The question of whether to cast or troll for muskies often draws strong opinions. Most anglers have a preference, and many are entrenched in one discipline or the other. Some even express disdain for the other approach. Without making judgments or offering exceptions to every rule, some basic guidelines exist when pondering the best approach.
For efficiency in covering water, trolling has an unquestioned edge. Obviously, an angler can only cast and retrieve with one rod at a time. Many state agencies allow anglers to deploy two or three or more rods. Expansive trolling spreads become possible.
Multiple rods mean that lures of various sizes, colors, actions, and running depths can be used at the same time to test depth and lure preference. And with planer boards keeping lures away from the boat, the area of coverage expands up to 6-fold. If one assumes that a muskie can detect a bait within a 20-foot radius, staggering six trolling lines increases coverage to 120 feet or more. Also, the boat itself can attract curious fish into the spread, or else push fish out into the path of the trolled lures.
Captain Spencer Berman guides clients to monster fish on Lake St. Clair and uses the analogy that trolling is like using a roller to paint a wall, while casting is like using a paint brush. You wouldn't want to paint a large uniform wall with a narrow brush. But you wouldn't use a roller to paint tight corners or for intricate work. So he trolls to cover large featureless areas for scattered fish, and turns to casting when fish are concentrated and when they hold tight to cover.
Berman adds that modern electronics have increased the precision of trolling dramatically. "With side-imaging on my Humminbird 1198, I can scan 120 feet on both sides of the boat. If I mark variations in bottom, scattered weeds, baitfish, or a muskie, I modify my trolling pass to place a planer board and lure on target." With Humminbird's 360 imaging, we can scout ahead of the boat as well. We can adjust course as our electronics provide real-time information about everything around the boat.
Trolling also excels when fishing deep water and seeking maximum running depth from lures. To target muskies holding deeper than 20 feet, casting a deep diver is inefficient. On an 80-foot cast, the lure is diving during the first 20 feet, and rising over the last 20 feet of the retrieve. Maximum depth is reached only for 40 feet. That's a lot of work for 40 feet of coverage. Trolling is like an indefinitely long cast with near total efficiency from a depth perspective. Trolled lures also achieve greater depth when a lot of line is released, over 50 yards in some cases.
Even with powerful new reels like Shimano's Tranx and Abu Garcia's Toro Winch, there are limitations on how large a crankbait can be cast and retrieved without fatigue. With trolling gear, monster plugs like the Legend Plow and Big Fork 12-inch Reef Digger can be trolled all day long at depths of 30 feet or more. The only limiting factors are the strength of your rod, rod holders, and the boat's gunnels. Oversized trolling lures offer a massive profile and displace more water than typical casting lures. Their size and running depth provoke strikes from wary muskies that may ignore the normal parade of lures.
Speed is another factor that cannot by matched by casting. Lures have a different action, sound, and triggering effect when trolled at 3 to 6 mph, versus standard retrieve speed. They dig harder, make more noise, and create more substantial hydrodynamic trails in their passing. Trolled lures grind into the bottom, stir up debris, and encounter rocks and wood. The sound of the impact and the deflecting action of the lure draw the attention of nearby fish.
Cory Allen of Stone Throws Adventures guides in Tennessee, where waterways vary from large reservoirs and rivers to small streams. Each requires a different approach. He finds both trolling and casting have their place and takes pride in outfitting his boat to accommodate both styles. "With a Minn Kota Terrova iPilot on the bow of my Tuffy and a Yamaha 70-hp tiller on the transom," he says, "I can stand at the stern and run trolling passes over a point or series of bars, working the 12- to 30-foot breaks. But at any time, I can kill the outboard and walk to the bow of the boat. I drop the Terrova and we can dissect an adjacent flat or weedbed with casts."
Allen explains that trolling for him is not about mindlessly putting rods in the holder and driving around in search of fish He starts by mapping a piece of structure and uses trolling lures to cover it thoroughly. "Most of my trolling passes don't extend farther than the edges of the structure I'm fishing," he says, "typically from 30 to 100 yards. Most of the areas I fish don't have extended parallel breaklines so long trolling passes aren't needed. But the ability to keep a lure down, bumping and grinding over the structure, then turn around to cover an adjacent section of water, is invaluable."
He recommends holding the rod while trolling for a number of reasons. "First, it allows anglers to understand what the lure is doing at all times. The rod's vibration indicates what type of thump and action the lure has at various speeds. It transmits the change in action as the boat turns or surges with the waves. You immediately feel when weeds or debris foul it.
"Second, with each bump and grind of the bottom, anglers better understand the nature of the structure and we can adjust trolling passes accordingly," he says. "Third, it allows for the rod to be pumped occasionally to speed the lure or dropped back to trigger following fish." One downside of trolling is that lures run in a rather constant horizontal path. Pumping the rod helps vary lure cadence and vertical position. Also, with rod in hand, anglers experience the excitement of bone jarring strikes. There's no fumbling to get the rod out of the holder, and drags can be adjusted quickly.
Most muskie anglers are in the casting crowd and needn't be convinced of the effectiveness and enjoyment of catching big muskies that way. Moreover, many techniques and lure styles require a casting approach. Anglers can alter lure action according to water depth and type of cover. No matter how good you are on the tiller, it's nearly impossible to get walk-the-dog action from a surface bait while trolling. It takes the skill of a caster with rod in hand to make a lure dart from side to side. While trolling presents lures in a steady horizontal fashion, casting involves vertical maneuvers.
The slow vertical fall of a Red October 10-inch Monster Tube has an elusive quality. Its tail strands dance and pulse as the tube's pulled forward, then dropped through the water column. At times, such minimal action and vibration elicit a response from tentative muskies.
To take advantage of the predatory chase and kill instincts of muskies, the weaving and fleeing action imparted to a glidebait or swimbait requires the skill of a caster. In addition, being able to watch a muskie approach and react to each movement of the lure often is key to catches. Observing their behavior and reactions, the angler can respond appropriately. Sometimes all it takes is a twitch of the rod, a slightly longer pause, or two quick cranks to get a fish to go from a neutral following mode to making an S-curve and inhaling a lure. These fine strokes of the brush require a casting approach and an eye for interpreting fish behavior at close range.
Casting also is the way to go in confined spaces and around small pieces of structure or cover, including weed pockets, standing timber, or the tops of rock reefs. In rivers, casting generally rules the day as well. When fish hold behind pilings or in the mouths of cuts off the main channel, casting is required to hit the money spot. The same's true in current areas and eddies.
A cast lure has more natural action as it suspends and glides in slack areas or drifts with the current. As a lure moves from the eddy to the current seam, it accelerates, gains vibration and depth, action that rings the bell for muskies. Trolling can't impart such subtle natural actions or make a lure change direction.
Ultra-clear and shallow situations call for casting as well. The ability to work a topwater lure or burn a Double Cowgirl over a rockbar that tops out in 2 feet demands a casting approach. Pressured fish can grow wary of boat traffic and respond negatively even to the intrusion of a trolling motor. Noises can put them on their guard. Long casts and a stealthy presentation allow an angler to fool fish far more readily.
When making the final determination of whether to cast or troll, take into account fishing etiquette. If many anglers are diligently casting a point or reef, don't treat the boats like moguls and attempt a slalom trolling run. Similarly, if there's a trolling procession through a narrow channel, avoid the urge to become a speed bump by dropping the trolling motor and casting. There's enough productive water to accommodate both approaches.
*Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor and an avid muskie angler.