Small Boat Rigging for Big Water by Cory Yarmuth

Small Boat Rigging for Big Water by Cory Yarmuth

Lake Michigan, or any Great Lake for that matter, can be an intimidating body of water.  Many fishermen tend to think that you need at least a 28-foot boat all decked out with the latest gear to even attempt to fish its waters and be successful. This statement couldn’t be further from the truth.

The big water is certainly something that you should not take lightly. However, given the opportunity there are many chances for those of us who run smaller boats to get out and be successful at catching our limits of trout, salmon, or walleye that inhabit these waters.  

Running a smaller boat can often times be more enjoyable and rewarding than a larger boat.

 great lakes salmon fishing

It doesn’t take thousands of dollars in equipment to get your boat equipped to handle the big water or be capable of running a great trolling spread to put fish in the boat.  Today there are many different products out there to help the fisherman present the bait where the fish are. These presentations can be modified a bit to allow the small boat angler a better advantage.  

 Running a smaller boat myself (18’ Sylvan Eliminator) I have been able to change up a few tactics as well as add the important equipment to my boat to be able to fill the cooler.  You can certainly go overboard on the additions you make, but as with everything on a boat it is what fits into your budget that counts.


Let’s start off with the basics. Good tube style rod holders are a must.  

Given the strength of the fish you are after as well as the drag created by most presentations a metal tubular style such as the BigJon multi-position rod holders tend to be the best.  I went with a track system on my boat to allow me to move rod holders around depending on conditions. This also allows the rod holders to be removed to make the boat easy to fish on inland lakes.   When setting up your tracks and rod holders make sure you allow adequate room for placement of rods and ease of removal of the rods.  

People often get a bit skittish when it comes to mounting anything on their boats, but with a little patience and good planning it can be quite easy.  A few things to keep mind when working with your mounting hardware are:

  • Use stainless hardware and use the nylon lock nuts to keep things snug.  When using the stainless it pays to use a dab or two of anti-seize to the bolt to keep things from seizing up when you start tightening things up
  • No matter what type of surface you are mounting to, make sure you use large fender washers on the underside or even a small aluminum backer plate.  This will keep things from pulling out of the surface.
  • If you have to drill through fiberglass the best method is to start the hole with your drill in reverse.  This will create a divot where you want the hole and will reduce the chipping and cracking you might see with fiberglass. When you have your holes drilled use a chamfering bit to chamfer all the holes as this will keep any cracks from forming.

Downriggers are another option to add to the list, although not necessary.  You don’t have to get fancy here. A simple manual downrigger with a base that allows you to adjust the angle away from the boat is perfect for the smaller boater.  

The BigJon Captain’s pack downriggers were the route that I chose and these perform flawlessly for shallow and deep-water fishing. Using a bit of ingenuity it isn’t hard to come up with a mounting system that allows you to remove your downriggers when they are not in use and replace them with rod holders.

rod holders fishing

Under Power! 

Depending on the size of your main motor you may want to go the route of adding a Kicker motor to the rear.  This offers you the opportunity for better speed control as well as gives you the security of having an extra motor on the boat in case of main motor problems.  Most dealers can install these for you or you can easily attempt the installation yourself.  

The kicker motor combined with a good servo speed controller, like the ControllKing by Magda Mfg, can allow you to dial your speed in and keep it consistent while the motor sips fuel from your tank.  The main motor may not allow you precise control and the gas consumption can often put a hole in your wallet.

Having precise control of your speed can certainly make a difference when running your spread.  Using the servo controls on your kicker motor is key in allowing you to “dial” in your speed and make small changes during your troll.

fishing boat yarmouth

The kicker motor combined with a good servo speed controller, like the ControllKing by Magda Mfg, can allow you to dial your speed in and keep it consistent while the motor sips fuel from your tank.  The main motor may not allow you precise control and the gas consumption can often put a hole in your wallet.

Having precise control of your speed can certainly make a difference when running your spread.  Using the servo controls on your kicker motor is key in allowing you to “dial” in your speed and make small changes during your troll.


Electronics on any boat are a must and for the great lakes a good GPS is a key player.  Today’s GPS/Sonar combos can really help out a person on a budget. The Sonar is important for locating thermoclines, baitfish balls and even schools of your quarry.  

Your GPS will allow you to navigate unfamiliar water as well as plays heavily into your fishing pattern.  The GPS can give you accurate trolling speed as well as allow you to mark where you had your last fish. These marks will help you navigate back to the areas that fish were taken and can often mean the difference in a full cooler vs. and empty one.

