Trolling for Lake Trout: Tips for Rigs, Lures, Downriggers Setups

Traditional trout fishing in streams and rivers is fly fishing, casting lures, or fishing with bait in lakes that turn to troll or bait-fishing. A few years ago, trout was at large lakes—often huge lakes away from population centers.

Lakes such as Pend Oreille Lake in northern Idaho, Lake Tahoe, Flathead Lake in Montana, Flaming Gorge, and many others have wild trout. Trolling is one of the best ways to catch these trout.

This has all changed with the advent of large trout stocking programs for urban lakes. Today, most trout occur in lakes near cities and towns, and the catch is planted trout.

Trolling for Lake Trout: Tips for Rigs, Lures, Downriggers Setups


Where to Find Trout in Lake

Trout are stocked in almost every lake. Tough to hold them-particularly in lakes in and near populated areas where the demand for fishing recreation is high, water resources are limited. Anglers pay a fishing fee to cover the cost-typically about 15-20 per day at public lakes. Bait-fishing and trolling are equally popular ways to catch these fish.

Trolling for Lake Trout with Downriggers Setups

If you are using a downrigger, you get help from the sonar unit or the latest fish finders. For jigging and fishing, this is the proper setup.

A typical trout-fishing trip for wild trout may take several days, but lake trout anglers can travel to urban lakes in the morning or evening, catch fish and return home. The appeal of catching a wild trout has been replaced by the chance to catch large hatchery-grown trout-sometimes huge trout. Anglers occasionally land trout exceeding 10 pounds; some weigh 15 pounds or more.

These fish are strong and challenging but not usually acrobatic. However, when a lake has just reopened to fishing or when lakes cool and fish come to the surface, carryover trout from the previous year has grown into almost wild fish that may jump and fight extra hard.

What Tackle to Use for Lake Trout

Basic fishing tackle is all that is needed to troll for trout. A 6 1/2- or 7-foot-long lightweight rod with a spinning reel or a conventional baitcasting reel is ideal. A light line is required for urban lakes, which means a six-pound or perhaps four-pound-test monofilament line, fluorocarbon line, or a braided line.

With the new high-strength super lines like Fireline or Spiderwire, the line can be stronger and still have the desired small diameter. I have had success tying the lure directly to Fireline but am concerned about the visibility of some of the other fishing lines. A clear leader may make sense with those lines.

Fishing Tips on Lake Trout Lures and Baits

My favorite light trout lures include Dick Nites, Triple Teazers, Needlefish, Lucky Knights, and Canadian Wonders. For heavier lures, I like Kastmasters, Cripplures, and Z-Rays. You can fish these without extra weight or add weight to get them very deep.

Crankbaits are often excellent trolling lures. Rapalas, Rebels, Rat-L-Traps, and Wiggle Warts are some of my favorites. Choose sizes to imitate the bait in a lake. For lakes with minnows and threadfin shad, lures should be small. The lead-core line is an excellent way to get to fish from a few feet under the surface in the typical cool weather pattern to deep fish in the thermocline in the summer.

Whether you are fishing for wild trout in remote lakes or planters in urban lakes, the most basic fishing method is to troll with a small lure like a Kastmaster, Z-Ray, Needlefish, Triple Teazer, or a crankbait like a Rapala or Rat-LTrap to imitate small baitfish in the lake.

You can troll lures or bait with or without flashers near the surface on small diameter lines, troll them off downriggers, use lead-core lines or weights, or diving planes to fish deep.

Trolling Boat for Lake Fishing

The primary consideration for a boat is safety. The boat must be large enough to be seaworthy and safe even when unexpected weather blows in.

For most moderate or small lakes, a 14 or 15-foot aluminum fishing boat with a 15-horsepower outboard motor is ideal. Set it up with a fish finder, rod holders, a more relaxed, and tackle box along with the appropriate life jackets and other safety gear, and you have covered the basics.

Add an electric trolling motor with a GPS setting(some lakes only permit electric motors), and you are ready to troll at any speed. A smaller boat like a folding or inflatable boat for easy storage or a variety of small basic boats with electric trolling motors is fine for small urban lakes.

