Adjusting the Trolling Spread by Capt. Dan Keating

Adjusting the Trolling Spread by Capt. Dan Keating

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Enthusiasm was not in short supply as my six clients came down the dock for their morning charter.

Whether it was the influx of caffeine coursing through their veins, or just the pre-dawn promise of a new day; these guys were just pumped!

Or maybe, it was as simple as the fact that they didn’t have to follow the same-ole-same-ole routine of going to work.

Today, they were going fishing on a vast inland sea and their imaginations were filled with visions of reel screaming drags and fresh fillets for the grill. OK, if I’m honest at this point, I think a few of them were more interested in drinking beer on the water!

I untied the boat and after a 20-minute run, lines were set!

Adrenalin was flowing and . . . we waited. And waited. And waited.

Then a strike! A quick zip of a drag . . . and nothing. Silence.

The only sound above the waves hitting the side of the boat and the rumble of the engine was the heavy breathing from the captain.

They were here yesterday...Did they move?

Are they shut off?

Why are we not catching fish?

These guys are paying a lot of money, we need to find some fish!


Well, the sun rose as it always does, but the fish were not just late to the party, they were a no-show. You know exactly what I’m talking about, you get the hot scoop, set up in prime time, and nothing happens. Or maybe, you have a burst of activity but after the initial feed, it feels more like the Dead Sea than the Great Lakes.

Now what?

Welcome to the world of charter fishing! One of the greatest challenges any angler faces is figuring out how to catch fish when you’re A-Game comes up short.

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Every day on the deck of a charter boat is filled with a multitude of decisions that must be made. If we don’t react to changes and a host of variables throughout the day, the environment, and the temperament of the fish, our catches will be far less.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the decisions that I make every day on the Blue Horizon. Let’s begin with the obvious—are we in the right location? Or, have the fish that we were catching earlier moved? Or, did we set up in a dead zone?

My last book, Great Lake’s Salmon and Trout Fishing, Essential Tactics and Seasonal Strategies takes an in-depth look at how to determine this essential part of the trolling game. But we’re limited on space here, so let’s just assume for this article that you come to the conclusion that you are in the wrong spot.

If that is the case, you need to either troll out of the area or go into hunting mode.

Or, if you have another area that is more than a short troll away, you will want to pickup lines and run. If you are trolling on hunting mode, then go to a speed line up of lures, so you can troll at a faster speed (2.9-3.4 mph).

Let’s look at the key variables that will help us make wise decisions and adjust our spread throughout the day.

What’s the weather like?
Did the wind shift or a front come through?

Weather changes often shut the fish down for a short period of time (30 minutes to an hour), so if the weather changed, sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting out the fish as they will turn back on.

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Since we’ve all bought a zillion lures, let’s talk about how to adjust our lure selection. If you started before the sunrise, now, as the morning progresses, the conditions and visibility in the world below the surface is very different than at dawn.

The sun is climbing higher in the sky and more light is entering the water column at an ever-increasing angle. Think about what the sky conditions and surface texture are like. These both play a heavy part in what fish can see, and how they react to our lures.

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You may have to start changing lure brands but also colors to appeal to what the forage of the fish now looks like. Or, if the fish at first light were feeding and now they are dormant, you will want lures that will trigger negative fish into striking.

Many of us run a heavy spread of flashers and flies at first light.

If the fish are high in the water column, or it is calm and bright, you may have to pull dodgers out of the spread and run more clean spoons or plugs. For the past five years, I’ve found that spoons catch far more fish for me in the afternoon than flashers/flies, with the exception of spring coho and bottom oriented lake trout.

I rarely take all my flashers out of the spread, however, once I’m trying to dial into the bite I will try different leader lengths on flies and I will try short and long fly leaders, just to keep the fish honest.

I also will try some sparse flies, versus newer, thicker flies.

The Howie Flies are the best for this, because as you catch fish on them, their tinsel will wear away and their appearance really takes on a different look. Over time, they become sparser and shorter. This is one of the reasons that top tournament anglers and charter captains across the Great Lakes run Howie Flies.

When making spoon adjustments during the day, the first thing to consider is color.

I’ve seen many days where just changing up the color, or surface pattern (does it have a ladder back, tape, dolphin stripe, spots, etc.) of a spoon, will generate more strikes. Beyond color try changing brands and sizes of spoons in the spread.

Consider glow and UV as separate colors as you make adjustments to your spoons.

As you make adjustments to your lure selection, you also need to think about lead lengths—where in your spread are you running baits. This means, adjust your lead lengths off downriggers, and how far off the side you are running side planers. For example, if you started the morning with short leads off your riggers, you will want to try some longer and medium length leads. If you are running traditional divers, like the Lurk Disco Diver, and they are not producing, either try a longer 8-14 foot lead on them, or use a Slide Diver, which allows you to drop back even further.

Detailed information on all these issues can be found in Great Lakes Salmon and Trout Fishing, Essential Tactics and Seasonal Strategies. I am constantly tweaking lead lengths throughout the day, and also the ratio of flashers to clean baits.

When I look across the water at other boats trolling near me, one of the biggest mistakes I see anglers make is that they just sit back, and drive around waiting for a strike.

Once the sun is up, you have to work. If you are limited on the amount of rods you can run, you may want to change the type of presentations you have in the water.

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Remember, when fishing is tough, running a variety of different presentations helps you dial into the fish faster. And some days, it’s the combination of different rigs in the water, working together, that trigger strikes. If you are running a multi-species spread, a variety of presentations are often best.

So if you only had downriggers and divers in the water, run some lead core or copper lines off side planers. If the fish are on the surface, you will want to run mono side planers. One of the presentations that has been a big producer for me on super tough days is the Torpedo SWR run off a Church TX-44 side planer. I run the large Cuda Torpedo with a Dreamweaver Super Slim, or a standard size Stinger. I like to run this rig inside of my lead core or copper rigs.

As you try different presentations you may find a pattern.

Once you determine what is working, you can adjust your other lines or run more similar rigs to capitalize on the bite. As a charter captain, I fish on the clock and have to produce fish in a limited amount of time.

For this reason, I’ve become very efficient at catching lots of fish fast, when they are active. Since the current fishery is tougher than past seasons, we all have to have this mindset, to maximize our catches.

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As you are adjusting your presentations, lead lengths and lure selection, adjust the vertical position of lures beneath (and to the side) or your boat. If water temps are right, or you have multiple species available, you will want to move things around in the water column.

During the day I like to keep one rod right on the bottom, whether in shallow or out in 200 FOW (this catches all species). Some sunny days you will find that the fish start hitting higher up in the water column because they can see up and then, a lead core or segmented copper off a side planer comes to life.

Every day on the water is different, so you really don’t know until you try.

On the water when the bite slows, roll up your sleeves and think about what is going on around you, both above and below the surface. As you adjust your spread don’t forget to tweak your trolling speeds and angle.

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If you have children, you often have to remind them to “work on the basics.” Whether it’s dribbling, kicking a soccer ball, batting, or throwing a ball. We may be older, but some days, just get the basics right for the day any you will be successful!

- written by Capt. Dan Keating

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