Short line trolling

By John Anderson

Catching a fish trolling at 5.8 mph with 4 feet of line out off the corner of your boat is one of those things that you just have to see before you can believe it. I didn’t start trolling short lines seriously until the early 90’s. Last year, it became a game of seeing how short I could go. 12 inches of line off the end of the rod to a 12 inch leader was the answer.

If you don’t short line troll, you’re missing out on what is one of the most powerful learned behaviours in modern musky fishing.

It has taken many years and many varied experiences to understand why this technique is so effective for catching big fish in most conditions, and at almost any time of the year. If you don’t short line troll, you’re missing out on what is one of the most powerful learned behaviours in modern musky fishing. Man has taught the muskellunge to feed off of boat motors and boats.

How Muskies Learn About Boats

Consider the learning curve of a musky as it progressively relates to a boat and motor in its’ environment. Increasingly there are more and more boats on the musky waters we love and in many cases there is high boat traffic already. Muskies see a lot of boats and they adjust to them as simply a natural part of their environment. Initially, a boat is something to fear. It’s big, loud, aggressive, and often random in its movements. This is the perception of a baby goliath in her formative years.

The second benchmark in this learning curve is when the musky comes to the realization that a boat and motor never comes to attack it and thus it is not something to fear, merely something to avoid.

The author (left) and a guest with his first ever musky
The author (left) and a guest with his first ever musky

The third realization of a juvenile musky is that when a boat comes, most other fish scatter. Schools of baitfish break up and every fish’s attention is drawn to the boat. They are now distracted, even separated from the herd and vulnerable to attack. Meals can be had when a boat goes by.


It fears nothing and nothing attacks it.

The fourth and final step in this learning cycle is that a boat represents an opportunity to feed. When a musky reaches 34 to 36 inches in length, or about 6 years in age, it is ready to spawn for the first time. I believe that this is a point in the muskies development where it begins to grow its ego and attitude. It is now the queen or king of its domain. It fears nothing and nothing attacks it. The understanding of its position in the hierarchy of fish is clear; I am the biggest, baddest, fastest creature in the water and I rule it. A passing boat is now an opportunity to hunt.

The first time I perched high on the bow of a boat and searched for muskies was an amazing learning experience. It was on Pigeon Lake at a Can/Am event. Pigeon Lake has a lot of eager muskies and clear water and in the early morning hours, on a glass surface that shadowed beautiful thick weed flats, I began to search. To do this successfully you should have a set of great polarized lenses, your MCI hat, and a hood to dampen as much light as possible around your eyes. You should also talk with your driver and cover the safety issues in the event you fall in.

To my amazement, it did not take long to spot the first of many shiny emerald green beauties. This fish and a number of others turned off the side of the boat and moved out of the way at varying speeds and angles. Some moved quickly, others slowly and only a short distance. After about 20 minutes, I came across the first 4 foot class fish to enter my field of vision. Instead of peeling off into the weeds, this experienced warrior princess slowly descended to the bottom in 8 feet of water. She had seen this routine a thousand times and knew exactly what was going to happen. She rested comfortably as the motor passed directly over her head. I saw this process repeated many times over the next couple of days. Left: the author (left) and a guest with his first ever musky. 6 RELEASE JOURNAL

Jim McGlaughlin’s Just Fishing magazine had a great behavioural article written by a musky addict who has chased fish for a lifetime in Northern Ontario, Minnesota, and Wisconsin among other places, and has done so with a camera mounted underwater and off the side of his boat. One of his stories I remember was how daily he would have muskies come right up to his kicker motor to investigate. By now most of you have heard of a musky attacking an electric motor prop in the water as well. Stories like these tell you that muskies are curious by nature and are clearly not wary of your boat or your presence at least some of the time.

Have you ever trolled a bait off the corner of your boat and kept a vigilant eye on it for a long time? As I guide I have had a number of guests watch a prop wash lure short lined off the side of the boat for hours. I can recall one day where we did not catch a fish for several hours on an afternoon session of trolling but my guest got very excited 6 times over a musky coming right up to the visible bait but not eating it. Feedback like this tells you that you indeed have active fish in the zone you are hunting and you have a presentation problem. Adjust your speed, your lure colour, or your lure until you find what they actually will hit. In this case a colour change made all the difference for us.

