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Structure Trolling

This is a page about a technique that I have used for years. It is one of my most productive fishing techniques for all types of species and it's useful in many more situations than you might expect. Believe it or not I have had exceptional results structure trolling for salmon in 300 feet of water. I have also done great on pike by structure trolling in 3 feet of water. It's worked in the icewater of Lake Superior and in the bathwater of Kentucky Lake and even the bluewater ten miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. As far as I am concerned, structure trolling is probably the singlemost universally productive fishing technique that I know about. And it's a kick ass way to catch muskellunges - in Lake St. Clair, inland lakes like Skegemog, and everywhere else that they live.

First the definition of what structure trolling is. This one is not in Webster's Dictionary so I'll just have to invent my own. I proclaim it to be "to fish by pulling a lure(s) with a boat in a manner so that the path of the lure remains in a predetermined positional envelope relative to some defined physical parameter that concentrates fish". If you don't like my definition then too bad, it's all you're going to get. Besides, what did you expect from a rocket scientist? Just suck it up and read on. You will notice that the "structure" part is open to interpretation. The important thing is that you realize that structure does not necessarily mean drop-offs, sunken wrecks, points, rockpiles, and specific objects like that. These are all types of structure but so are bottom contours, weedlines, and even sometimes temporary features like thermal and color breaks. To engage in the practice of structure trolling it's a good idea to first figure out what the structural element is that is concentrating the fish. This is pretty easy to do if you pay attention to what's going on around you and that's what the next paragraph is all about.

I believe that to do really good muskie fishing you need to figure out the pattern. There are three parts of a pattern, where they are, what they want, and how they want it. This page is about the first and third parts. If you want to know about the middle part then go to the Terminator™ Lures Page ha ha. Anyway, when I get out fishing the first thing I do, before even putting a single lure out, is to drive around and try to find some big fish. I watch the graph and when I mark some big ones I save the location with an icon(s) on my GPS. If the area seems to be holding a reasonable number of big fish, plus maybe some decent water color and/or baitfish too then we start trolling around. At first it's kind of random trying different depths and different lures and colors and presentations. I add icons whenever I mark big ones and especially if we get a hit. The whole time I am paying attention to the water depth. Many times there will be a correlation; the beginning of a pattern. Maybe most of the good size fish seem to be in sixteen feet of water. If so, I'll start keeping the boat more in the sixteen foot depth range because the fish may be depth oriented and holding on the sixteen foot contour line. Maybe all of a sudden you quit marking them in your sixteen foot deep water. Well, turn around and go back the opposite direction and see what happens. The area with the fish might extend for some distance the other way. Try a little deeper or a little shallower. Sometimes we'll find that something else is important like water color, baitfish, or submerged weeds. It might not be the depth at all - but a lot of the time it is. We will generally find that if the fish are relating to a specific depth range they will do that consistently for some time and across a fairly large area. Anything extra down there on the sixteen foot contour will concentrate them even more. If you get this part of the pattern figured out, and then get a good lure color, type, and presentation figured out, you're going to be in fat city. Stay in the area with the fish and keep running what works and you'll have a great day! Without exception, every single one of my best days, and I mean the days with LOTS of BIG fish, all involved some type of structure trolling. My best day ever on Lake St. Clair we boated six muskies over 48" long plus about ten smaller ones - structure trolling. Five of my seven 30lb muskies so far have come structure trolling. Thirty-eight salmon boated in one day - structure trolling. In all these cases the key was to get the pattern figured out and then stay on the fish!

Assuming that you have figured out a specific depth, the way to stay on it is obviously by using your depthfinder. There is a trick to this. It's an awesome trick and it got me my first thirty pound muskie ever. It works in all water depths where muskies will be found and it will take your structure trolling to new levels of precision. I absolutely guarantee that it will improve your success in some areas of Lake St. Clair, and if you fish smaller inland lakes the difference can be phenomenal! In fact, it's such a good trick that I should get paid just for telling you about it. But nope, this is a freebie, courtesy of your bud, the Rocketman. Are you ready to hear about it? Well, then you need to hear the story of my first big muskie.

Before I had a big enough boat for Lake St. Clair and the Great Lakes I liked to troll for pike in inland lakes. It was just like miniature muskie fishing. I used a 12 foot johnboat, Swim Whizzes and Believers, and a combination of long rods and downrods and downriggers. I had a little gas motor on the back and an electric on the front. My technique was to troll around the shoreline in various little lakes like Devil's Lake and the Halfmoon Lake chain. One day I got the brilliant idea that it sucked always getting snagged in weeds and sunken debris. By the time I would see the crap on my depthfinder it was too late and I would be hearing all my drags going off at once. I realized that the problem was that I could not "see" where I was going with my transom mounted transducer. All I could see was where I had been. It was like trying to drive a car by looking in the rearview mirror. So, I got another transducer and stuck it on the electric motor up front. That worked a lot better. Then I figured out to tilt the front motor up a little so that the transducer was pointing slightly forward. That was it, forward looking front mounted sonar! All of a sudden my ability to follow the structure improved immensely. My rate of snagging went way down and pike catching went way up. I became the Terror of Patterson Lake and my Coleman Crawdad johnboat became Slimetime Jr.

