I’ve caught trout trolling with all sorts of tackle. Everything from crankbaits, lake trolls, spoons and spinners. But I’ve bagged some of my biggest trout by trolling flies. I’m not the only one either. Many anglers are going back to basics and taking advantage of the subtle, yet natural, presentation achieved when trolling with flies.
Stocked trout, fresh from the hatchery, might go for powerbait but consistently catching finicky trophy trout demands a different approach. Nothing mimics food that big predatory trout feed on better than streamer flies tied with natural hair, fibers and a bit of flash. They are also incredibly easy to troll using a variety of setups.
If you’re like me, then you might be new to trolling with flies but you’ll soon learn that a box of streamers might be the only gear you need to catch more, and bigger, trout on any lake.
There’s not much of a learning curve to trolling with flies but this article has all the information you need to get started. We share everything we know so you too can hone your trout fishing skills.
The advantage of trolling with flies
I don’t know what it is about trolling flies but they just seem to consistently catch bigger trout than any other tactics. That’s why I tie on a fly first when I’m fishing in lakes that hold trophy class trout.
The biggest advantage of trolling flies is their ability to mimic the natural prey of big trout while adding extreme realism to the bait. Spoons, spinners and crankbaits just can’t match the tantalizing movements of a fly tied with fur and feathers.
Gear you need
Trolling with flies utilizes most of the same gear you already have for trout fishing. In addition to the essentials like a rod and reel, refining your gear to apply this tactic is easy. Simplicity is the goal when trolling with flies so follow along and see what you’ll need to start catching bigger trout.
Rod and reel
To be honest, you can use just about any spinning setup or level-wind combo to troll with flies. This technique is fairly forgiving and your success hinges on your presentation and timing more than the rod and reel itself.
Ideally, a good quality level-wind reel on a 7’ to 8’ 6” light or medium-light rod with a moderate action is our preferred setup. The key is to have enough flex in the rod to absorb a fish strike so the hook doesn’t tear out of the trout’s soft mouth. Essentially, any trolling rod that works for kokanee, works for trout.
Just make sure you pair it up with a reel that has a built in line counter. These are life savers. You can do without but for replicating distance and depth, line counters are indispensable.
Right now, we are loving our Okuma Kokanee Black 8’ light power rods paired with an Okuma Cold Water 153 line counter reel. Whether we troll for kokanee or trout, this is our go-to setup. It is especially deadly on big trout when trolling flies. Find them at BassPro Shops for the best deals.
Your line choice depends mostly on how you plan to troll the flies. Are you using a downrigger? Long line trolling? Or do you prefer lead core? Ultimately, there are lots of lines to choose from and you can really tailor it to suit your needs. For a universal line, stick with monofilament or braid as the main line.
I have no complaints using 10 pound test Power Pro braided line when trolling. It’s about as good as it gets for a universal trolling line whether I’m using flies, spoons or lake trolls. The only draw back is the lack of stretch which is sometimes needed to act as a shock absorber when a fish strikes. Although, it’s not as much of an issue when combined with a soft action rod.
To keep it simple, mono works great too and has a bit more stretch than braid. 8 to 12 pound test should do it when trolling flies. I tend to stay on the lighter side since thicker lines make it harder to reach deep water without a downrigger.
Once you have the main line figured out it’s time to pick a leader material. Fluorocarbon is certainly the best leader choice for gin-clear water or when big trout are acting a bit line shy. Something around 8 to 10 pound test is sufficient. There is one caveat to using fluoro with flies though. Fluoro has limited flexibility that causes it to weaken with excessive bending action. It’s been my experience that the action of trolling flies when rigged up with an Action Disc can exacerbate this flaw.
Learn from my mistakes and use a monofilament leader instead. Berkley’s Trilene XL-smooth casting line is hard to beat for this application. Trolling with flies seems to entice more aggressive hits from big trout and they don’t seem to mind the mono leader in most situations.
Honing in on bigger trout means having the right selection of flies that mimic what predatory fish eat. Good trolling flies have irresistible movements that look more natural than any other lure. They also should cater to the diet of larger trout.
Small trout tend to feed on insects, larvae and other small invertebrates. Once trout reach 16 inches or more, minnows, leaches and crustaceans become a larger part of their diet. Trolling flies take advantage of this fact.
Arctic Fox makes some of the best trolling flies available. Their collection of flies is specially adapted to key in on large trout in just about any trout lake across the country.
Some of their best producing colors are rainbow trout, orange and black but other available patterns work better depending on the lake. You may need to experiment to find your favorite colors.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to purchase trolling specific flies to catch fish. Streamer patterns like the wooly bugger, muddler minnow, mickey finn, freshwater clouser and sparkle minnows all produce good catches.
You can even tie your own trolling flies and experiment with colors and material in oder to achieve the best mix of flash and movement that trout go crazy for.
We also love trolling with Pistol Pete flies from Amazon which have a built in propeller blade at the eye of the hook. It adds just enough flash when a traditional fly isn’t producing.
Dragging a fly through the water without imparting any action is little better that dragging a wet sock behind the boat. Random swimming action with lots of vibration gives trout a reason to chase down a fly.
By far, the best way I have found to give flies seductive action is using a WiggleFin Action Disc.
All you do is place these small plastic discs in front of the fly. As you troll, the disc erratically wiggles through the water and brings the fly to life.
You can use a bobber stop to position the disc as far in front of the fly as desired. The closer the disc is to the fly, the more action the fly will have. I like to keep the disc right in front of the fly when I’m trolling at slower speeds.
