Trolling Strategies: Maximizing Two Downriggers
Written by Capt. Paul Kik - Salmonhead Charters   
Monday, 01 January 2007 11:03

Most anglers who troll the Great Lakes are using small to mid-sized boats where having and using two downriggers is the norm.  I have heard many smaller boat anglers mention that with only two riggers they are limited in their spreads.  I will discuss how I run two riggers on my boat for maximum effectiveness.

For starters, two downriggers doesn’t limit you to two baits in the water. On my boat, two downriggers mean 4 rods and at least 4 baits, and up to 8 baits when I can run sliders.  Downriggers can be very versatile and help maximize your trolling spread with a little practice.

For those anglers who are just getting into trolling let’s eliminate some of the confusion with the terminology; “rigger” is short for downrigger.  Cannonball, Tru-Trac, Ridgeback, Shark, Jim Bobs, Torpedo and so forth are all names for “rigger weights”. Rigger weights all achieve the same goal of getting lures below the surface of the water to a designated depth.  In addition, there is some sort of “clip” (also called a “release”) attached to the weight, or slightly above the weight, that holds line from a rod to the rigger.  There are many brands and styles of clips to choose from, like Walker, Scotty, Big Jon, Cannon, Offshore and others. Pick one that you like, or try a bunch and decide which you like. 

Let’s clarify some other terminology.  “Leads” refer to the distance behind the clip the lure is running.  If someone tells you their rigger leads are 40’, that means their lures are 40’ behind the rigger weights.  The most confusion comes from the terms “stacker” and “slider”.  Stackers are specialty clips that clip directly to the rigger cable and allow the angler to attach the line from a second fishing rod to the same rigger.  A slider is a type of clip that allows the angler to attach a second lure to the line on the same rod.  Stackers go on cables and sliders go on lines.  Sliders can be either “fixed” sliders or “free” sliders.  For this article, when I say slider, I am referring to 5’ long fixed sliders, which means they stay in one place until a fish grabs the lure, at which point it will slide down the line until it gets to the main line lure.  Fixed sliders will aid in keeping the spread tangle free and help you to develop a repeatable spread under your boat.

The concept of building an eight lure spread on two riggers is fairly simple, but the actual process of deploying all the lures can be a bit of a challenge at first. We have 4 rods, each with two lures attached to them that we want in the water.  We’ll call our rods 1, 2, 3 and 4.  We will designate our mainlines as “M” and our sliders as “S”, so we will have 1M, 1S, 2M, 2S, 3M, 3S, 4M, 4S where 1M is the mainline lure of rod 1  and 1S is the slider lure for rod 1 and so forth.

Image The sequence of setting line is first to let out 1M to the desired length behind the boat, to get the lead length you want  and then attach it to the clip on the starboard rigger and lower it 6’ down.  Now take 1S and attach it to the mainline of rod 1 and lower the downrigger another 6 feet.  As is sits now, there is one rod in a holder on the starboard rigger with two lures in the water; one 12’ down and one 6’ down.  Next, attach your stacker clip to the rigger cable and let out the desired amount of lead from 2M and clip it into the stacker clip.  Lower the rigger another 6’.  Now finally attach 2S to the mainline on rod 2 and lower the whole works to the target depth.  Looking at what you have in the water, vertically there is a downrigger weight with a lure trailing it (1M), then 6’ up there is another lure (1S), then another 6’ (2M) and another 6’ (2S), resulting in four lures in a vertical space of 18’.  Repeat the process on the port side of the boat and you now have 8 lures, running on 4 rods on 2 riggers.  This approach can be accomplished on any size boat where downriggers are used.

