Estuary, Kayak

Trolling up a storm – kayak trolling for estuary staples

Trolling is a really effective way to cover LOTS of water and catch fish. But when you’ve spent years casting lures or flies and constantly hunting and searching for fish as I have, trolling seems like a really passive way to go about our passion.  Put the lures out, start moving and wait for the fish to climb on. Trolling doesn’t reward accurate casting. Trolling doesn’t reward subtle twitches and pauses of the lure next to structure. Trolling sounds kinda boring and like something that would be greatly improved with a couple of beers.  Of course, this isn’t the case (trolling, not the beers. Beer is great).

Trolling is normally associated with covering lots of bluewater, but it can be just as effective in smaller lakes and rivers

To highlight just how effective trolling can be, on a recent trip to Durras lake (a relatively shallow tidal estuary on the NSW south coast)  we spent no more than 45 minutes trolling from the kayaks. In that 45 minutes we caught both the biggest flathead and the biggest bream of the whole weekend. To put that in perspective, we fished for about 6 hours a day for two days straight. Less than 4% of the time was spent trolling and yet the best fish were caught this way. These fish were caught on small bibbed minnows dragged about 30 metres behind the boats.

85cm of flathead on the troll

Last weekend Stu and I had another couple of sessions in the yaks.  We had visions of fishing the deeper holes with soft plastics on an outgoing tide for flathead, chasing whiting on poppers in the shallows and fishing stickbaits and crank baits for bream around the rocky shoreline.  After a couple of hours we were getting skunked and the wind had picked up making life in the yaks really difficult. Running out of ideas and with few opportunities to get out of the wind, we decided (resorted) to putting out a couple of lures and having a troll. Straight away we started to pick up a couple of small flathead and a nice table fish around 48cm.  Pretty good start. The action was regular with a fish every few minutes, albeit mostly small fish. Then one of my rods buckled over. I plucked it from the rod holder and started winding in. Nothing. No head shakes, no tail beats. Seaweed?

Trolling from the kayak

Anyone who has followed estuary fishing in southern Australia for long enough will have heard about someone who thought they had hooked a huge pile of weed only for that ‘weed’ to eventually wake up and start to swim in the opposite direction. You guessed it. My weed was alive.  Big flathead have a distinctive ‘fight’. That is they do pretty much nothing at all. Happy to be dragged along for up to a hundred metres (in my experience) they are the most placid big predator in our rivers and lakes.  Until they see the boat or shallow water that is, and then they fire up and launch on some powerful runs.

Now would probably be a good time to mention that this rod had 3lb leader, a result of targeting finicky bream earlier in the morning. On light line, I slowly gathered in a few metres of line at a time, petrified of being chewed off by rasping teeth. Fortunately I could see the tiny size 12 treble just pinned in the top lip, so I was confident the line would hold. By now Stu was circling in his kayak with a big long handled net – mine was much smaller and better suited to landing small rainbows in a mountain stream, or possibly catching butterflies.  The dance of the kayaks had begun. The fish went one direction around the yak, Stu poised with his big net, the other.  Like the moments before the alignment of the planets during a full solar eclipse the fish was heading straight for the net when <pink> the lure pulled free and landed harmlessly a few feet away. The fish slunk off and we exchanged a couple of expletives. We estimate the fish was around 70-75cm. Not huge, but a beautiful big flathead nonetheless. That’s OK, I would have let her go again anyway to lay a few million more eggs somewhere in the lake.

On the way back to the ramp we heard stories about someone who had caught and released an even bigger flathead of 95cm from a long shallow sandy stretch of the estuary earlier that morning. That would be the first place we would target the next day.

Whiting will often take natural-coloured lures on the troll that look like a small bait fish or prawn

And so it was, we were back out there again the next morning with lofty expectations of pin-point casts to submerged logs and long casts with the wind across the flats to schools of marauding fish.  Against a strong tidal flow and unforecasted wind however we were back on the troll by 9am. We wanted to fish higher in the system anyway so may as well troll some lures over there. And then, not far from the spot where the 95cm fish was caught, one of the rods buckled.  But this time things were a little different. There was a slow rhythmic pulse through the rod tip. Unlike the first, there was no doubt this was a fish from the beginning and from the laboured and unhurried nods of the rod tip it looked like another good one – could it be the 95cm trophy fish from the day before?

