Trolling Tactics for Trout and Kokanee

by Paul Lewis, July 04, 2018

Introductory Trolling tactics for Trout and Kokanee in Western Washington and around
the State.

Summertime: the time of year when vast amounts of Western Washington anglers are gearing up for their shot at a monster chinook, bright chrome steelhead, or early season coho. As fisherman chase salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Ocean, the Puget Sound, and a multitude of different rivers; lakes are often left alone until the seasons come to an end on these migratory trophies. Personally, this is one of my favorite times to fish lakes for trout and kokanee as often times only a handful of other anglers are on them, many of which spend their time targeting bass, perch, crappie, or other panfish.

Trout and kokanee are incredibly willing biters during this time of year and on light gear they are an absolute blast to catch. Trolling is without a doubt the best way to target trout and kokanee on lakes, especially if the lakes are not stocked often or at all. The ability to cover water and present an offering in front of many different fish versus being stuck to one spot on the shoreline is a significant advantage.

For an angler who is new to this style of fishing, trolling can seem to be a daunting task. Keeping this in mind, this article will discuss all aspects critical to success while trolling including gear, speed, depth, fish activity, and boat control. Whether you’re a first-time boat owner or an experienced captain, your craft is six or twenty six feet, you’ll be on fish in no time!


During the summer months, water temperatures in lakes often exceed 70 degrees. Trout and kokanee both prefer cold water, and this pushes the fish below the thermocline. In a body of water, the thermocline marks the spot where the temperature changes from water that is easily affected by outside temperature, to water that stays fairly consistent and is not affected by outside temperature.

Additionally the thermocline marks a change in water density, and it holds a high amount of oxygen. As sunlight hits the thermocline, photosynthesis occurs in small organisms such as phytoplankton and zooplankton will congregate. This attracts baitfish, who in turn attract trout. Unlike the trout, kokanee mainly feed on the phytoplankton itself, not the baitfish. Small kokanee are actually often preyed upon by the trout. As the water continues to rise in temperature, the thermocline continues to drop lower in the water column, lowering the fish along with it. Kokanee are more heat sensitive than trout so they will drop much deeper as the day goes on in an effort to escape the heat. This being said, they also need oxygen, so they will search for an acceptable combination of temperature and oxygen. Depending on the lake, this can be thirty feet, one-hundred feet, or deeper.

Why do the trout sit just below the thermocline instead of right in line with it? For this answer we have to look at the coloring of the fish. There is a lateral line on trout that seperates a beautiful silver color on the bottom from a dark blue/green top. The dark colorings on the top of the fish work as camouflage, making them incredibly hard to see when looking down on them. They use this to their advantage while hunting, using it to sneak up on their prey. (this also works as a defense from predators such as eagles and ospreys who are searching for a fresh trout meal from the sky). The silver color on trout and kokanee is a defense from larger fish looking preying on them in the same way they are feeding.

In addition to their color, a trout’s eyes are directed in a way where they can look up and ahead of them with ease, whereas looking down is hard. So, this in combination with camouflage makes the trout sit just below the bait.



Now that we know know where the fish are, however what depth is that on any specific lake? For this a good fish finder is an absolute must. Many companies make a fantastic product. To get started, a black and white display on a fish finder will work, however as experience is gained, a color model that shows density of fish marks, bait, and structure will be beneficial and most desired. I look for two main aspects in a fish finder: the unit must show “fish arches” (instead of little pictures of fish) and the unit must display my speed.
Speed is crucial to trolling. For trout 1.5-2.5 MPH is usually preferred, where for kokanee a speed of 0.8-1.4 is the best. Once an angler has figured out how to read their unit, arches will speak to size if fish and whether its bait, a fish to target, or simply a piece of junk suspended in the water. A unit that simply shows pictures of fish will pick up anything the sonar bounces off of that isn't the bottom, making it less accurate. I recommend not being frugal when purchasing a fish finder. It is a crucial piece of equipment for consistent success and having a quality unit makes a big difference.

Reaching the proper depth

As the fish go lower in the water column, a means of putting one’s lure in the strike zone is necessary. This is where downriggers come into play. With downriggers, the angler can simply clip their line to a weight and send their lure to exact depth of the fish. For most lakes, manual downriggers work fantastically. Scotty and Cannon downriggers are the very popular, and both companies make models for every boat style, including ones with clamp on mounts for easy mounting and removal on the gunnel. A good manual downrigger will run the angler anywhere from $120-$200, making them a fairly expensive piece of equipment for an angler new to trolling.

Two good alternatives to downriggers are fishing with a dropper setup or lead-core sinking line. A dropper setup is simple to rig and can be very effective and is simple to rig. Simply attach a sliding clip to the mainline, then a few feet of leader line, then a lure. Depending on the depth, anywhere from three to eight ounces of weight works well.

Leadcore is sinking line that will put the lure in the strike zone without added weight. Every thirty feet, the line changes color, which is how the angler can tell depth. The simple rule of thumb is every color is six feet in depth. Both of these setups are very effective, their only drawback is they are not exact, so they take a little more searching to find the proper depth.

