Trolling For Trout on Lakes

Video lake trolling setup

*Some of the links in this article contain affiliate links, meaning that I will make a small percentage of any sales made via them. The great overlords of everything feel that you need to know that.

When it comes to trout fishing on lakes, trolling is generally the most effective way to catch trout, particularly large trout. This article will outline how to be successful at trolling for trout on lakes. The basic assumption is that you have a boat with some sort of motor to fish from, so I will cover where to troll for trout, what gear to use and some suggested lures.

Being successful when trout fishing is sometimes a matter of luck, but you can stack your odds in your favor by doing all the right things. This will greatly improve your odds of catching more and larger trout.

  • Two types of trout
  • Research where to troll for trout
    • The thermocline
    • Locate structure
  • Controlling your depth
  • Trout trolling equipment
    • Trolling rods and reels
    • Line for trolling
    • Trolling lures for trout
    • Downriggers, divers and weights
    • Dodgers, flashers and trolls
  • Fish finders
  • Final thoughts

Two Types of Trout

One thing we need to address is the two types of trout. I’m not speaking species here such as rainbow, brown and so on, but types. Trout breaks down to either native or holdover planted trout and freshly planted trout.

Established and native trout are survivors. They are smart and cagey. Most of what I have to say here about structure, depth and so on applies to these fish. You have to work for them.

On the other end of the scale are planted trout, typically rainbow trout. These are relatively dumb trout that aren’t smart enough to make use of cover and tend to bite on just about anything.

Research Where To Troll

There used to be a day when being successful at trolling for trout meant repeated trips and lots of trial an error. Now you have the advantage of the Internet and all sorts of information including contour maps of lakes and images of the lake itself and where water flows in and out of it.

Find the structure in the lake

Using satellite images, you can find out a lot about a lake. You can find where creeks flow in and out of any body of water, and often times get an idea of where weed lines are, as well as other structure in the lake. This will give you more targets to try when you are out fishing.

A favorite of mine, especially on smaller lakes is to target the edges of weed beds early in the morning. Often times I can find a few large trout that way as they are up from the deep waters, looking bugs and small fish in the shallows that will be too warm for them later in the day.

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If you combine your satellite images with topographic maps of whatever lake you are wanting to fish, you can dramatically narrow down the ideal areas to target. Established fish will tend to follow things like drop offs and the edges of point, lurking in the darker water.

A quick study of a contour map will show you just where you are likely to find fish holding. Even freshly planted trout, that tend to roam randomly will find areas of cooler, oxygen rich water to hang out in for the bulk of the day and it can sometimes be a very small portion of the lake.

Seasonal changes

Of course of top of this is the season and where fish are moving in the lake as water temperatures change, different food sources become available, and of course as fish move to spawn. To some degree this will all vary from lake to lake and from species to species.

A general guideline is that trout will tend to move to deeper water in the winter months, congregating in the deeper holes, and come up onto ridges and points during the summer months, resting in colder waters and making forays into the shallows to feed.

Spawning will take trout closer to shore or towards the mouths of creeks that they are preparing to migrate up.

4 Ways to Control Your Depth

Trolling a lake may seem straightforward enough, but the biggest factor to a successful fishing trip is putting your lure where fish will see it. We just talked about where on the surface of the lake you want to fish, but we also need to consider how to get your lure down to the right depth consistently.

There are a variety of ways to get your lures down to where the fish are holding. The following are some of the most common.

Lead Weights

Every fisherman has used lead weight to get their lured down in the water a little farther. The most common example is a couple of split-shot crimped onto your line ahead of a spinner. With trolling, it is the same concept.

For trolling, the most common style of lead weight to use is a banana sinker. This is a chunk of lead formed around a length of bead chain or with simple eyes to tie onto. You can get these in a wide range of sizes and the big advantage to using these over split shot is that they prevent your main line from twisting.

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Even when I’m targeting fish in the top layers of the water, I will generally throw on at least a very small keel weight, just to keep any twist from traveling up my line.

In general, using lead weights, you can target fish in the top 50′ of the water column. The downside of course is that the deeper you want to go, the bigger the weight you will need to use which can reduce your ability to feel bites and hamper your fighting the fish.


For really precise depth control, the best way to go is to use a downrigger. This is typically a 5# to 15# lead weight on its own rig equipped with a release that your line is clipped to. The downrigger is put at the depth you want and it takes your lure with it.

When fish bite, your line is releases (usually) and you can fight the fish without the bulk of a weight on the line.

The only real disadvantages to downriggers is the added equipment and of course reeling them up and down if you don’t have electric ones. They are essential though if you want to precisely target a depth.

Trout Trolling Equipment

So far we have talked about macro level things when it comes to trolling for trout. Now we start talking about more specific topics, mainly the tackle that you will do the actual fishing with. When it comes to trolling, the gear you use can make or break you.

Even just narrowing the subject to trolling for trout, leaves us with more than we can cover in one post. The gear that you will use on a small lake, trolling for planter trout that are under one pound will vary greatly from the gear you will use when fishing deep waters for lake trout or mackinaw.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on the basic gear you will need for trolling smaller lakes for planted or even holdover trout.

Rods and Reels

If you are just starting out fishing, you don’t need an ultra expensive trolling rod. Here are some general specs on a basic trolling rod.

  • Fiberglass construction
  • 6′ to 8′ in length
  • ‘Fast’ speed
  • Medium light power
  • 4-8# line

The above is actually a good general description for an all-purpose trout rod. Let me explain each of these briefly.

Fiberglass construction is preferable because it is more forgiving than a carbon rod. If you overload a carbon rod doing something like pulling on a snag, or jerking it loose of the downrigger, they can just snap.

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The 6′ to 8′ length is a bit of a matter of preference and maneuverability. Rods in these lengths are good for trolling with lead or for using on a downrigger.

Fast speed refers to how fast the tip bends when pressure is initially applied to it. Think, when a fish bites. A fast rod will give you more time to respond to a fish biting and more give to fight them with.

Medium light power indicates a moderately stiff rod overall. This is more a measure of how much weight it can pull. A medium light rod will have enough backbone to pull your lures, divers and so on, but not be a broom handle that won’t let you feel anything or fight smaller fish.

4# to 8# line is a measure of how heavily built a rod is. Needless to say a fast rod with medium light power, but built for 30# line will me massively overkill for most trout.

Not on the list, but more a matter of preference, is spinning/casting vs baitcasting. Rods for either have different eyes and aren’t interchangeable. Personally, I prefer a baitcasting reel for trolling, particularly one with a line counter built in. But, if you are building a true multi-purpose rod, then I’d go with spinning so it is easy to cast. It will work for trolling as well, but is less ideal.

Final thoughts on trolling for trout

Trolling for trout is something that anyone with a boat can do, and is highly productive technique for catching fish. The more you practice, test and experiment, the higher your success rate will be.

Every lake is a little different and even the same species of trout in different bodies of water. Water color, time of year, and so on, all affect what does the trick for putting fish in the boat. Do your research and see what has been working for other people, test new lures, and keep a record of what you caught, when, where and with what lure.

This is why I suggest picking 2 go-to types of lures and getting very experienced with them. I can tell you that I’ve never had great success with KwikFish tupe lures. I can also tell you that the reason for this is that I’ve never put in the time to learn to fish them correctly.

I know you will hate this as a final thought, but go fish more. The more you fish, the better you will get at it!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>