Speed Traps by Capt. Mike Schoonveld

Speed Traps by Capt. Mike Schoonveld

No one wants to hear fishing stories that are almost 40 years old, but this one has a point to it.

I’d yet to own my own boat for Great Lakes fishing, but I was enamored of the sport and quick to jump on board with anyone willing to take me along. That’s how I found myself on board a rickety old aluminum side console, with a hard-to-start outboard. It was late in the nearshore season. Most of the fish had scooted offshore where even us “kids” knew better than going in that old wave-whacker. 

diver rod great lakes

Caption: Seasoned trollers learn to monitor speed from the bend in diver rods as well as other clues. 

Actually, the ill-running Merc on the stern was key to this story.

It would quit running when the throttle was backed off to idle speed and threatened to die when we backed down to trolling speed. So we kicked it up a notch—actually, two or three notches. 

I don’t know how fast we were going.

Depth finders with speed indicators were as yet to be invented. No matter, we didn’t even have a depth finder. Trolling speedometers may have been invented but we didn’t have one of those, either and we were decades away from GPS technology. 

I did know we were going fast.

Faster than I’d ever trolled for salmon on other begged boat rides. We were going faster than I’d ever trolled for northern pike on up-north trips to Minnesota. To me, we were going so fast I doubted the fish would be able to catch up with the lures, even if they spotted them zipping through the water. 

The result was one of the best days of king salmon fishing I’ve ever experienced.

With a four-rod “spread” (two downriggers and two flat lines) we piled fish into a hundred quart cooler until they wouldn’t fit, went back to the dock, stowed the fish and went back for another load. 

A chrome J-Plug on one rigger and a purple one on the other did most of the work. I never again caught a fish on the purple one, though plenty have been taken since on the “Silver Bullet.”

salmon fishing great lakes

I’ve never caught another king salmon while trolling that fast.

Now that I do have trolling speedometers and GPS units on the boat, thinking back, I’d guess we were trolling at least five miles per hour, maybe seven. We were going fast enough if we went any faster the boat’s bow would start to nudge up as it tried to get up on plane. 

I’ve tried it since then! I’ve pushed the throttle forward until we were going fast enough to feel the wind in our face and the downrigger cables angled back like diver lines. The trick never worked again, with or without a purple J-Plug. 

Another day some friends and I were working a staging area for pre-spawn kings.

The fish-finder screen showed the fish were in.

Kings porpoising around us showed the marks were salmon, not invasive carp or some other non-biting fish. They were all non-biting fish. 

As we made probably our twentieth turn to spin back through the fish-zone, I told the crew, “I’m going to slow way down, this time.” My trolling speedometer showed we’d been towing the lures just shy of 2.5 miles per hour—a tried and true, good average speed for the lures (chrome J-Plugs and others) we were using. I backed down to 1.5 mph and we hooked three kings on the next pass through. (Unlike fast trolling, that trick has paid off numerous times since.)

The point is, some of the time, I’ll go so far as to say most of the time, trolling speed is important and for a variety of reasons. Trolling speed can be the ticket to success or failure. 

One of the reasons most Great Lakes fishing is a trolling sport is because the lakes are huge and the fish are spread out.

A guy casting or drifting, jigging or using other tactics might show his lure or bait to only a handful of fish on an outing. A troller working the same waters can show his lures or bait to dozens of fish. I don’t care what, where or how you are fishing, putting the things the fish are supposed to bite close to the fish you want to bite them is a key to success and the more often you can do it, the better. 

That being said, the faster a fisherman trolls, the more fish/lure encounters are going to happen. One citation claims a salmon can swim 28 miles per hour. If showing lures to numbers of fish were the only key to success I’d get some high speed lures, figure out how to get them down to where the salmon are zipping around and troll around 25 miles per hour. I’d show my lures to plenty of fish. 

copper rod reels great lakes trolling Caption: Speed control equals depth control when using lead core or copper line. 

Of course that’s mostly ridiculous, but not totally.

At the end of the day. If you can catch just as many fish at 2.7 miles per hour as at 2.2 miles per hour, in a six-hour trip you cover three more miles. How many fish were in that extra 3 miles you fished? Even if it was only one, but that one was the biggest of the day, it’s worth it. If you are going to err, make the mistake of going too fast rather than too slow. 

