Some people are born trollers. They like the ease of plunking a bait in the water and letting the boat pull it forward and create all the action. Not-bad casts, no backlashes, eat a sandwich, and wait for a fish to bite.
Other folks become trollers when they realize how productive it is. In Michigan, we can pull lures behind our boats on any of the adjoining Great Lakes with the reasonable expectation of catching big salmon, trout, and walleyes.
What many veteran panfish anglers don’t realize, though, is that trolling can be the most effective means of catching their quarry too.
“Bluegills and crappies spend a lot of time suspended over a natural lake’s basin,” says Captain Tim Shaffer of Headhunter Charters in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Shaffer runs a big Sea Ray on Lake Michigan for salmon, and a comfy Carolina Classic on the St. Joseph River when salmon and steelhead are present. A growing part of his business, though, is taking a client or two in his 16-foot Lund trolling for bluegills, sunfish, and crappies on the many lakes that southwest Michigan offers. Because he often puts his clients on limits of panfish, he rarely fishes the same lake twice in a season, which speaks volumes to just how good his trolling technique is—and how many lakes in Michigan have fantastic “panfisheries.”
“They key is finding the schools of fish,” says Shaffer, who usually starts his trips by scoping out the lake with his electronics, looking for clouds of fish suspended. Sometimes these are just off sharp breaks and weed lines. Sometimes they are in the middle of nowhere, over the deepest part of the lake. Then he deploys his homemade spinner rigs baited with red worms. He adds enough weight to the four- or six-pound test line on his spinning rods to present the offering just above the school, and trolls around the fish slowly with his electric trolling motor, usually hooking fish after fish. When the action slows, he seeks another school.
He says that although the spinner rig is often the most productive means of garnering bites, occasionally a simple worm without a spinner works better if the fish get finicky. And versatile angler that he his, if the fish refuse his trolled presentations, he anchors and deploys slip bobbers to keep a wiggling worm right in the fish’s faces.
Al Malsch of Lawton is another veteran Great Lakes salmon and walleye troller who applies his favorite technique on inland lakes for crappies and bluegills. Instead of metal spinners, though, his favorite trolling rig uses tiny Worden’s Spin-N-Glos separated from a long-shank No. 8 red Tru Turn Hook by a couple of tiny beads.
The former charter captain targets smaller lakes he knows well, from a 10-foot john boat that isn’t equipped with any electronics. Often accompanied by his grandson Tyler, Malsch sets out four rods. Tyler holds one, and two others go one to each side of the boat. His “money” rod, though, is one that many anglers might find surprising. It’s a two-foot-long spinning rod designed for ice fishing, which he sets in a holder on the transom right next to his electric trolling motor—the only power his flat-bottom boat has. All of the hooks are baited with a pair of waxworms, and the ice-fishing rig’s bait is trolled right off the back of the boat in the prop wash, which Malsch says creates turbulence that attracts aggressive bluegills. On a trip I took with Malsch and his grandson, this tiny rod caught almost as many fish as the rest of the rods combined.
Malsch says that sometimes adding a second Spin-N-Glo to the harness catches more and bigger fish—and often hooks into bonus bass, which can put the light rigs and an angler’s skills to the test.
The beauty of trolling for panfish is that the technique can be used from just about any boat, canoe, or kayak, by anglers of all skill levels. It works without super-expensive rod-and-reel combos, too. Any fishing rod capable of handling light line does the trick.
While most panfish anglers continue to anchor around favorite spots and bobber fish on Michigan’s plethora of great bluegill and crappie lakes, try getting more mobile this season and take your bait to the fish. By covering more water, you’ll get your offering in front of more of these tasty denizens and be well on your way to a great fish fry.
Images by Dave Mull