Some muskie maniacs are of the opinion that casting is the only (pure) way to target muskies; some even consider trolling to be a lazy way to fish. Preferences are understandable, but there's nothing lazy at all about aggressively trolling for summer muskies. Oh, you can just toss a couple of lines out and raid the picnic basket while driving around, but in no other time of the year does covering water mean more for muskies than in summer. If the ultimate goal of the game is production, then trolling is the way to go. And, if you're really getting after it, you'll be anything but bored.
Sharp, irregular breaklines are an example of an exception to trolling efficiency. It's best to cast and fish vertically on these structures, however, once well mapped-out on a GPS chart, allowing perfection in boat position on the break (as opposed to constantly crashing into shallows with lures likely fouling) these areas can be trolled too. For any larger flat areas and gradual breaks, or deeper water areas targeting suspended summer muskies, no other method is as efficient for catching fish, patterning fish location, and mapping out these areas with GPS waypoints and trails to optimize efficiency.
Once a target area is chosen, the first step is to determine the water column target, essentially the top and bottom of the zone you wish to cover. Or, when dealing with structure, what can be covered. With regard to shallower structure situations, the structure dictates it; a common scenario would be an expansive deeper weed area where on average the weeds top off at 4 feet below the surface. Therefore the target area is the surface to 4 feet down.
In summer, suspended muskies in deeper water are a great target, but it pays to target a specific zone. A great general rule I'll follow is to take the water clarity and double it, maybe tossing in an extra foot or two, so that if you can see a white plate 6 feet down, I'd concentrate lures from 14 feet to the surface. Always keep in mind that the surface is an edge, and that muskies see and feed up. Keeping lures on or just at the surface in summer is always a good idea, at least until a daily pattern proves otherwise.
The method or reasoning isn't an exact science. Baitfish concentrations on electronics may cause you to widen or narrow; setting that range or zone is important for efficiency — as you want to set baits at the top and bottom of the range — and evenly scatter the others throughout.
It's important to have multiple anglers while trolling, and especially where lines-per-angler are limited to one. That allows for you to run multiple lines and cover the water column.
Here's a vital topic for any trolling regardless of species targeted: knowing lure depth. I use 40-pound Trilene Big Game mono for boards or any releases and 80-pound Spiderwire UltraCast for flat lines — and I stick with that. Line type greatly affects running depth.
Knowing lure's running depth with the lines you're using is invaluable. Good information can be found by searching on the Internet, or learn it by letting out line until the lure bumps in certain depths, noting that amount and depth. It's a process that will allow you to map out a lure's range. Line counter reels make this efficient and exact for initially setting baits, efficiently covering the water column, as well as being able to reproduce specific depths with different lures as depth patterns for active fish develop. Depending on the legal number of lines where you fish, you'll surely want to spread baits to the side with planer boards and long rods to cover a wider swath.
For summer muskies, I generally prefer active baits and higher speeds, an average speed over 4 miles per hour, always considering there are no rules and that weather extremes may dictate other preferences. My main go-to lures are crankbaits and spinners. I use spinners much more in summer than any other time of year. For heavy weed areas, it's tough to beat spinnerbaits with single hooks as they roll through the weeds nicely. However, in-line spinners can work great too, and are seldom used. One issue with these baits is line twist; it can be solved with a quality ball bearing swivel, but another trick is bending the shaft of the bait between the front eye and blades. These can be run on flat lines as well as behind boards. They are great baits for that upper part of the water column. Also, the effectiveness of oversized spinners on trophy fish all over the muskie range has been nothing short of amazing. Baits with the monster blades are better pulled by the boat, especially as this writer ages. The amount of water they move is huge — and the boat, on turns, creates more of a thrust (potential trigger) than is possible to be achieved on a retrieve.
Preferred lure patterns can vary greatly on different waters and regions, but the key to the effectiveness of trolling is the efficiency of the whole system to try more things — covering much more water — speeding up that patterning process.
A variety of baits may work, including topwater, plastics and jerkbaits. One thing to be aware of is that they all should work well together in the speed range. Some baits run poorly or may blowout completely at speeds higher or lower than where others are effective. With time, favorites that are most efficient and simply become your confidence baits will stand out.
And I'll guarantee, you'll find baits that just catch fish trolling way better than another bait of the exact same type — and often there won't be any obvious reason why. Covet them.
On any given day then, patterning is the key and goal. There should be a designated driver who keeps the boat on the right path while adding information attained on the GPS. This may be a breakline or simply dissecting all of a large area efficiently, while making turns, varying speed while the other angler or anglers' job is to set lines, make certain they're running clean and trying new things if nothing is producing. In shallow zones over structure, all the patterning will be lure type and speed. When trolling deeper, added to that will be depth patterns.
It pays to have multiples of your favorite trolling lures. If a bait gets hit, get another one out there exactly or nearly like it and reproduce the speed. In deeper water, adjust several baits into the depth zone where the strike came from. Often there's a zone where active fish are concentrated.
A good driver will always make some turns with the boat, regardless of whether or not doing so is required to actually follow structure. This speeds up baits on one side and slows or stalls them on the other, which can trigger strikes and often is the key to dialing in preferred speed patterns. However, don't turn constantly, as fish can show a preference for steady lure action.
Again, I can't emphasize enough to always be looking for patterns, certainly including color, to reproduce. And, with today's great electronics and GPS, if you have them, document the location of any fish — for that day and for future reference. Always make multiple passes through an area that produced a fish, as they just about never are roaming alone.
Finally, be aware of release issues in warm water. Muskies are very susceptible to stress-related mortality. If the water temps are in the upper 70s, extreme care should be taken to shorten fight time and limit time out of water; an in-water release is best. If temperatures get in the 80s, it's best to go swimming and wait for a cool-off. Run short trolling leads (deep-diving cranks can work great with short leads), and shut the boat down quickly after a strike to get that fish landed as soon as possible. Muskies are not afraid of boats or planer boards; rather they are often attracted to them. Remember that the single most important thing you can do to catch more muskies is to be prepared — and successful with all releases.