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This week's Feature Blog

Downrigger Steelhead Tricks

By: Mark Romanack

Just above the downrigger in this picture is a Big Al Fish Flash, the author commonly rigs in-line about six feet ahead of spoons for steelhead trolling. The Fish Flash creates a lot of fish attracting flash in the trolling pattern, pulling fish from greater distances and helping to trigger more strikes.

Steelhead, like other salmonids prefer cool water where they find preferred forage species like smelt. Typically in the summer time when the surface waters are far too warm to support smelt or steelhead, anglers hunt for these zones of cold water using a Fish Hawk sub-surface probe.

The Fish Hawk probe mounts to a downrigger weight making it easy to raise and lower the probe while searching for water temperatures conducive to holding bait and fish. The probe sends back critical data such as the water temperature at depth and also the trolling speed at depth via a transducer mounted at the transom of the boat.

On a recent trip our team was targeting steelhead near bottom in about 60 feet of water. In many areas the surface water temperature was hovering around 80 degrees and the bottom water temperature was still 75 degree bath water. Not exactly what a steelhead fisherman is looking for.

What made things unique is that by monitoring the Fish Hawk closely, we noticed there were small pockets of cool (55-65 degrees) water that held fish surrounded by huge expanses of warm water that held literally nothing. By zeroing in on these small pockets of cool water, we were able to scratch out some outstanding steelhead action.


We also noticed that when we found these pockets of cool water, the desirable water formed a very narrow band located close to the bottom. To maximize fishing success we set up our Cannon Optimum TS downriggers into cycle mode. When using the “cycle mode” lower the downrigger weight to the desired depth, then hit the menu button on downrigger LED screen. Scroll over to the “cycle” mode and select the “cycle range” and also the “cycle speed” desired. In this case we set up the “cycle range” to be five feet and the “cycle speed” at two seconds.

This unique feature raises the downrigger weight five feet every two seconds, then lowers the downrigger weight to the original depth again after two seconds. It’s simply amazing how well this feature works at triggering strikes from fish that were otherwise pretty much ignoring our spoons.

In this image, the Fish Hawk is showcasing the critical data needed to locate off shore steelhead. The top number (59) is how deep the downrigger weight is fishing. The next number down (78.6) is the surface water temperature. The third number (2.2) is the trolling speed at the surface. The fourth number (57.8) is the water temperature at depth and the last number (2.0) is the trolling speed at the ball. This critical information helps anglers find water temperatures that are conducive to attracting steelhead and the baitfish they depend on.


Most of the time when fishing downriggers, 20 pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon line is a standard. When fishing salmon sized spoons, this 20 pound test option works nicely.

When using smaller spoon sizes, it helps to add a six foot leader of 15 pound test. This short leader will allow smaller and lighter spoons to enjoy better action.

These leaders should feature a snap on one end and a quality ball bearing swivel on the other. This option makes them easy to add to downrigger lines when necessary and easy to remove when they are not needed.


When trolling spoons, a quality ball bearing swivel is a must. Ordinary brass barrel swivels will not allow spoons to enjoy as much freedom of movement. While quality ball bearing swivels are expensive, they are the best investment an angler can make in spoon fishing success.

For magnum spoons I typically use a No. 3 swivel and for standard and smaller spoons, I will tie on a No. 2 swivel.


Trolling for Great Lakes steelhead can be a riot, for those who have the right gear and knowledge of how to use it. Anglers who pay attention to details like water temperature, trolling speed and leader diameter, are the ones who consistently put more steelhead in the boat.


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