The Freshwater Angler’s Guide To Natural Bait Trolling

Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Species: Bass Kokanee Landlocked Salmon Landlocked Stripers Mackinaw Trout

The Freshwater Angler’s Guide To Natural Bait Trolling
The Freshwater Angler’s Guide To Natural Bait Trolling

Although there are no official records for such things, trolling for trout and other freshwater species with natural baits dates to at least the late 1800’s in North America and likely much earlier in continental Europe.

These days freshwater anglers have access to a massive array of lures and high-tech tackle that there forbearers would have never imagined, yet slow trolling with natural baits remains one of the most consistent means of boating an array of freshwater species including trout, landlocked kings, stripers and even black bass. In this article we are going to explore how today’s angler can team the natural baits of yesteryear with a few modern twists such as downriggers and E-Chips to propel their trolling success forward at rocket speed.

Here in the Golden State dead baitfish, live minnows and night crawlers are the most popular natural baits for trolling. The primary forage in many of our reservoirs is the threadfin shad and as a result trolling with frozen shad is a highly effective method for tempting rainbows, browns and land locked kings. Trolling or “rolling” shad can be a superb approach, if catching big trout is your goal and many seasoned trophy hunters use this method exclusively.

I’d heard about “rolling shad” for a number of years, but I’d never seen it done until I went out with Monte Smith of Gold Country Guide Service on May 17. Monte buys fresh shad in bulk and soaks them in a salt brine to toughen them up overnight before freezing them in sandwich size zip lock bags. He dyes some of his shad blue, so he can experiment with blue and natural colored baits on the water.

Monte rigs his shad on a specialized two hook 8 pound test fluorocarbon leader. To the end of the leader he attaches a No. 8 red treble hook. Next he slides a bead on the leader before attaching No. 8 red octopus hook above the bead on a special sliding snell. Other guides have told me that rather than use a sliding snell they opt to lock the octopus hook in place between two rubber bobber stops. Which ever method is used the critical aspect is that the octopus hook can be moved up and down the leader.

When Monte is ready to begin fishing the first thing he does is inject the shad minnow with scent. Next he pins the leader’s octopus hook up through the shad’s lips and pins the treble hook in the bait near the tail. The final and most critical step is sliding the octopus hook down the leader until the shad becomes bent. This bend makes the shad roll as it is drawn through the water. The sharper the bend in the shad the quicker it will spin. According to Monte it is the combination of vibration put off by the shad rolling through the water and the scent trail the bait emits that triggers strikes.

“For kings I like to troll between .75 and 1 mile per hour with a shad that rolls slowly through the water. If I’m after trout I’ll rig the shad straighter and move a little quicker. When I troll for kings I usually run a set of flashers or a large dodger of the downrigger ball, but I don’t put any type of attractor on the line. For trout I sometimes run the shad behind a small set of in line flashers,” related Smith.

Some companies produce plastic bait holders that can be used for trolling frozen shad. These devices can be very effective at times, but when the fish are spooky the plastic surrounding the bait’s head makes it look unnatural and discourages strikes. Another drawback that is inherent with these devices is that they limit your ability to experiment bait’s rate of spin. Using a sliding snell like Monte’s you can easily adjust the rate at which the bait spins until you determine what the fish want.

The Pro Troll Company is now offering E-Chips that are attached to a sleeve that can be threaded onto your line. Since E-Chips put out electrical impulses that mimic those emitted by baitfish, placing an E-Chip on the leader in front of a rolling shad is a trick that can make them even deadlier.

Shad rolling is an approach primarily used for catching trout and kings, but the same method of rigging can be employed for targeting stripers or suspended black bass. For trout and kings shad in the 1 to 2 inch range are most effective. If stripers or black bass are on the menu it’s wise to go with larger baits.

If a dead baitfish is good a live minnows must be even better. Right? Well, not necessarily, but at lakes were it is legal to use live minnows they are definitely worth trying. Trolling with them is simple. All you need to do is attach a swivel to your mainline, connect a 36 inch 8 pound test fluorocarbon leader to it and tip the leader with a No. 8 octopus hook. Pin a lively minnow through the lips and you’re ready to troll.

If the fish you are targeting are holding near the surface place a split shot near the swivel and let the minnow out 150 feet behind the boat. If the fish are holding in deeper water put the minnow 30 to 50 feet behind a downrigger ball and send it down. The key to effectively trolling with live minnows is to move very slowly. With rigged shad you can get away with moving faster than 1 mile per hour, but if you move that fast with a live minnow it will die quickly.

When the going gets tough, the best trout trollers often go with a threaded night crawler. The traditional approach when employing a threaded crawler is to slow troll it behind a set of flashers. This method is as effective today as it was 50 years ago. I’ve caught some of my biggest trout by trolling a ‘crawler naked without the addition of any attractors. If you go without attractors it’s important to rig the ‘crawler such that it spins when trolled. I’ve been out with more than one guide that rigged up with a threaded ‘crawler about a foot behind a watermelon colored Sep’s Sidekick dodger when the trout developed lockjaw and the result has always been the same…Fish On!

On the rare occasion when all those expensive trolling lures in your tackle box fail to produce, rig up with some natural baits, I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

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