Proper boat control is the most important part of the trolling equation, which is all about keeping lures in the right place (right depth), at the right time, running at the right speed, in order to cover lots of water efficiently. Time on the water controlling your boat is the only way to learn how to maneuver to get the desired results. I do this best by running a tiller-style boat. A proficient angler, though, also can do well with a bigger boat.
One highly accurate way to stay on a depth contour is to watch two sonar units at the same time, one transducer mounted at the stern, the other on the bottom of the front trolling motor. This allows reading depth on the "front" depthfinder 15 to 20 feet and several seconds before lures get there. This allows critical adjustments that keep lures running properly along edges.
Indeed, most of the fish I catch are holding on some sort of edge, like a weededge or the edge of a rockbar. Could also be the edge of a big flat, the edge of a mudline, or the edge of a school of baitfish. I also catch suspended fish out in the middle of "nowhere," but chances are a school of suspended baitfish or a piece of structure is somewhere nearby. Maintaining the proper course to keep lures running right along any "edges" you find in a body of water is the surest way to catch fish consistently.
At least some of the lures need to be just "tickling" bottom. Set your lines and choose lures that run at depths to match the contour of the drop-off. If you're trolling a contour that drops from 6 to 9 feet, have your shallowest line (the one the farthest out toward the top of the break) set to run at 5 feet. The next one closest to the boat should be at 6 feet. The lures on the other side of the boat (toward the bottom of the drop) should be running at 8 feet and 9 feet, respectively.
During summer I usually concentrate on muskies roaming open water along with schools of pelagic baitfish or underwater structures in deeper water near the main basins of the lake. During fall, on the other hand, I concentrate on locations that hold baitfish. In lakes, rivers, or reservoirs, look for areas with current, which always attracts baitfish. Riprap dam facings, river mouths, and the tips or edges of sharp-dropping points, flats, and underwater humps also attract fish. Bridges or causeways also attract fish. Troll areas upstream and downstream from these spots, looking for areas that hold most of the baitfish.
Rods and Rod Holder Placement
Where I fish, two rods per person are allowed. I use Abu Garcia's Conolon Premiers, Fenwick HMGs, and St. Croix Legends with medium-fast action and medium-heavy power. I place strips of 3M white automotive reflective tape 24 inches from the tip of these rods to help me see how the tips are working when I fish after dark.
When I'm alone in the boat, I run one rod out each side of the boat, each rod perpendicular to the boat and parallel to the surface of the water. With multiple rod sets, I clear the rods from that side of the boat when a fish hits. Then I clear the other side of the boat if it's necessary for a big fish.
A six-rod set is the same as the four-rod set, the difference being the additional rods are placed in rod holders at the front of the boat. I usually run these line by spreading them with Church Tackle "Mr. Walleye" in-line boards, which have an adjustable weight on the bottom that allows for fine-tuning to get proper action from the board, no matter how fast you're trolling or how big the lure (within reason). I also use reflective tape on the top and inside of these boards for running at night.
With several anglers in the boat, I run my rods (I'm running the boat) on the port (left) side of the boat. Place one of your longer rods -- 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-foot rod -- farthest forward (up toward the front of the boat). This rod should be perpendicular to the boat and parallel to the water. The second rod should be 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet long (at least a foot shorter than the front rod) and should be in a rod holder at least a foot or more back from the front rod. Angle this rod tip up slightly about 30 degrees and point the tip back about 45 degrees. This placement allows about a 4-foot line spread, reducing chances for tangles.
Lines and Reels
I use lines ranging from 20-pound Trilene XL up to 150-pound Berkley Whiplash, depending on the depth I want a lure to run at and the type of nearby cover, with depth control being the primary factor. A smaller-diameter line gets a lure deeper. More line out also usually means more depth. Experimenting is the only way I know of to learn exactly how deep different lures run on different lines.
I couple small shad minnowbaits with 20- to 30-pound Trilene XL, my experience being that these lures get a better action on these lines. Monofilament also is a good choice for running in the prop wash because it stretches, offering shock absorption when a fish hits so near the boat. I use braided superline like Berkley Whiplash (I'll be using Spiderwire Stealth this season) when running longer lines. No-stretch lines allow for good hooksets and also transmit vibrations better so you can tell when a lure's fouled.
My reels of choice are ABU Garcia Ambassaduers 6500s and 7000s, which I've found extremely durable. These larger reels have clicker mechanisms that warn when a fish hits or you snag up.
The only way for you to know for certain which lures work best on a given body of water at certain times is to get out there and fish. You really have to experiment from among lures that have proven to be good trolling lures in various areas of the country. I generally prefer to use large lures since I'm after large fish.
During the cool-water times of spring and sometimes during fall, I use long minnow-shaped baits like the Rapala Floater or Rapala Husky Jerk. Trolling at slower speeds (down to 1 mph) often produces action.
With the water temperatures into the 60F range and above, I switch to shad-bodied baits, moving along at 1 to 2 mph to begin, but also experimenting with speeds up to 5 mph. Speed, in combination with lure selection, becomes the major triggering factor. During summer and early fall, I use Rapala Super Shads, Magnum Rapalas, Bucher DepthRaiders, Hooker G & M Shads, and Grandmas Lures.
During the peak of fall fishing, into late fall, I stick with big wood baits, including jerkbaits: #18 Rapala Magnum Floaters, 10-inch Suicks, Muskie Mania Burts; and, at times, 8- to 10-inch Fudally Reef Hawgs. While Suicks wobble enough on a straight troll to work well, they often work best when you're holding the rod, pulling the lure forward occasionally, then letting it drift back, before repeating the procedure. Reef Hawgs also work best with a hands-on approach.
Finally, once water temperatures drop below 45F, I do best trolling muskies at night around baitfish-gathering areas, at speeds of 3/4 to 1 mph, switching to walleye size minnow lures -- Rapala Husky Jerks, Countdown Rapalas, Storm Thundersticks, Rattlin' Rogues.
*Captain Doug Dingey (877/834-7500), Mechanicsburg, Ohio, is a longtime In-Fisherman who guides in Ohio and Michigan.