How Muskie Trolling Works

By: Vivien Bullen
Man holding a muskie caught in a lake.
Man holding a muskie caught in a lake. Faulknor

Go big or go home, right? In the sport of fishing, ask ­any angler about the greatest win of the game and you're likely to get the same response. Once called the catch of 10,000 casts, muskie have become the most popular of game fish, due in part to their elusive behavior.

So the true key to catching this famously obscure fish is to study it well and prepare yourself. There are many truths you can use to your advantage when searching for this prized catch.


As a rule, muskies prefer shallow waters. They rarely go deeper than 40 ft (12 m) because they like to hide among the vegetated areas that need sunlight for growth. And on top of staying shallow, muskies tend to follow a similar path from year to year.

Split into two main seasons, muskies take to two different areas each year, each spanning between 40 and 500 acres (.16 to 2.02 km2) [source: Rachardson]. One home is for their summer, or the time of year when the water­ is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 Celsius). The other is for their winter, when the water drops near 40 degrees (4.4 Celsius). Accordingly, muskies also have two major travel times each year. The first is in spring, after the spawn, as the water warms and the second is when the water begins to cool down for winter.

­A common consensus among game anglers is that trolling is your best bet for finding muskie. It allows you to cover the most water and simultaneously drag different lures and different depths.

So you're up for the challenge, right? Well, in that case, read on to get a better idea of what you'll need to do to bag a muskie!


Muskie Trolling Rigs and Lures

We've all had that friend. You know, the one who will eat anything. He's the one who finishe­s your leftovers and pays no attention to expirations dates. You could say he's the muskie of your friends. Muskies aren't picky. They'll eat just about anything, so it's not necessarily about enticing the fish as much as it is about putting the bait in the right place using the right methods. And unfortunately, there's no way of knowing just what method will work on any given day, so patience is key.

­You'll need to spend time testing baits at different depths to see how they'll run because there are no one-size-fits-all answers [source: Reel Fishing]. As far as lures go, green and yellow seem to be the best bet for any water, no matter the body size, weather or clarity. Just be sure to keep them within 20 or 30 feet (six to nine meters) off the boat. You can cast them farther, but don't exceed 50 feet (15 meters) [source: Devine]. This is especially true with homemade baits, which can't take the hard life of deep fishing.


Crank baits are great for trolling, and straight baits might help you find success during the early or late season, or right after a storm.

As for boat size, it appears most small to mid-size boats would be appropriate. Just make sure your boat won't agitate the water too much and scare the fish. As long as you've mastered the essential smooth drag, it's more about the speed and depth as you cruise the open waters.


Muskie Trolling Speeds

­Fishing is supposed to be a sport for relaxing, getting away and forg­etting about the world while you enjoy the great outdoors. While muskie trolling gets a bit hectic during the reel-in, you could say the majority of an angler's time fits this calm description.

We all know the moral of the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race. In this case, slow and steady wins the big catch. While muskie trolling, keep the boat moving at a slow pace. There's no need to leave the three- to five-miles-per-hour (five- to eight-kilometers-per-hour) range. On rivers, you don't need to put much effort into speed since you can cruise along with the current but be sure the boat is continuously moving [source: Devine].


If you find you're having little luck while out trolling, try playing with your speed a little. Increase your speed two, or maybe even three times your original pace. Another technique is to play with the lure. Pull it in closer to the boat and then let it drop back. The movement and change can help attract muskie.

Speed and depth tend to go hand in hand when muskie trolling, so dive ahead to the next page to better understand the second half of this relationship.


Muskie Trolling Depths

­Now that you understand the basics of spee­d, you should know that depth is just as important. And many times, you may need to adjust your speed to hit a certain depth, or keep your bait at a shallow dive to keep your speed up.

As a rule, you won't need to go too deep for muskie. A lot has to do with how deep your bait can handle going. Driving crank baits and minnow plugs can dive as deep as 30 feet (9.1 meters), maybe a little more if you add lead to your line [source: Sternberg]. The deepest you can troll is dependant on how far under the water your bait can go before it falls apart or tears from the hook. In the end you're going to have to see what's working best on that particular day in that specific spot.


So, are you going to use a planner board or a downrigger? Not sure? Read on to see how these two methods work.

Trolling With a Downrigger

­Muskies­ are tricky little creatures, so fishing for them involves a lot of precision. Downriggers help provide this necessity.

A downrigger is a device used on boats that allows a troller to fish a lure at a constant, specific depth [source: Idaho Fish and Game]. And since we know the importance of depth in muskie fishing, this is a pretty valuable tool. The use of a downrigger will provide deeper lines with precise control.


To use a downrigger, you'll want to follow these basic steps:

  1. From your assortment, pick a lure that won't dive too deep or pull too hard. This allows you to be aware of how deep the lure's running, saving you from too many false releases.
  2. As you go, monitor for schools of suspended bait fish with a paper graph, video or liquid-crystal.
  3. After letting out 10 ft (3 meters) of line, attach it to your release and set the tension adjustment so that it's tight enough to prevent trips from the pull of the line.
  4. Lower the cannonball so that it levels off and tracks just above the bait. It's an important rule of thumb to remember that muskies are more likely to swim up for a lure than to swim down.
  5. When you get a strike, speed your boat up slightly. This helps prevent any slack in your line that might allow the muskie to free itself from your hook [source: Sternberg].

If you want to look like an experienced muskie angler, read on to discover how muskie trolling with a planner board works.


Muskie Trolling With a Planner Board

­Save the best for last. While there are many ways to fish for mu­skie, there is one tried-and-true method that a majority if anglers use. Trolling with a planner board is the most common way of fishing for muskie. A planner board takes the lines and spreads them out, giving them all their own space. And they're not just for big rig. They can be attached to most boats [source: Devine]. This is especially helpful for little boats that don't necessarily have the room for multiples lines. The board can spread the lines quite far away from the boat and increase your chances at a catch.

To use a planer board, you'll want to follow these basic steps:


  1. Let the planner board out using reels attached to the left boom.
  2. Let the deepest line (which should be the most outside line) out about 100 feet (30 meters) and let the release slide down the cord, stopping it just before it gets to the board.
  3. Set the inside line, which is the shortest, in the same way, letting out just 20 feet (6 meters).
  4. Finally, set your middle lines, only letting their release get half way down each line [source: Sternberg].

You're practically an expert now, right? Well, maybe there are a few more specifics you could stand to brush up on, but don't be afraid to get out there and practice. muskie trolling is a sport of perfection. Check out the links on the next page for more fishing information.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Curwensville Lake Fishing. "Musky Facts." Accessed 11/22/2008.
  • Devine, Bob. "Muskie Trolling." Fish Info. Accessed 11/22/2008.
  • Idaho Fish and Game. "Fishing Glossary / Definitions." Accessed 11/22/2008
  • Land Big Fish. "Muskellunge Records." Accessed 11/30/2008.
  • Muskie 411. "Muskellunge." Accessed 11/30/2008.
  • OutdoorsFIRST. "Sexing Muskie." Accessed 12/05/2008)
  • Reel Fishing Reports. "Muskie Fishing" Accessed 11/22/2008.
  • Richardson, Scott and Ted Takasaki. "Predictable muskies?" muskie Central Accessed 11/22/2008.
  • Sternberg, Dick. "Northern Pike and muskie." Google Books. Accessed 11/22/2008,M1
  • Take Me Fishing. "Muskellunge - Esox masquinongy." Accessed 11/22/2008