Trolling Rod and Reel Buyer's Guide

Trolling rods and reels are specialized pieces of gear, designed specifically for this technically oriented tactic used for almost every species of fish. Learn the differences in various designs and features for trolling rods and reels.

Trolling is a tactic for targeting suspended fish in deep water, and trolling can mean a lot of different things to different anglers. Fishermen troll for everything from crappie, bass and walleye to trout, salmon and huge saltwater species such as tuna, sailfish and marlin. It's an excellent way to cover a lot of water to prospect for fish that are actively feeding.

The one constant with all of the species targeted by trolling is also the biggest variable - the rod and reel used for each particular application. Selecting the right gear will make your trolling experience more enjoyable, as well as more productive. With over 100 different models of trolling reels to choose from, the decision can be confusing, so here are the major issues to consider.

Trolling can be as simple as letting out a crankbait with a hand-held rod and reel and counting one Mississippi, two Mississippi, but the secret to successful trolling is being able to replicate your success. The first thing that comes to mind after a nice fish goes into the livewell is, "Did I pay out line for a 36 Mississippi count, or was it 46?" Counting passes of the level wind is another way of determining how much line you've paid out, but when you're setting four lines out at a time, watching every reel can be very time consuming and that's what spurred the evolution of modern trolling reels.

Over the years a number of methods have been developed to get baits down deep, and to determine the exact depth you are fishing. Downriggers, lead core line, Dipsy divers, wire and snap weights are all effective methods of getting either crankbaits or live bait down to a desired depth. Regardless of the targeted species, or chosen tactic, open-water trollers all face the same issues. Depth, speed, line diameter, lure design and the amount of line you pay out all affect the depth that your lure will attain. With downriggers the process is simple, you just lower the cannonball to the desired depth and you're in business. For all other techniques, the reoccurring theme for depth control is the amount of line paid out.

Manual Line Counters
Line counter reels were developed to enable anglers to accurately replicate trolling patterns and eliminate the guesswork. The major division between various trolling reels is the addition of a line counter, but other factors are important as well. Within the group of line counter reels various designs measure line and compensate for the downward spiral of a spool's diameter, which affects the measurement. Most manual line counters record the number of revolutions made by the spool. Preset calibrations compensate for variations of spool diameter as the line is paid out, using 12-pound test line as the standard.

It is also possible to adapt an existing reel by purchasing aftermarket counters. Shakespeare offers a unit that attaches to your rod, counts up to 999 feet and has a quick release mechanism for fighting a fish. The Rebel line counter uses a different approach using an exposed wheel but only counts up to 99.9 feet.

Electric Line Counters
Electric line counters are more sophisticated and offer the convenience of calibrating the exact size of line you are using, but programming this process has a pretty steep learning curve. The settings can also be quite tedious to implement, with tiny buttons that have to be pushed individually and in combination with each other. While they are inherently more accurate, with electronic counters you also have the added burden of making sure that batteries are replaced and there's always the possibility of LCD screen failure with sensitive electronics exposed to the elements. For the average angler, wanting a reasonably accurate line counter that is low on maintenance and high on dependability, manual counters are the best choice. For me, the ability to replicate is sufficiently satisfied with a manual counter. If you catch a fish with the line counter set on 96, on five consecutive passes, does it matter if you're actually only letting out 95 feet of line? I'd say probably not, make another pass. However, if you're a stickler for accuracy and don't mind fiddling with a little programming, go for the electric counter. Personal preference drives a lot of the trolling questions, which is the reason we have downriggers, lead core, Dipsy Divers and snap-on weights.

Body Construction
The second distinguishing factor separating trolling reels is body construction, and there are three major categories to consider, graphite, cast aluminum and machined aluminum.

Graphite reels are the lower rung of the ladder, as far as strength is concerned, but graphite construction produces a lighter reel and costs less to make. Since trollers leave their rods in holders the majority of the time, weight isn't that much of an issue, but for many anglers price is a critical issue. This is especially true when you're first getting into trolling and buying four rigs at one time. The next step up, for strength and quality, is a cast aluminum frame, and the best option is a reel that has been precision machined from a solid block of aluminum. Torque on the reel is created by the stress of trolling gear, but mostly from fighting larger species that really tax gear to the limit. For big fish, machined aluminum body is optimal. Machined bodies are more rigid, holding bearings and gears in precise alignment, which reduces wear, prevents premature failure, and gives you more torque for besting a bruiser.

