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How To Set Up and Use Downriggers

By Captain Bernie Roell, A-Lure Walleye Fishing Charters, (440) 257-9544

Trolling is the most effective way to catch many species of fish. A moving bait or lure in the water trolled at the depth where fish are present is the best way to ensure a hookup. The use of modern downrigger technology further improves trolling results. A downrigger is a spool of wire mounted on your boat. A heavy weight (Cannonball) is hung on the end of the braided downrigger wire. A downrigger release is hooked to the wire and your fishing line is hooked into the release. The downrigger can then be lowered to precisely the fish depth. When a fish hits, your line is released and you fight the fish on your rod and reel free of heavy lines and weights.

Downrigging is a method of trolling that uses a manually powered or electric winch and weight to carry your fishing line and lure to a specific depth, where feeding fish are to be found. While downrigging is commonly thought of as a deep water fishing technique, it is more accurately understood as a method of "controlled depth fishing".

By using downriggers to control the depth of your lure presentation, you can place your lures at any depth from just below the surface to 200 feet deep and keep them running consistently at that depth. So once you've determined which depth the fish are feeding at, you can keep your lures in that "feeding zone".

Downriggers are a valuable piece of equipment for use in both inshore and offshore fishing.   Downriggers are used for trolling at a prescribed depth just like you troll baits along the surface.  Water is made up of many layers of different temperature water.  These are called thermoclines.  Game fish will hold in the thermocline that they like best.  Maybe the water at the surface is a little too warm for them and the water at the bottom is a little to cold.   When  you are trolling and you see fish suspended in a narrow band chances are there sitting just below the thermocline.  Depending on the sensitivity of your Sonar or Fish Finder  you will see an indication of the thermocline by  wavy line just above the fish.  A downrigger will allow you to put the Crankbait, Spoon or Bait at the exact level the fish are suspended.  So lets set up and use a set of downriggers.

When you begin to shop for a downrigger it can be very confusing. There are many different types and sizes of downriggers on the market. Do you need a longarm or a shortarm model? Manual or electric? I see some fishermen purchase a much bigger downrigger than they could ever use on their boat. Here are some general guidelines.

  1. Small boats (15 feet and under) are generally better off with a small compact downrigger with an arm length of 20 to 24 inches.

  2. Large boats (22 feet and up) are generally better off with longer arm downriggers with booms reaching from 30 inches to 48 inches or more.

  3. Intermediate size boats (16 to 21 feet) can go shortarm or longarm depending on the type of fishing you are doing, the location where you will mount the downriggers, and the number of downriggers you want to run on your boat.

Small Boats

In the small boat, you are generally sitting down to operate the downrigger. Consequently you want a shortarm unit that you can easily rig by reaching over the side of the boat. If you go with too long an arm you will have difficulty hooking your weights and setting your release. Long arms on small boats can also present a significant safety hazard if the downrigger weight hangs up on the bottom when the boat is being pushed by a strong wind or tidal current. In severe cases a longarm downrigger could tip a boat over in these circumstances.

Large Boats

With larger boats you have a choice of arm length. If you want to fish two or more downriggers on the boat you probably will want 30 to 48 inch arms out each side of the boat and one or more other downriggers straight over the stern. The longer arms out the side minimize the risk of lure tangles during turns. They also provide more fishing coverage. With two 48 inch downriggers out the sides of a boat with an eight foot beam, the downrigger wires will be 16 feet apart. This provides a good fishing spread.

Large boats with high freeboard also need longer arm downriggers to keep weights from banging against the side of the boat. As soon as the lead weight breaks the water surface it begins swinging particularly in rough conditions. A long arm adds a factor of safety.

Another factor with the bigger boat is how you will operate the downrigger. On larger boats you will undoubtedly operate the downrigger standing up. Some downriggers are laid out in a way that makes them very hard to operate from one side or the other or with your left hand. You should think about these factors.

Electric vs. Manual

With respect to an electric downrigger vs. a manual there are two primary considerations. The first is simply convenience. If you can afford it, its nice to be able to push one button and bring up your downrigger. However, don't make the mistake of putting a large electric on a small boat. You should consider the same size and arm length factors as stated earlier. In my mind the real justification for an electric comes if you are consistently fishing deep. By deep I mean more than 100 feet down all day long. In these circumstances an electric will take a great burden out of your fishing particularly when you consider the heavy weights needed to get to these depths.

