Summer Trout Trolling Guide
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
According to the morning news temperatures today are going to range from 15 to 20 degrees below normal and there is a really good chance that it’s going to rain….AGAIN!
While it might not seem like it right now, one of these days the rain is going to stop and summer will arrive like the woosh of heat that causes you to blink when you peak into the oven to see if your biscuits are done.
Right now if you are a trout angler you can still go out and hook up while surface trolling, but once summer conditions arrive and surface temperatures soar, top lining will be over and so will productive trouting for a significant segment of the trout fishing community, yet this doesn’t have to be the case.
With the widespread availability of affordable downriggers and sonar units, I’m often amazed to learn that a percentage of trout enthusiasts are equipped with neither. For these folks, trout are a late fall through late spring proposition and they turn their attention elsewhere during the summer months. To be sure these guys catch a lot of fish, but by not fishing during the summer they are missing out on some of the best action of the entire year.
Throughout the year I receive quite a few inquires from trout anglers that don’t have downriggers and/or decent sonar and want more information about either or both. I also get correspondence from anglers that have downriggers/sonar units, but don’t understand how to utilize them to maximum advantage. It is with these trout anglers in mind that I’m writing this article.
With daytime temperatures hovering in 90’s or worse, the last thing on many anglers’ minds is trout fishing, yet at many of our deep northern California reservoirs, this is actually one of the easiest times to catch trout since they are locked into a relatively narrow band of water known as the thermocline.
During the summer the water in our deep reservoirs stratifies based on temperature. The thermocline is a layer of water that serves as a separation between warm surface water and static deep water. Warm water being less dense then cool water rises to the top of the water column, while the coolest densest water accumulates at the bottom of the lake.
As a general rule the warm surface water hold plenty of oxygen, but is too warm to support trout and baitfish such as threadfin shad or pond smelt. The water beneath the thermocline is cool enough to support trout and baitfish, but since the deep water doesn’t circulate to the surface, it lacks oxygen. It is the water in the narrow band known as the thermocline that offers both suitable temperatures and the abundant oxygen that trout and baitfish require. As a result during the summer the trout and bait lock into the comfort zone that the thermocline provides.
Baitfish spend the summer feeding heavily on plankton, while the trout feed heavily on the bait. The key to trolling up a mess of trout during the summer is locating the thermocline and then putting a baitfish imitating offering into the strike zone.
High end sonar units can locate the thermocline based on the density of the water, but on less expensive units the thermocline will still be well illustrate since it is the zone where most of the fish and bait will show up. Trout and bait can leave the thermocline for periods of time, yet you’ll know where the thermocline is, since it will hold the densest concentration of fish.
Most of the time the thermocline is going to be located anywhere from 50 to 100 feet below the surface, At the lakes I fish, the most common depth is 60 to 80 feet. There are a lot of ways to get a lure into this zone, you can use steel line, sinker releases teamed with heavy weights and various types of divers, but in today’s terms most of these methods are makeshift at best or downright obsolete. These days, entry level downriggers are cheap and largely fool proof. Not only will they effectively get your gear into the strike zone, but they also allow you to utilize light tackle so you get to enjoy fighting your fish.
Most hardcore trout trollers utilize electric downriggers, but that is just a matter of convenience. If you want to keep costs down, pick up a set of inexpensive manual crank downriggers. They work just as well as the electrics at a fraction of the cost. Once you’ve got downriggers and the associated mounts you’ll need to add a pair of 8 pound downrigger weights and some trout weight downrigger releases. Scotty, Vance’s Tackle, Shasta Tackle and Sep’s Pro Fishing all produce excellent downrigger releases for the trout angler.
The basic rigging of a downrigger works like this. The ball is attached to the snap on the end of the downrigger cable. The line release can be attached to the downrigger ball or attached to the cable above the ball via a clip. After spooling your offering out behind the boat, your fishing line is attached to the line release and the downrigger ball is lowered to the desired depth.
Both conventional bait casting reels and spinning reels will work for downrigger fishing, bait casters work the best since you can leave the reel our of gear and thumb the spool as the downrigger weight is lowered. This process in more complicated with a spinning reel. Once the downrigger weight reaches the desired level put the reel in gear, place the rod in the rod holder and reel in enough slack to put a bend in the rod. Light flexible rods are best for downrigger fishing. The rod should be matched with a reel spooled with 6, 8 or 10 pound test monofilament.
In terms of lures and end tackle, you’ll need a collection of baitfish imitating spoons, such as Cripplures, Hum Dingers, Sep’s Pro Secrets, Excels or Needlefish and a few 4 to 6 inch dodgers. The mainline from you rod is attached to the dodger and 30 inches of 8 pound test fluorocarbon leader material is attached to the rear of the dodger. The lure of your choice is attached to the leader via a loop knot. Using a loop knot allows the lure to move freely and draws more strikes than a similar lure attached via a standard knot.
Dodgers come in various makes and colors and confidence plays a big role in the dodger anglers choose. My current favorite is a 6 inch green UV Shasta Tackle Sling Blade, but other successful anglers are equally as passionate about dodgers from Sep’s and Vance’s.
When targeting trout stacked in the thermocline I generally troll my lures about 100 feet behind the downrigger ball. Some guys like a shorter line, but I think keeping the bait away from the ball results in more strikes.
I believe that trout and salmon look up to feed, so I run my lures just above the level at which I’m marking the densest concentration of fish. Since trout in the thermocline are usually free strikers I start out trolling from 2 to 2.5 miles per hour and only slow down if I have to. As you troll keep an eye on your rod tip. At times a hooked trout won’t pop your line out of the downrigger clip. If you see any tell tale taps, pop the line out of the clip and more often than not you’ll find that you have a fish on the line.
The material I’ve presented here represents the bare bones basics of summer trout trolling. Use this information and you’ll catch plenty of fish. As you gain more experience your approach will become more sophisticated and your confidence level will soar!