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Trolling Tactics for Striped Bass

Yes, trolling might seem like an easy way to catch bass, but to be really successful you have to know a lot about what youíre doing.  Itís easily possible for several vessels to be trolling the same area and yet only one of them is catching fish.  Itís all in the tools and techniques used.

Trolling is running the boat under power at relatively slow speeds while dragging some type of lure through the water behind the boat.   It allows you to cover a lot more area than is possible when drifting, which can be very useful when trying to locate fish.  It can also use less fuel than running from spot to spot at high speed and drifting.

When to use the Trolling.
Trolling is mostly used as a deep water fishing technique, although it also works in shallow water under the right conditions.   When the sun gets up above the horizon bass normally go into deeper water.  Their pupils are not capable of dilating as are those in human eyes to adjust for the amount of light, the only defense they have is to go into deeper water.  So it follows that as the day goes on you have to fish deeper water to get them.  Another time to troll is when there are birds and bait with fishing chasing the bait, but you cannot approach under power close enough to cast to them.  This is when you would troll around the edges with a lure that matches the bait but is not trolled too deeply in the water column. Since they are chasing bait and you can see the activity the fish arenít down very deep.  If trolling an area that normally holds bass and the boat goes over the spot two or three times without catching fish, donít waste time, go somewhere else.  This is probably the number one mistake anglers make, trolling an area for 20 minutes or more without catching fish.  Just like any other fishing method, if the fish arenít there or not biting youíre wasting time.   Just because a ton of fish are showing on the finder doesnít mean theyíre bass.  They could be scup, dogfish, or some other species or even large pieces of seaweed.  You may be fishing with plugs and find that the fish wonít hit unless you use a very fast retrieve that is exhausting to maintain for any duration.  This is another time to troll, using the same plug or another lure that is similar, since itís much easier to let the boat do the work of making it go fast.

Where do you troll.
You canít just troll anywhere, the boat needs to be where the fish are.  For bass find a spot where they will hold.  Some examples of these areas are rocky bottoms or bottoms with large boulders, an area with a steep change in depth that creates a rip or upwelling of bait, reefs, and any other useful structure they can use as an ambush point.  Bass are efficient foragers, and their preferred method is to lay in ambush in an area with a good current, and let that current bring the forage past them.    The edges of a rip are another ambush point they like, as the waves generated by the current cause bait to tumble out of control so they can jump on them.  Bass are not fast swimmers, but are very strong and have a lot of control in this situation, allowing them to jump on a small fish that loses control in the eddies of the current.  There are a lot of small reefs and rock piles along RIís south shore, many of these will hold fish at some time or another.  Block Island has a great deal of structure at many points located all the way around it.

What Lures do you use.
This is all about matching the hatch.  That means it is best to use a lure that most closely represents the forage they are feeding on that day.  So if they are eating sand eels, donít use a parachute jig since it simulates squid, not sand eels.   There are always days that can be an exception to the rule, but trying to match the hatch should be your first order of business before trying something different.

For squid, use a parachute jig.  Parachutes are meant to be jigged, a long fast sweeping motion with the rod forward and then let it drop back.  This emulates the way a squid swims, speeding up then slowing down.  The fish will always hit at the end of the drop back, as you move the rod forward, the fish is hooked and will often make a good attempt to pull the rod out of your hand.  If it isn't working, you aren't snapping it fast enough or your jig is at the wrong depth.  Snap it fast towards the front of the boat, and slower as you move the rod toward the back of the boat.  Be prepared for the hit when you try to move the rod forward, I have seen people come very close to losing their grip on the rod when the fish hits.  The jig action can also be varied, on different days you may find different techniques are required to get a hit on the parachute.

For sand eels, use an umbrella frame with limerick hook tubes.  A 6/0-9/0 limerick hook has a swivel at the top and a length of tubing run down its shank.  The best color of the tubing for sand eels is natural latex, which is like a light brown/tan.  Green is also a good color.  In the middle of the day try changing a couple of the tubes to white.

For menhaden, butterfish, and other wide baits use an umbrella frame with 3Ē long spoons with 6/0 salmon hooks instead of treble hooks.  They have an excellent wiggle action that creates a lot of vibration in the water.  A short tube should be put over the hooks, green or red work well.  

Another option for menhaden is to use a single storm bait.  It can be very effective, but expensive in the long run.  This can also be jigged, similar to a parachute but not so snappy.

