Optimal Trolling Speeds in Saltwater

One of the trickiest things about trolling is getting your speed right. Trolling speed affects how your lure runs and how live baits swim. Target species also have a preferred speed for baitfish. To find success, you often need to be in the correct water depth for your target species, using a lure that works correctly at your speed, and using the right speed for the fish. Optimal trolling speed depends on whether you are trolling live bait, dead bait, or trolling lures. Some target species prefer slower speeds and some prefer high speed trolling. It also depends on boat capability, current, and wind. In this article, we’ll talk about the target speeds to effectively troll with live bait, dead bait and lures. We’ll also discuss how targeting a certain species, such as wahoo, requires a combination of the correct speed and a lure designed to operate at those speeds.

Live Baits Should be Slow Trolled

Trolling with live bait involves rigging a live fish and pulling it along behind the boat. Live baits can be small pilchards or ballyhoo, and they can also be as big as a skip jack tuna or bonito. Smaller live baits are great for targeting dorado, and trolling a skip jack tuna can help you catch a wahoo.

Live bait needs to be very gently trolled. Almost as if you’re just lightly telling the fish which direction to travel. These speeds are usually 1-2 knots to allow the fish to swim naturally without tiring too quickly. A live bait that tires out can quickly become a dead bait.

Use Bigger Live Baits for Targeting Big Game Fish

Small live baits, such as finger mullet, can be trolled in the grass flats to target redfish. Trolling live baits can be a great way to locate the fish, and then a casting or jigging technique can take priority. Inshore live bait trolling is most often done using a trolling motor in very shallow water with 1-2 lines out. When using this technique with a flats boat, you could even push the boat to troll very slowly and avoid spooking red drum with motor noise.

Nearshore fish such as smaller dolphin can be targeted with live ballyhoo. You can catch ballyhoo with a cast net, but be careful not to handle them very much. Ballyhoo can die when handled too much. To target mahi with a ballyhoo, rig it up with a J hook or circle hook and slow troll near any kind of structure, weeds, or debris.

Often times, anglers will start the day trolling for bait. Trolling at a moderate speed, about 4-6 knots, with diving lures can attract bonito or skipjack tuna. Keep these bigger baitfish alive by putting them in the livewell, or immediately rigging as a live bait to begin the search for a big game pelagic such as a wahoo.

Although wahoo like high speed trolling, you’ll need to stay at a slow speed to keep the live bait alive. If the bonito dies before taking a strike, you can cut it and use it as strip bait with a feather teaser. To learn more about the baits, my article The Best Bait for Trolling discusses the best baits and how to use them appropriately.

Slow Trolling Can Be Challenging for Boats

Slow trolling speeds can be accomplished with a trolling motor. Trolling motors are usually mounted to the bow of the boat, but there are the occasional trolling motors mounted at the stern. For high gunwale offshore boats, trolling motors typically have a longer shaft.

Some motors, usually motors on small boats, are capable of idling at those low speeds. These boats may not need a trolling motor for the speed, but rather would use a trolling motor for its autopilot capabilities. A trolling motor on autopilot can maintain a boat’s heading without anyone at the helm.

Slow trolling, at speeds between 1 and 3 knots, can be challenging for bigger boats with multiple engines. It may not be easy, but there are a few popular methods of slowing down a boat for trolling. Bump trolling, where the motor goes in and out of gear, can keep the forward trajectory slow enough for live bait. Another method is putting multiple 5 gallon buckets in the water to slow it down. Some anglers use one engine to slow it down and alternate to keep consistent engine operating hours. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these methods.

Bump trolling can be hard on outboard motors. The starting and stopping puts a lot of stress on the motor and can decrease the lifespan of your motor. This method should be used sparingly to maintain the health of your outboard motor.

The logistics of putting multiple 5 gallon buckets out can be enough of a deterrent to where anglers don’t like to try this method of slowing a boat. You’ll need to find a way to connect the buckets to the boat without enough strength that the connection doesn’t fail under the heavy pressure of trolling. These buckets can also affect the boat’s wake. Some fish are attracted to the commotion of a boat motor and wake and buckets could decrease the effectiveness of the wake.

On offshore boats with 2+ motors, running one at a time can be a good way to slow down the boat. It’ll give you slightly less directional control, but for slow S-curves, operating on a single motor should be ok. The key with this tactic is to make sure you alternate engines after a certain amount of time to help keep the run time hours the same on each motor. This will help with scheduling maintenance, and helps you keep each motor equally reliable.

Ideal Speeds Vary Greatly When Using Artificial Lures

There are countless varieties of artificial lures that work well for trolling. Diving lures are a great way to get depth with lighter tackle. Squid daisy chains and spreader bars are easy ways to imitate a school of squid without a high number of lines in the water. Surface lures with feather teasers also tend to produce very well when high speed trolling. High speed trolling is known as trolling at speeds between 10 and 20 knots. Anglers need to use lures designed to handle these high speeds to avoid surface skipping or ruining the lure. Wahoo are a common target for high speed trollers. Keep reading to learn about how to choose the appropriate lure for your target trolling speed and species.

The table below shows a variety of lures and the recommended trolling speed. In general, the smaller the lure, the slower the target trolling speed. Some target species are caught with smaller, slower trolling lures, and some targets are caught with high speed, large lures. I also wrote an article about how to achieve trolling depth and the necessary line length, here.

