Speed Kills
Fish Big Time!

Correct trolling speeds increase your odds of success!

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Nope, I'm not talking about taking amphetamines or driving at a 110 mph the wrong way on Interstate 75.  The message that I'm trying to get across? ...is that this is the most vital part, of the trolling fishery that exists in our Great Lakes.  Get it wrong, and your fish box will be looking for company.  Get it right? ...and you won't be able to unload the fish box by yourself, unless you're related to Hercules.  Please pay careful attention to the following, it spells the difference between success and failure.

While I've touched on the subject of correct trolling speeds in the other articles available in "Capt. John's Encyclopedia of Fishing Tips and Trix," it's far to important to just touch on it.  This is the movement and motion that provides the solution of the age old question of making fish strike, or is the lure going to fast or slow to entice Mr. Fish to your dinner table.  Speed sends out your invitation.  So, you'd better get it right!

Boat Control

There's no sense in going any further with this until you have a way for absolute boat control.  Trolling plates, unless they're the hydraulically activated usually don't work well, because the spring loaded ones inhibit your ability to back-up in reverse.  The kind that has a trip lever generally gets bent in a hurry from not remembering to pull the trip cord.  I've had both kinds when I had a stern drive boats in the 70's and 80's.

Next option is dragging sea bags, which is the way to go as far as I'm concerned.  Sea bags are nothing more than water parachutes that slow the boat way down.  2 bags should be used, I can hit dodger speed (1.8 to 2.2 mph) with one bag in even in a heavy following seas in most cases.  I then deploy the other bag when we get a decent fish on to bring the speed down to a crawl, aiding the anglers ability to land the fish.  It's just plain stupid trying to pull in a 25 pound King with a vessel going at a constant speed of 3 mph!

Where and how are the sea bags used?  The accepted way is to run them amidships or off the side, forward about 3 feet from the stern.  Larger boats will have what's called spring cleats and that's where they should be attached.  There's generally a loop on the end of the bags to empty the water out, when you're pulling them for the run back to port.  Also, with the rear loop attached to the vessel, this prevents the bag from getting tangled in my props or shafts.   With two 36 inch bags on my 28 foot Cherokee I can bring the slow down to Lake Trout speed of about 1 mph, now that's a heavy duty whoa.

Sea Bags or another type of a slowing device will allow for higher engine rpm's, better oil pressure, and increase the ability of your alternator to keep your batteries charged.

What Effects Boat Speed?

Mainly, many factors come into view, being wind direction, currents and exactly how fast your boat trolls down too.  A stiff north wind can push your vessel, way to fast on a south troll without some method to slow the boat down to at least dodger speed.  Dodger speed in my book is around 2 mph, which in reality is pretty darn slow.

From Point Betsie to Big Point Sable from my experience there's a south bound under current, especially below 50 feet.  This under current can be as much as a mile an hour, and maybe more after a strong blow.  Keep to current in mind when trolling north in this area.  Go figure on this one, you'd think it would be a north bound undertow towards the straights of Mackinaw, because that's where Lk. Michigan flows thru the Straits of Mackinaw into Lk. Huron.

Idle speed settings on most boats are usually set to high by the dealers as far as I'm concerned.  Shifting a Mercruiser Sterndrive unit at 1000, or 900 rpm's causes a sound like, "ratchet, ratchet......bang-clunk."  Turn down the idle screw to solve this problem and you'll slow the boat down and save wear and tear on the out-drive or tranny.

Idle speed issues include maintaining proper oil pressure, so be careful here, but at 600 rpm's you should be getting plenty of oil.

While my researching subject matter on how slow you can troll your engine down and still have your alternator kick out enough amperage to keep the batteries charged, I called Mike at Manistee Auto Electric here in Manistee.  According to Mike, 550 rpm's is enough spin on the alternator depending on the size of the pulleys.  Manistee Auto Electric specializes in a 94 amp Troll-Master Alternator, designed for boats whose main purpose is trolling, like mine.  If you're having charging problems the special Troll-Master will fix them.  Incidentally, the exact question I asked Mike, pertained to a GM small block V8 alternators.

How Fast am I "Reel-ly" Going?

Now here's a subject that requires much thought on my part to get across the point I'm trying to make.  All the electronic speed indicators on my boat read differently, and I have 4 surface speedometers, plus speed over ground (SOG).

Now, here's where the SOG from a loran or GPS doesn't have anything to do with actual trolling speed.  It only measures the speed of the vessel and don't take into account the set and drift of current moving your lures. 

I guess what I really trying to get across, is that I watch my cable angles and gauge my speed from that rather that relying on instruments that are not accurate or reliable.  Cable watching never breaks and it won't lie to you.  Or, another way of looking at it is, what's gonna happen if my speed indictor breaks?  The bottom line is that you'll sooner or later develop a feel for the accurate speeds for the lures you're using.

Cannonball Speed & Temperature Sensors

In 70's Fish Hawk came out with a unfailing Temp probe that was independent of the downrigger and the temperature could be read as you lowered the instrument into the drink via a insulated wire.  This was advanced technology for the time, being you no longer guess at where the 54 degree (preferred Salmon temperature) was.  Many a charter captain always took a reading before setting lines.  If you find one in working condition at a resale table at a Steelheader Show it's still a sound investment, and you'll probably only have to spend 20 bucks on the antique.  I paid about $100 for the 200 foot model in 1977, I believe.