Trolling with Monofilament Line

Trolling with Monofilament Line

When fish are shallow many anglers troll with monofilament line using a light lure or a nightcrawler behind flashers. The attractor isn’t very deep, but it is gaudy; fish can’t miss it, rise to the flasher and take the bait or lure behind the attractor.

Flashers Trolling for Trout and Salmon

Flashers are made to represent a school of swimming baitfish, but whether this is the reason or reflects a lot of light to get attention, they work.

Fishing with flashers is an excellent way to catch these trout, but I don’t use them. They add resistance when fighting the fish. When the fish swims laterally, the flasher pulls against the water, creating an extra unwanted force.

I don’t have a good feel for what the fish is doing or the confidence that I can always react to fight the fish in the best way. When I have tried flashers, a friend trolling with a small lure usually caught more fish using the best salmon trolling reel, rods, lures, etc. When fish are biting, I have been able to troll at the appropriate depth and catch them on small lures without flashers.

The flashers must be trolled slowly-slower than idle speed on most outboard motors. A trolling plate to block some of the flow from the propeller or an electric trolling motor may be required to slow the boat to the ideal, slow trolling speed.

Get the Lure to the Fish’s Depth

Lures like Kastmaster, Z-Ray, or Cripplure are heavier lures that get down a few feet below the surface. They can be trolled at a reasonable depth from fall to spring when fish are shallow. When fish are deeper or trolling with lighter lures, add weight to get the lure deeper—the graphs in Chapters 10 and 11 show how much weight to add to the desired depth.

When you use a weight to take your lure to depth, light lures like Needlefish, Triple Teazers, Dick Nites, or Humdingers are ideal. They don’t add much drag to the weight and don’t tend to dive down because of their weight. They follow along behind the importance. Get the weight to the proper depth, and you have the lure at the correct depth.

Troll the lure a long distance behind the boat, so the boat passes over the fish, and they have time to disassociate the lure from the boat. Fifty feet of the trail (the horizontal distance from the boat to the lure) may be fine in murky water or when fish are deep, but 75 to 100 feet of the trail will often catch more fish in clear water.

Fly Anglers Troll Flies

I fly-fished with famous fly-fishing guide J. Fair on Davis Lake in California last spring. We started early in the morning, climbed in his boat, and motored across the lake where Fair expected to find fish. We beached the boat, got out, and started fishing.

Using an olive Woolly Bugger that Fair tied, I waded out along a shallow point and started casting in areas where Fair had caught trout the previous morning. Occasionally I would see a trout rise, and I would try to cast to that fish. However, most of the time, I didn’t see any rising fish but the cast, hoping to entice a cruising fish.

After an hour without a fish, we moved to another area and did the same thing for another hour. I was surprised when Fair, one of the best fly-fishing anglers I know, switched to trolling. If he wasn’t acting as a guide, he might fish all day using traditional fly fishing.

But as a guide, he needed to get fish for his clients, and he needed to have a whole bag of tricks when one fishing method wasn’t working. He knows trolling can be one of the most effective lake trout fishing methods.

We changed to bait-casting rods and tied on Woolly Bugger flies. The conventional revolving spool reel/line counter reels had a 15-foot length of lead-core line to sink the fly, followed by a monofilament running line, and we let our flies out about 100 feet behind the boat.

Two companions and I caught four fish using traditional fly fishing by the end of the day, but we landed nine trout trolling.

Best Season for Trout Fishing with Trolling

Best Season for Trout Fishing with Trolling

With the arrival of fall, the days grow short, and a chill fills the air. It Lakes cool, and trout fishing takes an abrupt change. Fish that were deep swim to the surface. Large, fat trout are now easy targets for anglers.

Trolling for Lake Trout Fishing in Spring

What triggers this change? To answer this question, let’s start in the spring when trout are driven deep. As spring and summer days grow longer and warmer, the warm air and radiation from the sun warm the surface layer of water in great lakes.

Warm water rises to the top of the lake, so this warm water stays on the surface. Wind and waves mix the water only to a certain depth, and the cool water remains at the bottom. The lake becomes stratified with a layer on the surface, a layer of cool oxygen-depleted water in the bottom, and a seam where these two meet called the thermocline.

