Born in the Great North Woods of New England, Trolling flies for Trout and Salmon is steeped rich in heritage and tradition. Though much has changed since the inception of this method, we find that for the most part, the principles are much the same.
Trolling can be very productive since the fly is in the water far and away longer than it is when traditional fly casting. Here, the exception does not prove the rule. Yes, many of us have hooked a good trout on a back cast, and some have become hopelessly tangled in overhanging brush only to have a fair trout jump out and grab a fly as we try in desperation to jiggle it free so as not to disturb a lair. But you will catch more and bigger fish trolling, hands down.
When one first hears of trolling flies it usually is in conjunction with ice out in the glacial lakes and ponds. At this time of year the water temperature is the same from top to bottom and the fish roam here and there, at will, in search of food. Salmon cruise the surface, as do Lake Trout, and even the novice may be rewarded with some surprising specimens. But for the true troller who understands the feeding habits of the prey he is after, you will find him on the water throughout the season, and for the most part, taking good fish at will, and on purpose.
While the thermocline is something that should be understood, the layer of water where the fish can find a temperature comfort zone, it does not, and I repeat, does not entirely govern a fishes life. We were fishing along the Witches in Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire one day in late August. The water rippers, those that take great pleasure in going one hundred miles an hour catching bugs in their teeth in cigarette boats while creating inland ocean conditions were in great abundance. So much so that we broke our trolling course and pulled into one of the shallow coves in an attempt to get out of the five foot waves. When boredom set in I decided to go diving and have a look see at the other side of the water. As I swam towards shore I became aware of a huge pod of fish quite close to the shore. As I got closer it became clear that they were all Landlock Salmon! In less than six feet of seventy two degree water at the end of August. At first this made no sense at all. As I watched with great interest, every now and again all of the fish would literally attack the shore line, or at least that's what it looked like. After a frenzy they would line back up in a bit deeper water, all pointed towards the shore line. I swam in closer which had no effect at all on the Salmon. There! They were at it again in what appeared to be a feeding frenzy, but I could not see any bait fish. At this point I was in water shallow enough to get swept up in the waves of wake as the water monsters raced by. And as the waves hit the shore the Salmon lunged in once again. I swam even closer and waited for the next wake to hit. As it did, the fish once again went into the frenzy, and now I was able to put it all together.
Over time the wake from so many high powered boats had carved a huge undercut along the shore line. When the wake hit it formed somewhat of a rip and tossed out small shiners and insects. And over time, the fish had learned that when their world was being invaded by boats it was time to feed! I swam back to the boat and we started casting in the rip when the wakes hit. And every single time we were hooked up solid with Salmon ranging from 12 inches to some going as large as 23 inches. Those fish, by the book, should have been in about 40 feet of water since that's where the thermocline was on that day. But know that a fish will not sit in comfort and starve, Where do most folks place their shiner traps? Along the shore, right? Why not in the thermocline 40 feet or more deep? Because, the bait fish are, next to the shore! Remember this as we go through the metrics of trolling.
Where To Fish
When one puts a water craft in the water where should they begin to fish? The answer to that is anyplace! Early and late in the day the shoreline some 40 meters out is a good place in a glacial lake or pond. At any other time of the day, dead in the middle of the body of water may be the most productive spot.
Unlike a warm water body of water that has logs and exposed boulders and lily pads, a glacial lake or pond does not offer much in the way of cover. Security is the key to survival for any fish when it senses danger. And that security can come from the very depths of the water. A fish swimming shallow in the middle of the lake in search of food sees the shadow of an eagle or osprey. It will immediately dive for the lower depths, the safe zone.
The beauty of trolling is one can cover vast amounts of water in search of fish and it is only a matter of time until one can pattern the fishes movements on a given day. They may be dead in the middle, or the strikes may come mid way between shore and the middle. But once you find the lanes they are in on that day you will hook them steadily, providing of course, your offering is on their menu that day.
