The Art and Science of Trolling: Flashers and Flutter Spoons

The Art and Science of Trolling: Flashers and Flutter Spoons

Have you ever had a day on the water where you couldn’t set lines fast enough. Where no sooner would you net a fish and another board would break stern-ward out of formation, and another, and another. Doubles after triples. A day where every lure you touch turned to pure gold. What about the polar opposite? The outings where the stars didn’t align and it seemed as though you would find more luck trolling a desert. Six, eight, nine hours and you couldn’t buy a bite, not one fish to get the skunk out of the box, left only with a big, fat goose egg on the day.

In fishing as in life there are no guarantees. The science of fishing a troll is knowing the implication of the weather, the shelf, the thermocline, the bait fish, and most of all knowing the tendencies of your target game species. The art of the troll is knowing the coordinates that feel just right in your gut, the water currents, the course, and opening line-up of lures on the day. Fishing is a numbers game and your lure choice is a coefficient of that truth.

Top to bottom, fishing absolutely comes down to the numbers. I’m not talking the number of tickets you punch (aka number of one-man limits achieved) per outing. I’m talking minutes and hours spent in the field dedicated to the craft. I’m talking about the quantity and quality of lures in tow. I’m talking about water column coverage, speed and temp, and wind direction. Finally, I’m talking about lure presentation. It’s one aspect in particular of this last component, trolling spoon presentation, that is too often overlooked by the novice and the professional alike.

Take a moment to consider. What do we mean when we say lure presentation in general, and what do mean by trolling spoon presentation specifically? What is lure presentation anyway? Consider also. Presentations for a bass-aholic or musky maniac or walleye fanatic or Ice fishing shanty boy, form, finesse, technique, are to name but a few aspects. These ingredients might be as similar as they are different from what the same term, lure presentation, means within the trolling purview.

A trolling spoon, like a casting spoon, will come in different sizes (small <3”, standard +/-3-4”, large/mag >4”); will have various styles (Hex, Hammered, Smooth); and will be offered in numerous finishes (Polished brass, nickel-plated, etc). Most trolling spoons, unlike a casting spoons, do not have chuck and reel retrieval patterns to rely on and to change up like a major league pitcher. Yes, you can increase or decrease your trolling speed. Yes, you can cut S-curves at the helm. Yes, you can use a cross-wind, troll into a headwind, or have Gale at your back. Yes, you can use structure to your advantage. What you can’t rely on are form, finesse, or casting techniques when on a troll. 

Trolling after all, is a numbers game. Your clear advantage is being able to have multiple lines, and therefore multiple lures, in the water all at the same time. Fail or triumph, a fleet of barbed appendages are the linchpins of your program.

Speaking of numbers. Consider also that in today’s eCommerce there are hundreds of lure patterns on the market if there is one. Over the next ten (10) years we genuinely hope to see a thousand more hit the venue. Blues and chartreuses, pinks, whites, and perches. Ladder-backs, UVs, and glow. Colors mixed with patterns, mixed with stochastic and/or geometric patterns. All wonderful in their own right. What does it mean though? Does it mean that we should expect to be paralyed by an overabundance of choices when determining presentation? Is lure color and pattern the end-all be-all of presentation? Before we succumb to decision paralysis by analysis let’s first compare the idea of lure presentation for the trolling spoon to a related concept, flasher presentation.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time trolling knows what flashers are. At very least they have some understanding and a familiarity with the concept. All flashers have in common the goal of attracting fish towards your lures. Flashers are designed to get attention. The overall setup is conceived to, yes, ‘lure’ fish towards your hook-cladded baits. This is true regardless if that attraction takes place on the same line as the flasher itself, or if the strikes occur on any other of your assorted lures in your trolling program. The flasher draws the fish in close enough to better visualize the business end of some or all of your lines.

All flashers are attached to the fishing line in front of the leader and lure. There are several subcategories of flasher on the market as of this writing: Four most common are the orbital flasher, the dodger flasher, the in-line flasher, and the gang-troll flasher. Let’s review each of these individually.

The path of movement in the water column for an orbital flasher is based on centrifugal force; this type of flasher rotates around an imaginary centerpoint in an orbital corkscrew motion through the water as it’s being trolled. Some call this movement a rotation, but that imagery is imperfect since a rotation occurs in a circle. Orbital flashers take a path similar to that of our of Earth around the Sun, through the universe, a corkscrew. These flashers are popular with Big lake Salmon fishermen, and are known for their orbital tail kick thought to mimic the feeding frenzy of a pelagic apex predator.

The momentum of a dodger flasher (aka dodger) on the other hand, is more similar to that of a cradle in that it sways side to side in the water column. Popular on the Big Lakes as well, this partial rotation from left and up and then right and up from center +/-90 degrees in either direction generates flash and sway.The movement of an in-line flasher (aka spinning flasher) is a 360 degree rotation around its own axis as centerpoint. It’s direction is congruent and in-line with the fishing line and lure. Found in an assortment of sizes they have grown in popularity even with walleye and cisco enthusiasts. The best example of this is the motion of a spinning top if it were viewed horizontally.

The pattern of a gang troll flasher (aka cowbell or lake troll) is different still; this flasher usually has a front rudder component in addition to multiple trailing blades. The design is usually three or more of these independent blades behind and separate from one another that function independently as they rotate 360 degrees outward from and around the axis of the fishing line. The quintessential Lake trout flasher it’s easiest to visualize the gang troll as an underwater mobile traveling parallel with the top of the water.

