Trolling and harling for trout

Trolling and harling for trout

In the eyes of the purists...

Editor Grant Dixon is a ‘heathen’ when it comes to trout fishing – he loves spinning, trolling and, to a lesser extent, jigging. In this article he shares some basic strategies that have served him well over the years and put plenty of fish through the smoker…

Just as the sun comes up is a good time to be harling lures through the shallows.

From my childhood growing up in the Waikato I have two strong memories of my early trout-fishing experiences. My uncle John moved his family from Te Awamutu, where I grew up, to Taupo so he could get into a tyre business there. For part of the year the family’s 4.9m (16ft) Augustin cabin boat Jan Shiree ‘lived’ at Taupo.

It was a special treat for me to accompany my dad Ian and granddad Bert for a few days fishing on the lake. Deep trolling was the method du jour, with 100 metres of wire line and dacron backing deployed on a Pflueger Sea King multiplying reel, or a hundred metres (10 colours) of lead-core line and backing on a one-to-one centre-pin reel being the setups of choice.

There was a limited range of lures available: Hammered Pennies and Mother of Pearl spoons, Zebra (black with gold stripes) Tobies, Tillins Flatfish, Hotshots, Tokoroa Chickens and, in later years Tassie Devils, were included in our tackle boxes.

Our favourite runs were the sandy flats of Mine and Whakaipo Bays on the western side and Two, Three and Four Mile Bays on the eastern side. The fish were plentiful and big, and it was not uncommon to nail a limit bag of 10 fish per angler in a day. We never harled, just deep trolled. It was always social, with family and friends enjoying a few Waitahanui Cocktails (green ginger wine, mixed with either rum or port) as we trolled along.

I was introduced to harling when teaching in Taupo for a couple of years and, in later times, downrigging, both of which added a more sporting dimension to my trolling. (I have yet to be convinced that standing nuts-deep in freezing cold water in the midst of winter waving fluff-and-feather creations around is ‘fun’, but each to his own!)

A number of things have changed in my trout-fishing lifetime to make trolling more fun. Firstly, overall the tackle has become lighter, smaller and more sophisticated. Also, chart-plotters and accurate depth-sounders allow fish to be more accurately targeted at various depths and locations. These capabilities link particularly well with the use of downriggers, which also allow a wider range of depths to be fished with the same gear: anything from harling in 4-5 metres through to deep trolling in 40 metres.

Then, of course, there are the modern outboards. Even the bigger horsepower models will run all day at trolling speed without oiling up these days. (Anyone who has trolled with a Seagull or other small horse-powered two-stroke outboard will know what I mean.)

Trolling for trout need not be complicated. Plenty of rod-and-reel sets are available to cover harling through to deep trolling at local tackle stores, and many are not that expensive. As for electronics, a depth-sounder is essential, especially for deep trolling to avoid hooking up on the bottom, and although a chart-plotter is nice to have, it’s not a necessity. A few runs up and down your favourite stretch will give a feel for the area and reveal any outcrops that need to be avoided.

For me downriggers have revolutionised trout fishing, especially on Lakes Taupo and Tarawera, where the runs are longer and relatively straight forward. As mentioned earlier, downriggers allow the angler to use the same tackle regardless of depth. Downriggers can be as simple or as sophisticated as you’re prepared to fork the cash out for. Basic manual models allow the angler to crank the cable and attached weight back up, while the more sophisticated electric models incorporate their own depth sounder, allowing anglers to set the distance they wish to run their lures above the bottom so the downrigger maintains the depth in relation to the bottom contour automatically. Retrieval occurs at the push of a button.

The business end

My terminal tackle rig is the same, whether harling, deep trolling, downrigging or trolling conventionally. For harling lead-core or wire-trolling setups I like a decent length leader – 4-5 metres of six-kilo fluorocarbon (Black Magic works well for me) – attached to the main line via a small swivel.

This is tied to another small swivel, with two traces tied to the rear of it – one about 150mm in length, another about a metre. A fly of your choice is attached to the short ‘branch’ leader, while the longer leader is armed with a lure.

