Trolling With a Fly?

Posted by  Friday, September 20 2013 6:00 am
expert

For most of us, fly fishing conjures up images of anglers making long, graceful casts. This is certainly the classic approach, but it's not the only one. After all, casting is only a means to deliver your fly to the water. That's where the fish are and that's where your fly needs to be to catch them.   Why is it, then, that so many anglers shun the idea of trolling with fly-fishing gear? I'm not sure, but I suspect this prejudice has more to do with style and aesthetics than the merits of the tactic.

marabou-muddler
Marabou Muddler

Trolling, after all, allows you to present your offering, precisely and quietly, to a slew of productive spots in lakes or large rivers. It's efficient in that it always keeps your fly in the game. And it can be a devastatingly effective tactic for trout, bass and a host of other sport fish too.

Better still, it is the great equalizer, especially when someone with less than stellar casting abilities is aboard the boat; in other words, when you're trolling, everyone has a chance. And, as if that's not enough, there's no better way to prospect for hot spots on a new lake.   Need one more reason? Well, when the wind makes casting dangerous or difficult, you can continue fishing if you opt to troll.

Streamers Rule

You can troll successfully with wet flies, but streamers and trolling flies are the obvious choice. That's because they can be made to imitate leeches, minnows, crayfish, or even ridiculous-looking things that are, for some strange reason, irresistible to fish.   My favorite flies for this tactic includes Beadhead Wooly Buggers; Gray and Black Ghosts; white, yellow, and black Marabou Muddlers; and Seaducers. All of these are tied in sizes 4 to 8.

Of course, these choices are personal and work well in the waters I fish, but there are countless other flies that will do the trick too. The important thing is to experiment and have faith and confidence in the fish-catching potential of whatever flies you choose.

Having said that, here's some advice that might be useful when developing a trolling arsenal. First, streamers tied with feathers or marabou pulsate and look livelier in slower water than bucktails do. 

Second, if you are fishing your flies in deeper or stained water, a little bit of flash added to the fly won't hurt a bit. But neither will basic black, which silhouettes well, when fish are attacking from below.

In the end, however, the fish will always be the final judge. So experiment with colors, flies, and action until you find what they like. And, every now and then or when the tried and true doesn't work, try something new.

smallmouth
Smallmouth caught while trolling a fly.

What's My Line?  

Most times, trolling with a floating line and weighted fly works well enough. But if I have the pleasure of another angler's company, I will suggest that one of us fish a sinking or sink-tip line just in case the fish are holding a little deeper. After you hook a few fish, you'll figure out what depth they are suspended at and, hopefully, adjust accordingly. When it comes to leaders, I prefer a short level fluorocarbon leader, 4- to 6-feet in length, attached to my sinking lines. I'll double that on my floating lines. The former keeps the fly from lagging too high above the sinking line on the descent; the latter permits a weighted fly to drop a bit below the floating line. In either case, use the lightest leader you can get away with.

A Bit of Teamwork  

When fishing with another angler, you have another important advantage: you can both use different flies. This allows you to cycle through a variety of colors and patterns until you zero in on what the fish prefer. I've been amazed at the number of times that an olive woolly bugger with a bit of crystal flash, for instance, will radically outfish a plain olive wooly bugger on some days.

This might seem like a small difference, but not to the fish. If you have two anglers constantly experimenting, you'll find these things out that much sooner. And you'll have someone to take a photo of you when you finally land that lunker.  

The Need for Speed

Speed is critical to trolling success, especially with flies. They just won't pulsate correctly if you are trying to set some speed record on the water.  

Even so, there are no hard and fast rules. I prefer to start as slow as my trolling motor (a four-stroke, 4-horse) will allow and zigzag over productive cover until I find fish. If this doesn't work, I'll increase my speed slightly.

A handheld GPS is helpful because it permits you to monitor exact speed and remain at the pace that is working best.  

It's important to pay attention to wind and currents too. When trolling against either, you need to increase your motor's output to attain the same speed. Conversely, if you can't troll slowly enough, back trolling or trolling against the wind and current are all viable solutions. Also, take note if your hits are coming on an inside turn (when the fly is deeper and traveling slower) or outside turn (when it's higher and faster). This observation provides valuable clues about the depth and speed at which you should be fishing.

Structured Approach

Although many fly fishing purists wouldn't think of it, a good depth finder can contribute significantly to your success, especially on a new lake. They reveal high-percentage spots such as shoals, drop offs, saddles, and weed beds and allow you to fish them with an exactness that even years of local knowledge couldn't match.

Generally, I troll towards structure like shoals, from deep to shallow water, and then away from it. I also zigzag along the edges of drop offs and weed lines until I locate fish. Pay attention to the strikes and you'll soon develop patterns and trolling routes that do not waste much time over unproductive waters.  

seaducer
Seaducer

Hooking Up

When trolling with a fly rod the hook set is a bit different. Generally, it requires more effort since the fly is often being fished with a longer line. So, when you detect a hit, sweep the rod back and remove slack with a quick tug from your line hand. That, combined with the forward movement of the boat, often ensures a solid hook up. A stiff-action rod is helpful too. Fish will often hook themselves, too. Unfortunately, this is frequently superficial and easily shook, so drive the hook home.

As always, the more line you have out, the more difficult it is to drive the hook home. Typically, we'll begin trolling with 35 to 50 feet of line out behind the boat. If you can get away with it, fish less line than that. If fish are spooky, however, you might have no alternative than to fish a bit more.

One Last Run

Though not very glamorous, trolling with a fly rod is effective and even fun once you get the hang of it. You get to cover a lot of water efficiently, feel bone-jarring strikes and enjoy surprising success.

As in all angling, the name of the game is figuring out the patterns. Should I use a light or dark fly? A floating or sinking line? Fish the weed beds or shoals? Troll fast or dead slow?  

There are times when the key to catching fish is buried deep within one of those questions. And finding the answer can be frustrating. But when all that knowledge comes together, you'll be happy that you gave your casting arm a rest.

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Last modified on Tuesday, December 10 2013 2:33 pm
Steve Galea
expert

Steve Galea makes his living as an assistant editor for Ontario Out of Doors magazine, where he is best known for My Outdoors, his back page humor column that has run continuously since 1996. He also writes columns for five weekly newspapers across Ontario and has contributed to several books on the outdoors. When not writing, Steve spends time fly fishing and tying. He also enjoys using bow, rifle or shotgun, depending on the hunting season. His English springer spaniel Callie is an eager grouse and woodcock dog and he values time afield with her.

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