Trolling in Northern Wisconsin Waters
Trolling in northern Wisconsin waters is a relatively new development. Vilas, Oneida and Iron county were opened to trolling in 2015 with some restrictions. Only one line per person with a maximum of 3 lines per boat is the rule in these counties. This technique is a very effective presentation and in some cases the only way to reach deep fish efficiently.
Why should you learn trolling techniques? That answer is simple. It is the most efficient way to present lures at a specific depth over a large area. If you look at the dive curve of a crankbait it starts off at the surface, dives to the maximum depth and then rises to the angler. The desired depth may only be attained for 15-20% of the curve.
You are in the fish zone for a short time. The longer the cast , the longer the bait is at the desired depth. As a guide, I instruct fishermen and women with varying levels of skill. Very few can cast a crankbait far enough to make this technique effective. To add to the difficulty, most crankbaits are not aerodynamic, which makes casting long distances very difficult. By adjusting the amount of line let out, my clients can fish a specific depth while trolling and we can be assured the lure is at the desired depth. Additionally, all crankbaits attain greater depth while trolling. This is an important consideration when fish are deep. I consider any depth over 15 feet deep when choosing lure presentations. If I am in less than 15 feet we will cast jig and plastics in most cases. If fish are concentrated in deep water on structure we will use live bait or jigging techniques but when fish are scattered, trolling is the most efficient method to use.
Crankbaits may be the best presentation that can mimic the erratic movement of distressed baitfish. Predator fish don’t chase healthy bait fish around. I have witnessed bait fish swimming among predators consistently. Most of the time the predator fish only attacks when the bait is struggling. This is why crankbaits and twitch baits trigger fish to bite. They mimic a baitfish in distress. When we troll, my clients always hold the rod and impart action on the lure whether it means pulling it forward and allowing the lure to fall back or twitching the bait.
SPECIFIC TECHNIQUES- I will explain 3 specific techniques that I developed to accommodate my clients and increase their ability to catch fish. Each one is specific for a time when fish are found scattered over a large area. If fish are concentrated on specific points, humps, inside turns or drowned trees then other techniques are more effective.
Twitch Baits Over Emerging Weeds
As stated earlier, we always hold on to the rod to impart triggering action to the lure. I developed this technique when other techniques weren’t working and casting the twitch baits was difficult. When fish are scattered over shallow weeds under 8 feet over a large area, I will have my clients let out 50-80 feet of line with a shallow running twitch bait like an X-rap or husky jerk bait. The suspending or slowly rising aspect of the bait is important to trigger a strike.
Using the bow mount trolling motor, I will slowly make parallel passes along the weed edge. I start deeper and run shallower paths. I use the trail marking feature on my GPS to mark my trails and will drop a waypoint when we contact a fish. If a concentration of fish appears, we will spot lock and fish the area more thoroughly. As we are moving slowly, my clients will sharply twitch the lure by jerking the rod forward and down with a double twitch. The key is the pause.
The speed of the boat must be slow enough to facilitate this pause. Usually .5 to .8 mph will accommodate this action but you need to impart slack in the line with the second twitch to create the pause. The cadence is important. It should be twitch, twitch pause. The pause will vary depending on water temperature and fish activity. On cold early mornings or in colder spring water temperatures a pause of 10-15 seconds is necessary. If this is happening then trolling is not the best technique. Slowly moving and targeting casts at specific clumps of standing weeds or drowned wood will be a better approach.
Trolling secondary breaklines on lakes for muskies
This is a technique I have used for trolling for muskies on lakes that have few weeds or areas of the main lake with few weeds. I use this technique primarily for muskies but it can be adapted for other species such as walleye , pike and bass. I have caught lake trout in some Canadian lakes using this technique too. In northern Wisconsin, you may only fish one line per person and a maximum of 3 total lines per boat. On virtually every lake there is a secondary break line where the depth drops suddenly after the lake slopes gently from the shoreline. This breakline sometimes occurs at the intersection of hard to soft bottom. It can be an area where insect larvae, worms and small bait fish congregate and this will draw in predator fish.
