Stealth Downrigger Tactics by Dan Keating

Boats salmon fishing trout fishing Walleye Fishing

Over the past few years, stealth riggers have been some of the most productive rods on the Blue Horizon.

Spring, summer, and fall, they produce fish. Anytime I encounter clear water, negative fish, or strong currents, adjusting riggers to stealth mode will produce fish. One other note: clean spoons run on stealth riggers catch huge fish during the middle of the day. If you don’t currently incorporate stealth riggers into your spread, you will want to pay close attention.

great lakes salmon chinook

Secret Weapon Rigs (SWR)

Ever been skunked? It is painful! From one fisherman to another, there is a greater distance between zero fish and one fish, than there is between one and one hundred fish! Charter captains on western Lake Michigan have found the antidote that prevents that smelly critter from sneaking on board—the Skunk Buster! These deadly rigs have saved many outings. So, what exactly, is the Skunk Buster? It is a Secret Weapon Rig combined with a Super Slim, Stinger, or Moonshine spoon. Many other spoons work exceptionally well on this rig, and you may develop your own Skunk Buster! Bottom line, SWRs usually catch fish when all other presentations come up short, especially when you encounter heavy currents or just can’t seem to isolate productive trolling speeds, these rigs produce.

Why is the SWR so deadly? Can’t we just run a clean spoon on light line back 100 feet and achieve the same presentation? We can mimic the lead length, but we cannot duplicate the hypnotic action that is imparted to the spoon by lead core. Sit back, pour a cup of coffee, and let me explain.

First, let’s examine the mechanics of an SWR. To set up the rig, spool a downrigger reel, such as we would use with dodgers or flashers with 15- to 20-pound backing monofilament. Then tie three colors (30 yards) of lead core onto the backing. I have used as few as two colors and as many as four colors of lead. On the business end, add a 10 to 20 foot, 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and a small, quality ball bearing swivel.

great lakes salmon fishing

When setting the rig, let out the leader and the entire lead core, and then put the mono backing into the release. Never put the lead core in the release because it will break. When the rig is in the water, 120 feet of lead line and a 20-foot fluorocarbon leader trail the downrigger weight. We are now fishing in the twenty-first century! These can be set at any depth and with a light-action rod, provide a great fight.

What makes this rig different from just setting a spoon way back on mono is the hypnotic action the lead core imparts to the trailing lure. Remember, lead line is thick and interacts with currents and our boats trolling motion. As we troll along, our lure dances around way behind the rigger in clean water. The lead core line itself imparts additional action to the spoon beyond its normal wobble. It never follows us in a straight line. So while the spoon wiggles or wobbles, it also floats side to side and, at times, rises and falls. It’s the most uneven way to put a lure in the strike zone!

A word of caution: SWR’s snake around behind the boat and can easily tangle other lines off to the side. On turns, they can wipe out a wire diver rig when the two are at the same level. I’ve also had them tangle with Torpedo SWRs on side planers.

To minimize tangles, speed up on turns and don’t turn too sharply. Lead core sinks. Even when trolling in a straight line an SWR runs 6 to 12 feet below the weight. If you are fishing in 50 feet of water and running a SWR down 30 feet, raise the rigger up to 20 feet before making a 180-degree turn. A general rule is to keep the SWR at least 30 feet off the bottom when turning. Otherwise, the lure may sink to the bottom and pick up mussels. Never fish an SWR tight to the bottom in the way you can fish a light line rig. Since the rig is set so far back, it can pick up mussels or weeds off the bottom, not trip the downrigger release, and you’ll never know it.

At seminars, I am frequently asked if you can run more than one SWR. Yes, but when running two, set them with at least 10 feet of vertical separation. In other words, don’t run two SWRs at the same level. Some anglers will run a three-color SWR on the deeper rigger and a two-color above it. When fishing in the trough (with the waves hitting the boat from the side), the deeper SWR should be set upwind of the shallower SWR. This will minimize tangles when a fish strikes. When fishing deep and in a strong current, you may want to reset your SWRs when you turn around, always keeping the deeper rig upwind.


great lakes salmon fishingThe exception to running the SWR as the deepest line is when steelhead and kings suspended higher in the water column. When fish are 20 to 50 feet down, I often run an SWR off a corner rigger set at 20 to 40 feet. The other riggers can be set deep in the water column for kings, coho, or lakers. This one line running above and behind the spread can be a killer. While it can occasionally tangle with fish hitting deeper rigger lines, it catches many large fish.It’s not a bad idea to keep one SWR in the water at all times. Normally, this is my deepest rod in the spread. If it is really hot, I deploy a second one. You can run them off any rigger on the boat; however, I like running them off the corner riggers. If you run them on a boom rigger, they tend to tangle with diver rods.