The temperature change at the thermocline is abrupt. I have dropped a temperature sensor connected to an electrical readout in the boat using a depth guide for trolling.

As the probe goes deeper and deeper, the temperature stays the same, but the temperature drops five or ten degrees when it comes to this layer.

This narrow zone, the thermocline, is the only depth that has everything trout and baitfish demand. It has cool waters, food, and oxygen, where trout thrive during the warmer months. Troll at that depth or a little shallower, and you will be at the correct depth to catch them.

Lake Trout Fishing in Fall 

In the fall, the surface of the lake cools, but cold waterfalls as warm water rises. This action mixes the water from the surface to the depths of the lake. The cool, oxygenated water near the surface is ideal for trout and baitfish. Trout now move to the surface to find the desired water temperature, oxygen, and food.

A particular time to fish in urban lake areas is when trout first come to the surface. These fish have lived deep in the lake during the summer and have become acclimated to their environment. They fight more like wild trout than hatchery plants. Supplemented by weekly plants, good fishing continues throughout the fall, winter, and spring.

Cold Time Lake Trout Fishing 

Another particular time to catch lake trout is when the lake areas reopen after being closed. San Pablo Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay Area and Lake Pardee in the foothills east of Stockton are waterfowl refuges. They are closed to fishing from mid-November to mid-February. Many carryover trout have grown almost wild and are great fighters, yet they are eager to take the bait. Later they will become educated and wary of a baitfish or lure.

During these cooler months, lake trout are seen surfacing frequently, but they may hold five to 15 feet deep water, which is the place to start fishing. Fish this depth in the early morning and go more profound as the sun drives fish down.

Shallow-running crankbaits or medium-weight lures trolled on a monofilament line with no weight or a lightweight will get the lure to the desired depth. A light lure trolled on 30 to 60 feet of lead-core fishing line setup will also get the lure to the proper depth.

Trolling for Big Lake Trout: Catching Reluctant Trout with Right Setup

Often you see fish on your depth finder and know your lure is at the correct depth, but the fish aren’t hitting. For some reason, fish seem to have periods of feeding when they hit almost any lure or bait and other times when they are very selective. Being able to entice them to strike when they are not actively feeding makes the day. At these times, special maneuvers may put extra fish in the boat.

Sometimes lake trout hit when your boat is making a turn. As you turn, the lure takes a shorter curve inside the path of the boat. It goes slower, drops deeper, speeds back to average trolling speed, and climbs back to the typical trolling depth. The change in depth exposes the lure to deep water fish. The increase in speed and climbing may give the illusion of a meal getting away and trigger a strike.

Trolling Lake Trout with Downriggers

Trolling Lake Trout with Downriggers

I fished with one guide who trolled a downrigger 40 feet deep water, and we could see the downrigger weight on his fish finder; once, we could also see a lake trout coming up from under and behind the weight following the lure. The fish followed along without attacking until we changed velocity.

We sped up; the fish reacted, took the lure, and we had a fish. It probably thought the potential meal was getting away when we increased the lure’s speed, and the trout decided it had to act or its dinner would escape.

Downrigger Setup for Trout

It would be best to have some, especially in your rod, reel, bait, and another set up for use with a downrigger. As the downrigger process acts a bit differently than regular trolling fishing, there are few things you should consider before making an ideal trolling gear setup for trout.

Downrigger Rods for Lake Trout Fishing

  • Lamiglas Classic Glass
  • Okuma Classic Pro GLT
  • Okuma Kokanee Black
  • Lamiglas XCC Kwik Series
  • Okuma SST Downrigger Rod
  • Lamiglas XCC 1066-GH Kwik Series Rod
  • St. Croix Eyecon for Downrigging
  • Eagle Claw Featherlight trout rod

Downrigger Reel for Trout in Big Lake

You can use any trolling reels for trout fishing for using with a downrigger. Still, these choices we have made will provide better support in moving water and controlling giant trout.

  • Shimano Tekota 600 Line Counter Salmon Reel
  • Shimano Tekota A Salmon Reel
  • Shimano Triton 200G Graphite Fishing Reel
  • Penn Squall Salmon Trolling Reel
  • Okuma Magda Pro Line Counter Levelwind Trolling Reel
  • Penn Warfare Level Wind Conventional Fishing Reel

Check out a few more downrigger reels for salmon here.

