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Row Trolling for Walleyes: Bringing Back a Classic Fishing Technique by Patricia Strutz

Once, row trolling was the only game in town. Back in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s all the professional guides row trolled and considered it an invaluable tool. Then along came smoother running outboard motors, electric trolling motors, and specialized casting equipment. Rowing fell out of fashion.

With the current trend of interest toward silent sports, a whole new generation of fishermen are now embracing this nostalgic technique.  However, diehard row trolling adherents, this scribbler included, have long touted the many advantages this method offers. Why choose to row when one can motor troll, cast, jig or drift? The reasons are endless…

Why Row Troll

Row Troll BoatWisconsin Northwood’s legend and recent inductee to the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, Leon “Buckshot” Anderson has spent over 55 years guiding customers to tasty walleye.  His preferred modus operandi?  Row trolling…here, he discusses the many advantages it offers.

“Well, first of all, motor trolling is illegal in certain areas. This is the case in my neighborhood—the many Class A musky lakes in Northern Wisconsin.
Row trolling can be more efficient than motor trolling, anyway. There is no noise or water disruption from the motor. It is much easier to sneak up on a skittish school of walleyes this way. This is especially helpful when fish are in shallow or clear water.
Small row boats can gain access to many lakes where motors are not allowed. 
Oftentimes, these lakes have had little fishing pressure resulting in a population of ‘lure dumb’ fish.”

“Row trolling is more constructive than drifting because the speed and direction of the boat can be controlled. This is extremely important when fish are finicky-such as schooling up and feeding only at the 9' depth. It is environment friendly. There is no gas or oil to affect the aquatic bug or weed life. There is also no noise pollution. Peace, solitude, and serenity are offered to fishermen seeking respite from the buzz of city life. Row trolling can produce when a slower presentation is required. In frigid water the fish are lethargic.  They may respond to a 1 mph row trolled bait much better than a series of quicker casted retrieves.”

“It is also an effective way to access fish in deep, clear lakes. Most recreational boating traffic (and fishing pressure as well) is concentrated along the periphery of the lake. Row trolling through deep basins, among schools of bait fish and over mid-lake humps, provides accessibility to fish seeking a safe haven from all this commotion.

He continues, “Rowing is a wonderful sport all on its own.  Catching a fish is just the icing on the cake!  It provides fantastic exercise and when coupled with trolling it offers the satisfaction of working toward a goal. It gets you out there moving and relating to the subtleties of the lake, rowing makes fishing more of an active sport.”

Certainly one cannot overlook the nostalgic appeal. This technique is steeped in history and tradition. Many folks drawn to the allure of simpler times find row trolling an invitation to yesteryear. Where it really shines, however, is during cold, snowy weather (perfect fishing weather!). It is a great way to keep warm when out chasing lunkers in the early springtime or blustery autumn afternoons.

What Is It?

Row trolling at its simplest is taking a small row boat out, finding some structure or a concentration of bait fish, and, by working the oars, dragging a couple of lines with some enticing lures through them. This is how it has been done for decades.  It can still be that simple today.  Of course, with new technology and all the specialized electronics offered now, it can also be as complex as you want to make it. Just about any species of fish can be taken while row trolling. Each quarry demands different tools to achieve success in catching them with consistency.

The Gear

Boat selection should be determined by the species you are pursuing and the waters you are fishing. If you will be searching for “eating size ‘eyes” on smaller lakes, your rowing will take you in shallow water near brush piles. A lightweight and easily maneuvered boat is imperative to efficiently access these fish as well as retrieve your lures from timber. If you are chasing after trophy sized walleyes on larger, deeper lakes you will want to rig up a heavier, sturdier boat that will handle the large waves you will encounter.

One caveat: don’t get into a stubborn “purist mindset.” The option of adding a motor to your row boat will make your time on the water much more enjoyable and efficient. Electric trolling motors will power a lightweight, cedar-strip row boat. My guiding row troller is a17’ long fiberglass boat with a 50” beam. It sports a full length keel-very stable, but at a heavy 300 pounds I choose a 8 hpr Mercury to power back to my rowing route when faced with a strong headwind.

Electronics definitely have their place, too. Perhaps the biggest technological advance to enhance row trolling is sonar equipment. Accurate depth finders allow the troller to systematically approach a piece of water instead of just by happenstance. With your eyes glued to the electronics, the slow trolling speeds of row trolling allow you to intimately learn the water you are fishing.

