Trolling with flies & fly tackle is a form of our sport that has long been practiced in the Northeast, & with great style. The artful Maine & Adirondack guide boats & the transcendental streamer fly patterns of Carrie Stevens reflect a rich tradition rooted in the Atlantic salmon tradition of the British Isles, yet adapted & evolved to meet the dictates of the unique brook trout, mackinaw, landlocked salmon fishery present in the deep, glacier-carved lakes of northern New England where trout grow to fine proportions feeding on freshwater smelt, the principle forage of the lakes. A practical people, the Yankees discovered that trolling with fly tackle & streamer flies designed to imitate the native smelt was an effective & fun way to go. And the fishing presented an opportunity to design some sweet boats for the purpose – resplendent with wicker-back seats so that the sport might recline in grand comfort, dragging the fly, while the guide rows.
So what happened to this entertaining branch of our sport in the West? It is true that there is a pocket of fly trolling in the waters around Puget Sound, particularly in B.C. waters, yet beyond that it seems trolling in the far West is, for the most part, the furtive practice of sore, tired, lazy (content), or half-froze kick-boaters who keep quiet about it, as dragging the fly is not generally regarded as “real fly fishing”. However, the West is full of irony, & based on the number of anglers I see doing it (dragging the fly) from their float tubes, I have to suspect that western folks must secretly think it is fun & sporting enough.
Personally, I love to troll & mooch with flies. If & when my casting ability is lost & I am too feeble to clamber or wade, I’ll be content dragging my fly behind the pram, enjoying the scenery, musing on new, creative trolling fly designs to tie when I get home while anticipating that honking strike.
And to those who say it is not fly fishing, I say: It may not be fly casting, but it certainly is fly fishing, in every other regard – & also the opportunity to learn & expand our bag of entertaining & useful tricks. And with sinking line systems now making it possible to fish 60 feet deep fairly comfortably, & the advent of UV enhanced materials to make our flies more visible in the dark depths, we see the ability to use fly tackle as an effective method for taking deep-dwelling lake trout (mackinaw) & kokanee, species not often pursued by western fly anglers.
Most of us prefer to cast & I am no exception. I love fishing the shoreline weeds in the early & late season when trout are shallow, casting & retrieving nymph, leech & midge imitations. But there are times & places trolling will prove the most productive method. Like when it’s too windy to do anything else. I’ve seen guys arrive at Eastern Washington lakes & be dismayed at the windy condition, seeking out protective coves where they might cast, or in some cases simply giving up & leaving, overlooking the opportunity to troll or mooch using the wind to advantage as propulsion. Trolling is a good approach mid-summer when trout are holding 20 to 30 feet deep or deeper. Trolling can be very effective on lakes where baitfish are a primary food item, as trout & salmon often follow baitfish for some distance before striking – too great a distance for a caster to cover – & trolling allows us to cover infinitely more water than we can still-casting.
Northeastern anglers know that lake trout & landlocked salmon will be located fairly shallow in early spring following ice-out on the lakes & that is a favorite time to troll the shoreline with streamer flies in the Northeast. Yet we have a nearly identical situation at several of the lakes I fish in
which host mackinaw & landlocked kokanee salmon, & though the caliber
of the fishing might inspire envy in a New Englander, it is extremely rare to
encounter anybody pursuing these western fish with fly tackle.
And one more thing: Trolling is an excellent way to introduce kids & other non-casting novices to flyfishing.
As an all-around trolling rod for trout, I like an 8 to 9 foot 7-weight. Of course one could go lighter or heavier as the size of fish one might encounter dictates, but the 7wt covers most of it. If you own a fast-action rod that you find a bit stiff for casting, you have a trolling rod candidate. For casting I prefer moderate/slow action rods, but for trolling, ideally, I want a fast-action rod that loads up & shuts off quickly toward the tip portion of the rod, which results in better hook sets.
Any fly reel will function as a trolling reel in a pinch, but as a designated trolling reel, a larger diameter, narrow-spool, large-arbor type is ideal. The reel I’m using on the 7wt rod is rated for 8wt lines, allowing a bit more diameter for quicker line retrieval.