I know, I know, there are those who claim to be able to walk on water. I, and most I know readily sink like rocks in any attempts to do so. So let's take a look at watercraft possibilities for those of us who are mortal.
Let it be said right here, a canoe is the “proper” vessel if one is going to stick with tradition, and is what I personally favor. For the larger lakes I favor a Canadian cargo canoe of no less than twenty feet, preferably with a twenty horse motor. In a perfect world of course, and if one is going to take on the Lake on any given day. The big waters can turn mean very fast, and one should be able to get off the water in short order when that happens. If one picks their days when the chop is minimal they can get by with a much smaller craft. On those days a standard canoe, kayak, row boat, or even a one man pontoon boat with paddles will do.
A double ended canoe of sixteen to 18 feet will work wonderfully on most waters, for the inland ponds I have done much from a twelve foot square stern canoe. This allows the use of traditional paddles, or, one can mount an electric trolling motor and focus more on fishing than dipping the paddle.
How fast should you troll? In general, just fast enough to make headway on average, But, I have seen times when the only way to get a strike was to have two on the paddle at a very brisk pace. That equates to about speed five on an electric trolling motor. Start at headway speed. If the lake or pond is covered a few times without action, ramp it up a bit. You have to be flexible and you have to experiment some days.
Best course to take? Anything except, dead straight between point A and point B. Large figure eights are good, snake tracking, sometimes huge circles are good. It is a very rare day when dead ahead is the key to success. But, rule nothing out.
In the beginning there was cane, and a bit later fiberglass rods. And they worked, got the job done, and they are the traditional tools of the past if one chooses to stay with the ways of the past. These days we are up to IM 12 carbon rods and these can work as well. If one is going this route I would suggest a fast action since it allows tip flex but offers enough strength to tow 90 feet or more of line and mange the fish.
The rods will run from the lowest a six weight, the average being a seven weight, and later in the season or in the proximity of the larger fish, an eight weigh is about right. If you can only have one rod, make it a seven weight. The six weight could be considered the ultra light in the series, the eight weight the upper end for sport fishing. Rod lengths should be, the shortest eight feet, the longest nine and one half feet. Because, you will be towing a lot of line which is not wire, it will stretch some. You need the rod length to set the hook and keep the fish in control.
There is a certain magic in a cane rod. They can be, and are, heavier than glass or carbon rods in the larger line weights. Here, the proper reel will balance the outfit, in the hand, at the grip. Overall weight is not paramount since you will not be casting, but rather holding the rod at rest on a leg, or even setting the rod down in the canoe. Which by the way is a fun game in itself. It becomes a test of who is faster, the fish taking your rod out of the canoe, or you getting it before he does.
Keep in mind, ninety or one hundred feet of Type II or Type III line creates a lot of drag. By the time you get up to Type V it's pretty close to towing leadcore. Hence, the demand for the heavier rods.
If you are fishing alone, about any single action fly reel will do. So long as it will take the fly line and about one hundred yards of backing you will be all set for brookies to lake trout. A non jerky adjustable drag is a desired feature, and a palming rim is handy when the fish decides at the last minute to have another go of it.
Fishing two in a canoe presents a different set of parameters. No matter how you arrange it, both lines will be towed behind the canoe. Under normal trolling, the fisherman in the front seat will be short of your fly by about the length of the canoe. When a fish hits and you gain the length of the canoe, your lines have a very high probability of becoming crossed and tangled.
So, as a minimum, you want to run large arbor fly reels, and preferably, multipliers. The etiquette is for the one not hooked into a fish to reel in their line and assist with the net. This needs to be done as fast as possible and even faster if you have a wild salmon ripping line out until it just about smokes the reel.
We've found the Martin Mohawk Multiplier to be an inexpensive and very proper reel for this game. Paired up with a vintage cane rod from Evil Bay one can come out well equipped for the game for around a C note, less a fly line.