All species of fish in the Great Lakes have a proven preference about what speed of lure they are prone to strike. That “perfect” speed varies from day to day, season to season, maybe place to place. But in general....

Lake trout seem to be lazy and when targeting lakers, slowing down is a better change of tactics than speeding up.

Steelhead are just the opposite. Bumping your speed from normal to faster is more likely to excite these fish than slowing down. When I’m targeting steelhead specifically, I peg my throttle at 3 mph and then speed up.

How fast?

Long ago I wrote an article for GLA called “Steelhead in the Zing-Zone.” In researching this story, I tied on the most speed tolerant lures I owned, (primarily Rebel Fastracs and Rat-L-Traps) and trolled as fast as my planer boards would allow. I caught steelhead at 8 mph. 


King salmon are perhaps the most moody of the salmon and trout.

If I’m specifically after kings, I start around 2.5 and then speed up and slow down to see if which speed is better or worse. 

Where I fish, browns are never my target species. They are always welcome, but I don’t catch enough of them to be able to say more are caught at slow, medium or high speeds. I can say I’ve caught them while creeping along for lakers and zinging along for steelheads. 

Coho are almost the same as browns, other than I do often target them. A rule of thumb is slow down in cold water, go as fast as you want (or can) in warmer water. Along with catching hi-speed steelhead in my Zing-Zone article, plenty of cohos were hooked.

steelhead trolling great lakes

Caption: When it comes to steelhead think troll faster...

I don’t have the experience with walleyes as I do salmon and trout. What experience I have indicates when targeting walleyes the perfect speed has more to do with depth than lure action or their preference for fast or slow-trolled baits. 


As I’ve related in the above anecdotes, correct speed can make you a winner. But is it really the speed?

Can a salmon or other fish really tell the difference between a lure going 2.2 mph and one going 2.5? Is it a match the hatch thing?

Are all the baitfish swimming 2.5 so one only swimming 2.2 is something a predator would avoid?

Without a radar gun, can you tell the difference between a car driving down the street at 22 mph and 25 mph?

Maybe you could tell the difference between 20 and 30. Maybe a fish can tell the difference between speeding baitfish going two mph or three...maybe. If I could swim 28 miles per hour and preyed upon tiny fish swimming along at idle speed, I wouldn’t care. 

So why does speed matter so much? Can you say “lure action?” 

The J-Plugs trolling along behind that leaky, loose-riveted boat we speed trolled long ago had very different action than the slow trolled plugs I’ve scored with since.

great lakes plugs

Caption:  J-Plugs and others will change their action when trolled slow or fast. 

Those Jointed Fastrac seem to buzz through the water when they were chasing down steelheads in the zing-zone. At slower speeds their jointed action is almost snake-like. 

Spoons act differently at different speeds. Plugs and other body-baits do as well. Certainly, dodgers and flashers placed ahead of flies, squids, meatheads or other lures dodge and flash through the water differently as speed changes - and only the fish can tell you, day to day, which look most inviting. 


At one time I had five different trolling speed indicators on my boat. 

