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Length, Power, Action!
I’ll admit, in my early years of pursuing salmon, trolling did not seem to be a technique that would be very high on my list of favorite ways to fish. I was drawn to action; watching a float dip and swirl as it coursed its way down a swirly current seam, feeling the methodical tap tap tap of a back-bounced bait give way to the chomp of a hungry chinook, the rhythmic vibrations of wobbling plugs that elicit vicious takedowns, and the list goes on. The thought of plopping a rod in a rod holder and sitting in a seat for hours on end just didn’t raise my heart rate.
I’ll also admit that my feelings can be swayed when presented with solid argument or data to support an alternative point of view. When my friends, as well as some of the most successful guides I knew, turned to trolling as their go-to technique it piqued my curiosity. Seeing those same folks fill fish boxes trip after trip was all the data I needed to respect trolling as being one of the most effective ways to target salmon.
It only took a few trips to forever change my view of trolling. It proved to be a technique that allowed for a spread of rods to present bait and lures alike over a giant swath of water. Often when salmon fishing, simply finding the fish can be the most difficult task, and nothing comes close to the amount of water you can cover while trolling. Relying on the experience of the boat operator to control the troll, it is also a method that is unmatched in allowing novice passengers a high chance at success. You can load up the boat with kids, family or friends on a nice day and enjoy a peaceful day on the water while you load fish into the box. An added bonus of trolling is that it is done in lower river systems, estuaries and offshore, targeting aggressive, fresh fish that bite well and fight hard.
While the process of trolling seems simple and straight forward, having the right equipment will draw more bites and land more fish, and no, I’m not referring to a boat and a net. A quality rod designed for trolling is the foundation to success. Those first few trips I made due with the rods I already owned, foolishly thinking all they had to do was sit in a rod holder and drag a herring. It didn’t take long to find out my float rods lacked the power needed to control hot fish, and my drift rods were too short and stiff to maintain the load in my line to keep my presentation optimal as the boat varied in speed with wind chop and other boat traffic.
To best appreciate the function of a trolling rod, start by breaking the construction down into a few prominent features. For starters, length is one of the most noticeable elements. Most people mistakenly assume that trolling rods have to be long, and while it is true that many do seem extraordinarily long, they don’t always have to be. Trolling rods typically fall in the 9'6" to 12'6" range. Length provides the ability to better spread the rods in the boat to minimize tangles and create a wall of baits or lures passing through an area. With long rods straight out the sides of the boat, and shorter rods behind them and out the back, a boat can effectively cover a swath of water over 25 feet wide. Long rods also provide more maneuverability to follow fish around extended outboard motors, and leverage to turn and control fish during the fight. Obviously, we don’t always fish in groups, so with only one or two people in the boat there is no need to create excessive spread by running longer rods. This is where rods between 9 and 10 feet are optimal as they are easy to manage, especially in smaller boats and when netting fish if you are alone.
The second most noticeable attribute of a trolling rod is the action. Deep loading, soft, moderate actions are optimal for several reasons. Underwater videos have shown that fish have an uncanny ability to bite and quickly release a bait if they sense anything out of the ordinary. Slower actions allow bait and lures to flutter and move naturally and produce the least amount of resistance when a fish commits. The parabolic bend of slower actions also helps maintain a load on the rod, both when trolling and when fighting fish. Boat speed, current, wind and a variety of factors will affect your bait presentation, and maintaining a load in the rod during variances in your troll produce a more continual uniform motion and natural presentation of your bait. When it comes to fighting fish, a deep loading rod will better maintain line tension through fast runs and direction changes which is especially helpful if you are fishing with barbless hooks. Not to mention, a fish tugging against the rubber band like resistance of a spongy slow action will tire quickly.