Light-Line Tactics

If shear excitement and sport is your goal on a trolling adventure, then light line rigs run off downriggers offer the best fight in town. Over the years, I’ve had countless emails from readers and seminar attendees who have achieved great results when they tried the light-line methods. Many said their biggest fish of the season came on light rigs! Others said that a spread of light-lined spoons salvaged many slow days. If you’ve never used light line, start with one rig. Learn how to weave it into your other presentations.

Before getting too far into this discussion, we need to define “light line.” With way too many hours on the water, I have found that 12-pound test line is ideal. It is light, but, it has enough strength that it does not break easily. Some may drop down to 10-, 8- or even 6-pound test. These lighter lines are stealthier, but they break much more easily.

Light line offers more than just great sport; it is one of the best methods to finesse negative kings, browns, steelhead, and lakers into striking. Salmon and trout can be very moody, and spoons run on light line often trigger dormant fish into striking. During the bright, mid-day hours, fish are tough to catch. This is the period that light-line tactics really shine. Also, when trophy-sized fish sink down and hug the lake bottom, a properly selected spoon on light line is often the only rig that will pry these monsters off the bottom.

Why go to all the trouble of trolling light? When combined with a small, quality ball bearing swivel (30-pound Sampo Coastlock) and 12-pound test line, a spoon will achieve maximum action, even at slow speeds. The small swivel is important. A heavy swivel adds additional weight on the nose of the spoon and reduces its action. The combination of a small silver swivel and light line reduces visibility.

great lakes salmon fishingI’ve heard it a hundred times already, “but the kings we catch are way too big to capture on such little rods and reels.” Take a moment and Google the IGFA line class record books, and you will discover that anglers around the world are catching ginormous fish on some very thin lines. You may lose a few fish in the beginning, but as you learn how to fight fish on skinny line, you will find that in the long run, you will catch more trophy fish. So, shut up and learn to fish light!

Let me throw in a quick word of caution: the key to winning the battle with Moby Salmon on the little rod is, as Kenny Rogers sang, “you have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” At the outset of the fight, set the drag light. A freshly-hooked fish is full of fight. Let him run. When setting the drag, the fish should be able to pull line off the reel easily, but there should be enough tension to make the fish fight against the rod. In other words, he should have to work to pull line off the reel. If you are not sure how to set the drag, it is better to set it loosely and tighten up as the fight advances.

Light line exerts less drag as the fish runs. When a big fish runs 100 yards or more line off the reel, light line exerts less drag in the water. As the fish changes course, you can maintain more direct contact with the fish. This results in direct, steady pressure on the hook.

Long runs tire a big fish out. A fish prematurely dragged to the transom is a dangerous creature. A hot fish can easily break off or tangle other lines. As the fish tires, gradually turn up the heat. Boat side, you may have to back off on the drag a bit if the fish is spunky. If the water is cold from the surface down, salmon and trout will fight hard all the way to the net. If you are dragging fish out of deep cold water up through warmer surface layers, the warm water will slow big fish down, and the fight will not last as long.

After every bite, feel the last three or four feet of line in front of a spoon for nicks. Fish often spin during the fight and can nick light line on their gill plates. The abrasion may not break on the fish that caused the nick, but the next fish to strike easily could snap the weakened line. As you gain experience with light line, you will learn when to tighten the drag and when to lighten up. Most trophy fish are lost in the first 30 seconds of striking—or at boat side.

great lakes salmon trolling graphic downrigger

Selecting the right rods and reels for light line will ensure success. If your budget is limited, spend your money on a quality reel. The main attributes are a super smooth drag, a line capacity of at least 300 yards, a large, easy-to-grip handle and a high-speed pick-up. I make my living watching people catch fish and find that lighter reels are always a plus. A number of good level wind and bait casting reels are on the market to choose from.

Anglers use a variety of short and long rods for light line applications. In my early salmon fishing days Dad and I used 9-foot rods that were super whippy. We caught a ton of fish on those rods but one fish of immense proportions haunts my memory.

