Rowboat Trolling - Spoon Tactics for Trout

By Ralph D'Angelo

Rowboat trolling for trout is great way to enjoy the day and catch plenty of fish!

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Let me say it…I love trolling…for trout, striped bass, tuna, and more. I know a lot of people cringe when you tell them you want to troll, and I get it, trolling is often more fun for the captain, than it is for those who are reeling in the fish.

For many people, "fishing" means baiting a hook, waiting for a bite, and then setting the hook on a fish.  But trolling is different, it's the planning, the attempt to create an illusion that tricks fish into bighting your spoon, fooling them into thinking that it is real live bait. Is trolling less sporting? Hardly, in fact, trolling creates a whole new set of variables to consider…time of day/season, lure selection, speed, weather, presentation, all play factors that determine success or failure.

But most importantly, there is no method of fishing that is more productive…day in…day out. Trolling allows us to break free from our dependence (or addiction!) to bait. When you consider all the trouble and expense of procuring bait and keeping it fresh or alive, trolling can feel very liberating – and you’ll never have to worry about the bait shop being open when you head to your favorite honey hole.

I primarily troll for trout from rowboats on the NYC reservoirs. But if you watched our video on Bunker Spoon Trolling for Striped Bass, you will notice many similarities. Over the years I established my method of trolling spoons for trout, but many others have developed their own styles, that are no less effective...maybe even more effective! Rowboat trolling for trout is about developing your own style. Consider this article to be a basic starting point if you're new to the game.

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Getting set up with the right tackle is really the basis for success at the trolling, so let’s start with a look at rods. The first thing you need to know is that good trolling rods aren’t overly expensive – but they are designed specifically for trolling, so make the effort to start fresh here. I have had friends who insisted on using rods they already owned. Only after years of failure, they finally decided to spend a couple of bucks to buy the appropriate gear and found their success rates dramatically improved.

The rods used for spoon trolling trout from a rowboat should be long and limber with a soft, slow action. This is not a task for fast-action graphite rods. The most popular choice is an Ugly Stick BWD1101 8'3" downrigger rods rated for 6 to 17 pound-test line. Heavier rods are readily available, but stick with the light-action selections because they give more life to the spoon. Light-action rods cause spoons to flutter, while a rod that is too heavy will drag a spoon unnaturally through the water (often causing it to spin). You definitely want to try and find one that is rated down to 6lb test.

Reels should be high speed, large capacity, level wind, conventional reels. I use a pair of old Penn 310GTI's. These have been discontinued but the Penn Squall SQL-15LW and the Okuma Convector CV-20L would make perfect reels. Basically you want a level wind reel that has a capacity of about 220 yarrds of 20lb test. This will hold ten colors of leadcore, plus backing. While these might seem a little oversized, their line capacity is key. Being oversized allows you to put a significant amount of backing under the leadcore line. While I have never had a fish that ran me down to my backing, this backing increases the diameter of the spool and provides several benefits. If you have a smaller spool without backing, your retrieve will be faster the first few colors, then significantly slow down as you have more line out. On a rowboat, this scenario can be a disaster because once you hook a fish, you are unable to continue rowing. That means you’ll need to reel the line as fast as possible to keep slack out of the line and avoid losing whatever you’ve hooked. When reeling in a fish THE LINE MUST ALWAYS BE TIGHT. A high-speed, high capacity reel makes that happen. Another reason for going with a high-speed, high capacity reel is that drag pressure will be more consistent. As a fish pulls line out the spool diameter decreases and the apparent drag pressure increases which can cause the line to snap under the pressure of a trophy trout. For backing I usually use 20-pound-test mono.

micro-leadbox2The line we use is metered leadcore, typically 18 pound-test. This gets the lures down approximately seven feet per color, depending on the wind conditions and rowing speed. If you’re rowing against the wind this may be less but if you are rowing with the wind it may be more. Many people get confused by this, but there is no hard, fast rule; it's simply something you get the feel for with a little trial and error.

