Choosing a trolling combo, the rod and reel, requires you to understand what features are important and why. A good trolling combo has a reel with the best features for trolling, a rod with the best features for trolling, and a size pairing that makes sense for your target species. The chosen line strength is a key consideration as it will help you choose the reel size, and rod power. Read the article below to learn how to choose a trolling rod and reel combo.
Conventional or Spinning?
When trolling, the line is let out long distances behind the boat and often also drops to deep depths. This requires a lot of line capacity on the spool. Targeting something like a wahoo, a species that can peel off an insane amount of line in seconds, would absolutely require a conventional reel. You can get enough line capacity on a spinning reel if your target is something like a nearshore snook.
High line capacity is key for a trolling reel, but knowing how much you need can be difficult. To estimate your line capacity needs, you’ll need to consider where and how you’ll be trolling. You may find that you have different line capacity needs for each rod in your spread.
For example, trolling a lure on the surface in the prop wash, would not require nearly as much line as planer trolling with a skirted ballyhoo.
The type of line you choose also makes a difference to line capacity. I prefer to use braided main line with a mono topshot so I can maximize the line capacity on a smaller sized reel that I’d be comfortable holding for the fight. If you’d rather use a monofilament as a main line, you’ll need a bigger size reel to hold the same amount of line as one spooled with braid.
Many different gear ratios can work for trolling, however a 2 speed reel has a great advantage. Gear ratio is a ratio that represents how many times the spool completes a full rotation for a single rotation of the handle. A high gear ratio normally translates to a faster retrieve rate and a lower gear ratio normally translates to a slower retrieve rate. A faster retrieve rate can be advantageous when reeling in hundreds and hundreds of yards of line.
Power is an important consideration as well. A high gear ratio has more teeth on the gears, which means the gear teeth are much smaller. Smaller gear teeth are less capable withstanding hard thrashing and fighting from strong fish. The gears in a low gear ratio reel have much fewer teeth which are much bigger. These can hold up much better against very heavy fights.
A two speed reel allows you to use a low gear ratio when you’re in the midst of a heavy fight. You would also be able to a switch to high gear ratio when it’s time to reel in the line and you want to speed it up.
Because of the nature of trolling, a clicker is extremely useful. The rods are normally placed in a rod holder, and the line is let out. Setting up a spread typically involves letting at least 4 lines out. While you’re busy handling other lines, the clicker can serve as an alarm to alert you when you've got a strike. A faster reaction can save you from getting spooled if you’ve hooked a fast one.
Drag-Lever or Star
Conventional reels either have star drag or lever drag. Star drag has much smaller drag washers because they are on either side of a main drive gear which is connected to the handle. The small washers are stacked to maximize the amount of friction for their size. The down side of star drag is that the washers can overheat and warp at higher drag settings.
Lever drag uses drag washers on the side of the spool. The lever drag washer is larger in diameter and can release heat more easily than small diameter star drag washers. When targeting big game that will pull hard against drag, a lever drag becomes preferable.
A level wind is a mechanism which moves the line back and forth across the spool as the line is being retrieved. This prevents the line from piling up in one spot which can potentially prevent you from reeling in all the line if the stacked up line hits the cross bar. Although the idea sounds helpful, a levelwind has some serious downsides, especially when trolling.
The hard and fast strike of a big game fish on a trolling bait can put a lot of pressure on the levelwind. When the fish is peeling off the line against the drag, A levelwind can fail to keep up if it moves as line is going out, or it can put extra friction on your line. Extra friction on your line can cause line to snap when the fish of a lifetime is on the other end. The pressure from the strike can also cause the levelwind mechanism itself to break.
Trolling is also often done in saltwater. This additional gearing on the reel is seen as an unnecessary moving part that will likely become corroded in the saltwater environment.
It has become the norm for most conventional trolling reels to not have a levelwind at all. They have become undesirable as anglers understand the downsides are enough to prefer manual levelwinding on the retrieve. When choosing a trolling reel, I recommend making sure it does not have a levelwind.
If you’re interested in reading about the best two trolling reels on the market, read my article Top Notch Trolling Reels That Will Last for Generations.
When it comes to choosing a rod, the first choice is conventional or spinning. Once you’ve realized a conventional reel is best, you’ll need to pair it with a conventional rod.
The length of a trolling rod is ideally between about 6 and 7 feet long. Anything longer than 7 feet is often too difficult to store on a boat. You may want to use a 7 foot long rod when you want the rod to extend up and over the motor, or when you want some extra length to help keep a line wide.