We had trailered our 17-foot Whaler, the Frick N’ Frack, to one of our favorite weekend fishing destinations—Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I have many fond memories from this town. Like the 25-pound beast we caught on a fly rod in thick fog so thick we didn’t think we could make it back to port. We had no Loran C, and GPS was not available back then. We navigated on pure instinct. Or the evening we dined on juicy burgers and beer-battered onion rings. We were camping out in the back of our station wagon, but I spent the night in a porta potty, sick to my stomach. Or the day a ferocious thunderstorm drove us off the lake. We ran back to shore during a downpour of Biblical proportions and hid beneath the 8th Street Bridge on the Sheboygan River. The thunder that storm generated still echoes through my mind.

But, it was the fish that we didn’t catch that is foremost in my memories. I will never forget it. Back then, we ran 9-foot fly rods with large, single-action fly reels loaded with 6-to 12-pound line. One particular weekend was plagued with fog, wind, and waves. The last day of our adventure, the wind was ripping out of the northeast, and the waves were crashing over the sea wall. It was too rough for us to venture past the lighthouse. We had driven a long way to fish and were not easily beaten. We decided to troll inside Sheboygan Harbor for summer brown trout.

We caught a few browns, but suddenly something—something big—grabbed a lure on one of our light downrigger rods and took off for the open lake at a high speed! This was not a brown trout! The fish made several long runs that we feared would empty our reel, but each time, we managed to halt his progress before running out of line. We thought the creature was playing with us, as if our boat was a toy that he could manipulate at will. After pumping the fish back to the boat, he effortlessly would run back out to the outer limits of our gear, and we’d have to start the tug of war all over. Because of the fog and murky river water pouring into the harbor, we never got a clear view of the fish. But after what seemed an eternity, we got the beast boat-side and his tail broke the surface of the dark water . . . and I will never forget that tail! It was like a whale’s tail . . . and that was the last we saw of that beast!

Thirty years ago we had great success running long rods with light line. They still work, but today, I prefer short, one-piece rods of 6- to 7-foot lengths. These are medium-light action rods with a soft tip but plenty of backbone in the lower third. They bend over into a tight arc on the downrigger, but there is ample meat in the backbone to lift big kings and trout from the depths. Saltwater anglers have developed short rods that are very efficient for capturing large fish.

Short rods have many rigging, fish-fighting, and storing advantages. They are light and easy to hold, which helps inexperienced anglers fight large fish during longer battles. Short rods are easier to set which is a big plus in rough water and from the deck of smaller boats. When big fish dive deep, short rods give you great leverage and enable you to pump large fish to the boat more easily than long rods do—we want to fight the fish, not the rod. They give you far more control of a hooked fish at the back of the boat, too. If a trophy makes an unexpected wrong turn at boat side, it is easy to follow the hooked fish with the short rod. I have often had to free spool a reel (thumb on the spool!) and take the rod and follow the line around a downrigger cable in the water. Once the maneuver is complete, I engage the reel and continue the fight!

Short rods are easy to store. I can drive to a seminar during the winter with my wife and four kids and stick a bunch of rods into my Sienna mini van. Try that with a bunch of long rods! Seriously, if your boat has a small cabin or if you transport rods in your car, short rods are the way to go!

When selecting a downrigger release for light-line applications, you want one that will not crimp the line. A No. 12-rubber band half-hitched to your line and hooked into a Black’s Release is ideal. This system will not damage light line. It takes a little practice to set this release, but with experience, it gets to be as natural as breathing. To set, simply moisten the elastic band and half hitch it around your fishing line three to four times. After each half hitch, pull the band tight. The band should not slip down the line after several hitches are applied. If the band slips, loop it around the line one more time.

downrigger graphic great lakes

Next, place the loop into the Black’s Release. Tighten the release enough that it doesn’t open when trolling. Ideally, the release will open upon the strike, and the rubber band does not break. When resetting the line, you can simply put the same rubber band back into the release. I often use two rubber bands at a time to increase hook ups. This is very helpful when targeting staging kings. Their jaw becomes bony and hard, and they often strike short. If you are fishing in a strong current or trolling deep, you will want to use two or three bands on the line as water pressure often can break a single band prematurely.