Another important aspect of flasher presentation are the materials used to construct the flasher. Whether it’s been painted and if the design employs the use of any decal work are relevant. In brief, orbital flashers, once made from painted coil stock steel, are now by-in-large colored plastic injection molded parts outfitted with decals; dodgers are mostly made from coil stock aluminum; In-line flashers are either plexiglass or lexan and also have decal work; finally, gang-trolls are mainly found in polished brass or stainless steel compositions. 

Now that we’ve considered the multiple presentations of various flashers, we know that the goal of all flashers are ultimately the same even though the presentations are wildly different. We know also that these various flasher presentations produce different results precisely because their movement through the water is different. Flashers with different physical designs produce different movements. However, any particular design has a very predictable movement irrespective of whether it’s painted or bare, outfitted with decals or natural. What’s more, any one of these designs can be more or less effective on any particular day as compared to any other style of flasher. Why then, would a trolling spoon be any different? It’s not.

What flasher analysis tells us about fishing lures generally, and in particular, about the prowess of the trolling spoon is this. Trolling spoons, like flashers, are designed to attract fish. Trolling spoons, like flashers, are available in an assortment of color combinations and patterns. Trolling spoons, like flashers, come in various lengths, widths, cupping and contours that produce predictable, yet distinguishable movement from other trolling spoon designs. It makes perfect sense then, that a particular physical design, and therefore specific pattern of movement, for a particular trolling spoon would also result in different outcomes. Just as flashers do.

One of any of the uniquely designed spoons on today’s market will be preferable, and therefore produce better results, on any particular day; in any particular body of water; and for a particular target species, over any other design. This phenomenon is one reason why some days it feels like fish are jumping in the boat, while other days you can’t buy a bite. What’s important is this. There are far fewer unique spoon designs in terms of physical design, than there are unique colors and patterns. Dozens, not hundreds. This assortment is a manageable one.

Having a favorite lure design made by a particular manufacturer is fine. In fact you should. More than likely it means you’re putting in the time to know which you prefer. We also shouldn’t be afraid of changing things up either. We might be surprised to learn that we actually have several favorite spoon compositions. If you only use one type of lure design, no doubt you’ll still catch fish. But what about the days you didn’t and the days to come that you probably won’t. Would a different flip or flutter, wobble or wag, a different rise and fall have triggered a better bite on the day had a different design have been used? Yes, similar to jigging, Custom RIFT trolling spoons have been engineered to rise and fall several feet in the water column while being trolled.

I sincerely hope you have the assorted inventory of lures to find out.  Certainly then, having only one or two or even three physical spoon designs on your boat, even if they represent a variety of colors, is a grave mistake. The reason why having only one solitary spoon design, with the exact same length, width, cupping and contour, in your arsenal is a mistake is simple. The forces imparted on any one lure design are the same. Therefore, the resulting lure action will also be the same. Physics is what it is and fluid mechanics are inescapable. How hydrodynamic a lure is helps determine both the amount of acceleration and the amount of resistance that is placed on a lure and in what direction those forces occur. Spoon cupping and material gauge are pretty obvious features, but even spoon proportions, length to width ratios should not be overlooked. Keep this in mind as well, every time a lure hits the water the Bernoulli principle is at play. All spoons have a predictable pattern, this pattern is what we call action. It’s this lure action (which will also vary with speed), this predictable pattern repeated every 3-9 seconds, that makes up the core of what we refer to as trolling spoon presentation.

Features of the lure attract fish bringing them in close. Lure action triggers the instinctive response to strike you’re looking for. Refraction of light off your spoon attracts fish; your lure size, style, or finish attracts fish; your lure color or design attracts fish; but lure action alone triggers more strikes than all of these other aspects combined. This cannot be overstated. Lure action matters most and lure action is a subject that is the least discussed in trolling circles.

As fishermen we believe in variability. Why else would we carry so many lure colors? Trolling lure action is a deeper level of variety overlooked by most. It’s lure action that is either being ignored by fish and will continue to be ignored by the majority of your target species, or, it’s lure action that’s putting more fish in your boat trip after trip after trip.

It can therefore be concluded with a relatively high degree of confidence that when the bite gets tough it's a fool’s errand to rely exclusively on color changes of the same spoon design. Instead, try swapping your current line-up for those spoons with differing patterns of movement. This all is not to say that color choices in turbid vs. gin clear waters don’t matter. Color choices by body of water, by season, and by target species do matter. What also matters is that your trolling program is equipped with a healthy variety of both lure sizes as well as physical design differences. Make sure you have all of your favorite colors in at least five (5) or six (6) unique spoon designs as well. Ensure also that you know which spoons generate what action. Lastly, make sure your lure manufacturer can show you what the action of their lures look like.

The original question we sought to answer was how do we define trolling spoon presentation. Where a trolling spoon is displayed, depth of water column, proximity to thermocline, along a shelf or near underwater structure, is but one part of lure presentation. Another part of what makes up trolling spoon presentation has to do with lure color and design. Trolling spoon presentation is also a combination of light reflectivity, and spoon size and proportionality. Finally, lure presentation is the precise spoon action - the unique pattern of movement - every spoon possesses. So you see, The Science of the troll is knowing that trolling is a numbers game and what those numbers are. The Art of trolling is trusting your gut, believing in your program and noticing with confidence that spooncraft matters a great deal more than you may have previously considered.

Tight lines and value-added insight,

Mike (Fishmitts) Hiller

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