In the past I have used the Cortland Kerplunk for my leadcore, but last year I switched to Tuff-line's Micro Lead and I have been REALLY pleased with it. Being lighter and thinner makes it much easier to handle, a little more predictable and, most importantly, eliminates much of the "belly" that forms in the line when trolling. This "belly" has several negative effects. For starters, it makes it a little more difficult to determine your depth as the first few colors out will get you more "feet per color" than the last few (the more line you have out, the more pronounced this effect.) Even worse, once you hook a fish you have to reel very quickly to remove the slack that the belly causes. People who troll from motorized boats don't have to consider this as much because the constant forward motion of their boats removes this belly once the fish is hooked. For those of us on row boats, however, forward motion stops as we use our hands to reel in the fish so the belly can be devastating. This thinner line also allows us to use more backing and reduces the effects we discussed earlier about the changing spool diameter as line is let out.


Besides rods, reels, leadcore lines, and a couple of lures, there is not really much else you need. Most of my friends like to lay the rods down with tips facing the rear corners of their boat. I like to use two utility clamps, one clamped to each side of the boat, and lay the rods on the floor and pointed out through the clamp grips. We tape a little foam inside the grips to cushion the rods. Some trollers use rod holders, but these can interfere with your ability to pick up the rods quickly when necessary

I strongly recommend a fishfinder, especially a good color unit. You don't need it. Some of the best trollers never use them. But having one builds confidence and helps focus your efforts in the most productive waters and the most productive part of the water column. Remember, these trout can be anywhere in the lake – and that includes from top to bottom in the water column. If you're in 100' of water, knowing how deep to set your lures is key, and the fishfinder will help you determine this.

I use a Humminbird 798 color unit, but you’ll find a variety of entries in the $400 to $1,100 price range. While these may seem a little excessive, I appreciate having mine every day I’m out on the water. Its sensitivity is such that I can see what depths the trout are holding at, plus pinpoint the thermocline. The "thermocline is where the warm layer of surface water meets the cold deep water. And this is where trout, particularly brown trout, like to hang. The fishfinder also lets you learn the bottom depth and contours of the lake so you don't put out too much line and get hung up or snagged on the bottom. At the very least, buy an inexpensive unit, but if you can bring yourself to do it, go a little extra and splurge on a color unit. It’s an upgrade you’ll never regret. If you need to, wait until a good sale comes along, that’s how I got mine.


You must have a net or you will lose fish, period. Don’t skimp on this purchase, either. Remember, there are 20-pound fish swimming in these waters and you don't want to forfeit one because your net was too small! Always make sure you lead the fish into the net slowly, head first. DO NOT go after the fish with the net…ever!

Pliers help remove the hooks from the fish. Bring a pair along or you’ll eventually end up removing a few points for your fingers!

Just a quick word on row boats…jon boats work, but semi-v hull boats are much better. They are easier to row, track straighter, and make much less noise when breaking through a small chop on the water’s surface. I prefer the 12-foot models…the lighter the better. No need to row around 16-feet of aluminum that I don't need! And let me just say one thing to people that think they are too out of shape to takes little more energy than sitting on the couch!…really. I don't go out when it’s windy, and when it's calm, there is very little force required to row a boat at 1.7 m.p.h. The exception to this is if you bring a friend…a few of my friends are getting, well, a little round…and it makes for a bit more work to row with them on board!


So, you need two rods, two reels, and two spools of leadcore. On your reels, first you need to put on your backing. I typically use 20 pound-test mono. And on top of that you wind on your leadcore. Then, to the end of your leadcore, I like to tie in a small 12" section of 20lb mono. To the end of this mono I tie a "Perfection Loop".

I use this "Perfection Loop" to connect my 8lb test fluorocarbon leaders using a “Loop-to-Loop” connection. This makes it really simple to replace leaders when I need to. The leaders are typically 16 feet long, or twice the length of my rods. To the end of my leader I put a very small ball bearing swivel, the smallest I can find, usually a (30 pound-test) Rosco or Spro ball bearing swivel. My lure attaches to the swivel and it's time to fish!