Other features that are desirable include a level wind, clicker and smooth drag. For all but large saltwater species, a level wind is highly desirable. When you're concentrating on fighting a fish, keeping your line level on the spool is something that you shouldn't have to worry about; however, the stress created by 100-pound fish is sometimes more the than delicate worm gears in a level wind can stand. Managing your line is just part of blue-water angling.

While a properly selected rod will absorb a lot of the energy of a fight, multi-disc drags provide the smoothest control for handling big fish. You want a drag that operates smoothly without jerking as the fish makes a strong run. Star drag adjustments, located next to the handle are convenient for most anglers to use.

A clicker is handy for providing an audible signal that line is paying out, and you want to make sure that you have one that is nice and loud so that it can be heard over engine noise and the chatter of fellow fishermen.

Dual-Speed Reels
Saltwater anglers targeting large fish might want to consider a two-speed reel. Dual speed reels are a distinct advantage when fighting large fish such as tuna, sail fish and marlin. With a flick of a lever you can take up line rapidly when your quarry make a run at the boat, or opt for serious cranking power when winching one up from the depths.

Line Capacity
Line capacity is mainly an issue when you're fishing for a species that has the ability to strip a spool, and that's mostly a saltwater issue; however, if you're fishing serious freshwater depths and have to pay out a lot of line, you could find yourself short on working room with a very small-spooled reel. Here are some questions to consider.

1. What species are you going to target?

A 10-pound walleye and a 10-pound striper produce dramatically different fights.

2. What lures you intend on using, and at what depth?

Lures have a set depth of dive, based on the size of their lip and the speed you are trolling. The lures you select will determine the amount of line you have to let out to reach a prescribed depth.

3. Are you going to use monofilament, braided line or lead core?

Braided lines have a smaller diameter and therefore create less drag in the water, enabling you to get a lure deeper with less line. Beyond the advantage of having a stronger line with a smaller diameter, braided lines will enable you to load greater lengths of line than traditional monofilament of the same test weight. Lead core lines are simply an inner core of lead or other heavy metal that is surrounded by a braided shield. This causes lead core lines to have a large diameter than the same pound test monofilament and a larger spool is required to maintain the same capacity of line.

Required line capacity is also relative to the pound test of the line you're using as well as the drag you have to work with. Light lines eliminate the option of horsing big fish with a tightly set drag. If you're set on fishing light lines, you'd better have enough of it to pay out when it comes time to negotiate.

Perhaps the best way to approach the question of reel capacity is from the other end of the line. Serious anglers have discovered "The Troller's Bible," Precision Trolling, now in its seventh edition. You'll easily note that there are two words in the title to this pioneering publication, and the first one is the most important. When it comes to trolling precision is the key to success. If you want to learn how to troll, and be good at it, this is a great place to start. Precision Trolling lists all of the major body styles and sizes of crankbaits and provides the dive curve for each. Lures that are not listed specifically can be matched by body size and correlated to the charts provided.

If you've been marking fish in your favorite lake, at a depth of 30 feet, and have your heart set on using the model RR-9 Rapala Risto Rap; at trolling speed, you'll have to let out 235 feet of line to reach that depth, according to the charts in Precision Trolling.

Now all you have to do is pick a reel with the features you prefer and enough line capacity to let you pay out 235 feet of line, with enough line left to fight the largest possible fish in the species you're targeting.

Trolling Rods
Trolling Rods are not that difficult to select. You've got three basic design differences - standard eyes, roller-guides and inner-flow. For the majority of species, you want a fairly stiff rod that will withstand the impact of a big fish hitting and heading in the other direction, while the rod is locked in its holder. For species that have delicate mouths, a longer, more limber rod is preferred. Some anglers like to use two longer rods forward and two shorter rods aft, to help separate lines. Also, the additional flex of a longer rod cushions the impact of the strike and lessens the possibility of tearing the hook out.

Rods with roller guides are preferred for larger species of freshwater fish and certainly for saltwater, where fights tend to be more serious and last longer. Roller-guides create less friction on the line when the rod is bent in a sharp arch, but the added expense isn't worth the investment if the species you normally target won't be bending the rod that much.