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This week's Feature Blog

A Modern Understanding of Trolling Speed

By: Mark Romanack

Next to depth control, trolling speed is the most important variable that trollers must be constantly aware of.

Next to target depth, the most important variable associated with trolling can be summed up in two words... boat speed. Ironically most avid trollers don’t fully understand how boat or trolling speed profoundly influences fishing success.

Understanding trolling speed is also essential for anglers who plan to mix two or more common fishing presentations in the same trolling pattern. Say for example you want to fish bottom hugging lake trout using the classic dodger and spin-n-glow combination. This rig fishes best at 1.7 to 1.9 MPH. Mixing this presentation with a lead core and spoon program wouldn’t work out well as most spoons have their best action at speeds above 2.0 MPH.

Understanding what trolling speeds produce best with specific trolling hardware is important, but there is a lot more to understand about trolling speed.


Most serious anglers agree that trolling speed is a decisive strike triggering element. Because lure action changes as boat speed is increased and decreased, anglers can fine tune a trolling bite by making controlled adjustments to the trolling speed. Often it only takes a minor change in speed to literally light up a bite!

This is precisely why many trollers lecture to avoid trolling in a straight line, but rather to troll in a lazy “S” pattern. A wandering trolling path is essentially speeding up baits pulled on the outside turn and at the same time is slowing down those baits on the inside turn.

If while trolling the lazy “S” pattern more bites are occurring on the outside turn, this is an indication that speeding up the overall trolling speed is in order. On the other hand, if more bites are coming on the inside turn this is suggesting that slowing down the overall speed is in order.

On any given day on the water the most productive trolling speed is a mystery. The only way to determine this variable is by experimenting with speed until a productive pattern emerges. Thanks to modern GPS technology it’s possible to monitor and also adjust trolling speed down to variables of just 1/10th of a mile per hour.


Historically most open water trolling chores have been conducted with the help of a small gasoline outboard commonly called the “kicker”. Kicker motors these days are largely four stroke outboards that are noticeably finicky when it comes to running at a consistent RPM range.

Because four stroke outboards don’t idle and slow troll at a consistent RPM range, trolling speeds tend to vary constantly while fishing. Some might imagine this is an advantage in terms of finding the “most productive” trolling speed on any given day. The problem is because the trolling speed is constantly fluctuating, it’s tough to pin down exactly what speed is triggering the most strikes.

The solution to this kicker motor problem is to invest in a after market throttle control. Both wireless and hard-wired models are on the market that use a rheostat to stabilize the speed and also to make precise changes to trolling speed. Panther Marine Products is an industry leader in developing throttle controls for outboard kicker motors.

​ A handful of manufacturers are now producing Electronic Fuel Injection or EFI kicker motors, that start easier and run smoother and more consistently than models that feature traditional carburetor controls.

Modern fishing boats like this SmokerCraft Phantom X2 OS are routinely equipped with a gasoline kicker motor and also GPS guided electric motor that are used in combination to control trolling speed and boat course precisely.


The gasoline kicker motor is the workhorse of small boat trolling, but increasingly more and more anglers are also incorporating GPS guided electric motors in their trolling regiment. The advantages of these electric motors are profound. For one, because electric motor thrust is controlled by a rheostat switch, it’s possible to make and maintain very precise changes in trolling speed.

Secondly, because these electric motors can be set to follow a compass heading it’s possible to duplicate productive trolling passes in a way never before possible with conventional trolling technology.

Thirdly, GPS guided electric motors also allow anglers to set down specific waypoints and program the electric motor to navigate from waypoint to waypoint. This feature essentially allows the angler to follow meandering weed edges or drop-offs like a beagle following a rabbit track!

Modern electric motors use GPS tracking technology that allows anglers to benefit from several critical trolling functions including Heading Lock, Route Playback and Cruise Control. In the Heading Lock mode the unit will follow a course and maintain that course precisely. In the Route Playback mode up to eight different trolling routes can be programmed and duplicated again and again. The Cruise Control mode allows for a trolling speed to be precisely maintained while in Heading Lock or Route Playback mode compensating for the effects of both wind and current.


Since the invention of GPS guided electric motors a growing number of anglers are incorporating both a gasoline outboard and electric motor into their daily trolling regiment. Depending on the target trolling speed either a kicker motor or a primary outboard can be used to generate the desired speed. The GPS electric motor is in turn used to tweak trolling speed and also to provide GPS navigation chores.

The Fishing 411 crew uses this two motor trolling option routinely. For salmon, trout, pike, musky and warm water walleye fishing where trolling speeds are 2.0 to 3.0 MPH the primary outboard is generally used in combination with the GPS guided electric motor.

​For slower trolling speeds commonly used for targeting cold water walleye, brown trout or lake trout, a gasoline kicker motor is used in combination with the GPS guided electric motor.

When trolling at ultra slow speeds such as walleye live bait rigging or cold water crankbait trolling, trolling with just the GPS guided electric motor is the ticket. A typical 36 volt electric motor will troll a 20 foot “walleye boat” for about 12 hours on a full battery charge.

Between the primary outboard, kicker motors and GPS guided electric motors, there are virtually no trolling situations that can’t be mastered with these products.

The Fish Hawk sub surface probe is the single best piece of equipment an angler can invest in for determining trolling speed and also water temperature at depth.


The trolling speeds indicated by a GPS unit are of course the speed over ground the boat is maintaining at the water surface. Below the surface things can and often are much different.

Subsurface currents are a common problem associated with trolling in the Great Lakes and other deep water natural lakes. The Great Lakes are actually a huge river system, with the water flowing from Lake Superior in the western Great Lakes to where they drain into the Saint Lawrence River.

Flowing steadily from a westerly to easterly direction, Great Lakes anglers are faced with some amazingly strong surface and also subsurface currents. To complicate matters, layers of water in the Great Lakes tend to stratify further creating subsurface currents that are impossible to monitor without the help of a subsurface probe.

The Fish Hawk X4D is a probe that mounts to a downrigger ball that effectively provides anglers trolling speed, depth and critical temperature information at depth. The system functions via a transducer based signal eliminating any need for special downrigger cables to transfer data.

By monitoring the trolling speed at depth it’s possible to detect subsurface currents and make sure that trolling gear at depth is fishing at the proper speed. Without the help of electronics like the X4D unit an angler is literally guessing what speed his gear is fishing at depth.

Because a lot of trolling gear is highly speed sensitive, it’s critically important to know how fast gear is trolling at depth. For example, most trolling spoons have their best action at speeds from 1.9 to 2.5 MPH. If at depth these lures fall below this threshold, the baits will have little action and produce poorly.


Trolling speed is one of those fishing variables that seems straight forward, but in truth is a highly complex subject. Those anglers who embrace trolling speed as a means of triggering strikes are in the fast track to fishing success. To the anglers who ignore trolling speed and the impact it has on open water trolling, maybe they would be more successful at golf?


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