My first downrigger was a Penn manual that I purchased in the early 90' s but did not really use very much. I did have some success at Pyramid Lake, Nv. with it fishing for Lahontan Cutthroats. I messed around with it once and a while but never really got into it until I moved to Oregon back in 1995. I was working the first annual Redmond Outdoor Show for my taxidermy business back in 2000, where I met Dick Pool and Bill Bates, the Reps for Scotty Downriggers. I was asked to fill in for an ailing Kim Daggett to do his seminar on fishing for brown trout. One thing led to another, and I took on the Scotty Pro-Staffer position in Central Oregon. It was at this point that I started developing a lot of my fishing strategy around the downriggers. A couple of friends that had used them more extensively helped to bring me along. This opened my eyes to what you could do with them and I was soon targeting lakers, browns, rainbows, bulls and kokanee.
One of the most productive ways to target lake trout happens in late spring and early summer when they move from the more scattered pattern of chasing kokanee throughout the water column to hanging around deeper water structure. Part of this pattern has to do with the stratification of the water temperatures. I have GPS waypoints on a few different lakes here in Central Oregon where I can target the lakers in water of 90 to 145 feet. The technique involves fishing right over the lakers and frequently pounding the bottom with the downrigger ball. At the request of several of my friends, I will not go into exactly what we are using but I can tell you from experience it is deadly and accounted for lakers up to 30 lb. On good days we have caught 15 by noon with all of them over 10 lb. and probably half of them over 15 lb. In the last two years, my friends and I have accounted for 73 lakers over 15 lb., 21 over 20 lb. and 1 over 30 lb. All of them came during the last of May, June and July in a two-year period. The majority of these fish are only available to us because of the use of downriggers. My good friend, Steve Kelly caught one of these monsters while employing this technique at Crescent Lake a couple of years ago. We were coming up to a spot I call the pinnacle. It is really a long underwater finger that runs out into the lake for a few hundred yards. The water depth came up from 130 feet to the top of it at 70 feet. Approaching the side of it, we started to see the telltale arches that designate big lakers on my graph. We were dragging our rigs up and over the top of the ridge, when Steve dropped the set down hard on the other side. The rod bounced with a hooked fish. By the time he got to it, the line was out of the clip. That often means a bigger fish. Watching him work the rod, I asked the usual question How does it feel? All of a sudden, the rod loads up and line is melting off his reel. This is a big fish, he said with eyes the size of saucers. Twenty minutes later, the 41-inch, 30 lb. 4 oz. laker bobbed to the top and I went for the net. The fish now rests on his wall to remind him of that day.
Earlier in the spring when the lakers are scattered, we troll for them using a method called stacking where lures are spaced 20 feet apart on one downrigger cable. We often run two rigs but some times will run three depending on how many anglers are in the boat. They only allow one rod per angler here in Oregon. That allows you to cover depths of 60, 80 and 100 feet all on one downrigger at the same time. This can also be a deadly tactic because you are covering a much greater grid of the water column as you search for fish. One of the lures that are very productive is the A/C Original Minnow. Because of its erratic swimming action, it is perfect to use on a downrigger. We like the rainbow and silver/black patterns that represent the kokanee.
A few winters back, I started to fish for the bull trout in Billy Chinook in January. Some of the best bull trout fishing comes in the winter. At that time, the bulls tend to congregate around the kokanee schools. We find that the biggest kokanee schools are often right over the deepest part of the Crooked River channel in water over 200 feet. You can see the distinct arches scattered right under the schools at depths of 70 to 140 feet on average. These fish would not be available to us without the downriggers. During this time of year, the bulls all run over 4 lb. and can hit 15 lb. One of the hot lures this season was the A/C kokanee model that Allan just developed this last year. He sent me some prototypes and we immediately caught bulls up to 9 lb. The silver/black pattern was the preferred color.
At Pend Oreille Lake in Northern Idaho, we fish for the biggest rainbows in the world during the spring and fall when water temperatures are optimum. We catch most of our fish employing a technique with planer boards. However, on some of the sunny and flat days, the downriggers allow us to present the lures to fish that are spookier at depths from 10 to 60 feet. Again, we could not reach these fish without the downriggers.
I have just switched downriggers and am now working with Gary Miralles and Walker Downriggers. They have a new feature on their upgraded models that actually retrieves your downrigger ball to you. That is appealing to me with my bad back. I used them for the first time at Lake Shasta a couple of months ago and was impressed with their quality and ease of operation. My suggestion to anyone who is considering buying a downrigger is that you jump up to an electric downrigger if you fish a lot. If you only get out occasionally, then the manuals will work and cost considerably less. If you are a serious angler, it is time you considered buying a downrigger. I guarantee you will catch more and bigger fish, once you learn to use it.
Screaming Drags, Rick Arnold
Pro Staffer Rick Arnold is a licensed fishing guide targeting trophy browns and bulls in Oregon. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for guided trip details.