Trolling for Louisiana's Gulf Specks
September 28, 2010
Casting and retrieving is great, but sometimes you just need to cover more water. That's when trolling pays off -- even for speckled trout.
Photo by Michael Skinner
By Jeff Bruhl
One technique that plays hardball with most species of freshwater and saltwater fish is trolling. From bass to marlin, they fall prey to lures pulled behind a moving boat. Trolling's a simple, effective way of covering water to pinpoint most species of fish, and learning the multispecies techniques and applying the knowledge to speckled trout is easy - and fun.
Common in Louisiana generally, trolling for spotted sea trout is a skill frequently employed in Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans, along the coast, and throughout the marsh. With all the water to check out in the Bayou State, trolling tips the scale in the angler's favor, as it covers more area in one hour than other tactics cover in a day of fishing, rapidly eliminating unpromising prospects. And once a school of fish is located, the angler can troll the area again, or stop and cast to the hotspot.
Learning the water and the hotspots is faster and easier with trolling. Speckled trout hang out around bridges, bayous, bays, and shorelines of the saltwater byways of Louisiana, so pulling a simple jig through a prime location like the train trestle in eastern Lake Pontchartrain will work for you. From shallow bays to the deep-water areas of the Louisiana estuary, uncomplicated lures yield trout. To land speckled trout, adapt lures and equipment to the tidal flow and bottom structure.
EQUIPMENT Make trolling as simple as possible; there's no need for fancy equipment. For beginners, the keep-it-simple-stupid motto holds true. The light tackle used for bass and speckled trout is great for this fishing. Jigs with soft plastics, crankbaits and lipless crankbaits deliver fish with consistency. Trolling motors and large outboards can pull the spread of lures through the water at speeds that catch specks. Many anglers have the basic equipment, but they never make use of it in pursuit of this rewarding experience.
After initial success with trolling, you can move on to using advanced techniques like planer boards, divers, steel wire and bottom-bouncers, knowledge of which can add still more to the fun of fishing. Rod holders allow the angler to augment the number of rods and lures in the water, clip-on weights and bottom-bouncers place light lures on the bottom, and divers and planer boards increase the width of water fished by pulling a lure to one side of the boat. These high-end techniques are easy to learn - but they're not required for a good session of trolling.
The choice of rods and reels is a matter of personal preference. Some anglers prefer short stiff rods, to aid in hooksets; other anglers use long rods with soft tips. Reels with line counters are helpful for determining how much line is drifting behind the boat, but there are those anglers who'll count the times the line guide of the reel travels back and forth when the lure falls behind the boat. A good 6-foot, 6-inch medium-action rod will handle baits from jigs to crankbaits. A medium action rod with a strong reel will be a reliable combo for speckled trout.
Line is a small piece of equipment, but a very important part of fishing. The diameter of the line and the speed of the boat combine to determine how deep a crankbait will dive; the weight of line and lure will be factors in establishing the depth at which the bait swims, bottom contact being vital on some days. Another important element influenced by line size: the strike zone, the key depth that most reliably produces strikes. Monofilament, braided lines and steel wire are options for the angler to try to perfect. Depending on the water depth, the tide, and the structure of the area fished, line choice will play a special role in trolling.
JIGS, CRANKBAITS AND PLUGS The tackle box of an angler who hunts for speckled trout will be full of lures for trolling, and an elementary lure for trolling is a jig. A jig hangs up less frequently than will treble hooks, comes in many colors to match conditions, and varies in weight to aid in fishing different water depths. A leadhead with a soft-plastic tail is by far the easiest jig to fish.
Captain Dee Geoghagen of Fishing Guide Service is co-owner of V&G Lures. Their lure designed for big Lake Pontchartrain trout comes in straight and paddletail models. Although the plastics work from the Gulf to the lake, the bridges that cross Lake Pontchartrain near Slidell are great for trolling plastic jigs on a 3/8-ounce head.
"A paddletail jig's first duty is trolling," stated Captain Dee. "The unique tail design gives the lure a vibration that attracts fish. Many anglers that troll the bridges near Slidell use jigs because they hang up less on the old pylons and other trash on the bottom."
Other plastics like the squid fool trout. Tandem rigs consisting of a 3/8-ounce jig on the bottom with a squid rigged on a treble hook above present the fish with two chances for a meal. The incidence of two fish on a tandem rig is high when you're trolling hot areas of the lake.
