Search This Blog

Trolling Speed, Going the Extra Mile

By Mark Romanack

Accurately controlling your speed when trolling is key to successfully
hauling in quality fish like this nice walleye caught by the author.
Every seasoned troller I know watches his or her trolling speed indicators like a hawk. It’s amazing how often even a subtle increase or decrease in trolling speed triggers fish strikes. The first step is getting the most from trolling speed is understanding how speed fluctuations as small as 1/10th of a MPH can and do make a difference. The next step is having the right equipment on board to take full advantage of controlling and just as important monitoring trolling speed.

Let’s start with the bad news regarding manipulating trolling speed. The unfortunate truth is that the majority of primary outboard motors and also kicker motors are not designed to deliver the subtle variations in trolling speed avid anglers covet. Most of these motors are equipped with a traditional “cable style” linkage throttle system. Cable throttle controls do not have the range of control required to dial in subtle changes in trolling speed. To gain speed control down to plus or minus 1/10th MPH requires an outboard with electronic throttle controls or some after market products.  

It seems with the traditional cable linkage systems the outboard or kicker is either running too fast or too slow. If you are lucky enough to get the motor running at the right RPM, the sweet spot won’t last long as most cable driven outboards tend to gradually speed up or slow down while running.

As anyone who has tried to troll with these motors will attest, it can get pretty frustrating having to constantly adjust the throttle and seemingly never getting it exactly right.

On a brighter note, the good news is a number of primary outboards and even kicker motors feature a “digital throttle control” option. In the case of larger outboards many of the newer engines now have electronic throttle controls that allow the RPM levels to be adjusted as needed to generate consistent trolling speeds. 

Some smaller outboard kickers and in-line outboard motors also have a similar technology. The Evinrude 15HO kicker has an electronic throttle control button on the tiller handle that allows the RPM level to be raised or lowered in small increments making it possible to dial in trolling speeds very precisely.

The Evinrude 15HO has a digital throttle control mounted on the tiller
handle that allows engine RPM’s to be precisely controlled making it
invaluable as a primary trolling motor.
After market throttle controls like the TrollMaster and ControllKing systems can convert just about any four stroke kicker over to an electronic throttle control. These electronic controls feature a rheostat that allows the angler to dial in very precise trolling speeds. 

For anglers who are handy at wrench work these throttle control systems can be installed at home in a couple of hours. For everyone else, getting one of these after market throttle controls is probably going to require the assistance of a good marine mechanic and a couple hundred dollars in service bills.

For anyone serious about trolling the investment is worth every penny. Also, a good marine mechanic can adjust idle and low end RPM speeds on most modern computer driven outboards. This amounts to the mechanic setting the engine idle speeds in the computer.

For example, when my Evinrude 75 E-Tec was new it idled at about 2.8 MPH making it a touch too fast for most trolling applications. I had a mechanic adjust the computer settings and now that engine idles nicely at about 2.0 MPH. The cost was less than one hour of service.

A little less sophisticated but effective way of controlling trolling speed is to drag a sea anchor. Charter boats use sea bags not only to control trolling speed, but also to stabilize the boat when fishing in rough water. A pair of bags fished on the port and starboard sides of the boat significantly reduces the rocking motion of the boat and works to maintain consistent trolling speeds.

Historically most trollers favor a s
Auto pilot style electric motors like the MotorGuide Xi5 on the author’s
Starcraft Freedom are ideal for making precise adjustments to
trolling speed.
mall gasoline kicker motor for their primary trolling chores. These days a growing number of anglers are depending more on their bow mounted electric motor for serious trolling chores.

Auto-Pilot style motors like the Minn Kota Terrova and the new MotorGuide Xi5 are rewriting the manual on open water trolling. The rheostat and FOB style wireless controls on these motors makes it possible to dial in just about any speed an angler wants to achieve. 

One of the things most angles don’t understand about trolling speed is maintaining a specific speed isn’t just about dialing in the correct RPM or rheostat setting. Maintaining trolling speeds is also about maintaining a direct line of travel.

When you monitor the Speed Over Ground numbers on your GPS unit it’s common to see some significant fluctuations in speed. Depending on the wave conditions the digital speed numbers routinely vary .3 to .5 MPH.

