Why Jigging is Better Than Trolling

When picking between jig-and-pop vs. trolling for tuna, which side are you on?
Capt. John McMurray with tuna
The author believes that catching tuna on light tackle is the only way to go. Capt. John McMurray

Disclaimer: Before reading any further, know that this is going to be an incredibly one-sided, biased piece. I’m a pretentious jerk. I’m making the case for a style of fishing that I love. But don’t take it too seriously, because it’s not supposed to be serious. As they said in the 1981 movie Stripes, “Lighten up, Francis.”

I come from a casting background, living a stone’s throw from the Potomac River when my age was still in the single digits. Summers were spent throwing Zara Spooks and Hula Poppers at largemouth bass, then freaking out every time one got smashed on top. That experience turned me into the jig-and-pop, which is what all the cool kids call casting and jigging, addict that I am today.

I tell you this to help you understand why I’m not a fan of trolling. But there are a few more reasons, the first of which is that I’m not very good at trolling.

I bought a small fortune in trolling gear when I got my first offshore-capable boat. Of course, even back then, there were guys who threw surface plugs on spin gear and dropped jigs down. But, to be clear, that was not the standard. You made the long run offshore, put some stuff behind the boat, and trolled around aimlessly, maybe slurping a beer too.

I bought 30s and 50s, a couple of 80s, along with some absurdly stiff rods with roller guides. There were spreaders bars, daisy chains, Joe Shutes trolling lures, and all the other stuff too. But when I got out there and deployed it, my results were tangle after tangle. (How the heck does a captain turn a boat sharply with all that stuff back there?) Meanwhile, aggressive dudes behind the helms of giant sport fishers trolled amongst a tightly-packed fleet. Sometimes they shouted obscenities over the VHF radio at each other about their “way-backs.”

I quickly found myself wondering why people thought this was actually fishing. It was something else much less fun.

Getting Spooled Led to an Obsession

During one of those tangles, I noticed we were marking tuna pretty good, so I dropped a jig down and got properly spooled. And that was awesome! We put all that trolling gear away and then actually caught a few, even getting a topwater bite. Yeah, I may have tried trolling once or twice more, but, that was the symbolic last time I deployed a spread.

I’ve since built a full-on charter business jigging-and-popping for tuna. Now, I’m that pompous dude who acts like he’s too good to troll. Though I’m pretty sure I stole this from someone, but our marketing slogan is, “If it were easy, it’d be called trolling.” We even have bumper stickers that say “Thank you for not trolling.”

In case you haven’t already caught on, I believe trolling is lame. I’m going to give you my reasons why, and if your feelings get hurt, I’m sorry. Actually, I’m not sorry, but feel free to leave me a comment below.

Trolling is Boring

catching to tuna on spinning tackle
An angler in the bow of the author’s boat battles a big one. Capt. John McMurray

It’s true that I have the attention span of a 10-year-old kid, but for me, trolling gets almost unbearable after about 20 minutes. I simply can’t imagine doing it for hours. I’d rather spend the day in a dark pit with venomous snakes. I understand maybe that’s just my ADHD talking.

I guess it can be exciting. If you’re getting bit minutes after you put the spread out, the constant action can be a blast. But if there are that many fish around, and they’re eating good, why bother putting the spread out? Why wouldn’t you just cast or jig? I’m not trying to be cheeky. I’m seriously asking.

I want to say trolling is for lazy people, but just putting all those lines out is work. It’s even more of a pain to bring everything back in and stow it when you make a move. You pretty much have to pick a spot and settle in for a bit. You’re committed to putting at least some time in, even if it’s quickly apparent that the spot isn’t going to produce.

To a fault though, that just isn’t my style. It’s a struggle for me to stay put in general. If I don’t see something that convinces me the fish are there, I’m going to unnecessarily burn lots of fuel and look for something better. Because I’m not great at the money part of this business. And I will sell my soul for a fish or two, much less drop a few hundred dollars for one.

Trolling Near Other Boats is Chaotic

When trolling for tuna, generally you’re mixed in with a fleet of boats. God forbid anyone find their own fish these days. Sorry, that was unnecessary. You have to weave in and out, staying out of everyone’s way, which requires some sharp turns with five or more rods dragging behind the boat. No one really knows what the rules of the road are out there, because there are no universally recognized rules.

On the VHF, boats are yelling and screaming at each other to get out of the way. Maybe whining about someone getting too close to their coveted way-backs. And there’s always a few boats that tangle with each other. Of course, you need to avoid tangling your own gear too. Really, you could capture the scene on video and add some circus music. Or maybe just speed up the tape and play the Benny Hill soundtrack.

Lastly, what happens when you have all those rods out and get a multiple hookup? I don’t have many hours on boats that troll, but I know tangles are hard to avoid when you have four guys working a jig and someone hooks up. I can’t even imagine the regular messes that occur when trolling. I guess if you’re good at it, you can clear all the extra lines.