LureTrolling SpeedTarget Species
Nomad Shikari 95 SLFT1-3 knotsSnook, Redfish
Nomad DTX Minnow 120 FLT1-6 knotsSnook, Redfish
Bucktail Jig ¾ oz>= 6 knotsBonitos, BFT, Kings
Nomad Flying Fish 200<=9knotsDolphin
Iland Ilander Heavy Weight Lure~ 10 knotsMarlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, Tuna, Dolphin, Kings
Squid Spreader Bar4-12 knotsBFT, YFT
Rapala X-Rap Magnum XRM20<=13 knotsMarlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, Tuna
Yo-Zuri Bonita6-15 knotsWahoo, Tuna
Yo-Zuri High Speed Vibe<=15 knotsWahoo, Tuna
Nomad Madmacs 200 High Speed SNK5-20 knotsWahoo, Tuna  
Popular Trolling Lures and Recommended Speeds

The trolling speeds in the table are intended to be a starting point that should be double checked when on the water. Current and wind conditions can make a lure act as if it’s traveling at a much faster speed than the boat speed. I highly recommend checking your lures before letting the line out each time you troll. You may find that you need to increase your boat’s RPMs when trolling against the current, and decrease the RPMs when trolling with the current.

Checking the lures is easy to do. Rig the lure on the line, point the rod tip down and watch the lure’s action while keeping it in sight beside the boat. Make sure the action is correct through the back and forth S curve. A straight running lure should run straight and an erratic darter should move appropriately.

This step is critical when doing high speed trolling as you’ll have the added pressure to ensure the lure is tracking true. A bent hook eye has a much more exaggerated effect on the lure’s action when traveling at 10-20 knots.

The Ideal Speed Depends on the Target Species

Trolling Speed for Inshore Species

Trolling inshore generally involves lighter tackle, smaller lures, and slower speeds. I live near Indian River Lagoon and will frequently troll for snook around bridges, docks, and mangroves. I’m usually using a shallow lure, such as the Nomad Shikari 95 Slow Floating jerkbait which rolls back and forth when trolled. I keep my speed slow, which must be done anyway because I’m usually doing this in “no wake zones”.

Sometimes I’ll troll to locate redfish. I enjoy casting to redfish much better, but I can’t cast until I locate the fish. Trolling the grass flats with something like the Nomad DTX Minnow in a 120 size usually catches the attention of some nearby redfish hiding in the weeds.  If I can manage without scaring them off, I’ll use my trolling motor at a speed of around 3 knots and a light spinning outfit.

The lures used for inshore trolling tend to be versatile. I rig my trolling lines up with a Nomad Shikari or a small DTX Minnow and once I’m done trolling, I can pick it up and start casting. To learn how to do inshore trolling, read my article Inshore Trolling: How To PLUS Must Have Lures.

Trolling Speed for Nearshore Species

Trolling lures in the ocean can be a lot more fun that slow trolling inshore. It’s surprising sometimes how you can troll around a simple patch of weeds in 100 ft of water and catch a good size mahi. I have the best luck catching mahi when I’m using a skirted lure with cut bait at moderate-high speeds.

Dorado are a fun species to target because the tackle can be light. Stand up rods and small size class trolling reels, like the Penn International 16VISX paired with a Star Paraflex stand up rod. Mahi will strike cut ballyhoo, bonito, and squid. When targeting mahi, you’ll run your boat at around 6-8 knots and locate the fish with trolling. Mahi swim in schools, so you’ll want to have a spinning outfit with a jig rigged up and ready to sight cast once they come up.

Trolling Speed for Big Game Species

Trolling for big game is when you’ll have a chance to do some high speed trolling. High speed trolling is generally done with artificial lures, and sometimes with dressed (skirted) cut baits. Wahoo are a well-known pelagic that is almost exclusively caught at high speeds.

To target wahoo, you’ll need to be in deep water, around structure such as humps, or reefs. Use lures designed to handle the pressure of high speed trolling, such as the Iland Ilander Heavy Weight Bullet Head Skirted Lure. This type of lure should be trolled on a flat, short line. I’d recommend keeping it around 50 yards away from the boat. The purple and black color pattern is known to be attractive to wahoo.

The speed in which you troll these lures for wahoo is around 10 knots or higher. Wahoo are drawn to the surface with surface lures, but they are toothy. Make sure rig with a wire leader or you could risk a wahoo biting off your lure and getting away. Wahoo usually require heavy tackle with high line capacity. They are known to run off with hundreds of yards in seconds, and so you’ll need high line capacity and a clicker to alert you when it’s on the run. I recommend a trolling reel of size class 50 at least. Check out my article on Trolling Reel Features Explained to learn more.

Not all big game requires high speed trolling. Tuna requires heavy tackle, but can be caught with moderate speeds of 6-8 knots or high speeds of about 10 knots. Squid spreader bars and squid daisy chains are common lures for tuna, but these lures cannot withstand high speed trolling pressures. If you’d like to catch tuna with high speeds, opt for a straight running lure, like a bullet head skirted lure with cut bait.

When targeting tuna, you’ll need to be in deep waters over reefs or rocks with a size 50-80 lb trolling reel. If you’re interested in learning more about bait and lures for tuna, read my article the Best Tuna Lures for Trolling, Casting, and Jigging.

After reading this article, you should be well prepared to start trolling at proper speeds. Tight lines, y’all!

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