Crankbaits catch big trout from the New Orleans Lakefront Airport to the bayous along the Intercoastal Waterway. Diving crankbaits, lipless crankbaits and sinking lures cut the water to find speckled trout. Tide and water depth can work with a crankbait to make it an important tool for trolling.
Don Davis, a local fisherman in the New Orleans area, has earned the nickname of "Rat-L-Trap." He spends time trolling 3/4 ounce and 1-ounce lipless crankbaits along the airport wall and the deep channel near the Seabrook area of New Orleans. The angler uses lipless crankbaits about 90 percent of the time in early May to elicit strikes from trout.
"Blue and chrome is my main color," reported Don. "In May I catch trout over 6 pounds along the airport seawall. Pink and chrome is another color I use, but blue works, so I stay with it."
Another tip from Don: Use a floating lipless crankbait for fishing in shallow water and cover - in places such as the Little Woods area, a stretch of water between New Orleans and the point at which the train trestle touches the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. An old cypress forest before the trees fell to the timber industry many years ago, it's about 6 feet deep, with plenty of big stumps.
"I switch to floating traps in the Little Woods area", adds Don. "When you have to stop and fight a fish on one rod, the other trap floats to the top, and doesn't hang up like a lure that sinks."
Crankbaits that dive are great for trolling. Self-centering line ties and split rings produce true running bait in the toughest curren
ts. The crankbaits come in models based on the depth to which the lure dives when used on a rod and reel. This is useful information to the angler: For water depths about 10 feet, use a model that dives about 7 to 9 feet. A hint: Diving lures will run slightly deeper than the stated depth. The key is to place the lure just above the bottom, thus avoiding hangups and getting more fish.
Sinking or suspending plugs troll water from shallow to deep. Not all fish haunt the bottom. Indeed, the hardest fish to catch are fish that suspend below the surface but off the bottom - and this type of lure can be used to target suspending fish. It's simple to fish the bottom: Just add weight to the presentation. However, most crankbaits dive too deep for suspending fish, which is where jerkbaits and plugs come in, completing the toolset needed to cover the water in the middepth range.
Jigs and crankbaits will cover most situations. Don't forget to bring a few corks to complete the arsenal. Suspending a jig under a cork is another idea that works. If the water's shallow or the fish feed near the surface, a cork pegged 3 or 4 feet above a jig represents an exceptional option. Corks are in general excellent for trolling in shallow bays and marshes.
The key to jigs, crankbaits, and plugs is depth; matching the key depth to a lure is a vital part of trolling. Finding the strike zone is the first step - because presenting the lure to the proper strike zone is the difference between fishing and catching.
TECHNIQUES AND HOW-TO'S Learning to troll is no big deal: Pick up your favorite rod, cast a 3/8-ounce jig behind the boat and idle through any area that you suspect of holding fish. Many Louisiana anglers use the technique to find fish, anchoring in an area after the first strike. If several casts go unanswered, the angler will start trolling again, covering water and searching for schools of trout until the next fish is caught. This approach often yields dividends at the end of the day.
Other anglers add rod holders to the boat, so that two lures drift astern - and setting out two rods obviously doubles the chances of catching fish. Another benefit: increased lure options. Two different colors of jig double the choices for the fish. A crankbait could replace a jig to cause more vibration or to target a specific depth. And when one rod hooks a fish, the boat continues on, the other rod's lure searching the water as the angler fights the fish in the boat. By keeping at least one lure in the strike zone at all times, the two-rod system maximizes the time fished and the water covered.
If an angler wants to fish three or more rods, planer boards help to spread the presentation and to prevent tangling up the multiple lines. This device attaches to your line with clips. The floating planer - which trollers purchase planers in left and right models - pulls the lure up to 150 feet to the side of the boat. Again, by increasing the number of rods, the angler correspondingly enhances the chances of finding the proper strike zone.
Highly appropriate for crankbaits and other lures, the boards are easy to use. A cast to the side of the boat or free-spooling the lure to the proper distance will ready the rod for the board. Clip the board onto the line, drop the board over the side, and let out line until the board is 10 feet or so from the boat. After the fish takes the bait, the board will turn on its side. Reel the board back to the boat, unclip it and fight the fish to the boat.
