Trolling for Kokanee Without Downriggers

So many people miss out on the thrill of catching kokanee because they hear that you need to troll with downriggers.  Downriggers certainly make the job easier but they are not required for success.  

If you want to consistently fill your stringer with kokanee, then I suggest you read on.  My goal is to help you catch fish in deeper water all season long with a simple trolling setup that does not involve spending a pretty penny on downriggers.

How deep do kokanee live

The lakes and reservoirs where kokanee live are deep and perfectly suited to support good numbers of healthy fish.  It is not uncommon to mark fish with electronic sonar at 90 feet.   

Several factors affect where in the water column kokanee will be.  These include water temperature, food sources, time of day and seasonal changes.  

Early in the spring, kokanee can be found in 10 to 20 feet of water.  The temperatures are cool and their primary food sources (zooplankton) are abundant and well distributed along the water column.  

As spring progresses to summer, the sun dictates the microscopic zooplankton’s life cycle.  The zooplankton move deeper in the water as the sun gets higher in the sky and the kokanee follow.  Therefore, you should expect to find fish in shallower water at dusk and dawn and slightly deeper by mid-day.

Kokanee are very sensitive to temperature changes and avoid temperatures that rise above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Hot summer days lead to higher surface temperatures and the fish move deeper seeking cooler water.  

On average, expect to find kokanee in 30 to 60 feet of water throughout the fishing season.  

While downriggers are not a must, a good fish finder is.  If you don’t have a reliable way to find where the kokanee are, you are going to spend the majority of each day guessing the depth and spot you need to be at. Kokanee move a lot and where you find them is different from one day to the next.  

Sliding dropper rig

Now that we understand kokanee prefer deeper water, let’s take a look at the best setup for getting your tackle in front of them when trolling without a downrigger.  

Few trolling rigs are as simple and effective for kokanee as the sliding dropper rig.  My ideal setup has the following components:

  • Sliding sinker clip
  • 1 to 6 ounce cannon ball sinker
  • Bead chain
  • Kokanee dodger
  • Kokanee hoochie
  • Dye-cured corn (anise and garlic scent)

Use these 4 easy steps to tie up the rig.

Step 1:

First slide your sliding sinker clip onto the main line.  

Step 2:

Next, tie on the bead chain followed by an 18 to 22 inch piece of main line to a 4 or 5 inch dodger of your choice.  

Step 3:

Follow that with a 6 to 8 inch piece of light leader tied to a kokanee hoochie baited with a few kernels of anise and garlic cured corn. 

Step 4:

The final step is to add the cannon ball sinker in the weight needed to reach the fish. A 3 to 4 ounce sinker puts me in the zone for fish on most occasions.

Use the image bellow to further clarify the exact setup.  

You might be wondering why you need the sliding sinker clip.  Wouldn’t it be easier to use inline keel or banana weights?  

Those types of weights do work but they cause one major issue.  You will loose more fish.  

Kokanee have super soft mouths and the siding sinker allows a fish to hit the lure without the weight resisting the strike.  An inline weight won’t soften the blow to the fish’s mouth and the tear in their lip gives them a better chance to throw the hook.

In other words, the sliding sinker clip distributes the force along the line and up to the tip of your trolling rod without involving the resistance from the weight.  Not only will you see subtle strikes from small fish, you will also get more fish to the boat and in the net.     

Know how deep your gear is

The primary advantage of using a downrigger is the ability to reach exact depths.  I’m the first to admit that nothing beats a downrigger in this regard.  When you are marking fish on your sonar at 57 feet, a downrigger can get your tackle to that depth with a push of a button.

Not all is lost though.  There is a fairly accurate way to get your tackle down to a specific depth.  With a little research and some first hand experience, I put together a chart you can use as a guide for determining your depth when trolling for kokanee.

* Depth measurements based on 8-12 pound mono line trolled at 1.5 mph

To use this chart to its full potential, your trolling setup should include a level wind reel with a line counter built in.  Accurate estimations of depth start with accurate measurements of the amount of line out.  If you’re using a spinning reel, pull line out in one foot increments and try not to loose count.

You probably noticed that the maximum depth achieved is around 60 feet.  For the rare occasions when fish are suspended in 75 feet of water or more, you still have a good chance of enticing kokanee to rise to your bait.  Kokanee often move up to investigate a flashy dodger in water with good clarity.

Again, a 3 or 4 ounce weight is my go to amount when I am marking fish in the 40 to 50 foot range.  If you have a selection of weights on hand, you can just swap them out when the sonar indicates fish holding at different depths.

What about divers

Divers excel at getting your gear down deep when trolling and without letting out too much line.  I have seen kokanee caught with small Deep Six divers, Dipsy divers and Jet divers.  

There are, however, a few major drawbacks to be aware of.  

First, the release mechanism that stops the diver from diving when a fish hooks up is not usually sensitive enough for small kokanee.  

Second, as I described earlier with the inline keel or banana weights, the diver resists the strike and often causes tearing in the kokanee’s soft mouth.  As a result, you loose more fish during the fight.  To combat this, try adding a rubber snubber behind the diver.  It will act like a shock absorber when a fish hits your lure.

Finally, but certainly not least, it’s just not as fun fighting a kokanee when it’s being dragged behind a large diver.  

That’s not to say divers are useless for kokanee.  If that is what you have, then use it.  If you can determine how deep to let it dive, you will catch your fair share of fish, but it will take practice and fine tuning to get it right.

Trolling tips to get deeper

Sometimes we need to get our tackle just a few feet closer to the fish.  To accomplish this, there are a some additional ways to reduce drag on your gear and send it deeper in the water column.

Use smaller diameter line

The average kokanee is around 16 inches long so you really don’t need to spool up with 20 pound test.  Instead, use the lightest line possible.  Lighter weight lines have smaller diameters.  As line travels through the water while trolling, it creates drag.  I find that 8 pound test monofilament is a good balance between strength and reduced drag.

You can further reduce drag by switching to braided line.  The advantage with braided line is more strength with even smaller diameters.  Keep in mind that braided line does not stretch like mono.  If you are loosing more fish than you did with mono line, try adding a rubber snubber after the bead chain to cushion the force from aggressive head shakes.

Troll in “S” curves

It is never a good idea to troll in straight lines.  Vary your trolling presentation by using turns and “s” curves.  This will cause changes in speed, which allows your tackle to sink a few feet during the turn.  As you turn the opposite direction, you tackle will speed up and rise back up to the straight line depth.

Make your turns subtle and smooth.  The up and down motion of your gear through the water column can initiate more strikes.  

Adjust your trolling speed

Kokanee like a slow trolling speed.  Try to stay anywhere from 0.8 mph to 1.7 mph when trolling.  The chart above for determining your depth with the sliding dropper rig is estimated for 1.5 mph speeds.  You can add 5 to 10 feet to your overall depth if you slow down to 1 or 1.2 mph.  

Personally, I find 1.2 mph to be the best trolling speed for catching kokanee.  Remember to check the action of your gear before letting line out.  Some dodgers lose their action at speeds under 1 mph.  

Final thoughts

Trolling for kokanee does not need to be complicated or expensive.  Give the sliding dropper rig a shot and you won’t be disappointed with the results.  

If you have never fished for kokanee before or even if you have years of experience, be sure to read my guide on everything you need to know about trolling for kokanee.  You will find even more helpful tips to increase your success.