Trolling for Offshore Smallies
By Justin Hoffman
I first stumbled upon
deep-water bass trolling while fishing at a friend's cottage on a
lake west of Ottawa, Ontario. It was early fall and the foliage was
beginning its colourful transformation, a sure sign smallmouth would
be putting on the feedbag.
scouring the shoreline for most of the morning with little to show
for our efforts, we decided it was time for a change of pace. On a
whim - or, as I remember it, a way to pass the time - we opted to
troll down the middle of the lake, although neither of us had much
confidence in the tactic. Our first fish came quickly out of 93 feet
of water, with our lures down 16 feet, and we managed to land 12
smallmouth in total over the next two hours from water deeper than
45 feet. The fish were all between 3 ˝ and 5 pounds, which was no
surprise since they were at a buffet-style baitfish restaurant, with
no apparent closing times.
Since then, we've honed
this technique. In order for this system to work, a number of
variables need to be in place. Deep water is a necessity, with
depths ranging from 30 to 100 feet being optimal. Such lakes are
usually oligotrophic or mesotrophic (or a combination of both) and
have clear water and limited vegetation.
The second needed
ingredient is an offshore food source, and in this instance it's
pelagic baitfish. The most predominant species found on the menu are
shiners, smelt, shad, alewife, and young-of-the-year cisco,
depending on the lake. These baitfish roam in large, constantly
moving schools and often suspend over deep water.
Once summer bids farewell,
these baitfish group up away from shore. This in turn starts a
semi-migration for smallmouth from shallow to deep, following their
prey as the water cools and the days grow shorter. With winter just
around the corner, gorging on fatty prey gives bass the necessary
body reserves and energy to help them through the hard-water period.
There's usually no rhyme or reason for the depth at which baitfish
schools travel in fall, as it could be down 42 feet over 70-foot
depths or 15 over 40.
Much like dolphin corral
huge schools of tuna in the sea, smallmouth bass form feeding packs,
lunging and bursting through pods of baitfish and filling their
stomachs to capacity. Locating huge schools of baitfish and
presenting a lure that will run through them are the keys to this
Searching for offshore
baitfish is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. It can be
downright impossible without proper tools. If you choose to troll
blindly across big water, hoping to intercept fish by chance, more
than likely you'll end up with an empty gas tank and a full load of
frustration. That's not a good combination. This is where your
trusty fish finder can save the day by scanning the depths below and
highlighting where fish are holding.
The first step I take is
to cruise the lake with the fish finder on. I work the boat anywhere
that has decent depth, paying close attention to the sonar's display
for signs of activity. On most units, baitfish schools register as
large dark pods or long lines. Many times, these dark pods will be
accompanied at the edges by large hooks or fish symbols - a telltale
sign smallmouth are on the feed.
Once I locate a pod of
bait, tossing a marker buoy out is the easiest way to maintain my
bearings. Although the marker's anchor won't reach bottom when
fishing great depths, it stays in the area long enough to help me
search it for bass. Having a floating beacon in place allows you to
work outwards from the area, often staying and reconnecting with
fish as they travel farther away.
Once you've found a school
of baitfish, get down to business. Trolling runs should be a mixture
of changes of speed and turns. Your lure should be noticeably
different, tempting and arousing a smallmouth's curiosity and
ultimately making it strike.
How fast you troll can
have an impact on how many fish you hook. Although I've yet to find
a magical pace that always works, I've noticed that constantly
changing speed is one of the best tactics.
Get the speed up. Many of
the bigger fish I've connected with have come when the engine has
been revving significantly. As long as you can feel the vibration
and side-to-side action of the lure, you're doing fine.
the direction your lure travels can also bring big rewards. Fish
seldom swim in a straight line, and neither should the fake baitfish
you're pulling. Utilize S-bends, large circles, and zigzag patterns.
Not only will you cover a larger area, you'll also give bass
something different to look at.
Outfitting for a day of
offshore trolling can be a simple task. When it comes to rods and
reels, baitcasters are my favourites. A 7-foot medium-action stick
will work well, especially if it has a decent backbone. Couple this
up with a dependable reel that has a silky-smooth drag. You'll
appreciate this when a big bronzeback decides to peel line off in a
For line, mono and braid
work equally well. I run 14-pound mono on my baitcasters. If you
choose a braid, back off on the drag slightly, as smallmouth can hit
like freight trains, and these low-stretch lines have less shock-absorbancy
A wide assortment of
big-lipped deep-diving crankbaits will catch smallmouth. Although
downriggers can be used with this technique, I've found that the
majority of bass stage between 30 feet down and the surface - an
ideal depth for the flat-lining enthusiast.
Since you're trying to
replicate baitfish, and often cisco, shad, or shiners in particular,
the best baits to run are stubby shad-shaped cranks. Most of these
are 2 ˝ to 3 ˝ inches long. Baits that have brought me success have
included the Strike King Pro-Model Crankbait, Rapala Fat Raps,
Excalibur FatFree Shad, Bagley Diving B, and the Storm Thunder
Crank. When smelt are on the menu, try slimmer crankbaits. Carry a
selection of shapes and sizes and experiment to find out what the
models that dig down to between 14 and 25 feet and have built-in
rattle chambers to attract fish from a distance. In clear-water
lakes, smallmouth will swim upwards of 25 feet to smash a crank, so
don't be too concerned if your lure isn't exactly in the strike
zone. If fish are present, they'll find it.
Although my most
consistent lure finishes for trolling have been white or silver, a
variety of other hues will also grab a smallmouth's attention.
Chartreuse (especially on dark days), orange, and baby bass have all
proven their worth. Figuring out a productive colour pattern is what
adds to the challenge of this technique.
Trolling for offshore
smallmouth can bring consistent rewards. With summer finally over
and the leaves vibrant with crimson hues, I can't think of a better
way to celebrate than trolling down the middle of an uncrowded lake
- the cottagers long gone - with nothing more than baitfish and
spunky smallmouth to keep me company.
Editors & Publishers
T.J. & Monique Quesnel
Ontario Fishing Network
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