Campsite a quarter-mile ahead, dusk descending as my paddling partner and I head toward “home.” A lazy current near the lake’s outlet allows us to drift in the waning daylight, with only the occasional stroke to stay on course. Greedy to milk every minute from a non-resident fishing license, I troll a beadhead bugger behind the canoe.
Not 200 yards from our destination on New York’s Forked Lake, the rod braced between my seat and the canoe’s stern jerks violently. I grab the handle, suspecting a snag, then the drag increases in pitch. A fish breaks water in the direction of the open lake with a splash that catches what little light remains on the western horizon.
I have no idea what irascible representative of the Ichthys world is rapidly taking line, but the fish continues its surge, eventually tiring with a final, dramatic leap. Without a net, I grab the cartilaginous lower jaw of a sizeable smallmouth bass with my thumb and forefinger. At 18 inches and around 4 pounds, it’s an exceedingly nice smallie.
The time I spend fishing from human-powered crafts far outweighs the rare occasions casting from a motorboat. Although trolling is most commonly associated with the latter, it can be an equally deadly tactic while fishing from a canoe, kayak or rowboat, whether dragging flies or spinners.
The obvious time to troll is when paddling from one location to another. I almost always drag a weighted fly, minnow plug, crankbait or spinner behind the boat. There’s really no cost to the endeavor, save a few lures infrequently lost to a snag, and I’ve caught countless fish while traversing between campsites or en route to the “real” angling destination.
When trolling a fly, I normally use a weighted streamer, sometimes adding a couple splitshot for added sink if coupled to a floating line. When spin fishing, floating or diving plugs and crankbaits are my favorites, as they run at predictable depths. Spinners, spoons and even jigs can also be effective.
Trolling while straight-line paddling is OK, when the goal is to move between points A and B efficiently. If you’re willing to sacrifice a modicum of time, however, consider some variations to improve your odds. First, paddle over or adjacent to nearby structure such as fallen logs, small islands or submerged boulders, rather than open water. Second, throwing an occasional S-curve into your route and varying the speed causes the fly or lure to settle and then accelerate, which often incites a strike.
Most species of fish are appropriately characterized by the “where there’s one, there are more” maxim. This adage especially applies to schooling species such as perch, crappie and bluegill. If the trolling produces a bite, it’s worth covering the vicinity of the hook up by casting or making more trolling passes.
Breezy days can be a boon for motorless trolling. I position my craft so the wind will propel it over productive fishing water, then cast into the wind and let the gear troll behind the boat. Along the drift, I twitch and jig my offerings through prime portions of the lake. Once the drift-troll is complete, I simply paddle back into the wind and repeat on a slightly different trajectory. Varying the depth of your offering by adding weight to the rig helps identify where fish are hanging in the water column.
One of my largest trout came from Henry’s Lake in Idaho using this technique. An underwater ridge jutting from a point about 70 yards offshore seemed a likely area to find some of the lake’s trophy trout. I experimented with different flies and weights on several drifts over the structure. On the fifth approach, a powerful strike bent my fly rod like a strand of half-cooked spaghetti. Minutes into the battle, the trout was towing my inflatable kayak back into the breeze. Eventually, I steered 7 pounds of husky rainbow-cutthroat hybrid into my net.
Trolling is an age-old, extremely effective fishing technique. With a little ingenuity, paddlers can easily get into the action—no motor required.