When harling I prefer to use two flies. Some regions allow anglers to run three lures, but this over-complicates things as far as I’m concerned. On a number of occasions I have hooked and landed ‘doubles’, where trout have attached themselves to the two lures on offer, and it has been a bit of a drama. I can only imagine what it would be like being hooked to three fish simultaneously, each pulling against the others. It would, however, make for a great test of your mono and knots!

I will often have several pre-tied terminal rigs on a trace holder. When the inevitable bust-off occurs, what remains of the old trace (if anything) is snipped off and a new one tied on, getting you back in action with minimal fuss.

I also like to refresh my terminal tackle before each trip, or after getting hooked up on the bottom when a heap of strain is exerted on the line before the lure is freed. Trace doesn’t last forever; even the best are subject to damage, wear, and loss of knot breaking strain over time.

So before heading out this new season, take five minutes to replace any old traces – it may make the difference between landing or losing that trophy fish.

Multiplying versus centrepin reels

Over the years I have always fished wire line on multiplying reels and lead-line on centrepins. Both reel types, due to the nature of the line, are of necessity large and bulky.

In the past, many anglers have used Dacron as backing, but the availability of much finer diameter braid lines has meant changes in this department; thin lines create less resistance in the water.

To this point I’ve stuck with my old tried-and-true reels, the conventional centrepins in particular. I bulk up the spool line level with dacron or mono initially, followed by 100 metres of braid backing attached to the wire or lead-line.

The same applies to conventional harling setups, where Dacron is followed by braid and then either to two colours of lead or a length of sinking fly line. By keeping the spool as full as possible, the maximum retrieve for each turn of the spool is achieved, better enabling the angler to stay in touch with a fish or retrieve line as quickly as possible.

Troll lines

After establishing an area and/or depth you think the fish are at, and selecting the type of gear to target them with, you must also pick a trolling line. If using a chart-plotter, this may be along a contour line. I have found it pays to ‘weave’ along this line, as opposed to simply running up and down it, varying the depth the lure is run in relation to the bottom.

If it is a relatively clean bottom free of snags, it will not hurt if your lure scrapes up a bit of sand now and again, drawing attention to itself.

One of Dad’s old fishing buddies used to swear by Tillin’s Flatfish lures on Lake Taupo. His trick was to always run them hard on the bottom, where the leading edge of the lure would dig into the gravelly sand. He consistently out-fished us, so there was method in his madness (he also knew the lake well and the best places to use this technique effectively without snagging on the bottom too much!).

Hook rigs

When I buy a lure, I tend to remove the factory hooks and replace them with my own. Many Tasmanian Devil-style lures come rigged with a centre wire, which I remove and throw away. In its place I make up my own hook rigs consisting of a Gamakatu 1/0 hook, split-ring and tiny swivel.

Next, I cut a notch or slot in the rear of the lure for the split-ring to sit in. The trace is threaded through the centre of the lure and tied to the swivel before the hook rig is pulled up into place.

This has two advantages. Firstly, the hook is trolled point up, which I believes gives a better hook-up rate on trout while also reducing the incidence of snags. Secondly, when a fish is hooked the lure can slide up the trace so the jumping fish does not have the weight of the lure to leverage against when trying to throw the hook.


I have found the optimum trolling speed to be somewhere around 1.8 to 2.3 knots. Using conventional gear, the faster you go, the shallower your lure will run due to the resistance of the line through the water.

When harling flies, I have sometimes increased the hook-up rate by going even slower, down to a knot or so. Harling was developed by anglers rowing a boat and using a fly rod armed with a sinking line and streamer-style fly.

However, I have also caught trout when turning around at the end of a run under power on the half-plane, the lure travelling at about 10 knots!

Another little trick is to continually move the rod tip backwards and forwards – the extra movement imposed on your lures might just evoke a strike you might not otherwise have got.

As you can see from the above, there is more ‘science’ to trolling lures for trout than many people think, and I have only touched on some key points.

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

October 2014 - by Grant Dixon
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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