Row Trolling

By Patricia Strutz - October 1, 2008
I've been a row trolling enthusiast for many years and would like to share this great technique with you all. Row trolling, at its simplest, is just "working the oars" (powering the boat by manpower not by a motor) and dragging (trolling) lures at the same time. Pretty simple stuff...and, it catches fish!

I've always touted this technique as a user-friendly kind of fishing. The craft is basic (no big outboard motor to maintain, no trolling motor to operate, etc.) as is the technique. Most of my row trolling is done in the autumn for muskies, however, I know fishermen who row all season long for a variety of species.

Here's a general synopsis of my gear...First of all, I own a 17' guideboat. It is a three seater (two rowing stations) with a wide beam for stability. This is the perfect guideboat, but I wouldn't recommend it for anyone looking to fish by themselves or with just one other person. It is quite heavy and doesn't "cut on a dime" so can be difficult to work a sharp break line. Besides...this boat is no longer made. A similar craft is now being manufactured by Dick Heckel and Tom Gelb (a diehard row troller who has caught many big muskies.) It is a 14' fiberglass boat that only weighs around 125 pounds vs. my 300+ pound craft. A lot lighter and easier to zig zag a trolling route.

Vintage boats, either restored or not, are available. And, there are a number of manufacturers across the nation who are building varieties of boats that will work for row trolling. There are also companies who offer plans and kits if you are handy and wish to build your own wooden rowboat.

Rigging up these small crafts so that they are comfortable and efficient is important. Many rowers choose caned seats. Be sure to get the type with back support. My boat is large enough to hold "regular" cushioned boat seats. Other rowers choose utilitarian bench seats or high-tech sliding seats. There are many different sliding seats on the market. If most of your rowing will be done by yourself, or in the summertime when the fish's metabolism is very fast, you may want to opt for a sliding seat. You can generate and maintain faster speeds with a sliding seat over a stationary seat.

Oars...very important! Since I guide mostly novices in the sport, I choose the very simplest oar set up--blunt oars that are mounted straight onto the gunwale. They are not curved and do not feather so it is a straight stroke back and forth. No turning of the wrists. However, if you are going to be rowing by yourself I highly suggest purchasing lightweight spruce oars that are curved with swiveling, outrigger hardware. That way you can turn your wrist and pull the oars back toward you...makes each stroke much more efficient than my set up. In other words, you'll get a lot more glide per stroke.

I am not a purist. I do mount an outboard motor onto my boat. When the wind is really blowing I will row with it, then on my return back I'll pull in my lines and proceed to motor back to the start of the route to use the wind to my benefit. Also, I find the use of electronics imperative. I use a split screen gps/sonar (depthfinder) so I can both track my route and be on the look out for baitfish, predator marks, drop offs, points, etc.

What fishing equipment do I prefer? Remember, I am targeting muskies...I really like 7'6" to 8' Shimano Compre rods coupled with their Tekota 600 line counter reels. I spool on 30# Cortland monofilament line (Master or Endurance mono) and tie on a 3-4 foot leader made from at least 80# fluorocarbon. You need this very long leader because muskies will roll up into the line when they are caught trolling. If they roll up into monofilament they'll cut right through it. Fluorocarbon, though it looks similar to mono, is much thinner in diameter but much more resilient. My buddy Gene Seuring makes some great trolling leaders (leadersandlures@comcast.net)

Most of my trolling is done in pretty deep water so I use deep diving crankbaits like Roberts Outdoors Depthraiders, Hooker baits, Drifter Tackle's Jakes, Big Game baits, etc. These big lipped cranks work well at the slow speeds of row trolling. Their enticing wobbles call in the big muskies! As an added bonus I catch numerous really big walleyes each season, too.

Per the Wisconsin regulations I generally have three lines out when I'm fishing by myself. If I'm guiding a client, I'll put out four. Legally we could have six lines out but that gets pretty busy in a small row boat. My rods are mounted in heavy plastic rod holders (I like Roberts by Attwood.) To keep the lines from overlapping I use Off Shore Planer boards to separate them. Folks think planer boards are a difficult thing but they are really simple. Just put your lure out as far as you want it and clamp on the planer board. It does all the work.

Then, start rowing a steep break line or some deep water where you are marking baitfish on your sonar. If the forage is there the big predators will follow. What do I love about row trolling? First of all, I love the exercise. Rowing is a wonderful sport all on it's own. Catching a fish is just the icing on the cake. It is peaceful and calming. It's a great way to stay warm on blustery fall days. It's environment friendly. And, best of all, it catches fish!

If you have any questions about this fun tactic, please don't hesitate to contact me. All the Northwoods guides used to row troll years ago. Then, with the advent of big bass boats and high powered outboards it fell out of fashion. We are enjoying a resurgence in the sport as fishermen are recognizing the many advantages that this technique offers.

I host the Bob Ellis Classic each year. This is a row trolling event held in Presque Isle, Wisconsin. A bunch of us get together and row troll for muskies on area lakes (Papoose, Presque Isle, and Crab.) This year's date is Saturday, October 18th. You are welcome to join us; this is a great way to check out everyone's rigs. There are some interesting boats and characters! Just let me know if you'll be there and if you'll be joining us for dinner.

Hope to see you on the lakes, working the oars!

Author Patricia Strutz
Patricia Strutz
Patricia Strutz, "A Blond and Her Boat", is a musky fishing zealot whose energy and enthusiasm for the sport is contagious. Her true passion is row trolling for 'skies in late fall. She offers traditional casting packages, too. Strutz also works with other pro's to offer group fishing trips to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. Check out the WOW! Women on the Water page for complete details. Patricia especially enjoys teaching other women how to hunt muskies. She is an outdoor writer,co-inventor of the Sea-View Marine Shield, instructional DVD host, and may be booked to give presentations on musky fishing to interested groups. www.ablondandherboat.com