Both Cannon or Penn are good examples of quality manual downriggers.  They are both easy to use and durable enough to standup to use. Better downriggers are equipped with counters so you know exactly how deep you are. A fish finder and a downrigger are a deadly combination. The fish finder shows you where the fish are and the downrigger takes you exactly to them.

Swivel Plates

Make sure that you buy the swivel plate that goes with a down rigger.   The swivel plate will allow you to turn the downriggers in what ever direction you wish.  This is a nice feature so that you can turn them in when pulling up to the dock and turn them out when in use.  



Mounting Location

Where you mount a downrigger on your boat also has a bearing on the downrigger you should buy. If you can mount over the stern of the boat or on the side within a foot or two of the stern a short arm downrigger (24 to 30 inch boom) will usually do. If you have a swim platform you will need a longer boom to clear it. If you mount over the side of the boat more than a few feet forward of the stern you will want to consider a longer boom such as 48 inches. The reason is that as your boat turns a short boom downrigger mounted forward likely will have the wire scraping the side of the boat or worse yet near your prop. In this instance a longer boom will work much better. 

Select a location on the outside corners of the transom (marked in red below).   This will allow room so that we can use them easily without tangling lines or interfere with netting fish.

Downriggers exert tremendous force on the area that they are attached to the boat.  Make sure when you attach them that you use backing plates and thru bolt them with good stainless steel bolts. Also make sure that you use the swivel mounts that are made for the downrigger that you chose.  The swivel mounts make the downrigger and you will be sorry if you don't bite the bullet and buy them too.

The downrigger ball and the release clip.  The downrigger ball is a heavy metal ball with a couple of attachment points on it.  Balls that have fins built into them will make the ball track straighter. 


Weight Sizes

Most new downrigger fishermen are reluctant to put enough weight on their downrigger. When you have never fished with more than a few ounces, a ten pound weight looks formidable. Remember, regardless of the downrigger weight used, there is never any weight on your rod and reel. Heavier weights will allow lines to run as straight down as possible. Counters read more accurately and you avoid tangles in cross-winds or when turning. Eight to ten pounds is typical for most moderate depth freshwater applications and ten pounds is typical for saltwater.

Speed, Depth and Weight Needed

The amount of weight needed on a downrigger is a function of the speed you are trolling and the depth you are fishing. The deeper and faster you go, the more weight you need to keep the downrigger wire at a near vertical angle. I like to keep my wire angle not more than twenty to thirty degrees from the vertical. The tables in the section "Downrigger Weight Recommendations" give our weight suggestions under different trolling conditions. Of all the variables, speed is the most important. Sometimes you will have to slow down in order to reach several hundred feet down.

Weight Types and Hookups

There are several types of downrigger weights on the market. Most are lead or cast iron. Some are round, some are torpedo shaped and others are fish shaped or round with a fin cast on. Either lead or cast iron, will ride about the same. If you use release clips which are built into the wire downrigger line or those that pinch onto it, you should probably use weights with fins on them so they will not spin. I prefer a weight with a fin so it won't roll around in my boat. I also recommend hanging the weight by the end and not the eye in the middle. If you drag the bottom you will lose far fewer weights because the weight will generally ride up and over a log or a rock. Hung by the center you are very likely to dig in and lose the weight.

The release clip is a pressure clip that is squeezed onto the line from the pole.  I take the line and pull a piece about 4 inches long and turn it to form a loop.  Then twist the loop 2 or 3 times and put the end of the twisted loop in the jaws of the pressure clip and set the clip.  There is a set screw on most of the clips that you can use to adjust the pressure on the line.  More pressure makes it harder to pull out.  It is something you will have to play with a few times to get it set so that is does not come out every time you sent it down but comes lose easily when a fish strikes.  So now we have our downrigger mounted and it has wire already on it, we have a ball and release clip.  It's time to go fishing.

