When fish run deep either looking for comfortable thermoclines or targeting schools of baitfish you have no choice but to go after them. For increasing your catch rate, quality sonar and downriggers are a deadly combination. While lead core line, clip weights and deep diving cranks do a good job of targeting species at moderate depths, when fish are holding or foraging at depths of 40 feet or more, without downriggers you’re just dragging baits on a boat ride.
Salmon for example, can feed hundreds of feet below the surface. By coordinating precise depth readings from sonar and the counter on a modern downrigger, fishermen can present a lure at the exact depth where salmon are feeding.
When you examine the concept, it isn’t that difficult to understand. The downrigger is a simple device that lowers a heavy weight attached to a steel cable, and accurately measures the depth as the cable is paid out. A lure is rigged to run 10 to 200 feet behind the downrigger cable with a release that responds to a strike, and the fight is on.
A basic downrigger presentation consists of a spool of steel cable, a counter, release clip, weight, rod holder and a short boom to extend the reach away from the mounting bracket on the gunnels. By spreading multiple downrigger booms you can control the angle of tow and keep multiple lines separated. As many as four downriggers can be used at the same time, giving you the option of targeting schooling fish at different depths, and with different lures or live bait.
Manual vs. Electric
Both manual and electric downriggers are available. In recent years many fishermen have opted for electric downriggers because they can be easily and quickly brought to the surface and out of the way when a fish is hooked. When you look at the additional cost of buying an electric model, it might seem like a luxury; however, when you are fishing at depths of 75 feet or more, hand cranking a heavy weight up and down several times an hour can whip even the most athletic angler.
Electric downriggers are an especially handy feature when fishing alone, or when you have multiple hookups of large fish. It can get a little crowded around the transom with multiple anglers fighting fish and others trying to hand crank up several downriggers at the same time. With electric models, you only have to hit the retrieve button and concentrate on bringing the fish to net.
Despite the numerous advantages of electric units, manual downriggers still have a useful niche, especially for anglers who fish from a small boat. Manual rigs are more compact, and they do get the job done adequately. For the most part, small boats are used in freshwater, or close inshore in saltwater where the depths will not dictate running out and retrieving a lot of cable. Manual downriggers are also more compact, and portable, which makes them ideal for fly-in trips or use on rental boats.
Permanent vs. portable mounts will be dictated by a number of factors, not the least of which is personal preference. A portable downrigger is secured using clamps that are tightened to the gunnels of the boat. Portable rigs allow for quick and easy setup and removal, an attractive option for those who like to rent boats or for the angler who likes to position downriggers in different configurations. The down side to portable units is a less secure mount that can slip if it isn’t tightened properly, or in heavy weather.
Permanent mounts are screwed directly to the gunnels, or to a specially designed platform that is fitted to the top of the gunnels. Permanent mounts work best for large boats, especially when the presentation involves multiple downriggers. Most manufacturers feature either a built-in multiple-position base, or the ability to add one.
The attributes and advantages of boom length applications are tied directly to the length of the boat being used. These general rules of thumb or guidelines are offered for consideration, not concrete dictates. Basically, both short and long boats fall into a class that would definitely benefit from a particular length, and boats in the twilight zone in between an go either way depending on the anglers personal preference, mounting options available and fishing style.
Anglers fishing from a boat of 15 feet or less will find a short arm downrigger much easier to manage. These units have a reach of 20 to 24 inches, allowing an angler to access the arm from a sitting position and that’s a definite advantage in rough weather when you don’t want to be leaning over the rail of a small boat.
For longer boats of 22 feet or more, the advantage of a long arm unit is multiple, and some would say mandatory. These booms fall in the range of 30 to 48 inches and are ideal for running multiple lines from both the side and stern at the same time. With the longer, 48-inch units on the side, and the shorter 30-inch version off the stern, you will have plenty of room to work and maneuver the boat without worrying with them on turns. Also, larger boats with a lot of freeboard require longer booms to avoid banging the weight into the side in heavy waves.
When rigging a boat that falls into that middle zone, in between 16 and 21 feet, anglers have the advantage of flexibility and can go either short or long depending on the number of downriggers they intend on using and how they prefer to utilize this tool.
Before you begin drilling holes in your boat, to secure a permanent mount, check below to make sure of what you are drilling into and check angles and distances between your intended setup. Electric wiring harnesses are often run underneath a boat’s gunnels, and steering controls also present an opportunity to go awry.
A rod holder might seem like an inconsequential element of a downrigging system, but don’t get caught by that assumption. A rod holder for downrigging should be highly adjustable so that it can be tilted in varying positions to gain the most effective relationship with the line being trolled. Most importantly, you want a rod holder that releases a rod with one fluid motion, allowing for quick removal and solid hook sets without fumbling delays. Also, you want a rod holder that is sturdy enough to withstand the stress of a big fish leaving at full speed in the other direction.
A Weighty Choice
The choice for weights has increased dramatically in the last few years. From the basic, traditional ball weight, choices now include pancake weights, molded balls that increase control and now the innovative, scent-trailing models designed to serve a dual purpose.
The most common weight is the traditional cannon ball that comes in various sizes, different designs feature a keel of various lengths for increased control and preventing the ball from spinning and tangling lines. Typically, downrigger weights are available in sizes from four to 15 pounds, and the size you use depends on the speed of the troll.
The pancake weight is a slimmed down version that reduces drag and performance at increased speeds, requiring less weight at greater speeds than traditional round weights.
Fish shaped weights are the current rage in downrigging. These weights create less drag, look like a fish and track better in tight turns. Another twist to fish shaped weights is the added feature of fish scent that can be loaded into the weight’s body and paid out gradually through a small wick.
Cabela’s directional downrigger weight is another innovative design approach. The keel is curved to divert the weight away from the boat, extending the distance between towed lines. They are also reversible and can be used on either side of the boat.
Quality weights are treated with a thick vinyl coating to prevent corrosion and reduce boat damage when they’re handled carelessly; however, the coating will not mitigate damage to your toes. If you should drop a downrigger weight on a foot you’ll definitely be sitting down, or at least hobbling for the rest of the day’s outing. When using downriggers, care should be taken with electronic winches as well.
Other Bells and Whistles
Getting the weight down to the right depth is the first challenge, getting it stopped is the next. Units with an adjustable clutch brake will not only get it stopped, they’ll do it gradually so that there isn’t a hard jerk at the end that can torque or twist the ball.
Another aspect of downrigging is the ability to control the output of ions. Research has shown that fish are attracted to a positive field of ions in the water, and the ability to produce and control the output is an attractive advantage.
If you do a lot of trolling in water with an undulating bottom, you might want to consider the value of being able to track the bottom automatically. The more sophisticated units coordinate signals from a sonar unit and make minute adjustments, as little as one foot, when the bottom rises or falls.
When it comes to putting a lure in the face of big fish that are running really deep, nothing performs like a downrigger. They’re easy to use, simple to rig, and most important - they work like a charm.