The dance began again, the net was poised and the anxiety rose. Still fitted with very light line (still 3lb) it was a slow and deliberate tussle. As I finally peeled the fish off the bottom it rose to the surface and swam straight into the waiting rubber mesh of Stu’s net. Success! With Stu’s net clipped to his boat and my line now attached to a big fish in his net, the two kayaks slowly made their way over, side-by-side, to a small sand bar. I gently removed the lure from the fish’s mouth and donned a pair of gloves. I lifted the fish from the net and started to rummage around for a brag mat and a camera. Poor choice of operations Graz. The fish bit down hard on my hand and kicked violently. It kicked free from my grip and as if in slow motion, slid over the edge of the kayak and sat motionless in the sand for moment. I reached down and grabbed it. Predictably its slimy shoulders were impossible to grip and it slid through my fingers and was gone. Amateur hour was over. We both agreed this one was a little bigger than the first, probably around 75-80cm. It definitely wasn’t 95cm. Not to worry, it’s not like I wanted a photo to put up on a blog site or anything …

The point is that trolling from a kayak was proving to be a deadly way to catch fish including some really big fish. Also big fish seemed pretty happy to bite small lures.  In this case, it’s not hard to work out why. Flathead are ambush predators. They sit nestled in the sand and wait for unsuspecting prey to venture too close. They are not renowned as being fussy feeders, so the more water we covered, the more likely we were to put a lure over one. Our trolling speed was quite slow, about 3km/h. Or to put it another way, the lure was covering 3000 metres of water in 60 minutes. If we were casting for flathead and retrieving, a cast might last 1 minute and we might cover 25 metres of water with each cast. A quick back of the envelope calculation suggests that we’d only cover 1500 metres of water in 60 minutes, assuming we cast non-stop and don’t take any breaks. In reality I’d think it would be a lot less than that. Either way, we’re covering a lot less water than when trolling.

The beauty of using light line is that more finicky species such as bream and whiting are also on the cards and we caught both of these over the weekend. In one case a big bream bit the lure as I was adjusting something on the boat, or perhaps applying suncream, I forget now, but had nearly come to a complete stand still. How long it had been following the lure waiting for it to slow or stop, I’ll never know. But in my distracted state, it took me a moment to realise what had happened. I had a fish on.

This nice bream took a trolled lure – on the pause (I think)
Stu with a nice 33cm bream from the kayak

Of course there is a little more to successful trolling than just picking any old lure and dragging it around for a couple of hours. To pick a lure that swims too deep is to discover one of the ultimate frustrations of trolling. Constantly fouling the lure in weeds or vegetation and having to wind it in. To run the the lures too shallow is to discover the other frustration – not catching anything, particularly for bottom dwellers like flathead. So it’s clearly a balance, and there is a lot of value in experimenting. The speed of the troll will effect the running depth of the lures as will the height of the rod tip relative to the water (vertical or horizontal). So will the amount of line let out. Holding a rod in your hand and jerking the rod occasionally to impart fast twitches and pauses into the action will often get a bite from more timid fish, particularly bream.  And once you’ve experimented with all that, perhaps just stop paddling all together and see what happens once the lures stop dead!? A particularly deadly technique (apparently) when using lures that are neutrally buoyant and sit motionless in the water column at rest.

Believe it or not, both of the of the big flathead came from just 0.9-1.8 metres of water. The most effective approach in this lake was to run a combination of shallow (~0.3-0.5m) and medium (~1.0-1.2m) divers to cover a couple of different bases. If the water got a bit too shallow, it was simple enough to wind in the deeper lure that was dredging through the weeds and continue with the shallow one. When the water got a bit deeper again, cast it back out and keep peddling. But of course every river or lake will be different.

A depth sounder is a huge advantage when trying to match the right lure to water depth

Trolling from a kayak is particularly effective for several reasons. Kayaks can get into water that is often too shallow for boats, allowing you to go places that people rarely fish. They are obviously very quiet, cast little shadow and have virtually no bow slap or other noises to scare fish as you pass over the top or near them.  And if you are going to spend some time trolling, why not get a little exercise at the same time from paddling or peddling the kayak along? And yes, you can have a beer if you would like to.

Trolling obviously works in all environments, including freshwater. Lee with a nice little Murray cod on the troll

Trolling won’t however do much for your casting ability and you may get a sore neck from trying to watch the rods or to see how far behind the boat the lures are. If you’re using rod holders you don’t even get to feel the bite. There are definitely down sides to trolling. But there is no better way to cover water than to constantly have a lure (or two) down in the strike zone. In some ways it is the ultimate form of power fishing.

So next time you are out in the boat or kayak and decide to eat an apple, consider having a troll. Putting on suncream, have a troll. Need to change spots, have a troll. Conditions too windy to fish lures from a yak, have a troll!

Once those fish started climbing on the lures and putting a bend in the rod, I discovered that trolling is a lot less passive than I first thought! Just a shame there aren’t any photos of the either of the two big fish to remember my trolling adventures.

Happy trolling!


PS One of my pet peevs is the use of the word ‘trawling’, when people actually mean trolling. If you are pulling a net behind your kayak you are trawling, otherwise you are trolling. Just saying 😉


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