Spooking Fish

Trolling pushes the tuna down. Don’t tell me it doesn’t. I’m offshore more than 95 percent of the Northeast fleet. I see it all the time. A handful of boats trolling through every sign of life can kill the bite.

When fish are busting on the surface, or a feeding whale clearly has fish under it, some guys will troll right over the top of it. Often, it doesn’t matter that there are one or two boats trying to stay on the outside, casting into it. If you push a big boat through all that life with four props turning, how does it not put them down?

Yes, I’m generalizing here, and there are definitely folks who are respectful and troll on the outskirts, away from other boats. Even so, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t put all that gear away and throw a plug on top or jig deep.

Which leads me to the next thing: Stay away from me, man. I can’t tell you how many times I’m casting, jigging, or even fighting a fish—and guys think it’s okay to drag their spreader bars 20 feet away from me. Again, I’m generalizing, but it seems like plenty of trolling folks think that’s normal fish etiquette. And then there’s almost always some boats that will seek out a fleet of folks jigging and popping, and then troll right through the middle of it. They act surprised when people get pissed.

I guess this is more of an etiquette thing, rather than a trolling one. For sure, I’ve had jig-and-pop guys act like morons, running right on top of the fish and getting too close. I’m not going to lie, it’s way more frequent to see guys trolling over fish, or pulling their gear right up against my boat. Sometimes it’s pretty hard not to lose your head, although that doesn’t help anything.

Life Passes You By

I became completely frustrated the few times I attempted trolling. I would troll toward life, only to have it disappear and pop up a half-mile away. I couldn’t even get close to it. If you don’t have five-plus rods out that need to be reeled in and stowed every time you want to move, you can actually get on the life and make a cast.

I do understand that some of those big sport boats can’t really run-and-gun like the center consoles can, although some certainly try to and it’s ugly. In some cases, it just makes sense for them to troll, because that’s what they’re built for. Although, they can certainly jig too. In end though, I guess you just have to be really patient to be good at trolling. That’s probably my worst trait.

That Tuna Strike Excitement

The strike is the best part of the whole game. Feeling that explosive hit and the insane adrenaline rush as 80-pound braid melts off a spinning reel—I live for that! Casting and jigging are more hands-on, more interactive, and there’s more of a connection to the fish. Anglers who troll don’t even take the boat out of gear when they hook up.

In that respect, let’s talk about the tackle for a bit. At least offshore, we’re talking about big tuna, so I understand the stout tackle the trolling crowd uses. In the good old days, you had to use that stuff, because manufacturers didn’t make spin gear that could handle up to 200-plus-pound fish. That’s completely changed these days.

The truth is you really can’t troll with light-tackle gear. I guess you could, but I’m pretty sure spin gear wouldn’t fair too well dragging a wide tracker bar at 6 knots. Yeah, some folks troll with 30-pound gear, but that’s still not “light tackle” in the way that I think about it. I mean, light tackle isn’t just light, it’s almost always spinning gear. (Note: There is some lighter conventional gear designed specifically for jigging.) Trolling tackle, by nature, isn’t light. At any rate, not many can argue that cranking in tuna on trolling gear is more fun than fighting one with spinning. There’s no comparison.

Trolling for Tuna Works

I admit here that trolling for tuna works. In some cases, it works way better than jigging and popping. While I wouldn’t say it’s frequent, there are certainly occasions when the guys trolling bars are scoring while I’m striking out. Absolutely, when the fish are really spread out, on a particular bait, or just incredibly finicky—those guys can out-fish me. Then, they justifiably rub it in my face because I totally deserve it. That said, it’s more often the other way around. When there are tunas on top—blitzing or spread-out under whales and dolphin—jigging and popping works way better in those situations.

Yes, I could head offshore with both gear types, then decide what’s most likely to work. That’s what most reasonable people do. But, then I wouldn’t be able to act like a high-and-mighty know-it-all. And that isn’t any fun, is it? The truth is not only do I suck at trolling, but I’ve painted myself into a corner where it’s not even an option—I’ve built an entire business around not trolling. Man, I don’t think people realize how tough it is being hard-headed.

All in Good Fun

Capt. John McMurray with tuna on deck
When used correctly, spinning tackle can tame even big tuna. Capt. John McMurray

A lot of my colleagues, friends, and people who I network with troll for tuna. The truth is that, no, I don’t think I’m better than any of those folks. We just have different personality traits that dictate certain methods of catching fish. Sometimes their way works better, sometimes mine.

But let’s be honest, it’s fun to mock people for doing things different than you. Jig-and-pop vs. trolling is an endless source of ball-busting between friends and colleagues that goes both ways. I can say with some certainly that we all really enjoy it. But there’s always that one guy who’s going to get unnecessarily offended. I see your social media posts. Don’t be that guy.

The truth is that no one really cares how you prefer to fish. But on both sides, it’s important to not impede other boats’ ability to catch fish. I always want other boats to catch fish, and I absolutely do my best not to mess them up in any way. Those that don’t care about boaters around them? Well, karma has a way of taking care of that kind of thing.

Let’s hear your thoughts.