Sometimes it can be tricky to determine how much backing to use. You can simply wing it, or if you're OCD like me, you can wind on the leadcore first, and then top off with the proper amount of backing. You will then need to take all that off the reel and reverse it. I will take the end of the mono from the first reel and wind it onto my second reel. When I get to the leadcore, I take note of how much mono I needed. Then I finish reeling in the leadcore until the reel is full. Now, for the first reel, I fill it up with a similar amount of mono I just used for the second reel, attach my leadcore and fill the reel. That's it, both reels have 100 yards of leadcore, plus backing.leadcore set2

Many people, including myself, have struggled with how to attach the leadcore to the mono. With the old nylon leadcore, you simply used a nail knot or double the two lines up and tied three overhand knots in sequence. With the new "super braid" leadcore like Tuff-Line's "MicroLead" and "Suffix 832" this can be a little more challenging. This is because the weave is looser and the finish is slicker. It's really hard to thread mono through the braid as it pops through the looser weave. And the overhand knots don't hold well because the finish is so slick.

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It took some experimentation, but I found a simple solution. First, tie an overhand knot in the leadcore line about 8 inches before the end of the leadcore, and pull it tight. This will break the inner leadcore. Then pull the leadcore out from the braid. Now you have the leadcore, with an overhand knot, and about 8 inches of empty super-braid. Then, use a simple Double Uni-Knot or Albright Special to join this empty braid line to the mono. I tend to prefer the Albright, as its lower profile seems to slip through the rod's guides easier. Be sure to use 12 wraps on the Albright, to hold onto the slick super-braid. For extra security, you can add a drop of "Zap-a-Gap" or any super glue (I.E.: "Crazy Glue") to the knot. That's it, pretty easy and seems to be working well.


I like to experiment with different sizes, shapes, colors, brands and actions. The most important thing is that they are lightweight "flutter" or "trolling" style spoons. You do not want to use heavy weight "casting" spoons. Put it this way, if you can cast it, it's probably too heavy.

Years ago, everyone pretty much used the famous Sutton brand "flutter" spoons. These worked awesomely, and no one really had any reason to try anything else. Unfortunately, they went out of production a few years back and have been difficult to find. There are a few companies making reproductions that are worth checking out if you find them. The good news, however, is people are starting to experiment with all different spoons and many are having great success.

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I often use Sutton spoons, ranging in size from two to four inches. The beauty of these spoons is that they are so light you can get a good action from them even when rowing very slowly. Heavier spoons sometimes require a little additional speed to make them work right. Keep this in mind when mixing and matching spoons when trolling. You want to use ones that work well together at the same speed. In addition to the Suttons I have Michigan Stingers, Mooselook Wobblers, Luhr Jensen Needlefish and DB Smelt. On any given day, certain colors and sizes work better than others so it pays to experiment, especially if the action is slow. On Kensico Reservoir we have lots of Lake Trout…so purple seems to work well, as does silver/blue which closely match the alewives (small herring) in the lake. There are other spoons I have tried that have simply never caught a fish, so I have to assume some spoons just don't have the right action.

When things get desperate, I’ll sometimes drop a really large "glow-in-the-dark" Great Lakes style spoon down and drag it a few feet off the bottom. This almost always pulls up a lake trout or two and saves me from being skunked. This spoon has a single hook instead of a treble, which helps prevent it from getting snagged but makes it imperative to reel the fish in fast so it can’t use the weight of the spoon to throw the hook. Again, that’s where the high capacity, fast retrieve reel comes in handy.


This is actually the easy part! Although a lot of people stop trout fishing once the summer arrives, that is actually the time I do best, especially for Brown Trout. I think it's easier to locate the fish during this time. Although in the spring, the trout are very active, they are also widely dispersed throughout the water column and the lake.

Locating the fish can be tricky; knowing what depth to fish can even be trickier. If the thermocline has not established itself the trout, specifically the browns, can be anywhere from the surface down to 30 feet deep. For some reason, browns are rarely caught deeper than 30 feet (update: caught a few browns 60' down this year, who knew?! lol), although Lake Trout can be found down to 100 feet or more. But even with Lake Trout, the most actively feeding ones are found 40 feet or less, because that is where the bait is. Below these depths there is little phytoplankton that the alewives and other bait feed on.

So in the spring, I will typically fish 2 to 4 colors (14-28 feet deep). I will usually use my fish finder to locate bait or fish. The depth seems less relevant than in the summer, because the water temperature in the Spring is within their comfort range throughout much of the water column. The exception is in the early spring, when the fish may be extremely shallow looking for warm water. Remember, a brown trout's comfort range is 60-65 degrees, so they will seek water in this temperature range. The mornings seem to work especially well for me in the spring, which is from first light, to about 8:00 am. That is when the alewives are most active, and I usually find a part of the lake where the bait is moving from their night time areas to their daytime areas, and trout will usually be waiting for them also. Later in the Summer, it seems that the evenings are more productive for me.

