When setting up a trailerable boat for maximum results
Does Size, Really Matter?

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Fishing Small Boats
by Capt. Grant Fry

Most of us fish in small boats. I am not talking about the small 12 ft row boats with outboards that we all shake our head at. I am taking about the 19- 25í boats with 8í6Ē beam or smaller. We trailer them around and feel at a distinct disadvantage to the professionals charters. A common mistake we make is trying to rig and fish our small boats just like the big boys. Then we get frustrated. with tangles, lost fish, and broken gear. The purpose of this article is to share some of the experiences I have had in outfitting two smaller boats.

Who Are We

If youíre like me, you love salmon fishing. But you have a day job and a family that distract you from your passion. So you get out 10-30 times between early April and late Sept. A few other constraints on our fishing:

-You donít have unlimited resources so you have a fishing budget. Money spent

on equipment is less money to go fish with.

-You are usually fishing with one or two other guys.

-Your boat goes on a trailer and is hauled around the state.

-You want your boat and your gear has to do it all

Let me share with you a few things I have learned that allow me to fish productively from a smaller boat.

The first recognition we have to make is we canít have everything we want right now. Salmon fishing is a very expensive hobby. Figure out what your budget is as your setting up your boat, and then try to add to it each year. Also remember how many people will be fishing with you. You and two buddies means only nine lines (in Michigan). And yet you may find that running five lines means more fish as they are less spooked

Rigging a Small Boat
Safety First!

Some things your life could rely on. Donít go cheap. A reliable radio, GPS, and Compass are a necessity. Accessible PFDs are needed. for everyone. Buy good ones. If you are fishing alone a lot, spend the $150 for an automatically inflating vest and wear it.

If you havenít taken it already, take the State of Michigan Boater Safety class and the Coast Guard Power Squadron class. They are worth it.

There are many good GPS and sonar units on the market. Buy the best that your budget will allow. Donít forget a good compass. When your GPS goes out, it will allow you to head toward shore.


are the place we all seem to start at. I have always had four, but use only three. The fourth sits there and serves as extra rod holders. If I had to cut back on my fishing budget, I would only have two downriggers. My personal preference is for Cannon Mag 10s. I like the auto-stop feature when fishing with one or two people. They are durable and parts are always available. (Tip Ė I acquired four Mag 10s over a six month period on Ebay at an average cost of $275 rather than the $460 they sold for new). My out-downs, the downriggers that swing out to the side and go down, are set on the corner and equipped with 5 ft arms. They are equipped with a double rod holder on the arm (angled towards the stern) and a single rod holder at the base (near vertical position). My center downriggers have 3 ft arms with double rod holders on both the arms (near vertical) and the base (slanted back to almost horizontal). Positioning rod holders will be discussed later. The shorter arms on the center riggers are necessary to keep all the downrigger lines entering the water at about the same point behind the boat. This helps avoid tangles on turns. One big difference between small boats and big boats is the necessity to work around the outdrive. If I didnít have an outdrive to contend with, I would probably run only three down riggers with one located out the center of the back with even a shorter arm.

Setting up the downrigger board is a critical task. Being budget minded, my latest board was a piece of plastic wood that is used for decking material now. It is mounted to pedestals then bolted to the boat with marine plywood reinforcing the underside. For safety, the board is high enough so that is hit the middle of my thigh. I wonít fall overboard, but I can still work.

Placing the downriggers is a two person job. You want to get as much separation for the center riggers, but you donít want to restrict your ability to swivel the riggers for docking, travel or when working the rods.. The best I have been able to do on my two boats (8í6Ē beams) is 52Ē separation between the two center riggers and 78Ē between the out downs and the centers.

Now for the fun part, adjusting the rod holders. In your driveway, hook cannon balls on to your downriggers and clip lines to them. The rod holders on the arms of my out downs are there to allow you to clear the back of the boat when landing a fish. The rod holders on the base of my center riggers hold all my downrigger rods (even the ones running on the out downs). I personally believe that rod holders should be adjusted to keep the pole as close to the horizontal position as possible for downriggers and Dipsies. It takes some adjusting to get them to be in the right position. Practice moving them over and adjust the holders until lines can be moved easily. The advantage to doing this is if you can clear a line to the side and not have to bring it up, you keep fishing. Clearing everything to the side allows me to create a 12 ft hole out the back where I can net 80% of my fish. The other 20% of the fish are the big ones that youíll gladly clear lines for.

When fishing I tend to fish both out downs, and the center downrigger on the port side (the easiest for me to see from the drivers seat). (Tip- install a ski mirror if you donít have one so you can see whatís happening behind you while you drive.)

