Row, Row, Troll Your Boat
…a Fresh Take on an old Technique
By: Author and fishing guide Patricia Strutz’s
Once, row trolling was the only game in town. Back in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s all the professional guides row trolled and considered it an invaluable tool. Then along came smoother running outboard motors, electric trolling motors, and specialized casting equipment. Rowing fell out of fashion. With the current trend of interest toward silent sports, a whole new generation of fishermen are now embracing this nostalgic technique. However, diehard row trolling adherents, this scribbler included, have long touted the many advantages this method offers. Why choose to row when one can motor troll, cast, or drift? The reasons are endless…
Why Row Troll?
Motor trolling in certain areas, such as Class A musky lakes I fish in Northern Wisconsin, is illegal. Row trolling can be more efficient than motor trolling because there is no noise or water disruption from the motor. It is much easier to sneak up on a skittish school of walleye this way. This is especially helpful when fish are in shallow or clear water. Small row boats can gain access to many lakes where motors are not allowed. Often times, these lakes have had little fishing pressure resulting in a population of “lure dumb” fish.
Row trolling is more constructive than drifting because the speed and direction of the boat can be controlled. This is extremely important when fish are finicky-such as schooling up and feeding only at the 9' depth. It is environment friendly. There is no gas or oil to affect the aquatic bug or weed life. There is also no noise pollution. Peace, solitude, and serenity are offered to fishermen seeking respite from the buzz of city life. This is a wonderful way to introduce women to the sport of fishing.
Many gals love to canoe or kayak, row trolling is the fisherman’s answer to these silent sports. Row trolling can produce when a slower presentation is required. In frigid water the fish are lethargic. They may respond to a 1 mph row trolled bait much better than a series of quicker casted retrieves. It is also an effective way to access fish in deep, clear lakes. Most recreational boating traffic (and fishing pressure as well) is concentrated along the periphery of the lake. Row trolling through deep basins, among schools of bait fish and over mid-lake humps, provides accessibility to fish seeking a safe haven from all this commotion.
Rowing is a wonderful sport all on it’s own. Catching a fish is just the icing on the cake! It provides fantastic exercise and when coupled with trolling it offers the satisfaction of working toward a goal. It gets you out there moving and relating to the subtleties of the lake, rowing makes fishing more of an active sport. There is also the nostalgic appeal.
This technique is steeped in history and tradition. Many folks drawn to the allure of simpler times find row trolling an invitation to yesteryear. Where it really shines, however, is during cold, rainy, or snowy weather (perfect fishing weather!). It is a great way to keep warm when out chasing lunkers in the early springtime or blustery autumn afternoons. What Is It? Row trolling at its simplest is taking a small row boat out, finding some structure or a concentration of bait fish, and, by working the oars, dragging a couple of lines with some enticing lures through them. This is how it has been done for decades. It can still be that simple today. Of course, with new technology and all the specialized electronics offered now, it can also be as complex as you want to make it. Just about any species of fish can be taken while row trolling. Each quarry demands different tools to achieve success in catching them with consistency.
The Gear - Boat selection should be determined by the species you are pursuing. If you are searching for walleyes or bass, row trolling will find you near brush piles where lures are often snagged up. A lightweight and easily maneuvered boat is imperative. If you are chasing the crafty muskellunge, a sturdier boat that allows you to stand and land a 30# fish is optimal. One caveat: don’t get into a stubborn “purist mindset.” The option of adding a motor to your row boat will make your time on the water much more enjoyable and efficient. Electric trolling motors will power a lightweight, cedar-strip row boat. My guiding row troller is a17’ long fiberglass boat with a 50” beam. It sports a full length keel-very stable, but at aheavy 300 pounds I choose a 8 hpr Mercury to power back to my rowing route when faced with a strong headwind. Electronics definitely have their place, too.
