How to Troll in Deep Water without Downriggers

Trolling is a great way to cover lots of water and find more fish, but getting outfitted to catch “the big one” in deep water can seem like a daunting task.  Downriggers certainly make reaching greater depths easier.  However, for those of you with small boats or kayaks, it may not even be feasible to use them.  Not to mention, downriggers are not cheap.

Luckily, downriggers are not the only option available.  Hopefully, this guide will help you see that trolling for big fish in deep water is possible on a modest budget with several simple strategies.  

How do you troll deep without a downrigger?  There are two general methods of getting your bait down to the fish while trolling.  You can add lead weights to the line or use a diving device.  In both cases, the weight or diver is attached to the main line with the lure or bait tied to the terminal end using a leader that is lighter than the main line.  As you let out more line, your gear will descend to the desired depth.

As simple as that sounds, there is still more to the process and the rest of this article will be spent helping you find the right setup for your specific fishing situation.

How deep do you need to troll

The depth that fish hang out at depends on several factors that are specific to each particular body of water.  However, there are a couple basic rules of thumb to follow when trying to find the right depth to target.  

Seasonal patterns and lake turnover

Each season throughout the year creates different water conditions.  Temperature, food sources and cover are always in a constant state of flux.  Therefore, consistently plucking trophies from the water requires a good knowledge of how each season affects your local honey hole.

Many lakes go through something called “turnover” twice each year.  Once in early spring, when ice melts, and again in fall as cool weather arrives.  

Turnover occurs when cooler surface water sinks below layers of warm water, essentially mixing the water.  The dissolved oxygen that fish need to breathe becomes more evenly distributed throughout the water column, as do the fish.  

During these times it becomes more difficult to find the best depth for suspended fish.  Focus instead on finding concentrations of bait and troll along submerged weed beds that provide cover.

Find the thermocline

Most anglers will tell you that the ideal depth to troll depends on where the thermocline is.  You may have heard this term before, but actually understanding what it means can revolutionize your fishing experience.

Once a lake is done with turnover, the water begins to stratify into layers.  Simply put, the thermocline is the layer where the ideal mix of dissolved oxygen and water temperature occurs.  

It is especially beneficial to find the thermocline as the weather gets hot during summer months. The majority of fish will hold at or above this zone.   

The easiest way to locate the thermocline is to use electronics.  Go out to a deeper section of water and turn up the sensitivity of your fish finder.  The thermocline will appear as an obvious band.  Once you know the depth, start looking for corresponding shoreline structure and cover where high concentrations of fish hold.

Without boat electronics, accurately locating the thermocline requires more experimentation and guess work.  In general, moderately clear or clear lakes will have a thermocline around 10-20 feet, and even up to 30 feet or more in large, deep lakes.

Best rod and reels for trolling

Having the right rod and reel setup for the fish species you hope to catch will make the task much more affective and fun.  While you can use any moderately stout pole, there are certain characteristics that make a rod and reel combo ideal for trolling with divers or weights.

Rods

There are hundreds of options when choosing the perfect rod for trolling.  As you gain experience, you will develop your preferences for each species of fish you target.  Try keeping it simple when first starting.

Sensitivity is not as critical since the primary purpose of the rod when trolling is to act as a shock absorber.  Snags, repetitive bouncing motions and hard fish strikes all take a toll, so the rod needs to be durable.

Since you’re not paying for extreme sensitivity, a trolling rod should not cost a fortune.  Here is what I look for in an ideal trolling rod for most fish species.

  • Medium to medium heavy weight
  • Moderate action
  • 7’ 6” to 9’ length
  • Nice sturdy reel seat
  • Long handle for leverage

Reels

The secret to trolling without a downrigger is being able to replicate success.  That is why I highly recommend a level-wind reel with a built-in line counter.  If you don’t have a line counter for your reel, just find a repeatable method to play out line. 

