How to Fish for Trout with a Downrigger

We discovered Round Valley back in the early 80’s and spent the first few months on the shoreline chasing pan fish and bass on light tackle. We grew curious to know how all the trout posted on the RVTA bulletin board were being caught. And what were all these guys doing driving around with rods bent and looking like they are ready to split in two? There was not a RoundValleyfishing.COM or any “.COM” for that matter in those days, so we had to approach anyone who appeared friendly enough up on the ramp with our questions. The guys reluctant to share information became easy to spot. They were the ones who would take their lures off their rods before they docked. But, we were fortunate to find a few local sharpies willing to offer some advice for us “newbies”. It became apparent, most successful trout anglers out on the lake were trolling lures at specific depths using downriggers.

Joe Zeyock running a 4 rigger 4 rod pattern
Joe Zeyock running a 4 rigger 4 rod pattern.

Downrigging, or as Cannon calls it, controlled depth fishing, is a trolling technique that involves a pulley-assisted device that uses heavy 8 – 12lb weights, cables and release clips to bring your lure or bait of choice down to any desired depth. When a fish hits, ideally the release clip triggers and frees your main line from being attached to the weight allowing you to play the fish normally.

Cannon Easy TrollA downrigger will let you cover acres of water and will remove all the guess work out of knowing the precise depth of your offering. Units in the $69 to $200 price range will feature manual retrieve systems, counters to indicate the lure’s depth and standard two foot booms. Pricier models offer fast, electric ball retrieval motors and longer booms with swivels. Top of the line models can even be interfaced with your sonar and be programmed to follow bottom contours. Weights are available from 3lbs all the way up to 15lbs. New units will typically come with weights appropriately sized for the rigger being purchased. The smaller, clamp on style, riggers will handle 3lb – 5lb balls. These will not perform well in depths greater than 30 feet due to a concept called blow back. Blow back is when the ball does not stay vertical below the rigger and instead sways back and up.

Pancake Downrigger Weight
“Pancake” type weights have slimmer profiles which can help minimize blow back.

Cannon ball size, boat speed, wind, and current all will attribute to the amount of blow back you will have. Too much blow back and you lose the accuracy of your counter such that your lure is not where you think it is. It also affects your ability to see the ball’s sonar echo. When the ball is in the transducer’s scope, it will show up on your fish finder as a solid horizontal line. This is crucial on the days when the trout are plastered on the bottom and you want to run your riggers just above. On the Valley, we have used 8lbs or 10lbs weights and have had little to no issues in most conditions. Check your unit’s specs for its maximum rating. Craigslist and Ebay are great resources for deals on used equipment.

Downrigging Setup

The majority of trout anglers trolling with downriggers will use medium-sized conventional level wind reels, with line-out clickers, matched to 7 to 8 foot rods that have a slow, limber action. Slow action rods are those that begin to bend about mid-way down the blank. This allows you to adequately arc over the rod after setting the rigger. The reel is typically filled with 14 – 17lb mono with a rod’s length of 10 – 12 lb fluorocarbon leader. Start by trolling at the lowest possible speed. You can check your speed on most fish finders and certainly all GPS units. 1.1mph – 2.2mph will be adequate for most lures. Begin to pay out line to get your lure back away from the boat. When targeting browns and rainbows, downriggers are generally set from 10 – 60 feet deep, depending on the time of year. Being on the shy side, bows and browns require your lure to be quite a distance from the downrigger ball and away from the whir of the engine. 50 to 100 feet back off the ball is a safe bet. Lake trout, on the other hand, are not scared of a downrigger ball. We even spot them at times on the sonar coming up off the bottom to investigate cannon balls. So, when targeting lake trout only a 15 – 20’ lead off the ball is needed in depths of 40 – 120 feet. With your lure now set back from the boat, engage your reel’s line-out clicker and go to free spool. Place the main line about ¾ of the way into the downrigger’s release clip. Be sure the line is not wrapped around the tip at all and begin to lower the ball slowly. The clicker will prevent the spool from overflowing and back-lashing. Once the ball is at the desired depth, lock the reel into gear and slowly reel up the slack until there is a good bow in the rod.