1) My GPS unit would measure my “speed-over-ground.” Usually, SOG is close enough to the speed over the surface of the water for the GPS speed to be a reliable tool. If there’s a current present, not so much. 
2) My sonar unit had a paddlewheel type attachment to measure speed at the surface. The faster I went, the faster the wheel “paddled” and the rpms of the wheel converted to a speed readout. The downside of this unit is using it in waves (also a factor on SOG - GPS readings). The readouts are instantaneous and in anything but flat calm conditions the readings will vary. In steep waves the boat speed reading may vary a couple miles per hour. Even if it’s flickering between 2.1 and 2.8—not uncommon—pegging the actual average speed is nearly impossible. 
3) I have a surface trolling speedometer. This one is also a paddlewheel, but the circuitry does the math for me. It averages the amount of time the boat is slowed to 2.1 and speeded up to 2.8 and gives a read-out that seldom varies more than a couple tenths.
4) I’ve had stand-alone trolling speedometers, but my current one has a probe equipped with a paddlewheel that attaches just above a downrigger weight. It measures the trolling speed at the depth of the downrigger weight. Often the two readouts, top and bottom, are nearly the same. But when a current is present, I’ve seen the readings differ as much as two miles per hour.
5) Before there were trolling speedometers or GPS, many boats did come with an ersatz trolling speed indicator in the form of an engine tachometer. The drive train on a boat is direct from the motor to the propeller. When wind, waves or current is negligible, nudging the throttle to a specific engine rpm would spin the prop at a specific rpm and that would move the boat at a commensurate speed. With no other measures available, it’s impossible to say 800 rpms on the tach moved the boat at 2.4 or any other speed, but if 800 on the tach worked, at least it was a repeatable speed. (Until the boat turned from downwind to upwind.)
6) I’m saving the best for last. As much as I rely on the electronic speed indicators, the one I use most is experience and that’s driven by little clues. I do check the speed readouts frequently, but when I’m not watching them, I take note of the deflection of the downrigger cables where they enter the water. Some guys swear they can watch the amount or length of the bubble streams off the cables just under the surface and gauge speed. I also watch the bend in my diver rods and the angle the diver line assumes as the boat trolls along. 


I listen to the RPMs of the motor more than I watch the tachometer.

I know when everything looks and sounds right and if something seems amiss, then I consult the surface speed, the probe speed or the GPS reading. When it’s all good, most of the time so is the fishing. 


Caption: A GPS readout on a chartplotter is a good start to watching your trolling speed.


If you are fishing from a moving boat and trying to keep a lure at a precise depth somewhere between the surface and the bottom, you are using guesswork to some degree. The faster the troll, the shallower you need to guess. 

probe downrigger fishing trolling

Caption: A probe attached to a downrigger can help speed control in areas with strong currents. 

Sure you have meters on your downriggers and line-counters on your diver reels.

Regardless of whether or (probably) not, is a lure trailing behind a downrigger weight with 60 feet of cable deployed really 60 feet deep? Not if your boat is moving.

Water pressure on the cable, downrigger weight, fishing line and lure pendulums the weight back and up. At slow speed 60 feet of cable on the counter may put your lure only 55 feet below the surface; at a fast troll, the lure may only be tracking at 45 feet deep. 

The same thing happens to your diver lures.

Trolling speed is very important to how much dive you can expect from your divers. More speed, less dive. 

Speed is even more a factor when using weighted lines, lead core line or copper wire line. The correlation isn’t linear, but it’s close. Boosting speed a certain percent decreases the depth nearly the same percent. Example: An increase in speed from two mph to 2.5 mph is a 25% increase. The lure on your long line running at 60 feet deep at two mph will be close to 45 feet once you speed up.  


Want to judge the effect of speed on a lure easily without having to adjust the throttle? Just turn the boat.

The lures running on the outside of the turn will speed up and ride higher in the water column, the lures on the inside of the turn will slow down and drop deeper. Use bites that occur when turning as a clue to what you need to do next. Either speed up, slow down or simply adjust the level at which you are running your lures.  

Written by Capt. Mike Schoonveld 

email: mike@bronature.com

Mike's Outdoor World Blog: www.bronature.com

Brother Nature Charters Blog: www.brother-nature.info

Michigan Outdoor News Blog: www.outdoornews.com/michigan 


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Correction, in general u can expect more dive if more speed. Opposite compared to weighted lines.


Great article

IMO speed has been so important over the years because there was no direct way to live measurements of depth of the lures. Within a couple of MPH range a change in Speed affects depth far more than it affects lure action. I know captains who always fish slower than 2.0 and others who always fish faster than 2.5 and they both catch fish. I think they have learned how to get to the right depth at different speeds.

A change of 0.5 MPH can change your presentation depth by 20 feet.

Smart troll

Great article

IMO speed has been so important over the years because there was no direct way to live measurements of depth of the lures. Within a couple of MPH range a change in Speed affects depth far more than it affects lure action. I know captains who always fish slower than 2.0 and others who always fish faster than 2.5 and they both catch fish. I think they have learned how to get to the right depth at different speeds.

A change of 0.5 MPH can change your presentation depth by 20 feet.

Smart troll

Speed Kills!! Very detailed and informative piece.

Michael Cpllins

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