Preparing to begin a fishing day, Scott Lillie’s Carolina Skiff looks like a porcupine. (Photo: Richard Simms)
By Richard Simms
“Fish, fish, fish,” screamed Scott Lillie, although it was hard to hear him over the driving rain & wind.
Lillie had seen the tip bounce on one of his fiberglass Eagle Claw fishing rods.
He quickly grabbed the rod, gave it a short jerk to pull the line free of the downrigger and the fight with a 20-inch lake trout was on.
Lillie, from Soddy Daisy, Tenn., is a downrigger specialist.
He is a hardcore fisherman and hunter, accomplished in many ways of the wild. But downrigging for deepwater denizens is the wheelhouse where he prefers to live the most.
The fulltime teacher is always willing to share his expertise with others, but in Tennessee very few are willing to try and duplicate his methodology.
Downrigging is a trolling method used to place your lures at a specified depth. Lines & lures are attached to heavy lead weights, usually about ten pounds, and lowered to a specified depth where you think fish are holding.
In our search for lake trout on Watauga Lake in northeast Tennessee in February, we were putting lures down about 60 feet, typically fishing in 100 to 240 feet of water.
Achieving those kind of lure depths with traditional methods, without downriggers, is absolutely impossible.
Lillie first learned his craft as a kid, growing up in New York fishing Lake Ontario with his father.
Their targets included walleye, pike, brown trout and the famous king salmon.
“My brother and I started off with one pole and one downrigger,” he said. “Just slowly over time we learned more and more.”
Lillie moved to Tennessee about eleven years ago.
It didn’t take long before he began to explore the deepwater lakes using the unique technique that very few Tennessee anglers have ever explored.
Besides Watauga he has dragged his special homemade spoons through Parksville, Chilhowee, Nantahala, Chatuge, and Tims Ford, just to name a few other Tennessee lakes.
Downrigging presents lures into water depths that very few anglers, if any, ever explore.
Lake trout are only stocked in three Tennessee lakes – Watauga, Chilhowee, and South Holston.
There is no length limit but anglers can only keep two per day.
Besides lake trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth, and walleye have fallen prey to his technique.
The February excursion was Lillie’s first-ever wintertime trip to Watauga, the home of the Tennessee State Record lake trout (22 lbs. 2 oz.) taken in 2008 by Jack Forbes.
Lillie pointed and said, “That fish is mounted and hanging right over there at Lakeshore Resort. We like staying over there but they close down in the wintertime.”
We didn’t catch any state records, or even close. We actually didn’t catch very many fish – five if you want specifics.
We admittedly didn’t last long on the water Sunday, enduring a 37-degree temperature, driving, non-stop rain, and 15 mph winds.
However new water, new friends and catching my first-ever lake trout was a special experience.
And every fisherman knows every trip won’t be great but the Mother Lode is always just right around the corner.
“I came up here with my son last summer,” said Lillie. “We were only able to fish four hours but we had 24 strikes and put 21 lakers in the boat in the short time we fished. I often fish four rods but we could never get more than two rods out that day.”
Lillie isn’t shy about telling folks anything and everything about what he is doing.
“No, I don’t mind a bit because this takes a lot of effort and expense. I know very few people, if any, are ever going to be willing to do it.”
The downriggers on Lillie’s boat cost $1,400. He also has about $1,000 invested in specialized rod holders.
Add to that specialized rods and reels for one specific style of fishing and it is easy to understand why few people are willing to make the investment.
For Lillie that just means less competition on the water.
As for lures, Lillie actually makes his own lures.
“I get buyers from all over the country,” said Lillie. “I really enjoy creating my own lures, especially when they catch fish.”
It is a lot of effort and sometimes the return on investment is low. But for Lillie, it’s not always about the number of fish in the box. It is about the fishing journey – the unique paths and pristine waters as he continues to explore the adventures of downrigging.