5 Keys to Trolling Success

Depth Control, Speed, Lure Action, Placement, and Boat Control Matter

Two men in a boat trolling lures

Ken Schultz

The secret to consistently successful trolling isn’t using special equipment or finding a hot place. It’s presenting your lure most effectively. If more people really understood this, fewer of them would be wandering around doing the wrong thing and unintentionally depending on luck.

Like any other method of fishing, trolling demands figuring out where and how to make the best presentation. No matter what species you seek, the following factors are common, and critical, to effective trolling.

Depth Control for Trolling Lures

The most important of these factors is knowing and controlling where your lure is. You can’t catch fish consistently unless your lure is in the right place. Expecting any species to come up or go down more than a short distance is unrealistic; most will only come up a little, and few go down. In trolling, a lure goes by a fish pretty quickly; the fish doesn’t have a lot of time to think about striking. If the lure isn’t close to the level of the fish, the chance of seeing it let alone striking it is far less.


Most anglers don’t fully appreciate the vital role speed plays in trolling, which may explain why trolling is a hit-or-miss proposition for so many. Speed relates to the behavior of the fish you seek; the type of lure or bait being used; and to boat maneuvering techniques.

No matter what kind of fish you troll for, or what tackle and type of boat you use, you'll get more out of your lures by paying close attention to the speed at which they’re working. The correct speed is the one that gets the right action out of your lures and is correct for the fish you seek.

Lure Action 

The pulling of a lure by the boat is akin to retrieving a lure that is cast, except that more variables can affect lure action. Some of these are quite obvious and can be controlled or countered, including current, waves, wind velocity and direction, type and weight of boat, and power of the engine.

Some are more subtle, however, and need to be in the minds of every troller. For example, not all lures work well at the same speed. Some lures are incompatible with others because they require different speeds to work best. Be careful when mixing lure types while trolling. Some lures only work well at slow speeds and may run awry when trolled quickly, thus having almost no chance of catching a fish.

Side and Back Placement

Placing lures at a specific depth is a major element in trolling, but so is considering how far they should be behind the boat and to the side of the boat. Some fish — usually in clear water, in shallow water, or near the surface — are extremely wary, which greatly affects how and where you set trolled lures. When open-water fish are shallow, you need to get lures horizontally distant from a boat, since the fish will move away from the noise of the moving boat. This is where sideplaners and planer boards come into play because they spread trolling lines out. Directional diving planers can do the same thing; when adjusted to run off to the side, they take a lure down and outward.

The distance behind the boat, which is called setback, is a separate issue. Setback distance depends on the type of fish, water clarity, boat traffic, and lures being used, as well as the method of fishing.

Boat Control

Where a trolled lure is at any given time is largely dependent on how you maneuver the boat that pulls it, and how you counteract elements that would affect your trolling, especially wind and current.

One of the greatest mistakes made by trollers is to fish at the same boat speed when heading into the wind as when moving with the wind. Another is following the same straight path endlessly. It is no coincidence that many fish are caught when boaters speed up or slow down and when they make turns.