Planers have many useful applications. First, a lure placed close to bridge pylons, shorelines or other structure will sweep the water for fish and their strike zone. Second, a board allows the angler to target broad areas of water. And third, dropoffs, humps, and other sorts of bottom structure are great places to find fish in. A set of boards will allow the angler to troll parallel to a dropoff and fish from shallow to deep: one board covering the shallow water, the boat covering the dropoff, and another board dropping a lure deep. Finally, planers add more rods for more anglers. If two or more people are in the boat, each additional set of boards slaps on more rods and lures.
The use of divers, which pull lures to predetermined depths, is another tool for the trolling angler to master. Divers come in various models: No. 10, No. 20, No. 30, and No. 40, each number representing the strike zone that the angler is targeting. Some divers run straight; plunge-type equipment can be set to run to the right or left and, similar to a planer board, spreads the trolling area. Divers are useful for large plugs and other lures that the angler wants to present at a specific depth.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER Being armed with one or more of these techniques, the proper equipment, and the knowledge of how best to use each will help the angler find fish in areas with tides and unique structure. Tide, wind, and depth are important parts of the equation. Pay special attention to the details to win with speckled trout.
Strong tides along the bridges near Slidell draw fish to the pylons, which provide ambush points for speckled trout, so trolling the bridges is a popular method among local fishermen. Captain Dee Geoghagen notes the tide direction when he trolls the bridge.
"The best side of the bridge the fish is the down current side", explained Captain Dee. "If the tide is strong, the current pulls your lure under the bridge, causing the rigs to hang up. If you cut the motor to fight a big fish, the current pulls the boat into the bridge. It is easier to fish the downside, because the current pulls you away from the bridge, preventing the fish and boat from hanging in the bridge."
Another technique used by anglers is the figure-eight: Instead of stopping the boat and casting to a specific spot, the pilot circles the boat through the spot using a figure-eight course. Each pass through the area produces a fish or two, and the pilot turns the boat around after passing through the spot producing fish. The figure-eight keeps the lines from tangling.
The wind is another factor to consider and to exploit. Trolling against the wind will slow the presentation, which at times helps to bring in some fish. It's better to start trolling with the wind - starting a troll with a crosswind causes lines to cross and tangle. If it's necessary to disengage the motor, winds can blow the boat over the lines, and other scenarios that tangle line or spook fish can develop. Always pay attention to wind direction while you're trolling.
ANYPLACE, ANYTIME Any body of water, from bayous to the open Gulf is an area for trolling. Trolling works for bluewater marlin and freshwater walleyes. By adapting the techniques of trolling to speckled trout, the methods described find and catch them in all areas of Louisiana.
In the bayous and bays of the marsh areas of south Louisiana - hotspots for spring trout fishing - many anglers wait for birds to locate the schools of trout. The problem with this idea: waiting. Trolling will identify cooperative fish well before the birds do. Often the birds dive on surfacing baitfish, but more fish are in the area than just
the ones with birds circling overhead. After locating a school of fish, the birds seem to vanish after catching a few. Trolling relocates the submerged school quickly and easily. Although it's a simple method, very few anglers use trolling in the marshes.
Lake Pontchartrain is known for big trout and trolling. From October's World Series trout to the April Fool's trout along the bridges, trolling is a prime way to catch big trout. Lipless crankbaits and jigs will produce fish when they're trolled in Lake Pontchartrain. The open shoreline of Pontchartrain's south shore, which lies between Irish Bayou and the bridges to the airport on the lakefront, is another area in which the locals troll for speckled trout. Trolling works with the deep water, shallow banks and strong currents of the lake.
Trolling the beaches where the state touches the Gulf of Mexico delivers spotted sea trout. In May, the beaches draw schooling trout in to the sandy shoreline, so troll parallel to the beach to find fish. The single-rod technique is the best to use. Once a few fish find their way to the boat, stop and cast to the vicinity of the last strike. An anchor is helpful when a school is pinpointed. After the fishing slows, begin the trolling process again.
CONCLUSION If you fall in love with trolling, don't sell your anchor. It may be an underused piece of equipment in your boat, but it's a vital one. Trolling is both fun and productive, and is one of the best ways for finding and catching speckled trout. From big to small trout, all sizes fall prey to a lure drifted through the strike zone. Next time the search for trout is on, be sure to employ the method that's easy, requires very little special equipment, and is the most productive method on the water. Trolling works for Louisiana speckled trout.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Louisiana Game & Fish