Another consideration when choosing a reel is spool size.  When trolling without a downrigger, you need to let out more line to get down to the fish.  Having a reel that holds a sufficient amount of quality line will pay dividends when fighting feisty fish.

Never underestimate the importance of a quality drag system.  The first thing I look for when selecting a reel is the sensitivity of the drag.  It should allow line to smoothly peel off the reel without locking up.  

Can you troll with a spinning rod and reel

I have caught many fish trolling with a spinning rod and reel.  The only reason to avoid it is line twist.  Line twist is hard to avoid with any rod and reel setup when trolling but spinning reels can be a real headache.   

Many trolling situations are well suited for trolling with spinning setups and you certainly don’t need to buy a specialized trolling rod and level-wind reel.  Use what you have.  However, if you want learn how to troll with spinning gear and avoid frustration, be sure to check out my post on preventing line twists while trolling

Trolling divers

Divers are incredibly effective at getting your lures down deep.  In some cases, divers can achieve depths beyond 90 feet. There are several styles of divers each designed for specific purposes.      

Dipsy diver

The Dipsy diver is particularly useful when fishing several trolling rods out of one small boat.  This circular, weighted diver can be adjusted to track the port or starboard while diving at the same time.  

There is also an adjustable trip mechanism that disables the diving function when a fish strikes, preventing resistance during the fight.

Several sizes are available to match the depth you want to reach. The largest can reach depths over 90 feet.

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Deep Six diver

Deep Six divers are ideal for salmon anglers.  These in-line divers dive at steep angles, which get you deeper with less line.  The trip mechanism is finely tuned to handle fast trolling speeds and strong currents that are encountered in saltwater locations.  Yet it is still easily triggered on the strike or manually when reeling up your gear.

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Jet diver

This floating diver is ideally suited for river bank trolling or any location where fish hold tight to bottom cover.  Forward motion propels the diver down, but when the line is slack the diver ascends to prevent snags and lost gear.

A wide range of sizes and adjustments can fish shallow or up to 50 feet of water.

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Lead weights

By far the least expensive and simplest method to reach moderately deep water, are lead weights.  A full range of styles and heft provide unlimited customization.  Here are two of my favorite types for trolling.  

Keel weights

These lead weights are simply tied to your mainline in front of your tackle.  They are designed with a keel fin to track straight without spinning.  The only way to adjust depth is to tie on heavier weight.  

More lead on the line means less control and sensitivity when fighting fish.  While this is not a deal breaker, consider switching to a diver if you want to reach depths of more than 30 feet. 

6 to 8 ounces is the maximum weight I recommend for most types of trolling.  You can easily reach 20 or 30 feet of water with 4 to 6 ounces when trolling light tackle for trout or walleye.

Snap weights

The snap weight system is well-matched for fish suspended above the bottom or when trolling along a flat, smooth lake bottom where snagging is less of a concern.  

Using them is straight forward.  In order to get a good idea of how deep your gear is, a 50/50 system is used.  First, let out 50 feet of line and snap on the weight.  Then let out 50 more feet of line.  Depending on the amount of weight used (1/2-ounce to 4 ounces) the 50/50 system can reliably target specific depths.  A built in line counter on a reel makes this process most accurate.   

The depths obtained with a snap weight when trolling is speed dependent.  Use the chart below to get a general idea of where your bait is in the water column.

Trolling Speed (miles per hour) vs. Lure Depth (feet)

Weight1 mph1.5 mph2 mph
1/2 oz10-14 ft6-10 ft2-6 ft
1 oz16-20 ft12-16 ft8-12 ft
1.5 oz20-24 ft16-20 ft12-16 ft
2 oz22-26 ft18-22 ft14-18 ft
3 oz28-32 ft24-28 ft20-24 ft

By far the biggest benefit of using snap weights is the ability to remove them while fighting a fish.  Once you get a fish hooked up and begin reeling it in, the weight can easily be unclipped with one hand when it reaches the rod.  Then, continue fighting the fish as normal.