The line system I’m using is simple & inexpensive. I use 30lb test mono for a backing/running line. The mono has a long enough loop tied into the end to accept a coiled sinking head for quick rigging. I purchase 30 feet of Rio T-20 (for about 30 bucks) which has a sink rate of about a foot per second – cut the 30 foot section into 2 equal 15 foot sections – then cut 5 feet from one, which makes 3 heads of 5, 10 & 15 foot lengths. I affix a camo loop to one end for easy handshake loop connection to the mono running line. The 5 foot head fishes the top 10 feet of water; the 10 foot head fishes 10 to 20 feet deep; & the 15 foot head will fish 20 to 40 feet deep, & even down to 60 feet. I prefer the 30lb mono to braid as a running line, as it is easier to handle, doesn’t saw the guides, & provides shock-absorbing stretch when big fish hammer the fly – & it has much less water resistance than an integrated sinking line, so less line belly & buoying.
For leader, I nail-knot 3 feet of 15 lb test fluorocarbon to each head section & tie a tiny black barrel swivel to that for fastening the ‘tippet’ to, usually 20-30 feet of 8lb test fluorocarbon – though one might go lighter or heavier, depending. The long leader allows the fly to swing & swim free from line drag & angle. The little barrel swivel allows for easy tippet change & prevents line twist should the fly roll or foul.
Flippering from a float tube is fine, yet exhausting for the long haul. Rowing, with the rod set in a holder, or better still, holding the rod while somebody else rows, is the first choice. Trout are shy of motor noise, necessitating dragging the fly a long distance from the boat. Also, flies don’t require the speed it takes to buoy hardware (one reason they are usually more effective than hardware) & fish at slower speeds than hardware – an easy feathering of the oars is usually all that’s required to maintain the right trolling speed. An electric motor would be my second choice, & last, a low horsepower, 4-stroke gas motor. But the oars allow a more nuanced range of speed & motion in addition to stealthy silence.
Ideal speeds for dragging streamer flies are as follows: slow walk, walk, & fast walk – estimated by watching the shoreline.
Dragonfly/damselfly nymph & leech imitations can be effective trolled at very slow speeds, a slow walk & slower, & are good choices for mooching (drifting, using the breeze for propulsion). Got mackinaw 40 to 60 feet deep? try mooching or slow-trolling a 4 inch long purple & black leech behind the 15 foot T-20 head.
Though not an absolute necessity, a depth/fish finder is a handy tool for trolling, particularly on bigger lakes. The advantage of having a meter is obvious, of course. My favorite is a compact, portable unit that runs on D-cell batteries & simply clamps to the rail of a pram, or any small boat. They sell for a little over a hundred bucks & perform very well to reveal the depth & location of bait schools & fish, eliminating a lot of guesswork on big water.
If possible, it’s good to have two lines out working at different depths until fish are located. Baitfish follow the contour of the shoreline & trollers should do the same. Don’t troll in a straight line. If you are consistently finding the fish suspended at, say, 20 feet deep over a 30-foot bottom, then follow that 30 foot contour line relative to the shore, using the meter to keep you over the right depth (30 feet) while your flies are working at 20 feet. If fish are concentrated in a certain area, keep turning back & trolling through, gridding the area.
Using an outboard motor requires trolling flies at least 70 feet behind the boat, but the use of an electric motor or oars will allow trolling at much shorter distance. That said, 70 feet behind the boat is about right to achieve the best hooking angle, the line angling down at between 35 to 45 degrees. A 15-foot T-20 head will troll at a 40 foot depth at ‘walk’ speed with about 70 feet of line out. I control the depth by counting the number of ‘pulls’ from the reel. Pulling the line from the reel to arm’s length gives me a little over 2 feet. When fish are in the top 10 feet, the 5 foot sinking head works fine at 12 pulls of the running line once the head & leader are beyond the tip, which puts the fly out about 50 feet.
Trolling with flies opens a whole new world of possibilities for western anglers. A fun game with no shame. Ask any Mainer.
Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: http://ucflyfishing.blogspot.com