These variations in trolling speed are more dramatic when trolling into the wind and less noticeable when trolling downwind. This occurs because when trolling into the wind the boat tends to wander along a “snake back” course which in turn causes the boat’s forward progress to constantly speed up and slow down.

A GPS unit provides speed over ground information that can be
measured down to the 1/10th of a MPH making it highly useful for any
trolling situation.
In a following sea the same phenomena occurs, but the variables in speed are not as noticeable because the boat tends to follow a straighter line of travel. 

In other words, one of the subtle ways an angler can stabilize trolling speed is to drive the boat in as straight a line as possible. Auto-Pilot electric motors help tremendously in this effort. Once the boat is going the desired direction, engaging the Auto-Pilot function will keep the boat moving on that specific course heading and in the process reduce the amount of trolling speed fluctuations.

Helm style auto-pilots designed for I/O engines and V6 outboards can also be invaluable in helping anglers control the boat’s direction of travel and trolling speed. Virtually every charter captain on the Great Lakes has an auto-pilot on his boat and a growing number of recreational anglers are following suit. 

New products like Lowrance’s Outboard Pilot system offer anglers an affordable option for steering and maintaining trolling controls on V6 outboard motors. Traditionally this style of auto-pilot cost several thousand dollars. The Outboard Pilot system starts at just $1,000.00 making it within the reach of most serious anglers.

The advantages of Auto-Pilot electric trolling motors are many. One of the drawbacks is that it’s not practical to troll for hours at higher speeds using only an electric motor. For speeds above 1.8 MPH it becomes necessary to implement both a gasoline motor and electric motor into the same trolling pattern.

Two motor trolling is becoming very popular with avid anglers who have discovered they can use the gasoline motor to provide the primary power and the electric motor to steer, make course adjustments and also to refine trolling speed.

This two motor trolling set up can be accomplished with a gasoline kicker motor and an Auto-Pilot style electric motor. In some cases a primary outboard and an electric motor combination makes sense. If the primary outboard can be idled down slow enough to troll at an average speed of 2.0 to 2.2 MPH this task can be accomplished without the need or added expense of a gasoline kicker motor.

Most of my fishing boats in recent years have not been equipped with a gasoline kicker motor because I can use the electric motor to troll at slow speeds and the electric motor and the primary outboard to troll at speeds above 2.0 MPH. To accomplish this delicate balance requires a powerful electric motor. I recommend a 36 volt system on boats 18 to 22 feet in length and a 24 volt system on boats from 16 to 17 feet in length.

The Fish Hawk X4+ Depth is a leading sub-surface
trolling speed and water temperature probe. The
author uses this unit frequently when trolling in
Great Lakes waters where sub-surface currents
often influence trolling speeds at depth.
Most anglers are concerned with monitoring trolling speed, but ironically their boats are only equipped with gear capable of monitoring surface trolling speeds. Below the surface trolling speed takes on a whole new dynamic. A sub-surface trolling probe such as the Fish Hawk X4+ Depth is an invaluable tool for determining trolling speed at the depth baits are being fished.

The Fish Hawk is a probe that mounts to a downrigger weight and when deployed sends both speed and water temperature information to a LCD unit by means of a transducer signal. This almost instantaneous ability to monitor sub-surface trolling speeds and temperature fluctuations allows anglers to dial in trolling speeds in all conditions.

A Fish Hawk unit runs about $750.00 and can be installed in less than an hour by most anglers. The LCD screen is hard wired and can be mounted on the console or near the downrigger. I mount my unit to a strip of starboard that slides into the Cisco Fishing System track on my boat. This allows me to quickly mount or remove the LCD screen as dictated by the type of fishing.

Trolling speed is one of the least understood aspects of open water trolling. It’s true that anglers watch the numbers, but rarely do they take the steps to set up their boats so trolling speed can be intelligently monitored and controlled.

Getting a handle on trolling speed is something every fisherman should put a priority on. A wide variety of products including auto-pilot electric motors, helm style auto-pilots, sub-surface speed probes, digital throttle controls and outboards with wireless or digital throttles are all great ways to get the most from trolling speed and open water trolling.

Trolling speed factors into all common trolling presentations including flatline trolling, pulling boards, downrigging, fishing diving planers, in-line weights and sinking lines. In short, no matter what’s in the water, trolling speed matters.

RESOURCES:  TrollMaster