Setting your line to the downrigger

 It's time to go fishing.   Once you've located fish on your fish finder and decided on a depth to set the downrigger take the downrigger ball and attach it to the wire from the downrigger.  Swivel the downrigger so that it is at a 45 degree angle to the boat hull.  Attach the pressure clip to the ball.  Now rig your lure or bait on the rod that you will be using for the downrigger.  Let the lure or bait out anywhere from 25-100 feet.  Now take the line and double it over to form a loop.  Twist the loop 2 or 3 times and put the tip on the loop in the jaws of the pressure clip.  Now this takes a little coordination to do by yourself and it is easier if someone else holds the pole.  Now at the same time release the wire on the downrigger while the reel on the pole is in free spool with your thumb on the reel to prevent back lashes.  Let them both out at about the same rate.  It will take a couple try's to get this right so don't feel bad if things don't go right the first time.  Just try again.  You'll get the hang of it.  Trolling speed will effect the actual depth of the ball.  So if I want the lure or bait at 45 feet you may have to let out 60 feet of wire.  That's what the number gauge on the downrigger is for.  You can check the depth on your fish finder by slowing down and if your transducer in on the stern will be able to see the ball on the fish finder.  When the bait has reached the desired depth lock the downrigger in position and set the drag on the reel.  As you let the downrigger out with the boat moving, you will note your fishing line tends to balloon out to the rear. This is normal, but you don't want it excessive. I like to put a very light drag on my reel to avoid excessive ballooning. I let the downrigger pull out my monofilament as it goes down. The trick is to keep the tension just right to minimize ballooning but avoiding a premature line release from the clip. This takes a little practice.

Slack when a fish hits

Because the fishing line tends to balloon while trolling, when a fish hits and pops the release there is a momentary period of slack in the line. I like to compensate for this by using a light, long rod (I use 8' to 9' light fiberglass rods for salmon) and pulling a good bend in the rod tip. When a fish hits, the rod tip springs upward and helps to take out the slack.

Grab the pole and fight the fish but  you have  to pull the downrigger up before he gets close to the boat..  If you do not pull the downrigger when you get the fish close ,he will wrap himself around the wire and cut the line so the downrigger must come up.

Tracking the bottom

With the use of an electronic depth sounder you can easily track the contours of the bottom with your downrigger. Set a light clutch brake and wind the downrigger up or down as you change contours. Keep a close eye on your downrigger pulley. If you are hitting bottom you will see your pulley bouncing. A couple of turns of the wheel will usually bring you clear again. If you snag the bottom, stop your boat and backup until you are directly over the downrigger weight. You can usually pull it free.

Rods, Reels & Lines

Downriggers allow the use of very light rods, reels and lines. This adds considerably to the sport of fighting and landing a fish. Light lines in particular make sense because they minimize the drag and ballooning of your line behind the downrigger. For salmon I use 8 to 9 foot light fiberglass rods with trolling reel seats. I use high-retrieve ratio reels (3.5 up to 5.0 to 1) and 20 pound test monofilament. High-retrieve reels are particularly useful with downriggers. A downrigger gets your lure up fast even when you are deep. I find it very convenient to have a high-speed reel that can keep up with the downrigger without a lot of line slack (and tangles).

Drop Back Leader Lengths

With most downrigger releases, the leader length can be extended simply by letting out more monofilament before it is seated in the release clip. Longer drop back leaders are frequently the secret to more fish particularly in very clear water. I normally pull out 10 or 20 feet of leader but in clear water will frequently use 30 to 75 feet or more. Be careful of twisting with long leaders if you are using lures that spin and very light line. Sometimes even the best swivels will not prevent line twisting.

Dodgers and Flashers

Dodgers and flashers can be used very successfully with downriggers however more release pressure is needed to keep the flasher from tripping the release. One of my favorite techniques is to use a flasher hooked to my downrigger weight without a lure behind it. I then set a conventional lure above the flasher and approximately the same distance back (see diagram). Some manufacturers are now producing special attractors designed specifically to be hooked to the downrigger weight.

Downriggers and Electronic Fish Finders

Probably the most deadly trolling strategy to develop in the last several years has been the combination of downriggers with electronic fish finders. A modern depthsounder will pinpoint the location of fish and many will even discriminate between schools of small baitfish and different species of larger game fish. Once gamefish have been located the downrigger allows the fisherman to take his lure or bait to the exact depth where the fish are feeding. Even when the gamefish cannot be seen on the sounder the fisherman still has a great advantage. He can see the bottom structure and often can see a thermocline or change in temperature as a line across his screen. A temperature change will often concentrate baitfish on one side or the other and where there are baitfish concentrations there will be gamefish after them.

Some fishermen set their transducer so that they can continuously see their downrigger weights on the fish finder screen. Others, like me, prefer to mount the transducer tilted slightly forward so that the cannonballs do not show on the screen. I prefer this later method because when I fish multiple downriggers with multiple dodgers and lures I can get my screen so clobbered with hardware that I can't get a clear reading of the fish. 

Standard Trolling Setup

Source: Scotty Downriggers and Boatered.com (Captain David T. Tilley)



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