Putting It All Together — The Art of Trolling by Capt. Dan Keating

Boats Lake Erie Lake Huron Lake Michigan Lake Ontario Lake Superior Michigan salmon fishing steelhead Steelhead Fishing

Over the course of the day, salmon and trout make vertical and horizontal movements in the water column. Horizontally they move between shallow and deep water. They also frequently make daily vertical movements in the water column.

Their daily movements are governed by season and environmental factors such as weather, water temperature, structure, light penetration and forage availability.

Are these movements random, or can we, the ever-inquisitive fishermen that we are, anticipate these movements?

chinook salmon charter great lakes fishing

Kings and Steelies will often school in the same water. To catch both, you will have to run deep lines for the kings. When you fish your trolling spread as a team, you can target multiple levels of the water column and expect to catch a mix of species.

If you blend an understanding of Mr. Salmonid’s nature and learn to recognize how weather changes and other environmental factors influence fish, you can anticipate their movements. With time and experience, you will learn to pattern the fish’s movements and make highly educated guesses that will lead you to the fish. This will save you valuable time, not to mention a load of fuel, and lead to more time on the reel and less time wondering if you should be fishing somewhere else.

Big Picture Thinking

Every time you go fishing you are running a spread of lines.

This spread will do one of two things: attract fish into your spread and trigger strikes, or repel fish.

Our goal is to attract maximum attention and convert these fish to strikes! From there, it is all up to the angler on the rod to boat the fish.

Two types of fish will be drawn into your spread: aggressive fish, and those that are merely curious. The former are either hungry or just ticked off and looking to pick a fight with the next guy in the food chain. These are the early morning fish that make life exciting!

Curious fish, which we often encounter throughout the day, are a different creature.

Their stomach is full or they may be overly cautious and just floating around, daydreaming about the early morning buffet they enjoyed. Understanding the temperament of the fish in the water you are fishing will help you determine lure selection.

It will also inform which delivery methods you deploy and will help draw strikes from these two types of fish. Point? As you make adjustments throughout the day you will want to ask, are the fish aggressive or am I trying to catch negative fish?

Some of you may be asking, but what about the fish that run from your boat, the super turned off fish? The ghost fish that we don’t even know are there?

These are the fish that will often take properly presented lures on super stealth presentations.

Building a productive trolling spread (group dynamic) is truly part science, part art, and a healthy dose of experience. You are the coach and your team, your lures and gear will either attract fish into your spread or repel fish. Our goal is to attract maximum fish and trigger maximum strikes.

How do we put our lures in the strike zone? On any given day you may catch fish on the surface, suspended or on the bottom. For this reason, a thorough understanding of all available tactics will give you the flexibility to catch fish throughout the day.

great lakes trolling salmon chinook kings

Learning how to effectively run a multi-dimensional spread will lead to bonus fish, such as this brown trout.

The Basics

Many of us want to skip over the basics and move straight into extra innings.

No matter what sport you play, a good coach will always tell you to practice the fundamentals. The basics become second nature to all great athletes and over time, they don’t even think about them, they just do it.

It’s no different with fishing!

Let’s review, all tactics can be divided into two basic categories: aggressive and stealth. The nature of the fish and external factors will determine which type of tactics will produce maximum action on any given day.

Presentation impacts lure action and signature.

For whatever reason, on some days, fish will only strike lures presented on one method better than others. This may change hourly. For example, fish often strike downrigger baits aggressively early in the morning but once the sun rises they may prefer lures on stealthier coppers, torpedo SWR’s or leads instead of the riggers. A heavy current may also play into this.

Individual delivery devices also impact the relationships within your trolling spread.

For example, if you only run two downriggers, versus three or four, your inner group dynamic will have a different look and feel. Divers, weights, boards and anything else on your line taking a lure out or down will have a bearing on your group dynamic, and the fish.

A combination of tactics may produce best when woven together.

For example, a multi-dimensional spread consisting of a few riggers, two divers, a copper, and a seven-color lead may produce more action than a one or two-dimensional spread consisting of only coppers or only lead core. Obviously, the depth you are targeting will influence which presentations you will want to run.

Another reason to run a mixed spread is that it helps you to listen to the fish and dial in to what they want. If you start with four or five different types of presentations, and the fish are hitting one or two presentations better, you can adjust your other lines. Often, it is a matter of identifying if they want stealth or more aggressive baits. Keep in mind that hot combinations may look very different from one season to the next, and from shallow water to deep water. This is intuitive fishing.

Putting It All Together

Our world and our lives are defined by relationships. It’s no different when we are fishing. As you engineer a spread of trolling lines think about the vertical and horizontal relationships within your spread. Great tournament anglers and charter captains pay close attention to these subtle relational details.

Before dropping the first line, create horizontal and vertical boundaries that will determine where you set your riggers, coppers, divers, etc.