For smaller sized walleyes, 6 to 6 ˝' medium action rods equipped with 8# test monofilament line on either spinning or baitcasting reels are the basic tools.
Long, whippy 8' poles work well when the fish are especially finicky.  This allows the lure to be presented further away from the boat and the ability to detect even the most subtle hits.  In early spring and late fall, when the water temperatures are cold, fathead minnows on weedless hooks with a small weight attached 8" above the hook is the ticket. If the fish are still relating to weeds, row trolling leeches or nightcrawler rigs are effective tools, also. 

If you are chasing after trophy sized fish you will need to target suspended fish in deeper waters. I gear up for these heavy 27-30” walleyes by rigging up a long (7’6”) pike/musky rod and baitcasting reel combo. I tie on 20# test mono with a 3’ fluorocarbon leader (at least 60# to protect against bite offs from larger predator fish). I then entice them with deep diving crankbaits such as Wally Divers, Rapala Countdowns and Joe Bucher’s Depth Raiders and Baby Depth Raiders. I’ve also taken my share of large walleyes on big minnow baits—such as Musky Mania’s Jake. Experimentation is required as the slow speeds commonly used during row trolling can result in lures displayed in a much different pattern than one is accustomed to while motor trolling. When faster presentations are required jointed baits deliver more action.

Composite rods (a combination of fiberglass and graphite) are your best bet. Glass rods are too flexible to provide proper hook setting capabilities at slow row trolling speeds and graphite rods can shatter in cold temperatures.


SerenityWalleye fishing in the shallows (8-12’ breakline or weed edge) requires setting up a slow drift, feathering your oar, and getting your boat to slide along a weed edge or rock bar. In early spring and late in fall, go as slow as you can. Then, cut that speed into half!
Row backwards over the same area to cover as much territory as you can.  Use your sonar to locate fish, then cast from the front of the boat, and start to row while the jig/minnow combination drifts back of the stern.  Row some more while slowly dragging the lure behind the boat then recast and start the process over.  When fish are neutral, this technique results in trailing the minnow over the top of them and easing it in front of their faces which can provoke even the tightest lipped fish to finally strike.

Pay attention to slight differences in your riggings.  Small variations, such as jig color, liveliness of live bait, test # of lines, etc. can produce sharply different results. Set up a few lines rigged with different colors and at varying depths.  Note which arrangement is producing the most strikes and replicate it exactly.

As the water temperatures rise you may wish to switch to artificial baits. These lures will require a faster rowing speed to work properly. Since the fish’s metabolism quickens as the water temps rise, they are looking for a faster presentation at this time.
During the dog days of summer, I often row troll through the deepest areas of the lake. I set up multiple lines (in Wisconsin we can have 3 lines out per angler) utilizing Off-Shore planer boards on a couple of rigs and flat lining the others.

Lure selection should be diversified providing a variety of depths, colors, and actions. I often try to “match the hatch.” If I’m marking balls of ciscoe, I will tie on silver or white crankbaits. I consider the bait fish concentrations to be “structure” and work them accordingly. Display lures that generate lots of wobble, portraying a wounded fish. I then “zig zag” these lures around these bait fish concentrations (or back and forth through a break line).  This erratic action parades the baits across varying depths and, most importantly, accelerates them when making a turn.  Large predators can find changes in speed irresistible. 

A crucial factor that is mandatory when row trolling for any species is the ability to present the lure on the outside of the school of bait fish. Once you’ve located the mass of bait fish on your sonar, run the lure below, above, or beside it.  The predators are often lurking there, waiting for a wounded fish and an easy meal.  If you run your lure in the midst of the cloud of bait fish it will just get lost in the crowd.


An ever growing number of fishermen are embracing this pastime by wrapping their fingers around oars. This nostalgic technique, sprinkled with new technologies, will add an effective and entertaining method to your fishing repertoire—as well as numbers of more walleyes in your  boat.

Patricia Strutz operates “A Blond and Her Boat” guide service in northeastern Wisconsin. She has recently produced an instructional DVD, “Row Trolling: Bringing Back a Classic Fishing Technique.” To learn more about row trolling boats, gear and techniques for a variety of species, visit Patricia’s personal site: www.ablondandherboat.com


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