For larger menhaden, a single large spoon or plug should be used. 

In shallow water areas you can use shallow or deep diving plugs or soft plastic baits that best represent the forage of the day, on outfits spooled with braided line.  Sometimes a trolling sinker will be necessary to get them down deep enough to get noticed.

The Tube and Worm jig.  This does not actually represent anything, but it does work well to catch bass especially during the day when the sun is up high.  This is a large tube anywhere from 18Ē to 36Ē long in a variety of colors but most often in a very dark red.  The nose has a lead weight and swivel, and there is normally a double hook in the tail.   These are often tipped with a small piece of sand worm.  In any event some type of bait must be placed on the hook for it to be most effective.   These are best when used in 20 feet of water or less on bottom that is fairly regular in depth.  They need to be trolled slowly and very close to the bottom to be most effective.  Where these are an issue is when the bottom is very rocky and many scup live in the area.  Trolling slowly allows the scup to attack the bait on the hook, getting your expensive sandworm off.  Sometimes I will put a strip of bluefish belly on the hook.  They canít get that off, but it doesn't work as well.  Tubes generally work even though they donít "match the hatch", but as with any other lure, don't spend too much time in an area that is not producing.

How Deep do you run them.
The depth you troll at naturally depends on where the fish are actually holding.  Not everyone gets this right.  Itís not always about putting out all the wire and getting right to the bottom.  If youíre trolling the edge of a rip using wire, you may only need to be down 10í in the water column, so you let out around 100 feet of wire.  If youíre trolling in 40í and there is significant structure on the bottom, then you want to be down at least 35í deep with your lure which normally means letting out 320í of wire.  The normal rule of thumb is 1í deep for each 10í of wire, but trolling speed has a large effect on this.

Keep in mind that you donít always mark fish when you catch them.  Also, if you go through a spot and catch fish, even though you didnít mark anything, always turn around and go back to see if you catch again.  Sometimes you mark and catch, sometimes you mark fish and donít catch, and many times you donít mark fish but catch them anyway.  The depth finder is just another tool, it isnít the be-all and end-all for finding fish.   If your trolling around the edge of birds and bait, it is very unlikely to see any fish on your finder.

200ft of wire with a 2oz parachute jig will go around 17' deep, 200 ft and 3oz around 20-21 feet deep.  To get 30-35 feet you use a 3 or 4oz jig and 320ft of wire, to go deeper requires letting out some backing or using 6oz jigs, depending on how deep you need to go.  Note that strong currents will make a lure ride less deep due to the increased drag, requiring more line to be let out.  I have used as much as 320' of wire with 100' of backing and an 8 ounce trolling weight to get down to 55-60 feet or so of depth.

Lower speed will also make the lure run deeper, sometimes taking the boat out of gear for anywhere between 5-30 seconds can get the rig to the fish where they will strike it.  I have had plenty of days where I mark fish on the finder, and wait until I feel the lures are near them, then take the boat out of gear and wait for the strike.

Setting the drag.
Set light for the strike and tighten somewhat when fighting the fish to the boat, usually a quarter turn of the drag.   This is very important, since at times you might be going 5 or 6 knots in a high speed turn with wire.  Remember that wire does not stretch, so when the fish hits it gets hooked instantly, and if the drag is set too tight it will rip a large hole in the side of his mouth, enabling him to escape very easily if any kind of slack is allowed in the line while reeling him in.  Bluefish are especially adept at this, coming to the surface, they will jump and shake their head, often coming free if the angler is not paying attention to keeping the line tight at that time.

How fast do you Troll.
All depends on your boat and the rig being used.  Umbrella frames need to be going 3-5 knots.  Tube and worm should be trolled at 2-3 knots.  Frames can be run much slower when going against a current.   Strong currents can be used to slow the boat down by trolling only against the current.  Speeds of 1 knot are possible using this method and it can be very productive.  There are many areas around Block Island having strong currents that can be used in this way.

It may become apparent that the fish will hit far more often when youíre going in one direction than in the other direction, normally against the current.  Paying attention to this and not wasting time can pay off big in catching a lot of fish.   I often find myself trolling against the current and hooking up one or two fish, take the boat out of gear and bring the fish in.  by the time we get the fish in the boat has drifted back so that all we have to do is let the lines out and start trolling against the current again.

