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Written by: John Baltes
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For anglers in search of a versatile, easy-to-assemble rig for bottom fishing, the three-way rig is an essential.

Often used in catfishing with live bait and when hunting walleye to get a lure where it can find wallies when they've retreated from the heat, it’s an excellent choice for almost any situation where depth is desirable.

If you want to learn the advantages of the three-way rig - and several good ways to assemble it - keep reading!

Related: Fish Finder Rig

What is the Three-Way Rig?


The three-way rig is named for the three lines that intersect at a three-way swivel. Connecting your main line to a leader and a sinker dropper line, that swivel is the heart of this rig.

Why Choose a Three-Way Rig?

The three-way rig is excellent when you want to fish near the bottom with live bait, or when trolling with lures like crankbaits, spoons, or soft plastics.

With live bait, it allows you to get a minnow or cut bait right where it matters for catfish, walleye, and other species that tend to lurk near the bottom. With lures, it helps you run them deep when trolling, making it a walleye enthusiast’s dream rig.

That versatility makes it amazingly popular, but it has an added extra built right in. In situations where you're really worried about snagging your sinker, you can intentionally run a weak sinker dropper line to create a break-away rig that won’t cost you expensive lures when the sinker hangs up.

How to Assemble a Three-Way Rig

Assembling a three-way takes just minutes, and it’s very easy to get right.

Just follow these steps:

  1. Attach your main line to the top of a three-way swivel using a Uni knot.
  2. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  3. Cut a length of line (dropper line) to determine the depth of your presentation. I start with 12 to 18 inches but vary that as necessary. 
  4. Using a Uni knot, attach this line to a bank sinker.
  5. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  6. Attach the weighted line to the bottom of your three-way swivel using a Uni knot.
  7. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  8. Cut 12 to 18 inches of leader, and using a Uni or Palomar knot, attach your hook. If you’re using a spoon or crankbait, a Uni knot will be easier.
  9. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  10. Using a Uni knot, attach the hook and leader to the rearward facing eye of the three-way swivel.
  11. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.

This simple process has you covered whether you’re fishing monster blues and flatheads, trophy walleye, perch that are just perfect for a fish fry.

Hook Size

Within reason, it’s always wise to size your hook to your live bait choice. For instance, a huge hook with a small bait typically won’t get many bites as the hook deters fish from really taking it. On the other hand, a tiny hook in a huge piece of cut bait will let many fish escape with a meal.

Gamakatsu Octopus Circle 4X Strong Hook (25 Piece), NS Black, 5/0


When I can, I prefer a circle hook for my three-way rigs.

For big cats, you need a strong hook. I typically use a Gamakatsu 4X Strong Circle Hook or Mustad Demon, sizing my hook to match the bait I’m throwing. That said, I won’t usually go smaller than a 6/0 for channel cats, and I’ll go as big as a 10/0 for real monsters.

For walleye, when I’m using a hook in conjunction with a minnow or cut bait, I’ll usually reach for a #2 or #1 Mustad In-Line Circle Hook. If I’m running a soft plastic in the place of a minnow, say, something like Berkley’s 3-inch PowerBait Pro Twitchtail Minnow, I might stick with the circle hook or think about something like the Owner Twistlock Light With Centering Pin Spring in 1/0.


Rather than a paddle tail, a tail-twitching soft plastic like this is an ideal replacement for live bait.

For perch, I’ll size down - just as you’d suspect, looking at hook choices in the #6 to #2 range. If I’m after really big perch, I’ll tie on a #2 Mustad In-Line Circle Hook, but more ordinarily, I’ll use a #6 or #8 Eagle Claw Plain Shank.

You’ll notice that I try to run a circle hook when I can, and there are two reasons for this. First, circle hooks are excellent for holding live bait, as their shank and curve are just perfect for this purpose. The second reason is that they’re essentially self-hooking, and there’s a very low chance of a fish swallowing a circle hook.

Instead, they’ll take your bait, and the hook will turn and penetrate the corner of their mouth, setting itself as you begin to reel. 

Circle hooks are a perfect choice for trolling or bank fishing when you won’t have the rod in your hands to feel the bite and set the hook immediately. 

Line Choice

We’ve written a lot about line before, and we’ve tested braid, mono, and fluorocarbon for their abrasion resistance and knot integrity.

If you want the full story, check out this article:

Best Fishing Line - Monofilament vs. Fluorocarbon vs. Braid

With a three-way rig, you’re dealing with three lines meeting at the swivel, and there’s no reason that you need to stick to only one option for all of them.

For catfish, and generally any time I know I’ll be risking abrasion - whether that’s stumps, rocks, logs, pilings, or pretty much anything else but a clean bottom - I’m choosing tough monofilament like Berkley Trilene Big Game in test strengths anywhere from 15 to 60 pounds, depending on the size cats I’m likely to hook.

If I’m concerned about getting my sinker hung-up, I’ll use lighter test to attach it, allowing me to break free if necessary.

When I’m fishing walleye, I’ll usually reach for Stren Original for my main line, running 6- to 8-pound line. But because walleye have the teeth they do, I’ll either tie on a stainless steel leader or run 50- to 60-pound Big Game to my hook.

For perch, my choice is clear: Stren Original in 6- to 8-pound test, probably as main line, leader, and dropper line.

An argument can be made for braided main line like Sufix 832 in the case of cats and walleye, especially since you can pack so much line on your reel and still increase the test strength of your connection to the three-way swivel.

Just keep in mind that knot integrity isn’t awesome with braid, even in the best of cases.

But there is a tip that can help out with that.

A “Fake” Three-Way Rig for Braid

Aside from poor abrasion resistance, the biggest issue with braid for a three-way rig is knot failure at the swivel. 

Look, I’m a fan of braid, and I love its sensitivity, hook setting power, and small diameter. But test after test confirms that the best knots deliver about 49% of the test strength of your line. 

The solution is simple: drop the swivel and use a Dropper Loop Knot to create a leader.

How to Tie the Dropper Loop

how to tie the Dropper Loop

The advantages of rigging this way are pretty impressive.

First, the only true knot involved will be your connection to the sinker, which is only put under stress if you hang up. The dropper loop, not being a true knot, can’t fail.

That eliminates the problem of knot failure altogether, and a dropper loop can be tied from heavy mono to create a leader, or tied very short to create an attachment point for a stainless steel leader for walleye.

Problem solved!

Final Thoughts

The three-way rig is an ideal choice for bottom fishing, whether you’re casting from the bank for catfish or trolling Lake Erie for walleye. Versatile, easy-to-assemble, and effective, it’s a rig every angler should learn to fish.

We hope you’ve learned something from this article today, and as always, we’re here to answer any questions you might have, so please leave a comment below.


About The Author
John Baltes
Chief Editor & Contributor
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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