Now, you might be scratching your head and thinking this is a giant cluster waiting to happen.  I have some words of caution, or more accurately, you can learn from my mistakes.  For starters, I recommend that you use all spoons..  I know we all like to use a flasher/fly rig or meat or a diving plug, but get used to setting the spread by only using spoons initially.  Spoons will generally stay where you put them vertically and won’t get snarled with other baits.  Another anti-snarl safety factor for those just beginning is to start by using 10’ intervals, so everywhere I say 6’ make it 10’..  The additional vertical separation will help out..  It doesn’t take much time until most people are pretty comfortable with this technique and can start to use the shorter 6’ separations. 

Image Now as we progress from using only spoons, we need to keep in mind some other rules of thumb.First, only run flasher and fly combinations off the weights.  Resist the temptation to attach a flasher rig off the stacker, the clips can hold it, but that is a snarl waiting to happen unless you have massive vertical separation.  Second, keeping tension on the lines while setting them helps immensely.  I let the riggers down with drag on the reels to keep some bend in the rods.  When attaching lines into clips, I grab the line at the rod tip and hold it tightly, maintaining a bend in the rod until the rigger is set.  Keeping tension on the rods will keep them from rolling over in the holders and keep line from getting wrapped around the rod tips; remember you only have two hands to set all of these rods and baits. 

I also prefer using rod holders that have multiple adjustments.. It’s not mandatory, but it helps.  Also, I designate the stack rod into the same holder EVERY time.  My outside holders are the deep rods (running off the ball) and the inside holders are the high rods (running off the stacker clips).  By doing it the same way every time, you won’t make the mistake of clearing the wrong rod.

Enough of the mechanics, let’s talk some strategy!  Springtime is great for this technique as the fish are often aggressive and the rigger bite is typically hot anyway.  Referring to the same rod and lure designations above, I like to start out on the starboard rigger. Rig 1M with a flasher and fly rig close to the weight, normally with about a 12’ lead. 1S will be up about 6’ with a regular size spoon of similar color.  2M is then a magnum spoon with roughly a 25’ lead and 2S another standard size spoon up about 6’ from that. 

The port rigger will have 3M off the ball with a regular spoon similar in color to 2M with a lead of 15-18’ and set at a depth between 2M and 2S. 3S will then be a regular spoon set 6’ above 3M.  4M is another standard spoon with a 30-40’ lead and 4S can be any size, but again set 6’ above 4M. 

The result of all this is a box under and behind the boat.  The box measures 33’ vertically and 40’ horizontally and the width of your boat.  There are 8 lures, with a good concentration at the lower, middle section of the spread.   Adding some depths might help illustrate this a bit.

  • 1M is set at 80’, so 1S is at 74’
  • 2M is then at 68’ and 2S is at 62’
  • 3M set at 65’ and 3S at 59’
  • 4M is then 53’ and 4S is at 47’

You can see the concentration of lures in the 59-65’ range.  I set that portion of the spread where I think the fish will be.  That way, there will be baits in the water above and below the target depth, but the most lures will be in the target  range.  I prefer not to run the baits all the same distance from the ball or clip.  I do that  to create the “lone fish effect”.  Predatory fish are opportunists, so give them an opportunity.  I mainly use the flasher rig off the starboard ball as an attractor.  Yes it will take some fish, but I feel it often brings fish in to take a look.  Once the fish is “in the spread”, it now has a host of lures to look at or choose from.  Often times, the stack rods are the ones getting the action.  2M and 4M are set back a ways as the lone, trailing baitfish on each side and frequently get nailed as a result.

As a variation to this initial spread, try placing the flasher rig on 3M instead of 1M.  I do this a lot when I am fishing the middle water column over deep water.  By placing the flasher in the middle of the spread, if a fish swims in to check it out, they have to pass baits coming up, turning to the side or going higher up in the water column.

There are a lot of variations on this spread to play with and you must be able to think in three dimensions.  In dirty water, I will tighten things up a bit.  In clean deep water I will often spread things out further.  Some days it’s all sliders and other days it’s all stacked rods.  Some days all the leads have to be 40’ plus and other days shorter is better.  With a little practice with deployment, you will be comfortable maximizing a boat with only two downriggers.

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