When you need less movement or you speed things up, slide the bobber stop up the leader to keep the disc away from the fly. Anywhere from 2 to 6 inches in front of the fly is fine. Be sure to check the action before letting your line out.
How to rig trolling flies
There’s no limit to the number of ways you can rig up for trolling with flies. However, for the sake of helping you start with the most successful setups, we’ll focus on just a few ways to rig up trolling flies that are killer for trout.
Flat line (or long line) trolling is one of the most effective ways to stealthily present a fly to wary trout. The main idea is to get the fly far enough behind the boat so that it won’t spook the fish. This is extremely useful when targeting trout in shallows or the upper reaches of the water column.
Without weight, trolling flies fished 100 feet back stay in the top 3-5 feet of water. Add various weights of lead split shot or an egg sinker to reach 10 to 20 feet at the same distance behind the boat. Some anglers prefer using lead core line when long lining to get the fly into 30 or 40 feet of water.
Rigging up to flat line troll is simple. The basic rig starts with tying a good quality barrel swivel to the main line. You can also use a snap swivel to make changing out flies easier. This is also where you need to decide if you are going to add weight. You can slide on an egg sinker above the swivel or just crimp on a split-shot.
Next, tie on about 36 inches of mono leader to the swivel. Then, slide on your Action Disc, followed by a bobber stop if needed. Now, tie on the fly. Position the disc where you want it by using the bobber stop to keep it in front of the fly.
You’re now ready to troll. Always check the action of the fly beside the boat before letting out the line. It should be wiggling, not spinning. Make adjustments as necessary to achieve the desired action.
On larger lakes or where I might be targeting trout suspended in deep water, adding some flash helps draw attention to the fly. Small dodgers that you might use when trolling for kokanee are perfect.
Tie the dodger to the main line and run a 12 to 18 inch leader back to the fly. Skip the Action Disc for this setup since the dodger should give the fly plenty of side to side movement.
This setup is best fished with a downrigger but you can add a trolling weight in front of the dodger.
Nothing gets a trout’s attention quite like a lake troll. The long chain of spinning blades produces tons of vibration and flash. It’s a great tactic when there is some color to the water or the skies are overcast. Late winter is a great time for trolling flies behind a lake troll.
Luhr-Jensen Cowbells or Ford Fenders are my favorite flashers. You can fish them with keel weights in front of the flasher to get deeper. However, it may take more weight than you think because several spinning blades creates a lot of resistance. Start with a half ounce of lead. Add more weight for late season trout in deeper water.
Attach the lake troll to your main line (put the weight on first if you need it). Then, use a 20 to 30 inch mono leader on the back end of the lake troll. Since flashers spin and don’t dodge like a dodger, you’ll need to put on an Action Disc. Slide on the disc and a bobber stop. Tie on the fly and you’re all set.
Make sure you troll just fast enough to get a consistent rotation from the blades. Usually around 1.2 mph. Troll too slow and the blades will wobble instead of spin. Troll too fast and you’ll loose vibration and have trouble with line twist.
Trolling setup and tips
There is hardly a wrong way to troll with flies. However, here are some tips that we’ve learned along the way.
- Pick fly patterns that most closely match the forage in the lake. If you don’t know, start with natural colors or try a searching color like orange, pink or white.
- For long line trolling, try to fish at least 75 to 100 feet behind the boat. Use a line counter reel to measure the distance where you catch fish.
- When using a downrigger, put the fly back 40 to 50 feet behind the boat before connecting the line to the downrigger. If you have trouble keeping the fly at the right depth, add a bit of weight near the fly.
- Get your flies away from the boat by using planner boards. You can fish multiple lines at one time to test out various colors and setups.
- Trolling speed matters. The best speeds for trolling with flies is between 0.8 and 2.0 mph depending on how you are rigged up. It’s all about experimenting and duplicating what works.
- Don’t troll in a straight line. Use “S” curves to add variation to the fly’s speed and depth. Often, fish have a preference for an inside or outside rod from day to day.
- Troll with flies in areas where big trout hunt. Focus your path along depth changes and structure edges. Key in on points and especially inside turns along shore. Bait fish tend to congregate in these areas.
- Scale up your gear when fishing in trophy waters. Big rainbows and browns hit trolling flies hard and medium weight rods with stronger line are a good idea.
When to use flies
Anytime is a good time to use trolling flies. Although, our biggest fish are caught in the spring and fall. At this time, trout suspend higher in the water column and in shallow breaks where baitfish are plentiful.
Early morning and late evening showcase the most aggressive feeding times. Trophy trout become more accessible year-round during these low light hours.
During summer heat, trout move to deeper water but flies are still highly effective. Use flashers or dodgers to grab a fish’s attention. Even during summer, trout move shallow throughout the night and during cool mornings.
Do trolling flies work for other fish
Since trolling flies mimic natural forage, you can catch other species of fish using the same techniques.
Everything from salmon to walleye readily hit a trolling fly and many anglers catch bass, crappie and even perch incidentally while trolling for trout. Kokanee fishing with small trolling flies is highly effective and worth trying.
You can even add a nightcrawler to a trolling fly on a bottom bouncer rig for walleye when spinners and cranks don’t seem to work.
Can you use a fly rod to troll flies
You can use a fly rod for trolling as well. Use an intermediate or full sink line with a 9 to 12 foot leader. Put an Action Disc in front of the fly just like we described above.
Big trout have seen it all from anglers so when a delicious trolling fly comes along, they drop their guard and bite with untamed aggression. You might not believe me now, but give it a try and the evidence will speak for itself.