Trolling for Salmon with Downriggers: The Ultimate Guide

June 5, 2020

Trolling for Salmon with Downriggers: The Ultimate Guide

When we chat with salmon fishermen about trolling for salmon with downriggers, almost everyone has a setup they swear by. Over the last 15 years of salmon fishing, we’ve seen it all. From brined plug cut herring to anise covered Kwikfish, each guide seems to have their own “special sauce” for trolling for salmon with downriggers. But what actually works and what is just nonsense?

We’re here to set the record straight on how to troll for salmon with downriggers. The following techniques and tips have helped our friends catch hundreds of fish over the past decade. Using a downrigger effectively is the best way to catch all types of salmon in almost every situation. 

In this article, we’ll cover everything there is to know about trolling for salmon with downriggers. We’ll cover the types of salmon you can catch, the best downriggers to buy, how to use a downrigger, and much more. So fill up your coffee mug, grab a notepad, and get ready to become a master downrigger fisherman!

How do Downriggers Work?

Downriggers are pretty simple: they sink your salmon trolling rig and lure down to a specified depth by connecting your rig to a main weighted line. Downriggers work best on aluminum salmon fishing boats, often with offshore brackets. The weighted line is usually made of wire with a 5 to 10 lb weight on the end. A few feet above the weight, there’s a clip that grabs your fishing line and applies enough pressure to drag it down with the weight. When a fish bites your lure, the clip lets go of the weighted line so you can fight the fish. Downrigger work great for salmon and other deep-dwelling fish such as grouper.

The weighted line is either retrieved by a manual crank or an electric motor. We’ll get into more detail below, but downriggers with electric motors are more expensive than the manual ones. If you want a more detailed view of how downriggers work, check out the above video to learn more.

Why Use Downriggers?

Before diving into the particulars of trolling for salmon with downriggers, we thought it made sense to highlight why we love using them so much. If you were on the fence about getting a downrigger, hopefully, this will push you over the edge.

  1. Downriggers are very accurate. No more guessing as to what depth your lure is at! Downriggers have exact measurements as to how deep your lure is. This allows you to get your trolling lure exactly where you want it.
  2. They aren’t a huge investment. Most downrigger setups cost less than $100 and are built to last. If you don’t mind cranking the downrigger weight up yourself, it becomes a very affordable fishing investment.
  3. They give you extra flexibility. Downriggers allow you to get your lure in front of salmon you couldn’t reach with divers or other weight setups. If you’re fishing for a monster king salmon at 80 feet down, you won’t have any trouble getting your lure to that depth. It’s also worth noting downriggers are a great option for other species of fish, such as kokanee, lake trout, or even yellowfin tuna.

The Best Salmon Downriggers

By now we’ve convinced you that trolling for salmon with downriggers is the way to go. Next up is covering which downriggers you should buy! As we mentioned before, downriggers are quite affordable if you’re willing to do the cranking yourself. If you have a bit more budget, you can buy a downrigger that has an electric motor to pull the weight up for you. Cannon is the gold standard in downrigger design, and the brand we trust the most. Check out our favorites below.

What Types of Salmon Can You Catch?

The quick answer is all types! Since downriggers help sink your trolling lure to the exact depth you want it, they work well for almost every type of salmon. There is a misconception that downriggers are only meant for fishing at deep depths. We’ve used downriggers to fish for coho salmon at only 15 feet deep and seen great results. Downriggers are valuable because they allow you to sink your lure to exactly where you want it.  

That being said, downriggers are great for king (chinook) salmon, coho (silver) salmon, kokanee freshwater salmon, pink salmon, chum salmon, and more. We typically only fish for king and coho salmon (they are the most desirable and common types of salmon), so a majority of this article will be focused on techniques for them.


The Best Tackle for Salmon Trolling

What makes a good salmon trolling rod and reel? Depending on the type of salmon you’re trolling for, different salmon fishing tackle setups are most effective. For both king and coho salmon, we recommend a medium to heavy trolling reel with 30 lb test braided line. The Penn Squall LevelWind is a perfect entry-level salmon trolling reel. For Kokanee salmon, we recommend using light or ultralight tackle. You can also get away with using a saltwater baitcasting reel if you have one. You should also get a large saltwater fishing net.

As far as a rod goes, we recommend a medium strength saltwater rod that’s at least 8 feet long. Here are a few pointers when it comes to picking out a good saltwater salmon trolling rod.

  • Long length. Using a long rod (8 ft and over) give you more leverage to fight a strong salmon while trolling. It also adds to the flexibility of the rod so when a salmon bites your lure while trolling it gets hooked effectively. Lamiglas makes great salmon trolling rods.
  • Soft tip. Salmon trolling rods need to be more flexible than other rods, especially at the tip. This allows the salmon to take the lure and get hooked without having the lure ripped out of their mouth by the boat.

Salmon Trolling Rigs

Now that you’ve got a downrigger and the appropriate salmon fishing tackle, it’s time to go over the most common downrigger rigs used for salmon fishing. A salmon downrigger rig is usually made up of 3 different pieces: a flasher, leader, and a lure. Another common setup is the meat rig – check out our how to fish a meat rig for more info on that type of salmon rig.

  • Flasher: A flasher is a big metal plate that’s used to attract salmon that might be too far away to see your lure. The flasher imitates a wounded baitfish or other underwater creatures and piques a hungry salmons interest. Once they get close enough to see your lure they forget about the flasher and go after it instead.
  • Leader: we recommend using a 20 to 30 monofilament leader between 4 and 8 feet long. For coho salmon make your leader between 4 and 6 feet long. With king salmon, you can go longer – up to 8 feet long. For Pink salmon size down – 12 lb test monofilament works great. With kokanee go even smaller: 6 to 8 lb is perfect.
  • Lure: Lastly you need a lure (duh). We’ll go into more detail below, but some common options are herring, spoons, and hoochie squids. You most likely will need to use barbless hooks too. Check your local regulations to make sure.