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But what I really look forward to is Summer, from July 4 to the end of August. It is during this time that I feel like it is easier to locate brown trout. The water has stratified, and the thermocline has established. The warm top layer of water is sitting on top of the cold, deeper layer. It is at this "thermocline" where the bait and the trout seem to come together. By July 4, this is usually 12 to 15 feet deep, but by the end of the summer, if it has been especially warm, the action can be in 30-foot depths or even greater.

Finding the thermocline is not hard. If fishing “blind,” you can simply make an assumption based on the time of year. If you have decent electronics, it’s easy to spot. On my fishfinder I will see the top, warm layer of water as "surface clutter." As the season progresses this surface clutter grows. It starts at five feet below the surface and by August can be 20 feet down. Where the surface clutter ends, determines the thermocline and how deep I need to fish, Often you will see clouds of bait and fish right under the warm "thermocline" layer. The cool water under the thermocline layer is usually around 60 degrees, right at the temperature the trout prefer. In some years, when the weather is especially warm, you will see part of the surface clutter break away and go deeper. That is the thermocline.


Another way to check for the thermocline is to use a temperature probe. I use a ClineFinder sold by Cabela's. I drop the probe down and watch the temperature. You will notice the top layer of water is pretty warm, and as the probe first descends, the temperature drops very little. But then, all of a sudden, you will notice the temperature drops very quickly. This is the thermocline. And once you have water around 60 degrees, you have an idea what depth you need to run your leadcore.

And this is the beauty of trolling; you are working your lures right at the depth you know the fish prefer. Unlike bait-fishing, you are covering large parts of the lake instead of sitting in an area without fish and hoping one comes by. It's a very pro-active and effective way to fish. As you can see, much of the thought and fun goes in to setting up to catch your quarry, then just reeling them in. Since I have started trolling, I have caught MANY more browns, as have my friends who have decided to put down their bait rods and give trolling a try. Yes, it requires a little preparation, but that’s just part of the fun!

As I had mentioned earlier, this is simply my method of trolling spoons for trout, but many others have developed their own styles. In fact, my techniques are simply a compilation of things I have learned from others. There is no "right" way to do this. It's about developing your own style. If anyone has ideas or opinions to contribute, feel free to comment below. We would love to hear from you!



  • When letting line out, keep the reel in free spool and the rods pointed STRAIGHT back. If the line gets hung up, shake the rod tip slightly to get it going again. I personally like to keep the reel clicker on when first pulling the line out, so I don't over-run or backlash the line. When I have some leadcore line out (about half a color) I disable the clicker and let the line free spool out on its own. Once my lures are set at the depth I want, I disable the clicker and put the rods in the rod holders (clamps)...DON'T forget to check the drag!. Also, maintain those reels, it's especially important to keep the spool bearings clean and lubricated with LIGHT oil to keep the free spool working properly and not sticking.

  • A rubber net is excellent for keeping your lures from tangling in the net. This is especially important with lakers as they like to roll and spin in the net, making a REAL mess. Even better, do not net the fish, use a lip gripper like the one made by Rapala ($5.99) and leave the fish in the water when you are taking the hook out.

  • I like to keep a sticker on my reel that lists the color order of my lead core.

  • Don't forget top set your drag. Remember, the leader is only 8lb test, so keep the drag somewhat light, DO NOT TIGHTEN THE DRAG DOWN. It should be tight enough to set the hook in the trout's boney jaw, and light enough to let the fish run when it needs to blow off some steam. Make sure to point the rod at the fish when it tries to run.



#11 Ralph D 2018-07-23 15:41
Quoting Rich Kecher:
Question you find a difference in depth (feet per color) between the Sufix 832 and Tuf-Line lead core? I am going to give the Tuf-Line a shot but am wary of having to recalculate my assumed depths.

I had the Suffix 832 leadcore briefly...did not care for it. Weave was kinda loose and the line seemed thicker and stiffer than the Tuf-Line Micro-lead. I REALLY like the Tuf-line...espe cially coming from the old Cortland Line (which was great, but the micro lead is so much lighter) The Suffix 832 Regular braid though, is my favorite braided line out there. Seems more abrasion resistant than others.

