hen I first started fishing Great Lakes trout and salmon the downrigger dominated the trolling scene. Touted as the ultimate in depth control, most charter boats had four or five downriggers on board.
Today the downrigger scene is much different. Instead of four or five riggers per boat, most captains and recreational anglers are only fishing two or three riggers these days. Sinking lead core or copper lines fished in combination with in-line boards like the OR12 Side-Planer have stole the show in recent years. It’s common to see boats fishing three or even four board lines per side of the boat, a pair of diving planers and just a pair of downriggers as their primary trolling set up.
Down But Not Out
The glory days of the downrigger in the Great Lakes may be bruised, but this trolling presentation certainly isn’t beaten. Early and late in the day, riggers still account for a significant amount of fish. Also, during the middle of the day when salmon often seek out maximum depths, downriggers are the only practical way to reach these fish and a mandatory fishing accessory on my boats.
The downrigger can also produce numbers of fish any time of day by rigging them with an eye towards creativity. The biggest reason downrigger success has dropped off in recent years is our Great Lakes fisheries have become much, much clearer thanks to the zebra mussel. The cable hum associated with downrigger fishing and also the ball slicing through the water tends to spook wary trout and salmon in gin clear water.
One way to get more from downriggers is to combine lead core line set ups with a downrigger. A set up that features three or four colors of lead core, a 25-50 foot leader of fluorocarbon and ample amounts of monofilament backing can be fished on a downrigger, effectively fishing below the cable hum and ball disturbance.
Simply let out a favorite lure, the leader, all the lead core line and then place the monofilament backing into a downrigger line release. Bury the line to the back of the release and then lower the downrigger weight to a depth of about 20 feet above the target depth you expect to catch fish at.
This simple set up can be modified to be used with any length of lead core line and can also be used with similar lengths of copper line as dictated by the depth to be achieved and the amount of separation desired between the downrigger weight and the trailing lure.
Another great option for fishing below a downrigger ball is rigging an Off Shore Tackle Tadpole Diver to fish 50-100 feet behind the downrigger weight. The Tadpole dives like a crankbait causing it to fish well below the downrigger weight where it becomes a more stealthy option for targeting deep water fish.
Tadpole Divers work well in combination with spoons, stickbaits, body baits like the J-Plug, in-line trolling spinners and even with small rotators or dodgers.
Off Shore Tackle based in Port Austin, Michigan produces three different downrigger releases designed to cover all the common Great Lakes species and trolling situations. The most commonly used product is the OR1 Medium Tension Downrigger Release which is one of the oldest products in the Off Shore Tackle line up. This is the downrigger release that set the standard on the Great Lakes. The OR1 is ideal for king and coho salmon, lake trout and steelhead trolling applications when trolling at normal speeds and using typical lures like spoons, stickbaits, plugs, etc.
The second noteworthy downrigger release in the line up is the OR4 Light Tension Downrigger Release. The OR4 is ideal for targeting walleye, spring coho, browns or in-land lake trolling applications.
Last but certainly not least Off Shore Tackle produces the OR8 Heavy Tension Downrigger Release which is ideal for faster trolling speeds or when trolling with high resistance gear like large rotators, dodgers, lake trolls, etc.
The OR8 is a little heavy for normal trolling situations, but a simple trick when rigging lines will allow anglers to use this heavy tension release for a multitude of trolling applications. Before placing the line between the rubber pads of the OR8, fold the line over your finger and spin the line to form four or five twists of line and a small loop. Open the OR8 and place the twists of line between the rubber pads.
Rigged in this manner, the OR8 will hold the line securely and not trip even when a fish is hooked. When the rod starts bucking, the angler simply needs to remove the rod from the downrigger, quickly reel down tight against the release and give the rod a strong upwards pop. This motion trips the line free of the release and pulls tight against the fish all in one smooth motion.
Manual Or Electric?
Both manual and electric downriggers have a place in Great Lakes trolling. For the angler who occasionally fishes with a downrigger, the cost savings of manual riggers allows anglers to participate at an affordable level. Manual riggers are also functional early and late in the trolling season when salmon and trout are often found in fairly shallow water.
The electric rigger is without question the most “practical” choice for the avid Great Lakes angler who fishes throughout the season and often fishes in very deep water. On the Cisco Fishing Systems electric riggers mounted to my boat I load 300 feet of 150# test stainless steel cable that allows me to easily fish 150 to 200 feet below the surface. To insure I always have enough battery power, I rig two 650 Cold Cranking Amp starting batteries in parallel so that the amp hours are doubled to 1300 without the voltage changing. This process is accomplished by attaching a wire from the negative to the negative poles of the two batteries and also attaching a second lead from the positive to the positive poles.
Anyone who is willing to invest in the cost of a downrigger should also strongly consider stepping up to purchase a subsurface temperature and trolling speed indicator. The hands down favorite among Great Lakes charter captains is the Fish Hawk Depth +4 model. This unit features a probe that attached to the downrigger ball which in turn sends data to a transducer mounted at the transom of the boat. Unlike other depth probes that require the data to be transported through a special enlarged downrigger cable, the Fish Hawk functions flawlessly.
The data provided includes surface temperature, water temperature at the probe and the trolling speed at the downrigger ball. Useful in finding the water temperatures favored by trout and salmon, just as importantly the Fish Hawk confirms trolling speed at depth so anglers can fish with confidence knowing their gear is working properly.
Because the layers of water in the Great Lakes are different temperatures, sub-surface currents are created that are impossible to predict or identify by surface speed indicators like the GPS speed over ground numbers. Routinely I find that the speed the ball is moving at depth is far less than the speed the boat is moving at the surface.
When fishing highly speed sensitive presentations like attractors and even spoons, knowing the exact trolling speed at depth is often the difference between success and utter failure on the water.
To sum it up, every angler I know who owns a Fish Hawk considers it the most valuable piece of electronics they have on their boat!
The future of downrigger
fishing is bright for those anglers
who understand how to get the
most from these depth control
aids. Following the suggestions
outlined here will convert downriggers from rigs that work occasionally to ones that produce fish trip after trip.
The downrigger may be an old school approach to Great Lakes trout and salmon fishing, but those in the know aren’t about to hang up the riggers anytime soon.