Saltwater Trolling Basics

By Cody Larrimore

Trolling with baits or lures is one of the most effective methods of catching big game fish. There’s a variety of techniques and equipment that can aid in the success of hooking your targeted species by trolling, but these three questions are the most frequently asked and the most important to remember:

“What kind of equipment do I need?”

“How fast should I troll?”

“How far back should my bait be positioned?”


To start things off, a wire leader is almost a necessity for all trolling. The wire prevents fish from cutting your line either from their mouth or from their strong tail kicks. Four to five feet of wire leader from the hook should be connected durable double line. I prefer using a Bimini twist knot for the durable line, and I tie that to a strong snap swivel. I use snap swivels to allow a quick change-out of leaders.

The hook size needs to match the bait. Small hooks on large baits or large hooks on small baits simply do not work. I carry several pre-rigged leaders with hooks from 4/0 to 9/0. I may be trolling ballyhoo using an 8/0 hook and get into a school of smaller fish. That’s when I will switch to a leader with a 4/0 hook, allowing more hookups on the smaller mouths.

Other common pieces of equipment often used, but not always necessary include: Downriggers, trolling boards, online side planers, and diving planes.

A downrigger is a winch type mechanism that feeds cable off a rotating reel through a guide system along an extension arm. A weight is attached to the end of the cable and the line release is attached to the weight. The fishing line from an independent rod and reel is attached to the release mechanism on the downrigger cable. By lowering the weight, you can drop the line down to the desired depth. A footage counter is connected to the reel unit to indicate the specific amount of cable that has been released.

Trolling boards are used for increasing the spread of the trolling pattern as fish move to the side when the boat passes over them. Trolling boards plane to the side of the boat using a separate cord which is held on board. Fishing lines are attached to the cord using manufactured line releases or wire loops and rubber bands. As the boat moves forward, the release (line attached to the rod and reel) slides down to the desired point. Once a fish strikes, it trips the release and sends the line back to the rod and reel.

Online side planers are attached to the fishing line by the use of a line release (clip on/tension clip). As the boat moves forward they plane to the side and upon a fish strike the board will release and slides down the line until it hit’s a stop (swivel or bead) several feet from the lure.

Both trolling board and side planers allows the angler to run multiple fishing lines behind the boat covering a vast area.


As with distance, speed will vary from boat to boat. The main idea is to have all your baits and lures working together as a unit. You want lures to be trolled fast enough so that they are creating air pockets in front of them and have a bubbling or popping look to them. This is commonly called a smoke trail. The type, size, shape, and weight of your lures will also determine how fast or slow you can troll. Some lures are made for calm water and others for rougher conditions. Pick lures that match the size of your tackle as this will also affect how well the lures will work. It is important to have similar lures that all work well together. Common lure trolling speeds will vary from six knots to 12 knots. Log the rpm, speed, conditions, types of lures, and positions so that you can get it right each time you’re trolling.

Baits are commonly trolled at slower speeds. For skipping or surface baits, they should be breaking the surface and splashing without spending too much time in the air. If the baits are tumbling they are being pulled too fast. Adding skirts or small lures in front of baits will let you pull them faster and will decrease the rate at which they “jump.” When pulling swimming baits, make sure they are weighted correctly for the speed you are trolling. For outboard owners, a good tip is to troll on one engine. You will want to go the same speed as if you were on two engines, but you may find that fish will be more attracted to your spread because of the vibrations and noise outboards produce.

Finally, it is important to know the species you are fishing for. Some fish respond to faster presentations and others like slower presentations. If you know and understand the basic biology and feeding habits of the fish you are stalking, you can create patterns, spreads, and speeds that will give you a better chance of catching more fish on the troll.


Every boat is different and you should make your boat your own study. Proper distance for most boats will be anywhere from 40 feet to 150 feet behind your boat. Whether you have inboard diesel or outboard gas engines will most certainly dictate the distance you troll your baits and lures. Start by positioning your baits or lures closer to the transom and move them back as you observe what they look like. It is very important to log what results you get with baits at different distances and to make adjustments according to sea conditions, types of lures or baits being used, and what type of wake your boat produces.

It is also important to set up your spread with a staggered pattern. This means that you are trying to create a school of bait fish in your wake and you want to cover as much area behind the boat as possible. By staggering the baits you can make your spread look bigger and you will find that different bait and lure positions are prone to getting more action than others. You can use the waves that your wake produces as a guide in picking proper bait/lure position. Try to position baits and/or lures in clean areas. These are places in your wake where the water is not disturbed by air bubbles. This will give game fish a clear view of your spread. Your boat is your biggest fish attractor when trolling, so try to keep your baits close enough so that they are related to the boat’s wake.

Trolling can be as complicated or as easy as you want to make it. Remember the basics and keep it simple, and you will have great success. Trolling covers more fishing area in a shorter time than any other method. It also generally means larger fish, so prepare accordingly. Put some lines out, set a course, and sit back and relax. Leave the rest to the fish following your baits!

Via: All Outdoor

Category: Fishing, fishing, Trolling

Charles is the editor for 248 Shooter a midwest based gun news and gear review site as well as Online Content Director for On Target Magazine. He is an avid student taking classes from top tier trainers around the country. Charles shares his love for training as well as experience and opinions on some of the most talked about gear and products used by competitive shooters, military, leo and civilians.