November 15, 2022
By Steve Ryan
To cast or to troll, the age-old question? Casters highlight the satisfaction in making well-placed casts, working lures to perfection, seeing the follow, feeling the strike, and setting the hook with rod in hand. Trollers often mention “the science” of their method—fine-tuning lure speeds and running depths. And let us not forget how efficient trolling can be. Ah, but in tight spots casting can be the more so. Here are arguments on both sides of our age-old question.
Trolling has inherent advantages over casting, as a matter of superior efficiency to keep lures in the water running at an optimum speed and depth. If we’re doing things right, the more water we cover, the more muskies we should contact. The math goes something like this.
Say we troll a Rapala Super Shad Rap for 4 hours, running at 3.5 mph at a depth of 8 feet. In 4 hours we could cover 14 miles of territory (4 hours x 3.5 mph = 14 miles), absent time to land fish, change locations, clear weeds, and so on. An average cast with the same lure might be 65 feet. For the first 10 feet of each retrieve, the lure is diving to optimum depth. During the last 5 feet it’s rising out of the optimum zone, leaving 50 feet of each cast in prime territory. With a generous assumption of one cast and retrieve every minute for 4 hours, we can cover roughly 2.25 miles at optimum depth (50 feet per cast x 240 casts/5,280 feet = 2.27 miles). Trolling covers almost six times more territory.
The numbers are further skewed on fisheries such as Green Bay, where the Super Shad Rap is a prime muskie lure and three rods are allowed per angler. Using in-line planer boards not only increases the amount of time that lures are running at their optimum speed and depth, we dramatically increase the amount of territory the lures cover. Even when casting with three anglers in the boat, everyone is working from the same platform and covering a relatively small area around the boat. Trolled lures spread at 15- to 30-foot increments with boards cover a swath of water as wide as 300 feet.
Trolling with multiple lines also allows anglers to efficiently cycle through lures to find productive patterns based on water conditions and the mood of fish. Natural- or darker-colored lures can be run on one side, while gaudy and lighter-colored lures run on the opposite side. A combination of big and small lures can be mixed into the same spread and quick experiments can be made with lures having tighter or wider actions. Multiple depth ranges be can covered at the same time by using multiple leader lengths, in-line keel sinkers, and lures with different diving depths.
Of course, anglers from Minnesota and Ontario, where only one rod per angler can be used, occasionally call trolling with three rods per person “cheating.” Yet there are plenty anglers getting skunked more often than we care to admit while trolling 6 to 12 rods on Green Bay. The number of rods used or miles traveled by a lure does not guarantee success or fit into a neat equation of how many muskies will be caught. Furthermore, there are times when a two-line spread run tight behind the boat is more effective than a big spread of lines.
Bait size can be another determining factor in deciding whether to cast or troll. Even with today’s advancements in rods and reels, angling fatigue becomes a limiting factor. The earlier assumption that an angler can cast and retrieve a diving plug every minute of the hour for four hours is ambitious at best. Extend that 4-hour fishing session into a full 8-hour day or a 12-hour grind-it-out session and the efficiency of trolling becomes that much more apparent. Increase the lure size from a 6-inch Super Shad Rap to a Legend Plow or 13-inch Believer and one sees the impossibility of replicating these results with a casting approach.
On some big-water fisheries such as the St. Lawrence River, success often requires running oversized lures in the 8- to 16-inch range. These lures present a large profile and displace an exorbitant amount of water. Diving to depths of 25 to 45 feet, they get the attention of low-density trophy muskies cruising the river’s edge. Trolling is the most productive technique in this particular setting. If you’re able to pinpoint an individual fish hanging on a specific portion of the structure, then a vertical jigging approach may come into play. As such, trolling and casting approaches can complement each other.
Trolling also reigns supreme when muskies demand an ultra-fast presentation to get them fired up. Speed serves as a triggering factor that cannot be duplicated over long distances when casting. Lures have a different running action, sound, and triggering effect when trolled at 4 to 6 mph versus a standard retrieve speed. Lures crank harder, make more noise, and throw off a wider footprint as they tear through the water. Trolling gets lures grinding harder on the bottom and stirring up a long debris trail.
While grinding bottom, these lures encounter the occasional rock or log. The sound of the impact and the deflective action of the lure draws the attention of fish or triggers following fish. These encounters and potential for triggering reaction strikes occur more frequently and with greater intensity while trolling.
The benefit of added speed and action imparted on lures by trolling is further evident on urban fisheries that receive excessive recreational boating activity throughout summer. Here, wake boats, jet skis, and pleasure boats turn the lake into an oversized washing machine with wakes created from every angle. These lakes can be difficult and even dangerous to cast during the peak of this activity. But muskies have adapted to this commotion and have learned to feed on prey disoriented and injured by the boating activity. A prop-wash trolling bite sets up on these lakes, with the best bite often in the middle of the day among all the madness. Lures worked quickly on short prop-wash rods beg to get crushed.