A short rod, about 6 feet, is great for lines that need a stout and heavy rod. A short rod can have a full guide train of roller guides and a bent butt. This type of rod is frequently used when targeting big game such as wahoo.
A short rod with a straight butt and ring guides can be a great choice when doing some stand up fishing. This length will give you enough distance off the side of the boat, without being so long that you feel like you’re losing leverage on a big fish.
The power of a rod is related to the line rating. The heavier the line rating, the heavier the power of the rod. I recommend considering what strength line you’ll spool the reel with, and choosing a rod power based on that line fitting within the line rating. For example, for nearshore trolling with 65 lb test line, I may be able to use a medium power rod as long as 65 lbs is within the line rating. When targeting marlin with 130 lb test line, you’ll likely need to look at extra heavy power.
A fast action rod is great for trolling. Fast action means that mostly the tip will bend and you’ll reach the backbone of the rod to help horse in the fish sooner. Most of the time, you’re trolling rod will be a multi-purpose boat rod and fast action is common.
When it comes to guides, trolling rods can have a big variety. A short and stout rod for targeting big game will usually have a full train of roller guides. Roller guides are meant to decrease the friction on the line, but they must be properly cared for to prevent rusting out.
A roller stripper guide is great when pairing with a narrow, high line capacity reel. These types of reels usually sit quite tall and the roller stripper guide helps to decrease the friction of the line coming off the reel.
Sometimes you’ll see a roller tip guide too. This can be helpful when planer fishing because a planer will put high stress on the tip of the rod as the planer dives. The roller tip guide helps decrease this friction which can save your line from extreme stress.
Full ring guides are also common, especially when targeting small to medium sized fish. I recommend looking for a high quality ring guide, usually silicone carbide or zirconium. Fortunately, these are easy to find if you’re at least looking at rods in a mid-range price point.
A gimbal is something that I highly recommend on a rod if you’re planning to target big game. A gimbal is usually a metal component at the butt end of the rod that has notches that mate with crosspins in a rod holder, fighting belt, or fighting chair. A gimbal keeps the rod anchored against twisting during a fight. This prevents overstressing the rod. It also helps the angler when retrieving by preventing the rod from twisting back and forth everytime the reel handle is cranked.
Rod designers have developed methods of improving the strength to weight ratio of a rod. Nowadays, you can get extremely strong rods that are still very lightweight. When it comes to a trolling rod, the torsional strength becomes very important because of the size and strength of the fish you’re fighting.
Torsional strength is improved by wrapping fiberglass layers in a criss cross method during blank construction. In general, as the price of a rod goes up, you’ll see an improvement in rod technology. I recommend looking for a rod that can hold up against some twisting because of the strong and wild fish you can catch trolling.
If you’re interested in learning more to pick out the best trolling rod, read my article The Best Trolling Rod.
How to Pair Them
Now that we understand what features to look for in a rod and reel individually, we need to learn how to pair them appropriately. You should first consider the size fish you’ll likely be targeting and choose a line strength. As an example, medium sized tuna and mahi can be caught on 65 lb test line. My wahoo reel will be usually be spooled with heavier line, usually 80 lb test.
Once you know the line strength you need, you’ll need to decide whether you’ll use mono or braid as a main line. My article Is Mono or Braid Best for Trolling discusses each choice in detail. For this article, we’ll assume we’re looking for the smallest reel so we can be comfortable standing and manually levelwinding it while fighting a fish.
When looking to maximize the line you can fit on a spool, braid is the obvious choice. Braid has a much smaller diameter than monofilament line of the same strength. This is why you’ll typically see a mono line capacity and a braided line capacity when looking at reel specs.
Say for example I decided I wanted about 800 yards of capacity of 65 lb test braided line for targeting small to medium size mahi off the East Coast of Florida. The Penn International 16VISX has just enough and is a narrow spool which makes it easier to levelwind.
To choose a rod to pair this with, I’d look for a 6 to 7 foot boat rod with fast action and a line rating that includes 65 lb test braid. This is considered a smaller sized trolling reel, so there’s no need to look for any roller guides in this example.
The Shimano Talavera Bluewater Conventional rod, 7’ long, 50-80 lb braid rating, extra heavy power, fast action rod with an aluminum gimbal and Fuji Fazlite ring guides fits the bill perfectly. I also could have chosen the heavy power model which has a braid rating of 30-65 lb test, but I figured I would more likely increase the line strength than decrease it, so I opted for the extra heavy power model.
I hope this article helps you learn how to find and choose a trolling setup. Tight lines, y’all!