Perhaps the biggest technological advance to enhance row trolling is sonar equipment. Accurate depth finders allow the troller to systematically approach a piece of water instead of just by happenstance. For walleyes or bass, 6 to 6 ½' medium action rods equipped with 8# test monofilament line on either spinning or baitcasting reels are the basic tools. Long, whippy 8' poles work well when the fish are especially finicky. This allows the lure to be presented further away from the boat and the ability to detect even the most subtlehits.
In early spring and late fall, when the water temperatures are cold, fathead minnows on weedless hooks with a small weight attached 8" above the hook is the ticket. Summertime finds ‘eyes suspended in deep water and this is the time to speed up presentations and use deep diving crankbaits such as Wally Divers, Rapala Countdowns, and Shad Raps. If the fish are still relating to weeds, row trolling leeches or nightcrawler rigs are effective tools, also.
During the late fall when the fish are feeding heavily, trophy sized walleye can be caught by offering oversized crankbaits more typical of large game fare. Try musky plugs such as Bucher’s Depthraider or Musky Mania’s Jake. If you prefer to chase the larger game fish, such as muskies, your equipment will need to be heavier duty. Use at least 7'6" rods, medium-heavy action, equipped with baitcasting reels full of 30# monofilament line. Tie on a 3’-4’ fluorocarbon leader for protection against bite offs. Composite rods (a combination of fiberglass and graphite) are your best bet. Glass rods are too flexible to provide proper hook setting capabilities at slow row trolling speeds and graphite rods can shatter in cold temperatures.
Artificial baits are the most popular choice, with crankbaits far outnumbering any other lure. Grandmas, Jakes, Ernies, and Depth Raiders are common fare. Weighted bucktails run a close second. Experimentation is required as the slow speeds commonly used during row trolling can result in lures displayed in a much different pattern than one is accustomed to while motor trolling. When faster presentations are required jointed baits deliver more action.
Techniques... Walleye fishing requires setting up a slow drift, feathering your oar, and getting your boat to slide along a weed edge or rock bar. Then you row backwards over the same area to cover as much territory as you can. Use your sonar to locate fish, then cast from the front of the boat, and start to row while the jig/minnow combination drifts back of the stern. Row some more while slowly dragging the lure behind the boat then recast and start the process over. When fish are neutral, this technique results in trailing the minnow over the top of them and easing it in front of their faces which can provoke even the most tight lipped fish to finally strike. Pay attention to slight differences in your riggings. Small variations, such as jig color, liveliness of live bait, test # of lines, etc. can produce sharply different results.
Set up a few lines rigged with different colors and at varying depths. Note which arrangement is producing the most strikes and replicate it exactly. Since muskies do not generally school like walleyes, triggering one of these toothy creatures to bite requires a different approach. A wider presentation of lures is needed to locate active fish. This often entails running planer boards out on both sides of the boat and flat lining a couple of lures off the back. (Check with your local regulations as to how many lines each angler is allowed.) Lure selection should be diversified providing a variety of depths, colors, and actions.
Muskies often follow their prey, studying it for a bit. Compared to casting, row trolling provides an extended length of time for the fish to do this, but a catalyst must be provided to coax them to strike. Displaying lures that generate lots of wobble, portraying a wounded fish, works.However, “zig zagging” a break line is, perhaps, the most useful approach. This erratic action parades the baits across varying depths and, most importantly, accelerates them when making a turn. Large predators can find changes in speed irresistible. Another crucial factor that is mandatory when row trolling for any species is the ability to present the lure on the outside of the school of bait fish. Once you’ve located the mass of bait fish on your sonar, run the lure below, above, or beside it. The predators are often lurking there, waiting for a wounded fish and an easy meal. If you run your lure in the midst of the cloud of bait fish it will just get lost in the crowd. Since muskies “feed up” it is wise to present the lure above the cloud of baitfish-not below it.
Conclusion... An ever growing number of fishermen are embracing this pastime by wrapping their fingers around oars. This nostalgic technique, sprinkled with new technologies, will add an effective and entertaining method to your fishing repertoire! Fishing guide Patricia Strutz’s preferred method of fishing in autumn is ROW TROLLING. We thank her for sharing her secret with us