I would expect them to be pretty close regarding depth. To be honest, early on in my trolling "career" I got hung up on what kind of depth I was getting. When I finally became less concerned, I actually starting catching more fish. I get anywhere from 6-12' per color...I usually consider I am getting about 6' or so. Depending on the lure size/weight, depth and the wind, I may get more or less. The line gets me in the vicinity, and the colors help me stay about a color or so apart. Usually once I start catching fish, I get the lines about a half color apart.

Really small spoons seem to crush in the summer. Been doing really well with the tiny Needlefish spoons last two weeks.
#10 Ralph D 2018-07-23 15:31
Quoting Rich Kecher:
Great info Ralph. Starting to have some success following your suggestions.

Glad to hear! Now is the time...July and August are always the best months for me. Thermocline is very obvious, fish are very predictable. Trying to shoot a video in the next few weeks to go along with this article.
#9 Rich Kecher 2018-07-22 16:21
Question you find a difference in depth (feet per color) between the Sufix 832 and Tuf-Line lead core? I am going to give the Tuf-Line a shot but am wary of having to recalculate my assumed depths.
#8 Rich Kecher 2018-07-22 16:15
Great info Ralph. Starting to have some success following your suggestions.
#7 Ralph D 2017-10-30 08:50
I am not personally familiar with the Daiwa Heartland rod, but from what I see, that looks like a perfect choice.

Although I really liked the St Croix when I saw it, I am probably going with the new 8' Daiwa DXW Walleye Trolling rod (DXW80TMHFB)

We now represent Daiwa so I am eager to try this rod out. I am curious how I will like the telescopic handle. That may help me fit the longer rod in the car without having to disassemble. I am also going to try the Saltist line counter reel, although the accu-depth is also really nice. I never used a line counter, never really felt the need, but I will give one a try.

So far, I have been pretty blown away with the new Daiwas such as the Proteus rods and Saltist reels, and happy we have the opportunity to work with them. They are really trying to step up their game. But you can't go wrong with the Eyecon, it is a great rod, for sure.
#6 Luc 2017-10-30 08:29
Thanks for answer
The St croix is my next choice i love rod from there. Two months ago I buy Daiwa heartland-s HL-S D762MLS-G 7'6'' line 8-16 lb you think that was good choice?
#5 Ralph D 2017-10-11 19:35

My buddy had been smashing them with those. I am going to buy a few this winter.
#4 Ralph D 2017-10-11 19:23
Hey Luc...really glad you enjoyed the article, I really did my best.

I believe it was the St Croix ET76MMT (7'6"). He uses rod holders, so he can get away with the shorter rod. Since I lay my rods on the seat and gunnel, I would buy the longer ET86MMT. Since only half of my rod hangs over the boat, the longer rod keeps the action soft. That's the key, you DON't want a stiff rod. You wand the action nice and soft to let the spoon work it's magic.

I am also considering the Daiwa, since we work with the company. The 8' DXW80TMHFB looks pretty nice, and the telescoping handle is cool. I haven't had a chance to actually pick one up yet and check to see that the action is soft enough, but I have a feeling it is. The new Daiwa rods are pretty sick, so I am expecting this one to be also.

As far as a reel goes...Shimano Tekotas are top of the line TEK300. But Daiwa Seagate SGT-20, Penn Squall SQL-15, Penn Warfare...basic ally any level wind that holds about 200 yards of 20lb mono are perfect. I prefer bigger reels so I can use backing, this makes the retrieve rate more consistent. I might even try a line counter like the Daiwa Saltist STTLW20LCHA
#3 Luc 2017-07-27 12:58
Hi, thanks for Sharing ,awesome article!
Can You Tell me exactly the model this rod st croix eyecon?
And give so good reel for this rod,please. Thanks
#2 Ralph D 2017-03-24 07:38
My buddy Gene showed me his St. Croix Eyecon Walleye Trolling Rods 10-20lb yesterday. I have to say, they are pretty damn near perfect. Definitely a nice upgrade to the Ugly Sticks if your looking to spend a little more money.

I am also looking at the Daiwa DXW Walleye Trolling Rods. Might have to give those a spin this year.

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