To do this, determine what layers of the water column may hold fish. Water temperature, current and light penetration will determine the vertical boundaries.

The horizontal boundaries are determined by boat size, sea conditions, delivery presentations available, number of anglers, and, most importantly, fish temperament.

What does this look like?

Let’s unpack the vertical dimensions first. Let’s say we’re targeting a mixed bag of kings and steelhead. Kings like cold water, 42-48-degrees. Steelies often are found in the thermocline or just above it. On this theoretical day, we’re trolling in 140-feet of water and the 42-48-degree band of water stretches from 120-feet up to 80-feet.

That is strike box number 1!

steelhead trolling great lakes fishing

Calm seas require extreme stealth tactics to fool sight feeders such as this trophy steelhead.

On this day the thermocline is between 60 and 50-feet. We’re going to want to create a second strike box from 60-feet up to about 45 or 40-feet. This is strike box number 2! As we’re deploying our rigs we will want to intentionally target both of these vertical layers. Let me just say, I love days like this. We can spread out our lines and really catch a load of fish!

Establishing the horizontal dimensions is an art form.

These dimensions of the strike box need to be viewed three dimensionally. First, you have the horizontal boundary that extends at a 90-degree angle port and starboard from the center of our boat. Secondly, the horizontal layer extends linearly on a horizontal plain behind the boat. This is referred to as lead length. This second horizontal relationship is often ignored; however, it is often the most important factor of the day. Collectively, these two horizontal dimensions should be considered as you are setting lines and adjusting your rigs.

Fish temperament, target depth, sea conditions, currents, and your ability to mix multiple presentations will dictate your horizontal relationships. If the fish are aggressive, we’ll want to pack the lures in together and create maximum noise.

If the fish are negative, we will look to deploy trolling rigs that can be spread out to the side of the boat. On flat calm sunny days, or when the fish are suspending in clear water 20-40-feet down, you will want to put maximum distance between your rigs horizontally.

Last summer I had a day where the best rods were segmented leads and I had to run the Church Boards a mile off the side.

Yes, it was a pain! There was boat traffic and I was reeling them in every time I got into traffic, no wonder I have two tears in my shoulder! But it’s what I had to do, to catch super-spooky steelies and kings.

Remember, the vertical and horizontal parameters will change from day to day, and at times, hourly. When woven together, all of your vertical and horizontal relationships are determined by your choice of delivery presentations, line, and how far out you let set your rigs. If you understand the horizontal and vertical dimensions created by controlled depth fishing you will master the group dynamic and learn to set irresistible spreads.

salmon chinook king fishing great lakes

Fishing is a great way for a father and his son to build their relationship.

As you insert lures and gear into your group dynamic a macro pattern will develop. The four most popular patterns are the V, inverted V, the M and the W pattern.

The V pattern places your deepest lines directly beneath the boat. As you move away from the center, the vertical depth of lures rises up in the water column. The M pattern is my most productive. It takes the V concept and forms two legs by dropping one-directional diver on each side to the deepest corners of the strike box.

Obviously, if you’re running coppers and SWR torpedoes off side planers, you can create multiple M’s. The inverted V calls for running your boom riggers deep and a center rigger or two higher up. The W has your corner riggers deep, a lead or copper up the middle and your divers are used to probe higher levels.

Minor Adjustments Lead to Big Fish

When changing lures, lead lengths, depths, speeds, angles and delivery devices, the combined effect of your choices will determine what your group dynamic looks like over the course of the day.

After determining the vertical and horizontal dimensions of your spread you will want to think about the relationships within the group. The distance between the individual lures and delivery rigs is as important as the lures themselves. Every line, delivery device, attractor, and lure is impacting other elements within the spread.

Think of it this way, the right bait run in the wrong location on the wrong delivery device will not catch fish.

When you change a lure or delivery rig, you need to consider how that change will impact the other lures in the water. Within each group dynamic, there may be smaller dynamics or combinations relating to one another. For example, a pair of divers running side by side will almost function like a halfback following a fullback down the field.

Captain Dan Keating. This king was taken well offshore over deep water.

Captain Dan Keating showing the fruits of his labor. This king was taken well offshore over deep water.

Remember, listen to the fish and the environment. Adjust your spread to capitalize on the mood of the fish and what the lake gives you.

If you have a plan before you start setting lines, you will more effectively target fish. You will learn to isolate productive combinations of lures and, you will have far fewer tangles. Sure, it is much easier to just randomly drop lines in the water. Anglers often troll along, thinking everything is neat and orderly beneath the waves. But the ugly reality of multiple line tangles is a clear reminder that lines are not always where we think they are!

Trust me, I’ve probably untangled more miles of fishing line than you can imagine!

- written by Capt. Dan Keating



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  • Reg Behrends on

    Great article, thanks. Would like to learn more about how to know how deep different presentations are, such as lead core verses mono, or dippsy divers. And stick baits compared to spoons. Thanks


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