Eventually I got a bigger boat. The first year I had it I went up to Elk Lake for a week vacation. Of course, I spent some time trying for muskies but I was right back to the same old crap of getting weeded all the time and not catching many muskies. I did have a bow mounted foot-control electric on that boat (Slimetime I) so I bought another transducer and mounted it angled forward on the electric. All of a sudden I could actually follow the "structure" which, in the case of Skegemog especially, is the deep edge of the cabbage weeds. I started to catch muskies with some regularity. One day I went out in Skegemog and it was terrible cold front conditions with high winds and brilliant blue skies. But it was a full moon day and the prime time was 2:00pm to 4:00pm so I figured I would try it then. I was doing my thing like usual and really paying attention to following that submerged weedline as closely as possible. While going around the deep basin I discovered this little pocket in the weedline. It was so small that there was barely enough room to turn the boat around in it. I had never even noticed it before I had that forward looking front transducer. Just as I was coming out of that little pocket the inside downrod went screaming and the next thing I knew there was my first 30 pound muskie lying in the bottom of the boat. I would never have caught that fish without the ability to follow that deep weedline with total precision. That's boat control to the max!

My Lund, the venerable muskieboat Slimetime II, has forward looking front mounted sonar too. I mounted a wide angle transducer onto the electric motor housing and used a rubber wedge to angle it forward about 15°. There are places in Lake St. Clair with awesome structure that can hold big muskies at times. There are submerged cabbage weedlines. There are points and cuts and piles of dredgings. There are also some superb drop-offs that you could never stay on properly without forward looking sonar. The day that we boated the six 48+" muskies we were right on one of those drop-offs and we were running just two downroads. The fish were super tight on the edge in exactly 11 1/2 feet of water. I was driving the boat with my face glued to the depthfinder and my buddy was watching for other boats, LGMs, and keeping the captain from running low on the beverage of choice. The structure there (nope not tellin' where) is so intense that you can't even look up from the screen if you want to stay in the fish zone. Do it wrong and you crash the lures or catch nothing. Do it right and it's like the MuskieGod just bent over and pulled her skirt up!

When trolling an area with steep drop-offs and a lot of contours I have found that the downrods are the hottest setup going. If you can run more rods then make the additional ones downrods too. If you have them, downriggers are also a good option. Both downrods and downriggers can be run with short lines, like about 10 to 15 feet of line on the downrods and about 6 feet of line back from the cannonballs on the downriggers. Set them short like that and the lures will follow the track of the boat perfectly. When you are trolling that kind of intense structure long lines will cut corners and not stay in the zone and obviously boards will be way out of it. Stick with your downrods - and downriggers if you have them. When trolling around inland lakes, or in areas of Lake St. Clair with steep drop-offs, you can also set the lines differently depending on which side of the boat the rods are on. The downrods on the deeper side can be set a little longer and/or with more weight to get the lures down more. You can set the cannon balls at different depths too. The goal is to keep the all the lures as close to the structure as possible. A typical set up might be like this:

Structure Trolling Setup

As you can see from the picture a few feet of deviation in the boat path would cause the lures to get weeded, hit bottom or get out of the fish zone. If you reverse course then you will need to reverse the way the lines are set. I have found that for inland lakes it's easier to troll in a clockwise direction. That way I can keep an eye on the shoreline while fishing, which is a good idea if there are docks and rafts and other hazards to navigation. As you drive around the lake, or down the structure line, and you are doing it right you will be constantly steering the boat and making turns. This will cause the lures on either side of the boat to speed up and slow down. I believe that this erratic action of the lures adds even more fish catching effectiveness. Once you get good at this technique you can keep your lures in the fish zone nearly 100% of the time. You will also find all kinds individual structures that you probably never realized were there. You will be able to see which ones are holding fish, and even identify specific big fish. If you find a big one you can loop around and go over it again, even more than once. I have done this many times and got strikes on the second, third, and even fourth pass over the same fish. I guess that eventually the muskie got pissed off with the lures in it's face and it hit. The only drawbacks of this technique are that it is difficult to do alone and it tends to burn you out after a while. That's why you need to have your buds along to watch where you are going and to take over driving when your eyes start bugging out of your head from watching the screen too long. Of course, MuskieBabes are nice to have along provided that they aren't dressed in an excessively distracting manner.