As a further nod to the effectiveness of trolling, advancements in today’s electronics have made the science of trolling more precise. As an example, Mega + Side Imaging on Humminbird sonars now have us looking 200 feet off each side of the boat. Every aspect of rock, wood, and weedcover is finely detailed on the screen. Not only can individual fish be identified as muskies, the direction they are facing also can be determined based on the image on the screen. The exact location of the fish can be marked on the graph with an icon and the path of the boat adjusted to perfectly intersect lures with the fish. If the fish doesn’t bite, additional trolling passes can be made to the icon with different lures or with slight adjustments to the speed and angle of the next trolling pass.
Casting for Muskie
Today, most muskie anglers probably fall primarily within the casting camp. They understand the effectiveness and enjoyment of casting. There’s a serenity to shutting off the engine and connecting one-on-one with fish. Plus, for those who enjoy working topwater baits, and for those that want to impart precise actions to lures, there is no substitute for casting.
It takes the skill of a caster to make a lure dart erratically in a couple feet of water. Whereas trolling generally presents lures in a static and horizontal fashion, casting allows for more varied vertical presentations. Large rubber baits, such as Muskie Innovations’ Bull Dawgs, likely have caught as many giant muskies as any others in recent years. These lures rely in part on the rise-and-fall movement of the bait to get their large rubber tails or appendages twisting, turning, and pulsating on the fall.
Guides such as Jon Bondy, from Windsor, Ontario, have proven the effectiveness of working baits vertically on areas where ledges and current concentrate muskies along steep-breaking structure. Bondy fashioned his series of namesake Bondy Baits to trigger fish that prefer the dying action of falling lures, versus the fleeing action of a lure moving horizontally. This same vertical approach can be key below dams and spillways where muskies are conditioned to feed on dying bait that gets pushed through turbines and then tumbles downstream along swift current seams. These conditions also are perfect for casting bladebaits and jigs to replicate the action of disoriented prey.
To play on the predatory chase-and-kill instincts of muskies, the weaving and fleeing action imparted to a glidebait requires artful rod work of a caster putting slack in the line and then quickly taking it up with the rod in hand. While trollers have become more astute in regularly pivoting the boat at abrupt 30- to 45-degree angles to get baits rising and falling, stalling, and accelerating, the ability to watch a muskie approach and react to each movement of the lure is invaluable to the caster. By observing a muskie’s behavior, an angler can immediately respond with a different lure action.
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 recoiling in an S-curve and inhaling a bait. Casting allows the angler to interpret every movement of the fish and, at the end each retrieve, make a perfect figure-eight maneuver to seal the deal on a following fish. It’s one the most exciting moments in muskie fishing. It can only be experienced by casting.
Meanwhile, on heavy-traffic lakes where prop-wash trolling is effective during the day, casting topwater lures after dark can shine. Slowly working a Savage Gear 3D Smash Tail over a weedflat can deliver explosive strikes that you won’t get trolling. Different approaches can prove superior on the same body of water based on time of day or overall use by the public.
Whether it is fishing weed pockets, standing timber, narrow lanes, or the tops of shallow rock reefs, your best bet is casting. Casters can thoroughly dissect a piece of structure in a minimally intrusive manner. This comes into play when an exceptionally large fish has been spotted in an area. The size of the fish might merit devoting an entire prime feeding window, such as a moon-rise major, locked down on a spot to repeatedly work baits in all possible manners, angles, and speeds for a crack at the fish.
River settings also offer multiple scenarios where casting rules the day. When fish are holding directly behind pilings or short tight channels cut away from the main river channel, casting is required. The pocket where fish hold and the strike zone can be just a few feet. These spots can quickly be hit multiple times and from various angles by casting.
In spots where current breaks hold fish, there’s no substitute for swinging a lure through a small eddy where big fish lurk. Twitch the lure in slack water and then allow it to slowly take a natural swimming action as it encounters moving water. The lure has a different action and appeal as it moves from still to moving water at different speeds. Trolling cannot impart this subtle natural action to a lure or permit a lure to change direction, speed, and depth in confined zones.
Small rivers are another area where casting to structure is critical. While a certain percentage of fish may reside in the main channel or deep holes where trolling is a possibility, most muskies station near shoreline cover. These fish often require that a bait be cast parallel and downstream of sunken trees or between boulders.
Ultra-clear and shallow-water settings often favor a casting approach as well. The ability to work a topwater lure or burn a double-10 bucktail over a rockbar that tops out in 2 feet of water calls for well-placed casts. Pressured fish in clear water can grow wary of boat traffic and respond negatively, even to the intrusion of a trolling motor. Any slight noise can tip these fish to your presence. A little wind helps cover your approach and accurate casts are often required. Other times, long casts and a stealthy presentation allow the caster to fool fish that scatter in the presence of motor noise.
Of course, whether we cast or troll, muskie fishing remains a difficult proposition. No foolproof or never-fail approaches exists. So we replay the percentages over and over again, just as we have here, mostly keeping our options open based on the situations we face as we move from fishery to fishery, making the best of seasonal changes and weather conditions.
*Steve Ryan is a longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor and an exceptional multispecies angler.