The setup

When trolling for trout and kokanee, a long and limber rod is best. Lots of companies make a great rod and lots of rods work, one of my favorite rods for both trout and kokanee is the Lamiglas Team Kokanee CGR762L. This is an ultralight rod with an incredibly soft tip and fantastic sensitivity that shows bites well, but also has enough backbone to land a lunker when one bites. At 7’6” it is plenty long and has a great play when fighting a fish. This will often be on sale for $70 at lots of tackle shops. For a reel, a Cabela’s DepthMaster II is a good choice. At about $40, it is cost-effective and has a line counter which helps when letting out a setback or simply to know how much line is left when fighting a fish. Spool up with 8-12 pound monofilament and the setup is complete.

The Business End

When trolling, a rig has two main components: an attractor to add flash and a lure which imitates food. For attractors in lakes, pop-gear such as ford fenders, other gang-trolls, or a dodger. I prefer dodgers if they are working because they have a significantly smaller amount a drag when pulling them through the water. Dodgers come in all shapes and sizes. For trout and kokanee, a good dodger is 4-6 inches. Many shapes work, but the main two are teardrop shaped dodgers such as a Sling Blade or traditional dodgers such as a “00” chrome style. It's always a good idea to have a few colors ready to fish.

After the dodger, have anywhere from 8-20 inches of leader line (the line between the dodger and the bait) to a lure. Small spoons, spinners, trolling flies, and plugs are the most common lures when trolling for trout and kokanee. My personal go-to lures are Mack’s wedding rings, Reli Lures Diamond Flash Spinners, Reli Lures Kokanee Trolling Flies, Elgin God’s Tooth spoons, and Old Goat Lures OG1 and OG2 plugs in sizes 1.8 and 2.44. Again, carry multiple colors and patterns along on a trip to accommodate what the fish want. Trout and kokanee can be extremely picky creatures, and color changes can make a huge difference between fishing and catching.

Both trout and kokanee have a keen sense of smell, so tipping your lure with bait or adding scent can also be a game-changer. For trout, nightcrawlers, strips of cured herring, or maggots are great options. For kokanee, cured shoepeg corn is the way to go. There are tons of corn recipes online, most include tuna oil from a can of tuna, garlic salt, a cure such as Pautzke's Fire Cure, and a coloring agent such as Pautzke’s Fire Dye. every recipe is a little different and all have room for personalization. Attractants such as Super Dipping Sauce and Pro-Cure in many different scents are good options as well. Some good scent options are Pro-Cure Trophy Trout, Super Dipping Sauce Kokanee/Sockeye, a krill/anise scent, or anything with garlic.


As stated above, trout have trolling speeds from 1.5-2.5 usually, whereas kokanee like it a touch slower at 0.8-1.4. Changing speed every few minutes until the speed the fish are receptive to is found is crucial to success. Additionally making “S” turns will help put fish in the boat. When turning, the inside rod on the boat slows down and the outside rod speeds up. Hitting a fish “on the turn” is common. Another part of trolling that is crucial besides speed and turns is changing baits. If a bait isn't hitting fish, change it! As a rule of thumb, changing lures every 30-45 minutes if they aren’t producing will increase your chances of catching fish. Lastly, play around with the depth as well. Even if the fish finder is saying the fish are at 40 feet, but the fish aren’t biting, run a rod a different depth for a while. Sometimes the fish will travel way up the water column to hit a lure.

When using a downrigger, one thing to keep in mind when trolling for trout or kokanee is the setback from the downrigger clip. Both species have tendency to be motor shy, so when the boat passes the fish will scatter a bit. When fishing at about 20 feet or higher, I like a 100 foot setback. The deeper you’re fishing, the quieter it will be, therefore the less set back needed. Although these fish tend to be motor shy, sometimes they will prefer a setback close to the motor no matter the depth. So if a setback is not working on a day, don't be afraid to change it for a few minutes, it could be a difference maker.

I certainly hope this guide to kokanee and trout fishing helps you put fish in the boat this summer or whenever you get the chance to hit the water. When trolling, feel confident in modifying or adding to the information listed in each of these topics Adding your own style to a troll, lure setup, or corn recipe can be a game changer You never know when an idea becomes the next hot thing! Most of these tactics are true for winter trout fishing as well.

For more information or to see these setups in action, take a look at the Northwest Fishing Reports video on trolling for winter cutthroat trout on Lake Sammamish. On a final note, to keep fishing around for generations to come, it is always important to keep conservation in mind. Keeping what you’ll eat is great. However, if there is no plan to eat the fish, practicing catch and release is always a great option. We all want this amazing sport to continue for many years to come, so if we all do a little to help the fisheries, we will all get to watch our future generations enjoy this sport as much as we do.

Tight Lines!

Fishing Guide Paul Lewis is owner of Fast Action Fishing Adventures. When not attending college in California he can be found fishing for trout and kokanee on local King County lakes including Lake Sammamish and Lake Washington.


7/12/2018 8:32:22 PM
I have had good success trolling crankbaits for rainbows from my kayak. Using diving crankbaits to depths of 16 feet and up have produced good strikes on light spinning tackle and 6 pound line.
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