Another thing to consider is that trolling in a perfect straight line at a fixed speed is not always the best method.  You should be experimenting by changing the troll speed up and down to entice a following fish into hitting, or zigzagging.  Often they will hit right after speeding up or slowing down.  When using wire and turning around to go back over where the fish are holding, I will often speed up to keep the trolled rigs from hitting bottom.  Very often a fish will strike while making the turn.     You might be surprised to know that many fish will come up behind a trolled rig and watch it, waiting for a reaction, when there is none they swim away without hitting it.  After all, if a predator comes up behind a baitfish, wouldnít the bait run for their lives?  This is one of the reasons that jigging parachute lures can be so productive.

What to you do after a hookup.
There are some important considerations to keep in mind when you hook a fish.  Pay attention to what was going on at the time the fish was hooked so you can notice trends and techniques that work.  Here a re just a few questions to consider

Did you just speed up/slow down?
Travelling with the current?
Over some particular structure?
Only one color of lure is producing?
Only one rod is being jigged properly?

We are all interested in catching more fish.  If you notice what was going on when a fish is hooked you can then determine what is working on that day and repeat that success.

What rods and reels do you use.
 I recommend using level wind reels for the heavier outfits.  Level winds have a couple of advantages, they spool the line on automatically so you donít have to, and you can use the level wind mechanism to determine how much line to let out for your rig.  This is the method I use to let out the same amount of line each time to control the depth of the lure being trolled.  The  Penn 345 and 330 GTI level wind reels work best for this.   With the 345, each time the level wind goes across, 16 feet of line is let out.  On the 330 GTI reel, it is 8.5 feet each time the level wind goes across.  You can get consistent depth every time using this method.

For wire line trolling anything other than parachute jigs, I use light-medium action wire rods 6í6Ē long that I custom made myself with the 345 GTI level wind spooled with 200lb dacron under 320 feet of 60lb stainless wire, with a 15í 80lb test mono leader.  They have roller tips which reduces the drag as the wire comes across the tip of the rod.  The roller tips also allow the amount of line to be controlled better, since in this case it is OK for the wire to be across the tip when trolling.

For parachute jigs, you need a rod that is a little stiffer to get the right jigging action, so I have a pair of medium action custom wire rods with 345 GTI reels spooled with 200lb dacron under 320 feet of stainless 60lb wire with a 15í 80lb test mono leader, tied directly to the parachute jig.  These rods do not have roller tips.   I use parachute jigs of different weights to control depth.  Also, the wire is spooled at 200ft, then a 6' section of 200lb dacron, then another 120 feet.  This allows you to put out 200 ft or 320 ft, and helps control depth along with using 2oz, 3oz, 4oz, and 6oz parachute jigs to control depth.   Never leave the wire across the tip when jigging parachutes, this fatigues the wire to the point that it will break at the tip of the rod.  Always make sure the dacron is across the tip, and let a little line out every once in a while so you don't wear the same spot all the time.

Another way to spool a reel is use 3 sections of 60lb wire each 100ft long with 6' of 200lb dacron between each section.   This allows you to put out 100, 200, or 300 feet of wire for controlling depth.   How the reels are setup is more about the areas you normally fish and the depths found in those areas.  Some captains use two sections of 150 feet of wire, others use one section of 350 feet of wire, etc.  It's all about the places you fish.

For trolling shallower water with single lures (not umbrella frames) a light-medium rod is used with 50lb braid and 330 GTI reels, using a 6í mono leader of 60-80lb test.  This is usually good for up to 20í deep. 

At the end of the wire you need 20' of 120lb test monofilament leader, which is then tied directly to a parachute jig with a fisherman's knot or to a coast lock snap swivel if you are using umbrella frames.  Using a lighter line can lead to the loss of expensive parachute jigs to the teeth of marauding Bluefish in the area.

Take the boat out of gear when you hook a fish.
I see this happen a lot and it makes no sense. This is supposed to be sport fishing and an angler should only be fighting the fish, not the fish and the boat.  Many anglers want to hook up another fish on the second rod, so it doesnít have to be reeled in.  In my experience, many times the second rod will catch one or more fish while it is being brought in if you reel steady and not too fast, with an occasional jig.  This is especially the case when trolling with umbrella frames.

Trolling is a viable fishing method that can be very productive, but it isn't the only way to catch fish.  Next time you fish, try some of the methods mentioned here and see if they don't help you catch more fish.


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