More Rod Holders

Downriggers are in place, now we need more rod holders. We have 14 of them on the downriggers but need more for two reasons; flexibility in fishing and flexibility in landing fish. Add three rod holders to each side ahead of the down riggers. These will be used for fishing Dipsies and planner boards. They need to be sturdy, adjustable, and probably be removable for travel. Buy metal, not plastic. They are also going to be expensive, but remember how much it will cost you if one of them breaks when a king hits and takes you fish catcher, fly, dipsy, snubber, rod, and line counter reel.

Also place some rod holders somewhere in the boat where you can put poles that have been cleared when fighting a big fish. Mine are located on the bow rail next to the cabin.

Rods, Reels and Line

There is much debate about what is the best. I currently have gone back to using older Penn 209s which I have rebuilt the drags on for downriggers (6), Diawa 47LC for mono and braid line Dipsies (4), Diawa SG47LC for wire (2),. and finally Penn 309s for lead core (2). Thatís a total of 14 rigs. Several of these rigs will serve dual purpose. Attaching an 8 oz snap weight on the third color of a full core will get you to the same depth as a double core. Mono and braided Dipsies will double as drop weight rigs. Down riggers setups can also function as flat lines. 14 rigs and I can fish everything.

Rods are much like reels, everyone has there favorite. My taste has more to deal with size and action than manufacturer. I use 7í6Ē med/lt action rods for downriggers, 9í medium action rods for lead core (which I usually run way out to the side off in-line boards), 10í medium action rods for Dipsies, 8í6Ē wire rods (the ones with wheel for guides). An extra rod or two on board is always advisable.

Choose good line. Donít go cheap on line. Spend the money and buy a bulk spool and change it yearly. I use 20# on my downriggers, 30# on my mono Dipsies, and 50# on my braided Dipsies. (Tip- in the spring I spool on 100 yds of 12# test line on top of the 20# ling on the downrigger reels for spring fishing.). Things are changing in the great lakes as the water clears up. The last two years, I have been using fluorocarbon line for leaders and sliders. Its expensive and rather than spool a whole reel. After first light it seems to help.


There is more skill to properly netting a fish than there is to fighting one on a rod. Netting a fish is an art. You need a long handled net with a big bag. It has to be able to reach down and behind your down riggers. The handle should be collapsible. It needs to be very accessible on the boat, but can not get in the way of rod tips. (Tip- Attach an old pinch style downrigger clip on the handle of the net. Clip the end of the bag into it. This keeps the bag under control until the fish is in the bag.)

Fish Spread Strategy

Lure selection is always a personal choice based on time of year and conditions. I will deal with how I am presenting lures for most cases. When I start in the morning, I fish closer to the boat. That means downriggers and Dipsies. A typical spread is three downriggers and 2-4 despises (depending on the number of lines I can fish). The center rigger is usually the deepest, closest to the boat, and has some sort of attractor/fly on it. The out downs fish at least 10 ft higher than the center and 20 ft further back. Dipsies are set in a high low configuration with deepest dipsy being set at 1.5 and either wire or braided and the high dipsy being mono. This tighter spread gives me the ability to turn on fish and land them quicker during the hot bite period.

After sunrise, I lengthen the leads on the two out downs and attach sliders. The center rigger gets pulled (unless it is still hot). Lead core out each side on an in-line planer, and fill in the rest of the mix with Dipsies and slide divers. If fish are really deep, a one pound drop weight goes straight out the back down the shoot. If fish are high, a flat line with snap weight goes out back. This set up is long a requires very slow turns. In total, I am fishing as many as nine lines.

Other Tips

Keep a Fishing Log. Log every fish you catch. Record as much information as possible and then keep it handy. I have seven years of logs now that allow me to see what has worked under different conditions.

Make friends of other fishermen. Share with them your hot bait and they will do the same. Be courteous of their space, but there are plenty of fish in the water keeping. Support local tackle shops even if they do charge 50 cents a spoon more. They are a great source of information. Take at least one charter trip a year. Go with different captains at different times of the year. Tell the captain what you want to learn as fair as technique and see how you can adapt it to your fishing. Iíve learned to bounce bottom for lakers, fish spring browns, fish the madhouse in the harbor, and to catch kings on a sunny calm noon.

Remember this is a work in progress and half the fun is tinkering.

Finally, take a kid fishing. A 10 year old with a 5# laker thinks he has hooked a whale and reminds us the real reason we fish is for the fun.