Short-Line Success: Easy Setup, Big Results!

By Gregg Thomas, Field Editor

It has been said that “the set-up is the key.” Having everything in place and having a reason why things are in place can explain why a technique or pattern is successful.

In this article, we will discuss how to set up your boat for a productive short-line trolling season. As we as fishermen, our ideas and ways to catch fish changes. For me, learning new techniques is part of the fun of fishing, but it also makes me an overall better fisherman. I am very excited when I learn a new technique or discover a new pattern. It is extremely fun being able to catch fish with some type of consistency and know that your pattern and set-up is strong. 

Paul Amick caught this post-spawn 50-incher with the author while trolling a Battle Shad.

Rigging Up

The first part of the set-up is the boat, which is one of the biggest keys in catch fish short-line trolling. I am currently fishing out of a Ranger Fisherman 621, which is equipped with a steering wheel. A lot has been said about how a tiller boat is better for trolling and a console boat is better for casting, but I have to disagree. I have had both and liked them both, but at this point I think I like the console boat better.

The biggest reason for liking the console is because of GPS technology. We are in an age of fishing in which we can have an actual map on our graph with our boat appearing on the map in real time. This great for trolling, because it eliminates guessing on the bottom contour — looking at our GPS, we know what is coming. Couple this with the capability of placing waypoints to mark all types of obstructions like weeds, wood, rocks, points, etc., and we have a perfect map to follow.

This is vital to short-line trolling because your baits are close to the boat, giving you little reaction time to react to potential hang-ups. While trolling, I remove the boat’s driver seat so that I can stand to visually see what is coming up a head of me. Whether trolling weed edges or shorelines, it is good to see what is coming up until you have everything marked on your GPS. I am much more comfortable standing than sitting down. I also clear the back of my boat and remove the casting platform. I am diligent in checking my rods and it’s tiring to step up on a back deck every time I check my lines. With the rear deck removed, I can easily walk to the back of the boat to get to my rods.

A good rod rail for mounting rod holders is also very important. Lately, track systems have become popular, but I still like the rails because I can check the lures without removing the rod from the rod holders. When I mount my rod-holders on the rails, I mount them just tight enough so that they don’t move when I am not touching the rods, but if I push down on the rod butt I can raise the rod tip.

Being able to readily raise the rod tip allows for a few different things:

• First, it changes the action and running depth of my lures. By pushing down of the butt of the rod and raising the tip, I can cause the lure to rush to the surface, which dramatically changes the depth at which the lure is running. Randomly making a round in the boat and raising and lowering the rods tips will triggered strikes. On some days, the only strikes that I have had have been when I adjusted the rods.

• Secondly, I can place the rods with their tips in the water, which keeps lines clean. Surface debris collects on the rod rather than collecting on my line and sliding down to the lure. Placing the tips in the water helps create lure separation in your set and keeps the overall frustration level down.

• Lastly, I can check to see if my lure is running right without removing my rod from the holder. When the rod tip is raised, the action of the lure can be read in the rod tip. If the tip is “dead,” the lure is fouled and the rod has to be removed and checked. If the tip is working, it can be pushed back down in the water.

Rigging Matters

Picking the right rods is an important part of trolling efficiently, and I am a big fan of the St. Croix line. The most important consideration of rods is length. In my common short-line trolling set in Kentucky I will have six lines in the water, without boards. Obviously you will need to adjust this set-up to the laws of your state or province.

My usual rod set goes as follows: the first rod is what I call the “down rod,” which is closest to the front of the boat. It is the one that is running the shortest line from rod tip to lure (usually less than five feet), and is the shortest actual rod in the set, usually no longer than seven feet. The tip of the down rod is pointed straight down into the water, which gives me the most control over my baits. I can easily change the lure’s action with a simple rod movement or turn of the steering wheel. I prefer short rods for this application because the water depth where I troll in the spring is around six feet. The lure on this line will be a deep-diving crankbait like a Li’l Ernie, Baby DepthRaider, or Tuff Shad.

My next rod — what I call the “out rod,” is the longest rod in the set, usually at least eight feet and up to 10 feet long. This rod acts as an outrigger of sorts and helps make a nice spread for the lines. I position the tip of this rod straight out the side of the boat, keeping the tip out of the water, unless there is a lot of debris floating in the water that keeps catching on my line. Then I will put the rod tip in the water.

On the out rod I troll my shallowest-diving lure with 15 to 20 feet of line out. Shallower-diving lures that run three to five feet down keep my lines from tangling and from fouling on the bottom. They will be the last baits through and farthest from the boat. Small Wileys and J-13 Rapalas are my usual choice.

The last rod in my set is the “prop rod” which I want to be 7-foot-6 or shorter, and 90 percent of the time will be angled straight back of the boat. I use this rod to complement the set — if most of the musky action is coming on the down rods and their deep-divers, I’ll put similar lures on the prop rods and run them close to the boat. If the action is coming on the out rods and shallow-divers, I run more shallow-divers and set them farther from the boat. The only time I deviate from this set is when fishing broad flats that have the same depth, and I need to spread the baits to cover more area. In this case I’ll run a rod with a planer board.

In this set-up, the first rod on the side of my boat will run the planer board, the second will be the down rod, and the third (normally the prop rod) takes over the duties of the out rods. This will make a nice spread and keep things organized. The planer board rod needs to be eight to 10 feet long and the tip and line are kept above the water.

I typically use the Off-Shore in-line boards, but a few adjustments must be made. First, change the front clip of the board to a stronger, OR-18 clip, which can be adjusted to hold the line no matter how fast the lure is pulled. Second, change the back clip to a Stay-Lok snap, which is snapped to the line so that if the front clip comes loose the board slides down the line and catches on the swivel of the leader, which keeps the board from sliding to the lure. When fighting a musky, all you need to do is unclip the front clip when the board gets to the boat and it will slide down the line to the swivel at the top of the line. Not only will it not come off the line, but it won’t interfere with the fish on the line.

I use a standard 3- to 4-foot Stealth fluorocarbon trolling leader but I have them tied with Fastach snaps by StringEase. With this snap, all that is required is a quick turn of the wrist on the eyelet and the lure comes free. These work great for regular-sized musky lures, but downsizing the leader is important when using smaller baits. For this, I use any type of light tie-able leader material with a Uni-Knot to connect my main line and leader. I then attach the lure to the leader with a solid metal ring and then a split ring. This doesn’t hurt the action of the lure.

This short-line trolling system has worked for me for years in the spring, but you can use it at other times of the year. Any situation that requires fishing in shallow water and covering a great distance will be applicable. In states that limit the number of lines, start with one down rod and one out rod, and adjust from there based on how the fish react to this set-up. If fishing a sharp breakline or distinct weed edge, place both rods on the same side of the boat.

If you give short-line trolling a chance, I am sure it will prove successful for you.

For more about Field Editor Gregg Thomas, visit

Gregg Thomas

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