One of the things I like most about summer is living in the Great Lakes region and trolling for kings, coho, lake trout and steelhead. As soon as the summer weather settles in, salmon and trout move deep and the stage is set for almost two months of consistent fishing action.
Catching these fish in June, July and August is about getting baits deep and downriggers aren’t the only way to get the job done. A mixture of downriggers, copper line, lead core line and diving planers is the best trolling approach for targeting fish found at moderate to down right deep depths.
The heart and soul of any Great Lakes salmon/trout boat are the downriggers. The ultimate in depth control fishing, downriggers may have their limitations, but they are still workhorses for targeting trout and salmon in deeper water.
Most captains and serious weekend warriors are using fewer downriggers, but fishing them smarter these days. Not that many years ago the typical salmon boat had four or even five downriggers mounted. Today, the more practical set up is a pair of riggers on the corners or perhaps three riggers using one additional rigger down the chute.
Fishing fewer riggers puts less hardware in the water that could potentially spook fish to the presence of the boat. In most cases the downrigger lines are going to be the deepest lines fished. Downriggers are also most likely to produce bites during prime time early and late in the day when light levels are low and trout and salmon are feeding actively.
A host of diving planers do an excellent job of targeting depths ranging from moderate to moderately deep. Larger magnum sized divers are becoming very popular with Great Lakes trollers who are pulling out all the stops to get as deep as possible.
Certainly using larger surface area divers is a good way to achieve more depth, but this isn’t the only option suitable for diver fishing. Simply using thinner, low stretch lines is an easy and effective way to get divers deeper. For trout and salmon fishing the smallest super braid that’s practical is 20-30 pound test which respectively is about the diameter of six to eight pound test monofilament line.
The other option is to use steel trolling wire set up on roller style diver rods. Steel wire 30# test in strength is about the diameter of 10# test monofilament. Because wire sinks and has zero stretch divers achieve slightly more depth when fished on wire than when fished on super braid lines.
The way to reach the maximum depth with divers is to match up magnum divers with wire line. Using this set up it’s possible to get divers into the 70-80 foot depth range while still gaining some outward reach away from the boat.
The buzz of the Great Lakes in recent years has been the use of lead core and copper trolling lines. Lead core has been around for decades, but copper line is a relatively newcomer on the trolling scene.
Both of these lines achieve depth because the line is weighted and sinks. Unfortunately to get maximum depth with either copper or lead core line requires deploying copious amounts of line. The joke these days is every captain wants to fish long leads of copper or core, but no one wants to be the smuck who has to fight a fish hooked on this stuff!
It’s abundantly obvious that trolling is long leads of lead core line and also copper line forces the angler to reel, reel and reels some more when both catching fish and changing out lures. The only practical solution to this dilemma is to use high speed reels like the Okuma Clarion level winds models which have a super fast 6:1 gear ratio instead of the normal 4:1 gear ratio found on other trolling reels.
The difference this faster gear ratio makes on the water is astonishing. The very first time I fished a high speed level wind reel was the last time I fished lead core or copper line on anything else.
The best way to fish copper line and lead core line set ups is to select specific lengths of these sinking lines based on the idea of targeting key depths within the water column. These lines are in turn fished on in-line planer boards like the Off Shore Tackle Side Planer to achieve the maximum amount of outward lure coverage.
On my boat I favor using a five color set up of lead core line on the outside which runs down about 20 feet, followed by a 10 color set up of lead core that fishes down about 40 feet, followed by a 300 foot length of 45 pound test copper line which fishes down about 60 feet. This three board set up covers the most critical water depths and makes it easy to land fish hooked on any of the boards without having to clear boards.
For example, if a steelhead is hooked on the five color down 20 feet, I can actually reel that fish in without clearing the 10 color or the 300 copper line because they are deeper. The same is true of the 10 color lead core and of course the copper line is deepest, but positioned on the inside of the spread so it can be reeled in without clearing anything as well.
One tip to consider is when fishing a three board set up like this, make sure if you’re fishing diving planers they are running deep and just a little to the side of the boat. If a diver is set on the No. 3 or 4 outward setting it will fish so far to the side that the copper line and potentially other sinking lines will catch it when reeling in a fish.
Instead, set the diving planer to fish on a No. 2 or better yet No. 1 setting so it gets down deep and fishes just a short distance to the side of the boat.
Trout and salmon anglers have been fishing attractors including dodgers, rotators, lake trolls, etc., for decades with great success. The new kids on the block are the Big Al Fish Flash attractors by Yakima Bait that function differently than other trolling aids.
The Fish Flash is triangle in shape and is designed to spin in the water, rather than wobbling, rotating or slowly rolling in the water. The advantage is because the Fish Flash spins it actually catches more light and produces more flash than other attractors. This in turn lures fish into the trolling set up from greater distances.
Fish Flash can be rigged to a downrigger weight, on the back of diving planers or fished in-line in front of just about any trout or salmon fishing spoon, plug or cut bait. The most important point to understand when fishing Fish Flash is to make sure your leader from the Fish Flash to the actual lure is at least six feet in length. These attractors do not impart any action to the lure, but they do kick out a massive amount of flash. To focus the fish’s attention on the lure, I find the best success fishing longer leaders similar to what I would use on a diving planer. My normal set up with Fish Flash is a 20# test fluorocarbon leader six to seven feet in length between the attractor and the lure of choice.
I’m also coming to the conclusion that more is better in terms of fishing the Fish Flash. These days I have at least four in the water all the time including a pair on my downrigger balls and a pair on my left and right diving planers. My favorite size is the six inch model, but these flashers are available in four inch, eight inch and 10 inch models and a wealth of color options.
At the terminal end there are lots and lots of ways to catch trout and salmon. The classics including spoons and trolling plugs are hard to beat early and late in the day when salmon are normally up in the water column and feeding actively.
Later in morning and during the day, I’m spending more time fishing cut-bait rigs than ever before. These rigs are effective during the middle of the day when other more traditional tackle doesn’t seem to work consistently.
A cut bait rig can be fished several ways, but the most common method is to attach the cut bait head and leader (approximately 18-36 inches long) baited with a strip of frozen herring to a four foot long attractor string that has three or four skirts rigged in-line. Next a large paddle or rotator style attractor is added and finally the main line attached to the attractor.
This ungainly looking rig is long enough that landing a fish requires the angler to back up in the boat so the fish can be brought to net. While cut bait rigs may be ungainly, they flat out catch fish and more and more anglers are depending on them as part of their daily trout and salmon fishing regiment.
Both downriggers and diving planers (especially wire line rigs) are the most practical way to fish a cut bait rig at the depths required for consistent action during the day. Early in the morning a lot of the best salmon action takes place in the top 60 feet. Later in the morning and throughout the day fishing down 80 to 150 feet produces more bites using cut bait rigs than just about any other presentation.
The cut bait rig is so effective, I know of several captains that fish nothing else during the day, depending completely on two or three downriggers and two wire line diving planers to catch their fish! Now that’s confidence in a trolling presentation.
Summer salmon fishing takes place in deep water and often several miles from shore. This is a game best played with sea worthy boats up to the challenge of fishing on Lakes Michigan and Huron. Every year while trolling the Great Lakes I see anglers out there in small (emphasis on small) boats that would be better suited to fishing inside the pier heads.
No matter what boat you’re fishing out of make sure the navigation lights are working and all your safety gear is in order. Every year the Great Lakes claims anglers that hit the water unprepared. The Coast Guard says it over and over again, a life jacket can’t save you if you’re not wearing it.