Canoe and Kayak Trolling Tactics

News & Tips: Canoe and Kayak Trolling Tactics


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Calm conditions are a prime time to troll from a canoe, kayak or rowboat.

The Mechanics of a Rowboat, Canoe or Kayak

The manual propulsion of a rowboat, canoe or kayak makes for a great trolling presentation. The surge-and-drift motion of this trolling approach gives baits a natural looking action in the water. More often than not, once over good structure, I rarely have enough time to set up my line before a fish has usually hit the offering. To unpack this presentation further, I'll discuss a few specific examples that have worked for me over the years.  

Wet Fly Trolling for Trout and Bass  

For rainbow and brook trout in lakes, it's tough to beat a wet fly slow trolled behind a canoe. The boat offers you a stealthy approach through the shallows, and with enough line out, it's rare you'll spook fish when quietly paddling. Trolling a fly is also an excellent way to get started in fly fishing. The basics of fly casting can be easily learned within a weekend, but mastery can take a lifetime. Trolling flies provides a budding fly fisher the opportunity to test and learn what flies will work in their home waters.

You don't need expensive rods or gear to troll flies. A basic set up will do fine. I recommend a type II or III sinking fly line to get your offering to the right depth. If you only have floating line, you can easily convert it to a trolling line with instant sink tips. These weighted tips are a low-cost option to get your fly to run deeper, without buying sinking line and filling a second spool.  

Trolling a fly isn't strenuous either; it's a leisurely paddle with frequent, long pauses to match the pace of a small minnow or aquatic insect swimming through the water. You'll also want to try different speeds and experiment with stop-and-start patterns to determine the best trolling presentation.  

I have also had good success trolling large, wet flies from a rowboat for bass. My best luck has come presenting bass flies over the tops, or along the edges, of deep weedbeds for smallmouth and largemouth bass on cottage lakes. Likely conditioned to flipping jigs and big plastics, and less unaccustomed to wet flies, the jerky rowing imparts a natural action to wet flies that bass can't seem to resist. In a later section, I'll expand on smallmouth trolling tactics.  

You can troll almost any wet fly. Minnow patterns like a Muddler Minnow or Zonkers are a good start for a quicker troll. Smaller nymph and scud patterns work better on a slower pace. Of course, it's tough to beat the all-round fish-catching abilities of the Wooly Bugger for any freshwater fish.  

Minnowbaits for Dusk-Feeding Walleye

I can vividly remember the first time I saw this presentation in action. My family was visiting friends at their cottage, and the owner wandered down to the dock roughly a half hour before the sun hit the tree tops. He had a small tackle box containing a few minnow baits in one hand and a spinning rod in the other. The spinning rod was already rigged with a rubber-core sinker and a snap-swivel, for quick and easy lure changes in the dark. He boarded his solo canoe and slowly began to paddle around the deep weed edge. I was fishing and watching him from the dock. In about 45 minutes, he caught half a dozen walleye using this trolling technique.  

Again, the stealth approach to canoeing makes it an excellent presentation during quiet conditions, like a calm summer night. It's critical to keep an eye on your rod tip when trolling around weeds. You want to monitor the action of the lure for proper speed, and also to make sure it's not fouled with weeds. You'll also want to check for strikes frequently.

The above example demonstrates a simple way to take walleye off of weedlines. A variation is trolling shallow running crankbaits and minnowbaits over the tops of emergent weeds is another dynamite way to take night-feeding walleye early in the season. Good baits for both above presentations include Rapala's Jointed Minnow or a Shallow Shad Rap or Smithwick Rogues.  

To work rock shoals, you can use deeper diving crankbaits, although I prefer dragging spinner rigs tipped with nightcrawlers, minnows or leeches. To make sure your spinner rig is running right, check it at boat side first. Paddle at various speeds to determine the right pace to keep the blades spinning.  

If you do decide to try dusk trolling, make sure you outfit your rig with lights and wear a PFD. It's also a good idea to have a flashlight handy for handing lures, as well as shining it towards any oncoming boats to make sure you're spotted. As walleye often come into the shallows to feed at dusk, try staying close to the shoreline to intercept them, as well as for added safety.  

Paddling for Deep-Water Bronzebacks  

Over the years, I've taken many smallmouth bass from a canoe and rowboat on a variety of lure types. I've experienced success trolling crankbaits and spinnerbaits at a steady pace over deeper water. This can result in rod-jarring hits, so you'll want to make sure you have your rod secured in a rod holder. Simply paddle at a medium to fast pace to keep baits running properly and wait for smallmouth to hammer your baits.

A slower smallie presentation is trolling topwaters. The only downside to this presentation is you won't get to see as many surface explosions as you do casting, unless you're in a rowboat. The definite bonus, however, is that a canoe passing over deep water on a lake won't likely register with smallies. Good topwater options include prop baits, like the Crazy Shad by Cotton Cordell, or crawlers, like a Jitterbug. Make sure you match the paddling speed for the right action for the bait.

Another deadly smallmouth presentation that works just as well in a canoe as a regular boat is dragging a tube. With a canoe in calm conditions, simply paddle at a sail's pace. Even better is if there's a slight breeze blowing across the lake and all that's required is the odd adjustment to the boat's positioning to maintain the proper drift.

The above presentation works equally as well from a small rowboat, although you loose some stealth (especially if oars squeak, which is a good reason to pack a little oil). The benefit to rowboats over canoes is that you're in a better position to monitor your rod, set the hook and fight a fish.

Consider fishing from a canoe, kayak or rowboat more often. These boats provide a silent means to fish areas, giving you an advantage in pressured waters. Moreover, the movement of these crafts across the water imparts a deadly action on any bait being trolled.