I use my GPS mapping unit and split screen my Helix 7 with sonar and side imaging. The GPS allows me to plan my route and anticipate turns I need to make when trolling the breakline. I fine tune my route with the side imaging feature which gives me more detail. Very few lake maps give perfect detail and this is a technique I use to learn structure on lakes. I will troll a new lake first and drop way points as I encounter “fishy” looking structure. That may be a point, inside turn, fish crib or brush pile or an isolated weed bed. I have fished over 130 lakes in northeastern Wisconsin and I have used this technique to scout the lake quickly.
When trolling, we always hold on to the rods to impart more action to the lure. That may be pulling it forward and allowing the lure to rise on the back sweep, creating a jerking motion or allowing a free fall of the lure when trolling heavy plastic muskie baits like bulldogs or Savage gear burbot lures. The most productive lure I have used for trolling are 7” and 9” Grandma lures with the trolling lip. Bucher depth raiders in jointed and straight
models as well as deep diving Ernies have also been productive in deeper water.
Using 8-9 foot rods we can spread our lines across a 25’ swath when trolling with one rod on either side of my boat and one down the middle behind the prop wash. I may vary lure types to accommodate different depths and along the break line. Sometimes bumping bottom will trigger bites and other times fish want a suspended lure. Those are factors you need to fine tune on a daily basis. I normally will troll at a slower speed than other muskie fishermen,usually 2.5-3.5 mph but as stated we will pump the rod to change speeds which I feel is an important factor when ever you troll. Make sure you have a large enough net that can act as a live well and quality release tools including a long nosed pliers and side cutters. Only keep the muskie out of the water a few seconds when taking a picture before releasing them. Just hold them by the tail and allow them to recover. Do not push them forward and backward as this will suffocate the fish.
Trolling the Basin in Late Summer and Early Fall
Late summer and early fall are typically difficult times of year to consistently catch walleyes in northern Wisconsin lakes. My good friend and fellow guide, Lyle Chapman, frequently reminds me that fish will always be near food. Keeping that in mind, my clients and I were fishing a deep water hump in late summer. Fish will gravitate to deep water to feed on abundant perch which feed on insect larvae and worms. We were catching some bass and small walleye and perch on live bait. On a whim, I told my clients we would troll crankbaits to our next spot. Within minutes we had 2 nice walleyes and a muskie in the boat. After a few days of fine tuning the technique, my clients were consistently catching large walleyes and muskies at a surprising rate. The crankbaits we used were Bandit deep diving walleye crankbaits. I had purchased them earlier in the year to fish for walleyes and lake trout on a deep clear lake. These baits will dive up to 29 feet and are buoyant ,which contribute to their effectiveness.
This technique evolved over time and should be a lesson to all anglers to observe the small nuances whenever you are fishing or hunting. One day I guided a family group with a young man, his dad and grandfather. Despite all three anglers using the same technique, the young man caught 5 large walleyes and a northern. His father had several strikes but never was able to land a fish and grandpa had similar results. While I was very happy with the young man’s results, I was dumbfounded as to why he was the only person to catch fish. I have my clients hold their fishing pole while trolling and have them pull the rod forward, speeding up the lure and then allowing the lure to fall back. After analyzing how the young man’s technique varied from his father and grandfather’s technique I remembered that he would pull the lure forward and then drop the tip back suddenly. This allowed slack in the line and the lure would rise and then suddenly dive. This action triggered strikes from the fish at these depths.
Once the technique was fine tuned, I instructed my clients how to create this dive and rise action. However, not every client was able to duplicate the action. I then transitioned into creating this action by manipulating the speed of the boat. I would power the boat to 3 mph and then kick it into neutral and coast to 1.5 mph. This allowed all of the lures to rise and dive simultaneously and gave all of the clients equal opportunity at success. Observing a subtle difference in technique allowed us to increase the success rate tremendously.