There are other structures that will also concentrate muskies. We have done well in Lake St. Clair just following a very gently sloped contour line. Stony Point, the Pikes Creek / Puce River areas, and the US side of the main lake are good examples of this type of structure. We usually find the fish holding in anywhere from about 9 to 17 feet of water depending on other conditions like time of year, weather, and water clarity. The fish generally are not holding at all tight to the bottom either. They are suspended at different depths - but over a constant water depth. In areas like these with gradual depth changes and suspended fish the forward looking sonar is not that critical, and you can use your planer boards too, but the overall concept the same. Find the right depth zone and stay on it.

The Belle River Hump is also an interesting area. It is actually a long sunken point that runs north and south. If the wind is from the west (or east) that can cause different conditions on either side of the hump. There have been times when a distinct water color break would develop on the downwind side of the hump. The key to catching fish then was to run parallel to the hump and watch the color break visual structure rather than the water depth. Other times the fish might stack up on the sides or top of the hump and catching them is more a matter of staying on the right part of the hump rather than staying at a certain depth.

One time while salmon fishing we totally pounded them by trolling the thermal structure. There was a temperature break with the surface temperature dropping about 10°F in a very short distance. On the warm side the prime salmon temperature of 54°F was down about 60 feet deep. On the cold side it was down about 40 feet deep. The wind was blowing the warmer water over the colder water so there was this weird diagonal thermocline that we could see on the graph. At the surface there was a huge slick where the warm and cold water met. There were a bunch of charter boats fishing right in the slick but they weren't doing well at all. We wound up fishing about 100 yards off to the side of the slick in the warm water with our lines down at 50 feet deep, exactly between the 54°F depth in the warm and cold water masses. As long as we kept that thermocline at 50 feet on the graph, and kept the lures right there at that exact depth, we were getting one on every few minutes. The charter boats on the radio were going nuts trying to figure out what we were doing. This made me really appreciate the value of other types of structure. I have remembered that lesson and have had some exceptional days in Lake St. Clair trolling a similar temperature and color break "structure" way out in the middle of the lake.

There are some structure trolling situations where planer boards can be effective. Earlier I mentioned using boards when following a gradually sloping specific depth contour line. This is usually applicable to somewhat deeper water in larger lakes where you would not have to make a lot of sharp turns to maintain your depth.

The other situation where boards are good is when the fish are in very shallow water. I mean water that is so shallow that running the boat there would spook the fish or destroy your prop. An example of this situation is during the fall frog migration. In Lake St. Clair this occurs sometime between mid-October through early-November. The frogs will migrate from land to the water where they will go bury themselves in the mud for the winter. They only need to get into deep enough water so that it will not freeze all the way to the bottom, and that means only 2-4 feet deep. The muskies take advantage of this situation and go right there in that shallow water and chow on the little buggers. If you want to catch these shallow water muskies one of your best weapons is your planer boards. Towards evening you might want to try trolling with your boat in about 5 feet of water and running lures off the boards with real short line and no weight. The board on the shoreline side might only be running in a couple feet deep water so that side will need to have the lures set with only about 5 - 10 feet of line out. It seems like this works best on nasty drizzly or rainy evenings and in areas where the shoreline is swampy. Run frog patterns and hang on. If the deep side board is getting the hits then move your boat out into deeper water because obviously the muskies haven't moved up shallow yet (duh!).

Other shallow water structure areas that you can troll with planer boards are lilly pad or reed edges or sunken logs. In this case it's important to run your board pretty close to the boat and steer the boat so that the board stays as close as possible to the edge of the vegetation or the sunken logs. Don't worry about the water depth the boat is in; pay attention to where the board is instead. Again, you will need to run your lure on a short line. These areas usually produce best in low light conditions and/or when there is an onshore breeze. If you find areas like this with some deeper water close by then so much the better. In all these very shallow water situations the key to effective trolling is to use your planer boards to fish structure that you can't get to with your boat.

The rest of the key to success is your presentation. I already talked a little bit about the rods and downriggers and boards. As long as you have the fish location figured out, then it's just a matter of fine tuning your presentation. This is getting the right lure and color and running it at the proper depth. You should already know a lot about how to figure out lure selection from my Setups and Tips pages. Here are a few more useful tidbits of information. When we start fishing we like to mix things up a lot to try to figure out what the mooskies want. It's a good idea to run a variety of colors so you need to know what your buds are running so you aren't duplicating things. Run all different colors and setups to start. If one lure gets hit it then the muskies have told you something. What was it, white or yellow belly? Dark or bright color? Perch or frog or minnow or wormy or natural pattern? How deep was it running? It might be a good idea to put out something else similar (only one) in a similar rod position and see what happens. If the original lure and/or the similar one gets hit again then you might be onto something. Maybe add one more. If they all start going then say "Thank You Muskie MuskieGod" and load up with as many of that hot lure as you can run. You have got that dial turned all the way to muskies and now you're going to get your just reward!

I hope that this information helps to improve your fishing success. If you have any additional super-effective secret tricks that you would be willing to share then send me an email and I will try them out myself first for a couple years....just to verify that they work of course.

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