Get the Lead Out by Randy Castello

Get the Lead Out by Randy Castello

Kokanee fishing this spring? Then get the lead out; lead core line, that is. 

Where winter kokanee seems to be a very depth-oriented fishery, we are on the cusp of our popular spring/summer kokanee fishery. Downriggers rule for kokanee fishing, but on our boat we almost always put out 2 lead core line rigs before the downriggers are deployed. Using a properly set up lead core line rig gives the angler fairly accurate depth control without having to use downriggers. Using the appropriate top shot and the following method for setting up your lead core line rigs, the angler can fish anywhere between the surface to about 30 or 40’ deep with some level of accuracy. To that note; while filming a Northwest Fishing segment, I snagged the bottom with a lead core line set up in 70’ of water while we were trolling in a straight line. Interesting, but how could that have happened?

We were trolling Lake Southerland on the Olympic Peninsula. We were metering a large body of kokanee at around 30-40’ in 70 feet of water. I ran out 2 ½ colors, or 60-70’ lead core line, plus my 60-70’ top shot while trolling at 1.0 mph. Not sure exactly what happened, but my guess is there was also an underwater current that was running with the boat. With minimal drag and water resistance on the line, it just sank to the bottom and I had to say goodbye to one of my favorite kokanee dodgers and custom kokanee flies. It was an unusual situation and you wouldn’t want to make a habit of trolling at 70 feet deep, but lead core line can run that deep.



What exactly is lead core line? It is a type of fishing line where there is an inner core of soft lead wire sheathed by an outer layer of braided fiber. Lead core line has been around since the 1940’s and is commonly used by Midwest walleye or Great Lakes salmon and steelhead trollers. The salmon guys use a technical approach using planer boards and multiple lines to target salmon on the great lakes. 

Lead line isn’t as common here in the Pacific Northwest but it should be. Fortunately, our lead core line fishery doesn’t have to be technical, we can just clip on a dodger or lure and let out the appropriate number of colors. Lead core line is available at most of our local Northwest tackle shops. Lead core line comes in a variety of “pound test”, 12#, 15#, 18# and others. The line is your weight and eliminates the need for downriggers, planers, or separate weights. Lead core line comes dyed in contrasting colors. The color changes every 10 yards or about 30’. 

The following is solely my opinion and not supported by industry testing or maybe even your own experience. When fishing for kokanee, use the lightest test lead core line available. With the slower speeds used when we hunt kokanee, the test of the lead core line will not affect the sink rate; 15# lead core line will not sink faster than 12# lead line, in fact the 12# lead core line may sink further while trolling. The thinner diameter would result in reduced drag, and may allow gear to sink faster. Finally, 12# lead core line breaking strength is more than adequate for kokanee fishing. 

I think there is belief that lead core line setups are heavy and not really suited for the light tackle acrobatics common when kokanee fishing. For our lead core line rigs, we use standard 7 ½-8’ fiberglass kokanee rods and 150-300 (size ratings very greatly by manufacture) series round baitcasting reels. You really don’t need line counter reels because you will be counting colors; “hot bite at 1 ½ colors along the eastern shore…” My approach for spooling the reels is a bit different and is a phased setup that goes something like this:

On an empty reel with the same capacity as the reel you plan to fish the lead core line on, tape the end of the lead core line on the spool and load 3 colors of lead core line + 3-4’. Cut the lead core line, saving the balance of the filler spool.

Remove the actual lead core from 3-4‘of the loose end of the lead core line on the reel. Using a blood knot, Albright knot, a double uni knot, or other similar knot, tie 20# braid of your choice to the end of the stripped lead line. Then fill the spool with the 20# braid.


Here’s the tough part; you will need 2 empty spools or a second reel of the same type and size. The goal is to load the braid/lead line combo on your working reel braid first. When using the same reel or a reel with the same capacity as the reel temporarily holding the lead core line/braid combo, it is easy to just transfer reel to reel. Otherwise, you have to transfer to a spool, then to another empty spool, and then back on to the original reel.  

The reel is now loaded with 3 colors of lead core line on top. Strip the lead core out of 3 or 4 feet of the loose end of the lead core line. Using your favorite braid to mono (or in this case, favorite stripped lead line to mono) knot, tie on a 60’ 8-12# fluorocarbon top shot.  

That’s basically it. We use the lead core line setup almost exclusively for kokanee, so I just attach a small Duolock snap to the end of the fluorocarbon top shot to make changing dodgers easier. My reasoning for running only 3 colors of lead core line is that at 0.8-1.4 mph, 3 colors is all you need to fish to about 30-40’ deep. In fact; as previously mentioned, using this approach I have snagged the bottom in 70 of water with just 2 1/2 colors of core lead line out. Running just 3 colors of lead core line with braid backing allows you to load a fair amount of backing on standard bait casting reels with the bonus of reducing the extra weight of additional colors of lead line.

Not always, but when fishing for kokanee, the lead core line rigs typically out fish any of the other rods on our boat. Believe it or not (you have to know me…), I have a theory about why the lead core line rigs are so fishy on our boat. I use a 60-70’ top shot, so even with just 1 color of lead core line out, the dodger/lure combo is running almost 100’ behind the boat. Any boat-shy fish would have regrouped and forgotten about the big, noisy aluminum shadow that just passed overhead. Additionally, I know that I’m weird and overthink these things, but I think that the sonic vibration of the sheathed lead line moving through the water has some positive affect on a fishery. Something akin to a dog whistle: we can’t hear it, but they come running.  

Whether or not the kokanee come running or swimming, lead core line is a deadly effective tool in our kokanee arsenal. It works equally well with the smaller dodgers, flashers, and gang trolls used for kokanee fishing. With the telltale thump, thump, thump at the rod tip, having at least one lead line rig in the water is a great indicator that your trolling speed is correct. 


Lead core line rigs are also an exceptional choice when pulling small stick baits or minnow type lures baits for cutthroat and rainbows. Just run ½ a color and get the frypan ready! Lead core line and stick baits go together like peas and carrots. The takedown when trolling stick baits on lead core line is surprisingly aggressive. The fish’s battle for freedom seems to magnify as it telegraphs up your lead line to your rod tip.

Once you set up a lead line rig or two, you’ll likely find that the lead core line rigs will be your go to kokanee rods. Lead core line is effective and straightforward to use when paired with the smaller dodgers, flashers, and gang trolls we use for kokanee fishing. Lead core line is equally effective with small spoons and stick baits for various trout species. The initial investment may seem extravagant, but it’s still cheaper than a pair of downriggers. If you’re fishing from a kayak, canoe, inflatable, or even a drift boat without downriggers, your lead line rigs will be indispensable in your quest to do battle with a PNW silver football.

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