True or false: any spoon will work better on light line? TRUE. With a lifetime of salmon fishing experience, I have come to realize that light line makes us better anglers. No matter the brand, size, or color of spoon or plug, light line enhances a lure’s action and helps it to blend in with its environment.

Light-lined spoons and body baits can be run throughout the water column. They can be run in a patterned spread of all spoons, or they can be integrated into an aggressive spread of flashers and flies. If you’ve never tried light-lining spoons, set up one rig with light line and mix this rod into your other patterns. I think that you will be pleasantly surprised!

What makes light line so stealthy? Both the presentation itself, lure selection, and how we set the rig come into play. Light line is thin. Fish can’t see it well, and because of its diameter, lures can achieve maximum action. Spoons and body baits are stealthier than flashers and flies. Their action is subtler and puts off less vibration. The further back we set the lure, the stealthier the rig.

Productive lead lengths vary from day to day and really depend on environmental conditions and the fish. The general rule is that if shorter leads of 20 to 50 feet don’t produce, keep setting spoons farther and farther back. It is not a bad idea to set one spoon back 30 feet and another at least 100 feet. Let the fish tell you their preference.

Spoons set on light line are particularly effective for kings, lake trout, and browns that have taken a negative posture and hold tight to the bottom. Many days, we don’t mark these fish because they are so tight to the bottom. In this situation, a lone spoon run 10 to 50 feet behind the weight and set from 1 to 10 feet off the bottom catches fish. The weight is not bouncing the bottom. The idea is to run the spoon just above the bottom.

To effectively trace the bottom with a spoon, we want to set the rigger from the bottom up. To do this, drop your rigger weight till it hits the bottom. Trolling motion will pull the weight up off the bottom. Drop the weight a second and third time or more, until you know it is on the bottom, then, raise it from one to ten feet. If the bottom contour is uneven, you will have to adjust this rigger every few minutes to avoid snags and mussels.

When tracing the bottom in deep water, heavier weights minimize blowback and make it easier to stay in contact with the bottom. Don’t worry what the downrigger counter registers. Trolling motion creates blowback in the cable. The counter only tells us how many feet of cable are off the reel. It does not tell the precise depth at which the weight is running. For example, let’s say we want to fish the bottom in 100 feet. The counter may register 112 feet when the weight is running one foot off the bottom. When I get a rigger super dialed into a bottom bite, I will loop a rubber band on the cable, so I can set the rig back at the exact level.

A two-boat charter I once had with my buddy Captain Jerry Williams helps illustrate this point. On this particular trip, we were targeting kings on the bottom in 200 to 230 feet of water. The fish were on the bottom! My heaviest weight on the boat was only 12 pounds. Jerry was running 16-pound Shark weights. To effectively hit the bottom in 205 feet, I had to let out over 245 feet of cable. Jerry’s heavier Sharks hit the bottom with only 215 feet of cable off the rigger.

When you target bottom-hugging fish, take an aggressive approach to lure selection. Change color, size, and brand of spoons until you dial into their preference. Fish sitting on the bottom, especially kings, are moody and selective. Some days it’s just a matter of having the right lure in their face.

Light-line rigs can be run exclusively or integrated into an aggressive spread of rigger baits. One of the oldest tricks in the book is the spoon and dodger “tag team.” Call it “Tag Team 101.”This strategy requires you to fish two riggers as a team—one clean spoon on light line and one dodger or flasher. A dodger or flasher on one rod will attract fish to the clean spoon set on an adjacent rod. Set the spoon to run 5 to 15 feet below and 10 to 30 feet behind the attractor. The spoon is set deeper because the flasher often draws fish up in the water column. As they rise up, they may see the spoon and strike it, or they may move in on the dodger, lose interest, drop down, and encounter the more subtle action of a clean spoon. Often, it is just enough to trigger a strike.

No precise formula exists to the tag team, so experiment with exact depth and lead variations. Once you come upon a productive set, duplicate the horizontal and vertical relationships as you reset the lines. Also, experiment with lure selection. Certain teams of lures will consistently work to attract fish and trigger strikes.

If light line is new to you, give it a try! It is easy to incorporate one or two light-line rigs into a standard spread of lines. Light line often catches fish when other methods come up short.

This article was reprinted from Captain Dan Keating’s latest book, Great Lakes Salmon & Trout Fishing: Essential Tactics and Seasonal Strategies. Available at www.bluehorizonsportsfishing.net, your local bookstore or Amazon.com.



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