A way of life in the tropics, trolling at sea is a technique which can produce some decent bass and pollack sport in British waters.
Catching a range of predatory saltwater fish species by towing a baited line behind a moving boat is a technique that dates back several hundred years. Trolling, as it is called, is still practised in British waters and is a method at its most effective over rough ground in comparatively shallow water.
They may not all be 12- pounders (5.5kg) like this beauty, but on a good day trolling can reap brilliant catches of bass, especially if you fish at the right time in the holding grounds – areas where bass are known to shoal. This sort of information is hard to get hold of – you can’t beat the knowledge of a good skipper.
A pair of anglers troll for bass close to the shore. The bait or lure is worked some distance behind the boat, well clear of propeller action and hull disturbance. The distance also minimizes the noise of the engine.
Sound travels well in water and can scare fish away from the baits. Trolling from a wooden hulled boat, which absorbs sound better than a craft made of PVC, achieves better results.
A selection of Jardine trolling leads and artificial sandeels. The best trolling leads hang well below the line, preventing it from twisting or kinking and stopping the eel from spinning.
While live sandeel or the much bigger launce are deadly on a drift line for bass and pollack, they are not as good when trolled. A dead eel on the other hand, which has been ‘worked’ with the fingers to break the backbone, making the body supple, is a much better offering.
A pollack comes aboard. A hooked fish is played in the normal sporting manner with the boat thrown out of gear.
Big game trolling in the Bahamas. There is something very special in angling when a big marlin quarters a fast-moving bait, takes it, and then makes a spectacular leap many feet in the air.
The bait or lure is weighted either to fish near the surface — especially effective in the early morning or at last light when the fish move to the surface — or about l-2m (3-7ft) above the bottom. The bait is normally towed at least 36m (40yd) behind the boat and up to about 90m (100yd), at a speed of around two knots.
The technique, simple in concept, is mainly restricted to anglers with their own craft, or with easy access to one. You cannot troll effectively in a conventional charter angling boat situation, unless those aboard are of a like mind and prepared to fish in turns. It’s best to have no more than two people doing so at a time – any more than two lines out and the fishing becomes very difficult.
The principal European species targeted by this method are bass, pollack, coalfish and mackerel.
Technology with a twang
Trolling baits are varied. Natural offerings include live and dead sandeels, very small ‘joey’ mackerel, and mackerel and squid strip cut to resemble a swimming fish.
There are artificial trolling baits too, including lures, spoons and a wide range of eels which are perhaps the most successful trolling choice.
Artificial eels have quite a long history of success. Apparently the first artificial eel came about quite by accident. Around 1850 an angler fishing from a small boat ran out of bait. He hit on the idea of using a thick rubber band which happened to be wrapped around a tin box. So he impaled it on a hook and caught a fish – and the artificial eel was born.
Tail action is the key to an artificial eel’s catching ability, and this factor has now reached virtual perfection in modern lures. Even worked slowly, some sophisticated eels have a tail action that is devastatingly attractive to predators.
The great reefs off Cornwall have always lent themselves to trolling methods and many outstanding catches are on record.
The most celebrated account refers to two summer evenings in 1921 when husband and wife Captain and Mrs H. Millais, fishing near Land’s End off the tip of Cornwall, took nearly 700lb (320kg) of pollack and coalfish on ‘rubber eels’.
The fish mostly struck the eels about 1.8m (6ft) below the surface in an area renowned for a fast tide run. The boat was moving at three and a half knots.
The happy couple had hit on a crucial combination – evening fishing up to virtual darkness, a fast tide run and the boat’s speed. These factors still add up to an effective trolling formula today and they often occur in catch reports.
Tackle and tactics
The perfect rod for trolling is at least 7½ft (2.3m) long, with a medium to firm action. If the blank is too soft it takes on a permanent curve under the pressure of the line weight and the lure or bait moving through the water. A good quality 20lb (9kg) class boat rod is usually up to the demands of trolling. You also need a medium sized multiplier reel. It’s best to avoid a level line feature since trolling pressure puts too much strain on the somewhat delicate mechanism.
Load up monofilament line of up to 20lb (9kg) test. Get the best quality you can afford so it’s not too springy. Attach a 20ft (6m) trace of slightly lighter line (this fishes better and reduces tackle loss) to the main line with a good swivel. Position a lead, designed to slip through the water with the minimum of disturbance, about 30cm (1ft) above the swivel. The curved Archer Jardine, which is mounted by running the reel line around its continuous groove and through spiral wires at each end, is excellent for the job. For trolling near the surface a weight of between 3-5oz (85-142g) is required to keep the lure at the right depth, depending on the speed of the boat. If you need a heavier weight to fish the lure and weight much deeper while maintaining the speed of troll, substitute a Wye type lead, which comes in the heavier weights.
Behaviour on board
Some anglers prefer to hold the rod when trolling, but it isn’t essential. A socket in the boat’s gunwale, designed to keep the rod at a fairly high angle, certainly takes the strain off arms and shoulders – but you must keep a sharp eye on the rod tip and pick up the rod quickly once you spot a bite.
Set the reel clutch precisely so the line cannot peel off the spool under the trolling pressure. However, it must be able to give line if the bait is taken. If the setting is just a little bit too tight there will be no cushion effect, and if the sudden jerk of a fish doesn’t break the line, then there’s a fair chance the hook will be torn out of the fish’s mouth.
Once a fish is hooked, the skipper throws the boat out of gear so it can be played in a normal and sporting manner. If more than one angler is fishing it is usual for the other lines to be wound in very quickly. This prevents what could be a very good fish becoming entangled.
When the boat is no longer moving, lines and lures not in contention fall to the bottom, most likely becoming ‘rocked-up’ or damaged by contact with sharp edges. A line which has been on a rocky bottom and then wound back is suspect and should be thoroughly checked for abrasion. Failure to observe this cardinal rule could prove costly in terms of a fine fish lost later.
Trolling in the tropics
In tropical waters trolling is a widely used and exciting method of targeting a host of ultra fast-moving fish. The list of species regularly pursued with trolled baits and a range of colourful lures is headed by marlin, broadbill swordfish, the spectacular sail-fish, varieties of tuna, kingfish, dolphin fish, barracuda and fierce jacks.