Trigger warning: If you’re a fly-fishing purist, you may find this topic of this column to be sacrilegious, perhaps even obscene. But here goes: Sometimes I troll with my fly rod. I don’t care who knows it, because I catch fish I never would have hooked otherwise, and I have fun doing it. And no one is more surprised about all this than I am.
It all started in 2010 when I enthusiastically took up kayak fishing. I usually had a fly outfit in one of my rod holders, but for simplicity, I mostly stuck to spinning gear. Then one evening I headed out for bass and, since the conditions were perfect, I took only a fly rod. After sticking a few fish, I started paddling to the other side of a small bay. But in a disgraceful display of laziness, I just dragged my fly and line behind me rather than reeling it in. And darned if I didn’t get a nice bass, then several more.
In the years since, I’ve experimented a lot with trolling, at times in places where casting isn’t feasible. I’ve caught a lot of fish, too, including rainbows, brookies, bass, pike, walleye and double-digit lake trout. If you’re ready to join me in flouting fly-fishing convention, here’s some of what I’ve learned.
Other than matching the size of your outfit to the fish you’re targeting, the only special gear you need for trolling is a way to get your fly down. When dragging a traditional floating line behind a boat, even a weighted fly will barely sink. Sometimes this may be what you want, but most of the time you need to go deeper. I’ve tried adding splitshot to the leader, but this can twist the line and make the fly move unnaturally.
Instead, what works best are sinking lines of various densities (hence sink rates) or sinking leaders, such as VersiLeaders or PolyLeaders (above), that simply loop on and off your line. For a tippet section, a simple two- to four-foot piece of mono will do. These set-ups descend at very predictable rates, so with a little experience, you can run your fly over submerged weedbeds or along shoals.
Since I like to move faster than the feeble pace of a swimming insect, I exclusively troll minnow-imitating streamers. With no current to help animate the fly, I pick patterns that appear lifelike just from the movement of the boat. That means swishy flies with long feathers, rabbit strips or flowing synthetic materials, along with bulky heads to create vibration.
My absolute favourites are two- and even three-part articulated flies (above). You’ve got a killer trolling fly if it undulates when moving, and suspends, shimmies or even jackknifes on the pause. And maybe I’m a thug, but my trolling flies start at three inches long, and go up to 10 inches. In fact, trolling is the perfect opportunity to fish those unwieldy flies you’re reluctant to cast.
With spinning gear, you troll with your rod tip an angle, so the flex of the rod cushions the blow of the strike and helps set the hook. This doesn’t work with fly rods, which have too much flex in the top to set the hook. Instead, set the hook using the reel. To do this, set the drag heavy enough that a sharp strike won’t pull much line, but not so much that your leader will break. (Fly lines can safely stretch enough to cushion even a mighty hit.) Troll with the rod tip pointed back at the fly, or as close to that position as possible without fouling the motor or interfering with your paddling. When a fish hits, pull the rod back horizontally—not by lifting the rod tip—to set the hook. Then enjoy the fight, because the most exciting way to land any fish is on a fly rod.
Now, you may wonder, is this even fly fishing? It depends how much importance you put on casting. You still have to select a fly, present it in the right place at the right depth and speed, then hook and land the fish—all of which takes knowledge and skill. But if fly trolling isn’t for you, so be it. That just leaves more fish for me.