There is also a great addition to compliment your fishfinder and that is the new Fish Hawk X4 downrigger probe.  This system uses a clear probe that attaches to your downrigger cable and then using a 70Khz signal it communicates with a transducer mounted on your hull.  The information is displayed on a nice clear display and gives you several readings. You are able to get your speed and temp on the surface and then your speed and temp at the ball.  

Using technology like this allows you to find the right temperature zone that the fish are holding in.  You are also able to see the varying currents that might be found in the deeper water. Speed and temp play an important role in Salmon fishing and it can certainly make a difference in catching fish or just wasting gas trolling.

A quick note: Water temperature is key to catching fish in the big water.  If you don’t have a dedicated Temp and Speed probe then the Fish Hawk TD is the way to go. It is inexpensive ($150 or so) and will allow you to quickly find out how deep your lines are running and what the temperature is at those levels.  

Another important electronic item to have on the boat at all times is your VHF radio.

Being in a smaller boat makes this a very valuable safety asset and you should always make sure it is in good working order.  When installing the radio don’t skimp on the antenna. Use a good quality 8’ antenna to allow you a better range for both transmission and receiving.   This extra expense is worth the safety that it will give you.

The Spread!

The smaller boater may not be able to run as many lines as some of the larger boater; however there are a few tricks that can be done to optimize the spread.  It is often the little things that make a big difference when putting together the proper spread to target the species you are after. Little things like the length of your rods can assist with keeping your baits placed evenly without tangles as well as the use of Deeper Divers and leadcore.  

fishing lake michigan great lakes

Everybody has their own ways of running their spread and I am not about to tell anyone how it should or should or shouldn’t be done.  What has been most effective on my boat may not work on yours, but these are a few good ideas on which to start your thoughts as far as how you plan on running your spread.

 I like to start with planer boards with 5 colors of leadcore and then add a Torpedo Diver to get the bait down to any desired level.  The aid of the Torpedo diver allows you to use a smaller reel and you can split a spool of leadcore between two rods and then change the Torpedo Diver sizes to vary the depths the leadcore will run.  This allows you to cut down on the amount of rods you may have to store for varying conditions.

With the planers covering the higher part of the water column further out from the boat I will focus my inside rods using a Deeper Diver set-up.  Running your divers on braided line or even wire will allow you to get the most depth out of your diver.

This set-up is on a longer rod, something in a 9’or 10’ range.  This gets the Deeper Diver out away from the boat and away from the other lines. The inside Deeper diver is on a 7’ or 7 ½’ rod and I am running wire on this one. The outside deeper diver is running high while the inside is running much deeper.  

If you don’t have the advantage of affording downriggers right away this spread will be quite effective for most if not all-fishing opportunities.  Just duplicate the layout on the opposite side of the boat at different depths and this will give you a huge variety and opportunity to hook up.  


As you see downriggers are not essential, however they do offer you the opportunity to run deeper baits as well as multiple baits at different depths.

Running a free slider (where legal) can add another offering to your spread. For your downrigger rods keep them short. Something between 7’ and 8’ are ideal for smaller boats.  The reason for this is it allows you to handle the rod and line while setting the riggers in a smaller space. You can often reach to the tip of the rod and grab the line with your other hand for setting in the release.  Space is key in a smaller boat.

Space Saving

Keeping along with the thought that space is key and limited in a smaller boat; let’s take a look at tackle and storage.  What has been a blessing are the new Plano 3701 skinny boxes. With this style of boxes you are able to store your spoons in a much more compact space and they will typically fit in any hatch or even a tackle bag.  On a larger boat a hanging spoon box is often used, however with limited floor space on a smaller boat the individual boxes make it much easier to store and access your spoons when you need them.

The same goes for flashers and dodgers.  Using individual bags for the dodgers and the larger Plano boxes for the flashers you can keep them organized, yet portable and easy to store.  Keeping an empty box on the boat is also helpful so that at the end of a trip you can take all the dodger/fly or flasher/fly combos that you may have been using and keep them all together for the next outing.  This helps you to repeat the success you had on your prior outing. 

Small boat fishing is all about optimizing your space that you do have.  Take advantage of your storage hatches and your gunwale space. Make sure you keep your floor clear and your rods easy to access when a fish hits.

Fishing the big water from a smaller boat is an adventure that some are hesitant to try.  

With a bit of ingenuity, safety and common sense you can take advantage of some prime fishing opportunities.  Just because you don’t have a huge enclosed cuddy cabin cruiser doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some of the great fishing that the Great Lakes have to offer.  

Remember to be safe and most of all to have fun.

By: Cory Yarmuth



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1 comment

I started fishing Lake Superior and Lake Michigan 30 years ago everything you said is SPOT ON. Great advice and encouragement. You explained it very well in fisherman terms. EXCELLENT


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