Ontario Fishing Network
Downrigger-less Depth Control
On tiny or remote lakes especially, packing in even the smallest portable downrigger isn't always feasible. If you need to get your bait down thirty, forty even fifty feet, what do you do? With a handful of basic rigging options and boat control techniques, you can work deeper than you might think, putting your presentation right in the thick of things.
At various times during the season, you'll find good numbers of fish at or around the thermocline. The thermocline is the band of water that forms where warmer upper temperatures meet with the colder, denser water found deeper. It normally sets up after the summer's first sustained period of hot, calm weather, and lasts until big fall winds mix the water again. Depending on the lake you're fishing, the thermocline can be as broad as twenty to thirty feet, or as narrow as five to ten, and it can occur anywhere from eighteen feet down to over sixty. It's a key area for oxygen changes and forage. In a lot of cases, I firmly believe that the biggest fish in any system relate to this zone full-time.
" Magnum-sized weighting systems are gold if you can find them. Selected rigs from 3 to 8 ounces are often needed to reach the depths fish will hold at."
On many lakes in northern/central Ontario, the thermocline generally occurs around twenty five to thirty five feet deep. It can form much deeper on the Great Lakes. Whether you're after walleyes, big pike, muskies, lake trout or even smallmouths, finding and fishing this zone is highly effective. And these fish can get really big. But to catch them, you've got to get a bait to run down at that level. While in warmer, clearer water fish might rise up to ten feet for a bait, the colder and darker the water gets, the more precise your depth control has to be. Irregardless of how far a fish will move or the conditions, when they're deep, you've got to get your presentation as close to the fish as you can.
The most basic way to crack the thirty foot mark is by adding weight and slowing down your trolling speed. Snap-weights, 3-way rigs, in-line keel weights and other systems all have their time and place. One of the most versatile rigs involves a 3-way swivel, short dropper and a small snap clip. With a selection of bell sinkers, you can fine tune the weight simply by clipping lighter or heavier sinkers to your dropper. With in-line weights, like the Bead Chain or keel weight, you're forced to re-tie whenever you require more or less weight. But when you've found the right combination, they're very hydrodynamic and track well.
Snap-weight systems are the ultimate in versatility. They pinch on and off your line at whatever location you want using a rubber pad release system. Being fully removable while you guide a fish to the net is a fantastic feature, too.
Boat speed, the amount of line you let out (and its diameter) plus the amount of weight you add is what determines your running depth. Crawling along at 0.5 to 1.5 mph with two to four ounces of weight set back two hundred feet on ten pound Fireline can drag you presentation down past the forty foot mark. Finding the right combination of these factors is the key to success. Whether you want to commit your findings to memory or jot them down in a note pad is up to you. But having this information handy is simply invaluable when you're rigging up to go after open-water fish suspended around the thermocline.
There are also a host of in-line diving planers available for tracking baits down. Dipsey Divers, Jet Divers, Deep Sixes or the old Pink Lady all use water resistance to force you line sharply downward. What a side planer board does horizontally, diving planers do vertically. They can also be adjusted to carry lines out left or right while driving them deeper.
Any number of baits can be effective on suspended fish. With added weight or diving planers, you can carry the shiver and delicate action of shallow diving lures to new depths. Floating minnowbaits like the Rebel Minnow, Rapala, Ripstick, Thunderstick or Bomber Long A's all produce. Banana-style plugs like the Flatfish or Kwikfish are among my favorites. Jointed floaters are also popular for fishing deep due to their extra vibration and high-action at low speeds. The same holds true for spinners and spoons. They can be fished at new levels. Williams Wobblers and Whitefish, Canoe Baits, Dominion Spoons, Sutton West Rivers and a variety of trolling spoons are fair game. Use spoons that are compatible with your trolling speed. Plain in-line or snelled spinners with live bait match well to most plugs you'd rig on another line, in terms of speed. A pike and walleye killer for me is a big, number four Coloardo blade in gold or chartreuse tipped with a 4" minnow and rigged three feet behind a 2 ounce keel weight. Slowly rolled through the thrity five to forty five foot depths, it has taken pike to twenty pounds and walleyes to ten. Often at high noon, during the heat of summer.
The thermocline and other suspended 'landmarks' are where you'll find much of a lake's prime forage. Lake herring, trout and shiners can all be found in some combination from one lake to the next. In others, crappies, perch or small walleyes occupy the zone. On many large, Shield-type lakes, fingerling smallmouth bass are often found in droves over the depths. Hard to believe, but true. On some lakes they're a common occurance when fishing snelled spinners and bait. They're easy picking for pike pike, walleyes, trout or other smallmouth.
The bottom line is that open-water fish are used to eating well and they rarely see a lure. Matching the forage base isn't always necessary. Getting any bait down to where most fishermen never fish is often all it takes to elicit a strike from nomadic predator. From what I've experienced, open-water fish are big, and they didn't get that way by accident.
Rods and reels for basic weighting systems are slightly different than what you'd use with diving planers. As with most trolling, long, soft rods are most common. The real difference is in the overall taper or action of the rod. Planing devices, even the smallest sized 00 Dipsey, pull a lot of water, and need a rod with good power in the lower blank to control. Eight to twelve foot downrigger rods are a safe, basic option. Many companies specifically design blanks to handle the stresses of trolling with diving planers. Jumping up to size 2 or 3 Dipseys the size of a saucer really puts a new level of strain on your gear.