Tricks for With Downrigger Trolling

Tricks for With Downrigger Trolling

Many anglers are very successful trollers catching hundreds of trout in a season, but most are small- to medium-sized fish. Others don’t catch as many fish but catch large lake trout.

For standard and downrigger setup, you should follow some similar guidelines and tips for better performance in fishing. Here are few things you can consider for with and trolling for trout without downriggers:

Trolling Speed and Area Coverage

With downrigger or not, one should circle the lake for better fishing. Rather than the fly traveling through the water at a constant speed, it would speed up then slow down as we moved our rod tip.

What to Do with Rods

At other times I have swept the rod tip forward then back, but Fair has found this motion to be too abrupt and jerky when lies. Rotating the rod tip gives a smoother, more natural, and more effective action. When trolling a crankbait, small lure, or baitfish, the more abrupt change may be better.

How to Put Your Lure for Lake Trout

When you increase velocity, as when you start reeling in your lure, a fish hit. One guide had me pump my rod tip as I retrieved my lure.

This action increased the speed of the lure, then slowed it down to make it look alive. Another guide I fished with frequently increased the speed of the motor momentarily then dropped back to average trolling speed. Changing speed and changing depths often draw strikes.

Slay Trolling for Trout with Downriggers to Catch Large Fish

Most of the slay trolling requires a lot of patience. It may take time to find the secret, or they may just not be biting.

But when you have found the right combination of lure, depth, trolling speed, and fish biting, you have an excellent chance to catch several large fish. You have to put the lure in the right water column using a sonar or GPS tracker.

When trolling off downriggers, you should let out 45 to 50 feet of line before attaching a lure to the downrigger. With a lure like a Rapala on monofilament, you should troll about 70 feet behind the boat.

Any angler should experiment to find where the fish strike, and that may not be where they are showing on his fish finder. He should set his downrigger to 15 feet even though fish are showing on his fish finder at 20 to 30 feet. Fishing a little above the fish is better than fishing below them.

Using Lures for Big Trout

You can use various lures, but most anglers like Needlefish, particularly the new hot tail design, Dick Nites, Rainbow Raiders, and Rapalas. Some professional trout anglers, particularly like the Pearl Bikini Needlefish and Fire Tiger Rapala, have success with red and silver, chartreuse, or red and white lures.

Many lures recently have been a white lure with a green head, but the best color combinations change frequently. On clear days he likes silver lures, and on overcast days or in murky water, he favors gold lures.

Deep-Water Trolling the Mid-depths

Deep-Water Trolling the Mid-depths

For fish such as salmon and trout-is easy when you use a heavy sinker that stays deep when slow-trolled, combined with one or more lures fished off droppers that are several feet long. Attach them to the mainline above the sinker using three-way swivels, blood knots, or dropper loops. This type of rig is often used for fishing the thermocline—the layer of water separating the warmer upper waters and the colder, oxygen-poor depths.

Planers, used only for trolling, work similarly to the diving planes on submarines. When rigged between the trolling rod and the lure, the planer and lures or bait are forced by the pressure of moving water deeper than they would ordinarily track.

Most planers are equipped with a mechanical or magnetic catch that trips when a fish strikes. The planer then loses its diving capability until the fish is landed and the planer reset. Divers are similar to planers but feature an erratic side-to-side motion that gives the lure more action in the water.

Side planers are little floating “sleds” attached by a heavy line to a fixed point on the boat. Clips that release on strike allow the planer to hold the fishing line and trolling lures. Side planers are used primarily in large freshwater lakes to troll multiple lines or get lures close to a shallow, rocky shoreline.

Using Scent for Downrigger Trout

The scent is an essential factor, and any angler should try to avoid harmful scents. That doesn’t mean you have to use scent routinely, but sometimes you can apply them to lures to mask scents they may have picked up from your hands.

Last Few Words

Planting trout in urban lakes have significantly increased fishing opportunities for the city and suburban anglers. Whether you’re fishing for planted trout near population centers or wild trout in remote lake areas, trolling is one of the most effective fishing methods.

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