The Best Salmon Trolling Lures

Let’s talk about lures. Here are our favorite lures for the most common types of salmon.

  • King salmon: Our favorite king salmon lures are cut plug herring, silver/blue spoons, and chartreuse or pink hoochie squids. We’ve seen success with plug cut herring later in the season in bays and rivers, while the spoons and hoochie squids are better for ocean salmon fishing.
  • Kokanee salmon: Kokanee salmon love biting small spoons and spinners with spots on them. There are many brands that make lures like this, so focus on the coloring. Pink, chartreuse, and blue work best. Kokanee will also go after small “wedding ring” style lures and roostertail spinners.
  • Pink salmon: pinks enjoy eating a similar diet to coho salmon, so we like to replicate a similar lure setup. Pink and chartreuse hoochie squids work great as well as smaller silver spoons.

How to Troll for Salmon

You might think trolling for salmon is the same for all species. To a certain extent it is, but there are several key differences depending on what kind of salmon you’re fishing for and the time of year.


Trolling for Coho Salmon

Early on in the season (June to August) focus on trolling for coho salmon in the open ocean. If you’re fishing off the Oregon or Washington coasts, you can often find coho less than a mile offshore. Wait until the weather/swell is low and be sure to follow any coast guard guidelines. While the salmon are smaller this time of year, it’s often the most productive fishing you’ll experience. We’ve had days where we catch +30 fish and can’t seem to keep our lures in the water. Be sure to check the regulations as to how many fish you can keep and whether or not you can keep wild coho salmon. 

Use a hoochie squid as mentioned above and drop your downrigger down to 20 feet. If you’re using multiple downriggers, try them out at depths from 15 feet to 40 feet. Troll at 2 to 3 miles per hour. Once you start getting bites a certain depth, switch them all to that depth.

Once the salmon run season starts (Late August through October), we move our coho salmon inshore to bays and river inlets. This is where hungry coho like to hang out as they wait for the first big rain so they can swim upriver and spawn. Adjust your downrigger depth to 15 or 20 feet depending on how deep the bay is. We like to also switch to using cut plug herring this time of year. 

Salmon Double Play

Something else you should consider is that you’ll often catch king salmon while fishing for coho and vice versa. You should use heavier king salmon set up during this time of year in case you hook into a larger fish than you were intending. 


Trolling for King Salmon

A similar approach applies when fishing for king salmon. When fishing in the open ocean during the early months of the salmon season, use the lures we listed above and set your downrigger depth to 40 feet. If you have a fish finder on your boat, you should also set your downrigger to where fish are popping up. Sometimes king salmon like to hang out a bit deeper; we’re comfortable putting our lures at 60 or even 80 feet if the fish are there. Troll a bit slower for king salmon: 1.5 to 2 miles per hour is perfect.

In the fall move your salmon trolling inshore to bays and river inlets. As we mentioned with coho salmon, we like using a cut plug herring this time of year and fishing for both king and coho salmon. Just don’t forget to adjust your downrigger depth to work in the shallower waters.

Trolling for Pink Salmon

The same rules apply for pink salmon as the other species, except they tend to swim closer to the surface than king salmon. Use the lure we discussed above and adjust your downrigger to 15 or 20 feet. Do this in both the ocean and in bays. 

It’s also worth noting that pink salmon like to school in large numbers and head inshore to spawn in very large numbers. This means that timing when they move inshore is crucial. Look on your local government fishery website to determine when they’ll be spawning and adust your fishing schedule accordingly.

Back trolling for Salmon

While back trolling for salmon is typically done without a downrigger, we thought it was worth mentioning just so there wasn’t any confusion. Back trolling is a technique used later in the salmon season in rivers and bays where the current is enough to add action to your trolling setup. You typically anchor your boat and use weights/a diver to get your lure down 8 to 10 feet where the salmon are swimming. 

You can also use a downrigger for this, just be aware of any underwater structures like rocks or logs you could snag the weight on. For back trolling, there are different lures that work best. Long story short, we like to use salmon roe as bait when back trolling. You can also use Kwikfish when fishing for large spawning king salmon.


General Tips

Before we wrap up, there are a few more general tips when fishing for salmon we wanted to share.

  • Bleed your fish after landing. Be sure to bleed your salmon after landing it. This ensures the meat doesn’t spoil and keeps the fresh flavor more intact. All you need to do is cut the salmon behind the gills after you’ve killed it.
  • Be aware of where your lures are. While downriggers are great for getting your lures far away from your boat, always be aware of how far back they are and how deep they are. The most popular salmon fishing areas can get very crowded on the weekends and it’s easy to snag your line on someone else’s. This almost always results in polluting the water as well as lost fish. Be aware of your lines when trolling for salmon with downriggers!
  • Respect fish limits. Salmon are one of the most prized fish to fish for on the west coast, and in recent years their numbers have gotten drastically lower. Please respect all fishing limit laws and only take what you’ll use from nature. This should be common sense, but we still see fishermen keeping fish that are too small or unnecessarily harming salmon that aren’t of legal size. 

Final Thoughts

There you have it! That’s everything you need to know about trolling for salmon with downriggers. We hope after reading this article you feel prepared for your next salmon fishing adventure. It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to use downriggers to troll for salmon – check out our guide on how to troll for salmon without downriggers to learn more. We also love going crabbing while trolling for salmon. You’ll have the time so might as well go for both!

If you do see success, check out our guide on cleaning salmon for what to do next.

Got a salmon fishing story or a technique we didn’t cover that you want to share with us? Let us know in the comments below! 

Happy Hunting!

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