Put your lures exactly where the fish are - and you'll catch more of them.
Pop Quiz: You pull back the throttles, take out the rods, and get ready to set your trophy striper trolling spread. You heard from a reliable source that the fish were running about 20’ below the surface last week. Accordingly, you’re going to A) let your lines out waaaaay far back, B) set your lines out so they run somewhere in the general range of 20 by your best guess, c) set the bulk of your lines to run between 15’ and 25’ deep and know for a fact that’s where they’ll actually be, or d) take current, light levels, water clarity, and boat traffic into account, decide how they will most likely effect the behavior of the fish, set the bulk of your lines to run at the depth you judge most likely to be the choice of the fish—and know for a fact that’s where your lures will be.
Put your lure where you want it, and ring the dinner bell.
Unless you answer “d,” you’re not catching as many fish as you could be. Yes, of course you want to distribute your lines to cover different parts of the water column. The one predictable thing about fish is that they’ll continue to surprise you, so covering all the bases is always important. But knowing where those fish are likely to be at any given time will allow you to focus your efforts on the zone where you’re most likely to catch the most. Of course, knowing what depth the fish are at is more or less meaningless, if you don’t know for a fact where your lines are running. So you’ll have to figure out both factors—how deep are the fish likely to be, and how deep are your lures running—if you want to kick some serious striper butt this season.
Short of putting a depth gauge on your umbrella rig, you’ll never know exactly dead-nuts-on how deep your rig is running at, right? Not exactly…
Depth Charge Trick #1: To determine the exact depth/lure/speed relationship of a specific rig, first tune up your depth finder’s sensitivity until you see the thermocline. Then clip a thermometer onto your rig. Let out the length of line you think will be necessary to get your lure to the “target” depth (thermocline depth) and mark it. Troll five minutes, quickly pull the line, and check the thermometer. If the temperature it shows is close to surface temperature, your estimate is off; try again, letting out more line each time until the thermometer comes up showing a notable temperature difference. Now you know how much line is necessary to hit that depth with that rig at that speed, all other variables remaining equal.
Depth Charge Trick #2: When using a level-winder reel, like the stand-by Penn GTO, measure how much line comes out when the level-wind goes all the way back and forth across the spool. Then count how many times it does so as you let out line, and you’ll always know exactly how much line is out. No level-winder? Then you’ll have to mark your line in 50’ increments. Some like to wrap a tiny piece of colored vinyl tape around it to create the marks; others prefer to bend a short length of colored wire around the line to mark it.
Trick #1 will help you establish a base-line, but you won’t have time to go through this whole process every time you let out a new rig. Luckily, you can make an estimate of depth if you take the “Rule of Fives” into account. First, a disclaimer: As with everything in fishing this is not an exact science, but is a rule of thumb to be used when setting your lines to help make a better judgment as to where those lures are running. When trolling at five mph, with 50-lb. test line and five ounces of weight set 50’ behind the boat, your lure will run about five feet under the surface. Of course, you won’t catch too many fish trolling with 50’ of line out five feet below the surface. But consider the following example: If you’re trolling a tandem rig tied with two five-ounce bucktails (5 x 2 = 10), and you let out 100’ of line (double 50’, so multiply by two again), according to the Rule of 5’s it will run at about 20’ below the surface (5 x 2 = 10 x 2 = 20). Does that sound a little deeper than it should? If it does, you’re probably an experienced troller and you know your stuff. You might also realize that this is because we haven’t accounted for a number of outside influences yet. Consider the above example, but now you’re trolling at five mph against the current, which is moving at a two and a half mph. That means there’s actually seven and a half mph of water resistance on your lines, and that tandem rig is now running at about 5’ shallower. To get the lure back to its intended depth, you’ll have to let out another 25’ of line. If you have a gang lure like an umbrella rig or a BillyBar on the end of your line, it’ll take about 30% to 40% more line length (or added weight) to get to the target depth. And if you fish braid instead of mono you can knock about 35% back out of the equation. Confusing? You bet—but if you take all of these factors into account and think your way through the conditions using the Rule of Fives as a starting point, you’ll gain a much better understanding of what depth your lures are running at. And knowing where your lures are is one of the things that separates good trollers from great ones.
Depth Charge Trick #3: To make a quick change in lure depth without changing your speed/RPM setting, pull an abrupt turn towards the windward side spinning the wheel as quickly as possible. As soon as the wheel hits the pins, reverse the turn. The bow won’t have time to come around very far into the wind before you straighten the wheel back up, but the boat will reduce headway notably for a short period of time, allowing your lures to drop slightly in the water column.
How will you account for factors like tidal flow? First, you’ll need to know how fast the current’s running. You can figure this out by comparing speed through the water (from your paddlewheel-style speedo) to your speed over ground (from your GPS). Other factors that you’ll need to take into account include the wind and sea state. If you’re trolling down-wind, naturally your speed over ground will increase over the norm for any given RPM setting you usually use, and you’ll have to adjust RPM accordingly. Same goes for sea state—when it’s abnormally rough your speed will be reduced when heading into the waves, and increased when traveling down-sea.
Depth Charge Trick #4: You can negate the effects of sea state, current, and wind to a great degree, by simply trolling cross-current and in the trough whenever possible. At the very least, this will keep your speed consistent.
Depth Charge Trick #5: Run aground. Not your boat, that is, but a line. Rig a line up with a lead weight that’s the same amount of weight as one of the rigs you’re trolling. Set your speed, and troll along a slow slope that gets shallower and shallower. When the weight starts bumping bottom at dept “X” you’ll know how much line you have to let out to get that lure to that depth. Again, count the number of level-winds it takes to get to that depth, or mark your line, so you can find the exact depth again in the future.
Many of these tactics are excerpted from Rudow’s Guide to Fishing the Mid Atlantic. If you want more information of trolling, chumming, and other fishing techniques go to www.getfishingbooks.com and check it out.
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