Reels equipped with a line counter allow you to troll with precision. There's also a number of manufacturers who offer clamp-on line counters you attach to the rod blank just ahead of your reel. Either way, knowing how much line you need to reach a certain depth is the key to the whole system. Levelwind or casting reels that hold a lot of line, offer a smooth drag and reliable performance are best for these techniques. A good all around reel is a series 5500 or 6500 Abu Garcia. Daiwa, Okuma and Shimano also offer reels with integrated line counters, should you want to go that route.
If deep, suspended fish aren't your target, there are a handful of rigs and equipment you can use to dredge the bottom in really deep water, too. Depending on the species or lake-type, you might need to put your bait within a few feet of the bottom in order to connect. Weight, boat speed and line diameter are critical when you're trying to maintain contact with the bottom. It takes a lot more control and finesse than simply running a bait down to a specific level for suspended fish and then keeping it there.
The type of presentation you want to give the fish is the deciding factor when choosing how fast you want to move along. At ultra-slow speeds in water as deep as fifty feet, you obviously need a presentation that can perform with minimal forward movement. Live bait rigs and banana-style crankbaits top my list of favorites here. Low speeds and snelled spinner rigs don't always mix, but a floating attractor or simple hook and bait sure do. The slower, the better. Flatfish are an excellent lure for slow crawling while you're staying in touch with the bottom. If it's moving forward, the Flatfish is pulsing away. They need very little motion to get them thumping. The wind or your electric motor can sometimes be all you need to move along. To slow down further, one or more sea-anchors might be needed. If you're livebait rigging walleyes where you need to stay deep and move slow, a large ribbon leech offers excellent action while your weighting system plods along ahead of it. A bright in-line floater bead on your snell adds additional attraction and lift.
The biggest mistake you can make when getting set up to fish slow and deep is rigging up with bulky line and/or not enough weight. If the water's much over twenty feet deep and there's any kind of wind or chop, I look to rigs from 2.5 ounces and up. Even though they're heavier, you'll need less line out. This gives you a more vertical line angle and you can walk your rig through obstructions far easier than with a mile of line trailing behind and your rig dragging at a low angle. Thin lines like 10/4 Fireline or thirty pound Power Pro excel for these techniques. Better feel and you'll need less of it to reach your target depth.
The 3-way rig can be tied to feed line to a fish, or from a stationary ring off a 3-way swivel. Bell sinkers, pencil lead or pyramid-style weights all have a place. To rig your dropper to slide when a fish picks up your bait, simply run the main line through a barrel swivel, and tie your dropper to the other end. Set your snell length as you wish, and use your choice of stopper. Another barrel swivel and glass bead works here, too. Clunk, drag and bang the weight along. Fish will find it.
Bottom bounders with a lower wire leg are also excellent. Again, go heavy and become a master of feel and control. This type of fishing isn't ever dull. You're constantly feeling along, adjusting your depth and waiting for a pick-up. The weight and wire skipping along the lake bottom really adds a lot of irregular action to whatever you're trailing behind. For bouncers to three ounces or more, look to a long, fairly soft casting rod, and team it with a baitcasting reel of your choice. Having a flippin switch makes depth adjustment and following contours effortless, should you be running the motor with one hand and fishing with the other.
Of course the ultimate low-speed, deep water presentation is the jig. Weights of up to two ounces might be required, but there aren't many rigs you can stay in touch with the bottom with better than a jig. Wedge or profiled heads fish deeper, and I like to keep jig dressings to a minimum to guard against undue buoyancy. Thin, no-stretch lines help a lot with depth control and feel when you're fishing that far below the boat and trying to stay vertical while feeling your way along.
No question how you handle the boat and your overall speed is the number one factor in fishing deep. It's pretty simple: the slower you can move, the deeper you can fish. On a down wind pass, many times I'll keep the gas kicker in neutral or use a low setting on the electric motor to creep along and maintain control. One of the easiest ways to do this is with your stern facing into the wind. If your boat requires them, splash guards help deflect waves from the transom and keep you from taking on water. On passes where you're heading into the wind or quartering it, having extra ballast up front lets the bow ride lower and track better. This might mean setting up your partner in the bow, filling your livewell or even placing gas tanks or a cooler filled with water up front. A good wind grabs the bow easily when it's not weighed down, and this can make slow, precision control really frustrating. The two keys are speed and route control.
Deep water bottom bouncing and deep suspended techniques take time to learn and time to gain confidence with. One of the most important elements of the learning process is figuring out how to get your bait running at the target depth. With diving planers, simply attach one to your line and troll over clean bottom stretches on your favorite lake. Featureless sand or mudflats in the main lake are ideal. It's a productive way to kill a few off hours during the middle of the day. If you're digging into the sand or mud at twenty eight feet with 140 feet of ten pound test mono out, write it down. Next time you're marking fish at this level, you'll be ready for them.
Finding over-sized bell sinkers, keel weights, snap weights or bottom bouncers can be tricky, but many sources are available on-line, and some shops will carry them locally, if you're lucky. Or you can always cast homemade ones to suit your needs. Weights from one to six ounces will cover most situations.
The remaining components of the system, namely rods, reels, line and baits, are easier to come by. Most anglers in Ontario likely already have some or all of the gear you'll need to get started. When you need to go after fish beyond the thirty foot mark, having suitable rigging makes all the difference in the world. Incorporate your boat, motor, sonar, tackle and the wind into a wholesale package. If even a few elements are off, deep water fishing can become far more difficult than it needs to be. But with the right components, it's easy. And there's no questioning its effectiveness. Having a good fish crush your minnowbait forty feet down over a one hundred foot main-lake basin or feeling one grab your 3-way rig below the boat in deep water is pretty easy to get used to.
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