A less visual yet equally as important feature is rod power. Large, fresh chinook are impressively powerful and if you want any chance at putting one on the barbecue, you better come prepared. To handle strong fish as well as heavy lead weights and the drag of large 360º flashers, most trolling rods are going to fall in the medium-heavy to heavy power rating range. This is a feature I tweak a bit depending on the fishery I plan on using the rod for. In the combat fishing of Buoy 10 on the Columbia, big fall run fish need to be controlled as fast as possible to reduce the risk of tangling with other boats or succumbing to a nearby sea lion. This, combined with using 20-ounce lead weights and large flashers, calls for heavy or extra heavy rod power. In less demanding fisheries, such as the lower Willamette River, where only a few ounces of lead is needed and you don’t have a hundred boats breathing down your neck, a medium-heavy power will fit the bill nicely.
A friend of mine makes the most amazing BBQ ribs I’ve ever eaten, and every time I ask how he does it, his reply is simply, “the secret is in the sauce.” This goes through my head every time I think of how rod manufacturers face building rods that are long, soft and powerful. While the true secret to their sauce is well-guarded, a few ingredients to this special recipe can be gleaned from researching manufacturer websites. Because trolling rods aren’t designed to be held in hand for long periods of time, and don’t require the supreme sensitivity to feel the subtle bump of a bite, use of super light high modulus graphite isn’t as necessary as in a rod designed for drift fishing. Many trolling rods will use lower modulus graphite, blends of composites with fiberglass, special resins and thick blank wall construction in order to create a finished product that is resilient and powerful, yet still sensitive enough to transmit the rotation of a bait or flasher to signal proper presentation. I remember several trips fishing with the late Bob Toman where he would deploy one of his signature spinners overboard, and count the pulses of the rod tip to adjust the boat speed to get his preferred thumps per minute. This style of construction also greatly benefits durability of a rod destined for the rough and tumble life aboard a boat where rods are subjected to rattling against boat gunnels, getting pinched behind swiveling seats, slammed in rod locker doors and getting bent around outboards while fighting fish.
Rounding out the construction of trolling rods are features such as guides, handles and reel seats. Many trolling rods will sport considerably more guides than rods designed for other applications. This is due to the extreme flexibility of the blank requiring additional guides to prevent line contact when the rod is placed under load. Because the rod is designed for use in a rod holder, the added weight and overall rod balance is a non-issue compared to say rods built for side-drifting or drift fishing. It wasn’t all that long ago that you would need to research the guides used on prospective rods to ensure guides could handle the increased wear caused by braided super lines, however now that such lines have become more common, nearly all rods are now manufactured with appropriate guides.
Handles are one aspect that continues to evolve. Rod holders can inflict a lot of wear on cork handles, so many manufactures began switching to more durable rubberized or composite handles. Not only do these styles boast the greatest durability, they also clean easily. A newer shift has seen handle lengths and configurations change slightly, with many copying styles used on traditional mooching rods where the rear grip is shortened slightly while the foregrip is lengthened to upwards of 8 inches. This allows for better leverage when you tuck the butt of the rod into your waist when applying a lot of pressure on a fish. The lengthened foregrip is also nice as they extend well past the front of the rod holder and provide better gripping area when removing the rod from the holder quickly during a bite.
One area on some trolling rods that has caused some trouble for anglers in the past are reel seats that aren’t large enough to accommodate the large foot design of some popular trolling reels. It’s never fun to have to take a file or grinder to the foot of your favorite reel just to make it work with a particular rod, but it’s even more annoying to have the reel pull free of the seat when a hot fish makes a run. Thankfully there were a few zip ties on the boat which allowed me to limp through the day of that learning experience, and I have since vowed to always check my setups before hitting the water. Whenever possible, take your reel to a retailer and test the fit with rods, or give the rod manufacture a call and ask them if they know of any issues with your intended reel.
Trolling rods may lack the flash and fancy that other pieces of equipment seem to possess, but one thing is for certain, it’s hard to build a house without a hammer, and when it comes to one of the most important pieces of equipment a salmon angler can own, I’d place a quality trolling rod near the top of that list.