John Korn Jr. with downrigged Laker, Note the rod set and flexed in the rigger
John Korn Jr. with downrigged Laker, Note the rod set and flexed in the rigger

Too much and you’ll end up pulling the line off the release. Generally, we try to set our releases so they trip when an average sized fish strikes. We do not want it set so light that we end up with too many false releases. When smaller sized trout hit, the release may not trigger, the shaking of the rod tip will be your indicator. This is all dependent on brand and style so it will take practice to learn the best setting for your release. If you are alone when a fish is hooked, continue trolling in forward gear. This will help maintain pressure on the fish and also prevents your other lines from tangling. If you have a partner with you, you can opt for him or her to clear the other lines, and go to neutral to fight the fish. We typically will have 4 rods out at a minimum and will usually continue to troll when hooked up. If a big fish is on, we might clear the lines too.

Downrigging Lures

About now you are asking, what lures should I pull when fishing with a downrigger? Rapala stick baits, Sutton spoons and prism taped willow blades are our standard everyday go to lures. Always drop your lure along the side of the boat to check its action before setting it back. Submerge it a little to be sure its action is true at the speed you are running. Some spoons will lose their fish catching appeal when they begin to rotate and spin. While home-made willow blades can be deadly, they can only handle relatively slow trolling speeds before they start to ‘helicopter’. Alternatively, the slender style Sutton and Savant type trolling spoons can tolerate speeds upwards of 2.2 mph yet still maintain a true side-to-side wobble. Straight and jointed Rapalas pulled along on a downrigger are never a bad idea. They are the definitive staples of successful trollers. Bait-heads have become quite the rage over the past 3 years and oddly enough, unlike spoons, these are designed to rotate and spin.

Underwater cameras have shown that trout can often follow trolled lures for great distances without hitting. They get mesmerized by the lure’s speed and action and just swim along with it. Sometimes it is not until the lure does something drastically different that will trigger a strike. So here it’s important to not just troll in a straight line at uniform speed. Quick surges in throttle will cause your lure to rise and drop back. Lazy ‘S’ turns will impart changes in lure speed and action similar to what a water skier experiences when the driver swings back and forth. The raising and dropping of your riggers up and down will get your lure to jump. All of these techniques can get zoned trout to bite.

We have seen it everywhere; the most successful fishermen are those who do not lock themselves to one method of angling. So if you have never tried it, put down the baitrods and give downrigging a shot. After having success with your 1st rigger, do not be surprised to soon find yourself trolling a six rod spread, with several riggers, pulling a plethora of lures set at a multitude of depths. Keep an eye out for to provide advanced techniques in the coming months, and continue exploring the art of downrigging.

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6 thoughts on “How to Fish for Trout with a Downrigger”

  1. Been using downrigger in Tahoe since mid 70’s. Started with Lure Jensen ‘s hand cranks now Scotty electrics. Have caught Rainbows, Brown’s, and Macs. Depths 45-300+’ Fairly long learning curve and trying something different from time 2 time.

  2. Thanks John, I just retired and the last time I fished Round Valley was every Saturday from 1974-1978 and then work took over ( How stupid). I use to drift the boat and caught several trout on a small down rigger and using a strike guard ( are they still using them on the reels? Well, I just purchased a small bass boat and once I get comfortable handling the boat I will be up at round valley and try my luck now that I have plenty of time.
    I sure hope my grandson will like fishing what a great hobby.
    Thanks again and all the best in 2011

  3. Hager,

    Have never tried that, guess it might work on a windy day where you have a fast enough drift. I know DRs are used on the Deleware at anchor for Shad w/ light flutter spoons in the current.


  4. Hi John sounds like you are the expert have you ever used your downriggers while drifting and not using any type of a trolling motor?


  5. John, thanks for this post. I’ve had a lot of trouble with my riggers and was never quite sure that I was using them right. Looks like I’ve had them too near the boat and I never thought to look for the ball on my fishfinder.

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