This is probably the one thing that has changed the most since back when. We've gone from level sinking lines to comped lines as high as Class V. Today, you can get Steady Sink or Level Sink lines that take the sag out of the fly line as it is being towed. This allows you to feel the strikes a lot better and makes for better hook sets. Hands down!
The Type II line is the one we have on early in the season, right about into mid June. When things start to warm up and the fish are a bit deeper we'll switch to a type III. Beyond that if you fish mid day it's a toss up between type IV and V, or, a leadcore rig. You can run the entire season with only a type II, you just have to fish early and late in the day when the fish are feeding in the shallower water.
Line color is not critical so long as it is not bright. That I'm aware of the manufacturers don't make sinking lines in hi vis colors. My favorite color is a dark green, brown would be next, black, a dark gray, or a dark blue.
You'll hear two sides of this, the long, and the short of it. If the fish are on top and skittish, a 30 foot leader may be the rule. But for the most part, a leader the length of the fly rod will do just fine.
In the trout ponds 6 pound test flurocarbon is about perfect. In the lakes where larger fish are the rule 8 pound or even 10 pound test is a better choice. You don't need tapered leaders, just regular off the spool monofilament gets it done.
Up to this point it's been about the gear, the watercraft, the places to troll. Now comes the key to it all. For if the fly is not one that the fish are interested in, it's pretty much all for not unless the expectation was a leisurely cruise around the pond or lake.
In the lakes, for Landlock Salmon and Lake Trout, the traditional streamers that imitate a smelt are the flies you want to be trolling. My first choice is the Grey Ghost but there have been a lot of take offs on this one fly that produce better in some waters. Pink Ghost for example often does very well in Newfound Lake. The 9 3 is another good one, Supervisor, and Winnipesaukee Smelt. The vast majority of flies used for trolling in the bigger lakes are to small. If you want to target the bigger fish use larger flies. Jack smelt can be 9 to 12 inches long which you won't find in the offerings at the local fly shop. So here, it becomes a tie your own affair or have a fly shop custom tie for you. The Brown Trout shows a color preference for shades of yellow in a fly and the Colonel Bates, Barnes Special, and the Barrows flies would be a good choice.
In the ponds for rainbows, brookies and browns, darker colored flies are the rule. As in dark browns, blacks, and combinations there of. If I were limited to two flies they would be a modified Hornberg, and the Wood Duck Heron. With that said, there has been times when a light Spruce fly was the ticket for the day. Other days, it was a large nymph or nothing. While you don't need thousands of patterns it does pay to carry a small variety in color shades and sizes.
Water color and hue make a fly that produces in one pond, not so good in another. Here is where some variation at the tying bench often pays off and how some of the location specific flies become so productive. By really learning one pond and breaking out its secrets you become better suited to do so on the next one by comparing the water colors and adjusting the flies in color so that they become visible in that color spectrum of water. Hook sizes for the ponds runs from a size 8, a size 6 for the bigger fish.
There are some days when a dead drifted fly will work, and work well. On those days, anything short of dragging the fly through the water will cause the fish to shy away. It's probably one of the easiest days you'll eve have as you just wait for the rod tip to bounce and you're into a trout.
But more times than not, they prefer some “twitching”. This, while sounding pretty straight forward and simple, actually is not. On a given day for example, it may be two fairly decent sweeps of the rod followed by a short sweep. Or, it could be 2 shorts and a long, or, one of each and a short dead drift. And sometimes, it takes a spell before you hit on the cadence they like. But when you do find the pattern on that day it will produce for you until something else changes. Things such as the sun was out and now it's not. Or the wind came up. But if all remains equal, the pattern will remain constant.
Next time you have some time to go fly fishing give trolling a try. It's productive, it's fun, it's easy to do, and it gives one a chance to really take in all the scenery on the Lake or Pond. You'll see Moose and Deer, beavers and muskrats, minks and martins, ducks and geese, loons and a whole bunch more. Remember to bring the camera!