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Lead core line

Lead core line is exactly as it sounds, hollow braid fishing line with a lead core.  It’s a great option for long line trolling without the aid of additional weights or divers.  Generally, lead core line can reach depths of 30 to 50 feet with just about any lure.  

The main benefit with this type of line is its ability to simplify your setup.  You can use smaller lures with a more natural presentation.  Walleye anglers are especially fond of long line trolling with lead core line but even trout and kokanee anglers are starting to recognize the benefits.

Lead core line comes with colored markings in 10 yard intervals to help gage distance and approximate depths, which definitely makes it easier to duplicate success.  

Fishing with lead core line requires a larger capacity level wind reel, preferably one with a line counter.  First, attach a backing of 10 to 12 pond monofilament.  Then, connect 18 or 36 pound test lead core line.  

Tying knots with a thick piece of lead is nearly impossible so wiggle the end of the leaded line until a short segment of lead breaks free and use the hollow braid to make connections.  

Use the lead free section to join with the mono backing using a double uni knot.  A 100 yard section of lead core is plenty to get down deep.  If you need to go deeper, just let out some backing until your target depth is reached.  

On the lure end of the line, remove a short section of lead as before and tie on a size 18, or smaller, barrel swivel.  Now use a 10 to 15 foot mono or fluorocarbon leader to tie on the lure.

There are limited choices for lead core line but in our experience Suffix Performance Lead core works great and usually lasts a full season of trolling.

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Tactics for trolling deeper

If it seems like you still can’t get deep enough, here are a few more tricks to help your gear creep down a little deeper.

Troll with the smallest diameter line possible

Not all fishing line is created equal and each type of line has its own advantages and disadvantages.  However, when you are trying to fish deep, line diameter does matter.  Line with a larger diameter creates more drag when pulled through the water, creating a bow in the line that prevents your gear from going deeper.

To minimize the effects of drag, choose the smallest diameter line possible.  If you decide to use monofilament line, opt for the lowest pound test you are comfortable with.  Depending on the species, 12-20 pound test is sufficient for walleye, trout and even salmon.  

Braided line offers the advantage of smaller diameter with incredible strength.  20-30 pound test braided line has the equivalent diameter of 6-8 pound mono.  

Keep in mind that if you decide to switch to braided, following your diver or weight with a rubber snubber and a mono or fluorocarbon leader will help keep some stretch in the line.  When big fish start head shaking, line stretch will act as a buffer to prevent the hook from tearing out. 

Slow down your troll speed

Slowing your troll speed will create less drag and allow weighted divers or keel weights to sink lower in the water column.  Finding the balance between trolling speeds that entices more strikes and getting to the depth the fish are holding is no easy task.  Bump up your odds of trolling success by checking out our complete guide that details the best trolling speeds for many popular gamefish.  

Compensate for tackle drag

Still having a hard time getting deep enough?  Don’t forget that your terminal tackle creates additional drag when you’re trolling.  Consider using tackle that does not have as much drag or add more weight to push your gear deeper.  

Other considerations  

There is always so much to learn and getting started is the hardest part.  Whatever method you use to troll deep, here are a few more tips on how to troll.

  • Make wide turns.  If you have multiple lines out, avoid sharp turns so that your gear does not get tangled.  Also, a really sharp turn can put your line in the prop of the motor.  Look ahead and plan out your turns well in advance.
  • Know your depth.  Snagging gear on the bottom gets expensive fast.  Keep an eye out for sudden structure or depth changes in the area you are trolling.  Electronics make this job easier.  If you don’t have any, try getting your hands on a contour map of the location you fish.
  • Use fewer poles at one time.  It is easy to think that the number of rod holders is your limit on how many lines to put in the water.  Even with a Dipsy diver that spreads the lines away from each other, it still adds a bit of difficulty to trolling.  This is especially true when fighting a fish or making turns.

Final thoughts

Want to put some of these tips into practice? Head over to my article about trolling for kokanee without downriggers and you too can start catching one of the most popular sport fish in the west.