Why it Works

Here is the answer to why short line trolling is such an effective technique for catching big muskies. Aside from disturbing the fish the boat comes in contact with and creating a ruckus of bubbles and wake with a big motor, I believe it comes down to the decision time you give a musky to eat your presentation eat it now, yes or no. Reaction strikes work well when you are casting and is evidenced when your lure hits the water and is immediately eaten. You startled the fish and instead of running away like most fish the queen of the water kills what startled her or at least gives it enough of a warning nip to find hooks. You don’t give the fish a chance to hone in on a presentation like it has when you long line. There is no ‘good look’ for the fish and limited chance to follow and inspect the potential meal or to use their keen sense of smell to decide if this is real. Yes or no – right now!

In the 70s and 80s nearly all the muskies I boated trolling were on long lines. It wasn’t until I started fishing Rob Dey and River Rat spinnerbaits in the early 90s that I had regular success on what I considered to be short lines at that time. We’re talking about 15′ to 20′. There were a number of people in Eastern Ontario who were pioneers in the technique and these distances still work great today.

Season opener muskie caught in eight feet of water
Season opener muskie caught in eight feet of water

This was considered a great early season and summer pattern around here, especially when the temperature climbed to 60 degrees (yup, I’m old and I still use Fahrenheit to talk musky temperatures), which was  somewhere around July 1st .

Learning to take advantage of shorter and shorter lines was a natural progression with this trolling technique. I can remember fishing with one partner back in the day who always made sure his line was the shortest distance from the boat, especially when we trolled spinnerbaits. If I let out 15 feet of line he would let out 12 and if I went to 11 he would go to 9. The thought here is that aggressive muskies would hit the first bait they saw and there is definitely some truth to this. A common short line distance now for me is 5 or 6 feet trolled right off the corner of the boat.

The How

Here are some tips for short lining: Ideally this works best for me in shallower water around cover. This is not cut in stone as I have caught fish in open water at 30 or 40 feet on short lines as well but since muskies are by nature sight feeders and an ambush predator they tend to sit in spots with cover where they can burst out at prey wondering into their vantage point. If you know of ‘spots on spots’, or very small areas that often hold a musky this would be a perfect location to short line.

When you see fish while casting an area or you otherwise know there are fish in an area but you cannot seal the deal. Remember, don’t tell the fish how you want to catch them.

Doug's short lined November monster muskie.
Doug’s short lined November monster muskie.

Change your presentation until you find what works when you are sure there are fish there. I have often cast a spot for as long as an hour and then scored on the first pass of the same areas with a short line troll.

Adjusting the tilt of your motor changes the sound, the bubble trail behind you, and the waves your boat sends out in its’ wake. Subtle changes like this can be a key to turning finicky muskies into picture fish.

As noted earlier, watching your baits can give you big feedback on whether the fish are interested in your short line presentations or not and whether you need to tinker with bait size, colour, or speed. Jake Satonica, the creator of both the Jake and the Grandma lures never trolls anywhere without a 13-inch musky coloured bait in the propwash. Personally I tend to short line with very bright colours that wouldn’t be described as ‘natural patterns’. Rod positioning in the rod holder can be a key and offers different lure depth presentation options right close to your boat. Keeping a rod tip high off the side of the boat can let you run your bait just slightly sub surface with makes it easy to see. Putting your rod tip 2 feet under the water can let you run a crank bait or diving bait down 5 feet with a very short line and close to the bottom or heavy cover in shallow water.

Drag setting is critical here. I am a believer in tight drags to get a solid hookset on the take immediately. With short lines however one must account for the weight and strength of a monster fish and ensure it is able to peel 30 feet of line away easily. Too tight of a drag setting can rip a slice in the fishes upper jaw which is bad for both you and the musky.

When your short line goes off you now have a very green fish close to the boat and no doubt you have other lines in  the water too. Ensure that there is a path for your short line fish to run straight back from the boat as it will initially do that won’t catch on another line in the water.

To sum up this trolling technique, I would say that if you are not short line trolling then you are truly missing out on a pattern that fools the big girls as much or more than any other way that you could drag a bait. Try it out because seeing is believing and many days the short line pattern will outfish all the other lines off your boat combined.

John Anderson 

Mike Mitchell