Fish Hawk then came out with a product I believe in 1978 that gave you speed and temp from a remote radio broadcasting probe that was attached to the cannonball.  I bought one of these and their first attempt at the underwater deal was a bust and certainly didn't work well.  I still have that old scrap unit in the junk out in the back shed.  I got burnt for about 300 bucks for this back then, which was a healthy chunk of change for 1978.  

Back the early to mid-80's the next big deal was called a ProCombinator and was a sensing apparatus that came with it's own insulated downrigger cable that gave you the temp.  Well, after buying 2 new units and 1 used one, I decided it was way to expensive and unreliable to keep using.   The ProCombinator new was 300 bucks again, so I got burned for the second time for another $900 in my quest to be the knowledgeable "Mr. Underwater Temp & Speed Man."

Fish Hawk corrected the ills of there first attempt when they teamed with Big Jon Inc sometime in the mid to later 80's.  I bought a unit similar the nowadays Fish Hawk Temp Troll, but it didn't read all 4 functions at the same time like the newer ones do.  The Fish Hawk Temp Troll on sale now is the most popular on the market today.  It does work OK (some of the time) and show temp and speed, unless you start pulling speeds over 4 mph when the probe has a problem sending the signal up to the surface transducer. This problem is caused, because of the cannonball swing, swayback/blowback.

The draw back with this unit is the probe is way over priced, at $200 and sooner or later you will drop one.  Then you'll have that sick feeling from leaving 2 Ben Franklins on the bottom of the lake.  Ask me?  I know because, even being careful, I've dropped 3 of them over the years.

Important Tip:  Make a dropper wire from the bottom of the probe to the cannonball eyelet. then cut a couple of the strands to weaken the dropper cable even further.  Always inspect the probe carrying downrigger wire for kinks, because that's where you and your $200 probe can and will depart your company eventually.


Here's a tricky subject for sure.  Currents do exist, like the south-bound current between Points; Betsie and Big Sable.  Figuring them out will help you immensely.  How you might ask?  The "big tip off" is the amount a sway or dog track they'll add to your downrigger cables.  You might have very little wind and you'll notice, even thought you thing you're on a straight course the cables are angling to the port, or starboard. 

Major Tip: The major trick is to always, and I repeat always to have the cables hanging directly straight down, like a surveyors plum-bob from the end pulley of the rigger arm.  This way your spread of lures isn't fluttering sideways at speed you have no control over.  


The course you're trolling in and catching fish should be noted, and let me add, with great importance.  It has often been said, the best approach in enticing a predatory fish to strike is to have the lure pass from one eye so the other eye will catch sight of it.  Remember fish can't see straight ahead, because their eyeballs are on the sides of their noggin.

The masters at figuring out the right direction are Captains Dave Engle and Bill Bale from "Best Chance Too" fame.  They've won numerous big money tournaments by getting the direction perfect!  I fished the same water as these two and always watch the trolling track they're using.

Calming Down the Boat

Bags will take a lot of the rock and roll out of your boat that's called a pleasure craft.  It's not much pleasure if your guests are hanging over the side puking their cookies up.  The guttural noises pukers make is enough to get even the non-seasick people barfing.  Sorry for being so blunt, but it's the truth!

The added drag of the sea bags pull down on the sides of the boat, steadying it in the process.  They're especially effective in a beam or trough sea, that's when the waves are coming at you from the sides or your vessel.  I'm sure you've seen tight rope walkers carrying that long balance pole, I rest my case.

Required by Public Act 244

If you're in the charter business your required by law to carry at least one sea bag aboard as a sea drogue in case you've lost power and the winds pushing you.  The bag should be run off the bow to keep the snout of the boat faced into the sea.  By keeping the bow pointed into the seas, it will help prevent the boat from broaching and  capsizing, in case your in the "Perfect Storm" type seas.

The law says, you're not required to use them as a trolling aid, but as safety device all boats should have onboard.  Keep an extra 50 feet of line attached the a spare sea bag in case you need to deploy in one a hurry.


(1.)  Match speed to others that are taking fish, when your not.
(2.)  Be flexible and experimentation is an on going process of fishing
(3.)  Use only Duracell Alkaline batteries in you probe, they last the longest.
(4.)  Watch your baits in the water to see if they're spinning on you.
(5.)  Use cannonballs of the same size and weight, so they'll track together.
(6.)  Watch your cables for speed, they won't mislead you.
(7.)  Watch for cannonball side sway, they indicate wind slippage or currents.
(8.)  Slow the boat down when fighting fish.
(9.)  Trolling dodgers, flashers or cowbell dictate speeds of 2.2 mph or less.
(10.) Watch for action on the turns, if the faster side on the turn goes off, speed up.
      If the slower or inside arc of the turn takes bites, slow down.

Special tip:  If you're hitting the fish on a down wind troll and if the seas are rolling at 3 feet or more keep going until the action stops.  Then pull lines and run about a half mile from where the action started.  Set lines and fish downwind retracing your exact course.  It's foolish to try and beat your self up in a head sea when all your strikes are coming on a downwind troll.  I've watched tournament winners like Capt. Pete "Pedro" Ruboyianes do this several times and win tournaments with this tactic.

The article was written in 2000/2001 and might be a tad outdated, but the context of how important correct trolling speed is should be "Job 1" when fishing/trolling!

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Capt. John King and MichiganSportsman Copyrightę2000-2008