favorites that are easy to fish and will keep you connected statewide.
Slow Trolling Live Baits
When conditions discourage kite fishing, slow trolling a spread of live goggle eye or blue runner can produce when nothing else will. Sailfish…tuna…king mackerel…wahoo…they’ll all smack these baits with vengeance. Slow trolling can be highly effective during the summer when game fish hold deeper in the water column to seek shelter from the blistering heat and bright sunlight. In this scenario, I pull two deep baits at different intervals—about 40- and 60-feet below the surface—off a pair of Cannon downriggers. My next two baits are fished long off the tip of the outriggers, which keeps these enticing offerings swimming directly on the surface. Two additional live baits are deployed off flat lines, closer to the transom. This is an easy spread to fish and one that works around the entire state for a variety of pelagic predators. Trolling speed should not exceed three knots, with most strikes coming as you troll with the current rather than against it. Focus your efforts around prominent structure in 80- to 180-feet of water and it shouldn’t be long before your reels start singing.
Charter Boat Special
Across the southeast, charter boats make a living putting anglers on fish. Keeping the rods bent is extremely important so they use a versatile trolling approach that is not only appealing to an array of fast moving game fish, but also extremely affordable. Here it is all about fresh strip baits, usually bonito or mullet strips. Similar to slow trolling live baits, a pair of strip baits are fished deep in the water column off #2 or #3 planers, but presented at faster speeds approaching six knots. Two additional baits, either ballyhoo or strips, can be fished off the outriggers, with two more flatlines placed close to the transom. The fresh cut strips are enhanced with brightly colored skirts or sea witches, which create a larger profile and prevent premature washout.
With dolphin the most popular summertime blue water species, many crews head toward the horizon with green glory in sight, and so should you. After finding fishy water, start by deploying a shotgun bait. A Williamson Sailfish Catcher way down the middle is deadly when hunting summertime ‘phin. Next, deploy a deep bait down the center. I prefer to position this lure 50 feet back, knowing it will be swimming erratically below the surface in the tail end of the white water. Deep diving X-Raps are killer in this position. Next, include a pair of Illand Lure/ballyhoo combos off the riggers on the face of the fourth or fifth wake. Two more 4-to 6-inch feathers or chuggers fished flat off the corners of the transom complete the six rod presentation. To enhance the illusion by increasing the number of baits in the water, the two chuggers can be replaced with daisy chains.