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May 29, 2009

Hit 'Em Low with Downriggers

Take monster pelagics when high-handed tactics won't work

Learn the basics of fishing live baits on downriggers to increase your blue-water repertoire. You can add some technical tricks and flash later. These tricks can save your arse on days when nothing else works, when anglers start staring far into the distance and nodding off.

Newcomers to downriggers can avoid many headaches by learning basic principles.

Practice the Basics
First, make sure you have the rigger - whether electric or manual -  mastered at the dock before you take off. This sounds simple, but believe me: Trying to figure out things like brake control and tension adjustment with fish going off around you in 8-foot seas can result in wire in the props, lost downrigger balls/planers, or nasty cuts from braided lines or cable.

A few days before your first downrigger excursion, take time while tied up to the dock to practice operating the machine. Raise and lower the ball or planer; secure lines with release clips or rubber bands; and for goodness sake, if you have an electric model, check and recheck the wiring before you head out. Practice makes perfect, so a few humbling hours of training at the dock may pay off in a big way later when the heat is on.

Practice Bait Deployment
Second, become proficient in lowering a bait without tangling the fishing line in the downrigger cable; that seemingly simple act can be more complicated than you might imagine. Dealing with a livey on as much as 50 feet of line trailing the release clip takes a few dress rehearsals to achieve a flawless performance come showtime.

All too often I've seen crews deploy a fresh candy bait on the downrigger, and moments later, smash-woosh! - a big cow Hoovers the bait. But as deckhands scramble for the downrigger, they see that the fishing line has tangled in the cable, and the agitated behemoth threatens to rip the entire works right off the covering board.

Avoid this costly mistake by tossing bridled live baits astern while the boat moves ahead at your regular live-bait trolling speed. Carefully pay out 50 feet and secure the main line to the downrigger release clip or swivel.

Use Different Strategies for Different Baits
Then closely monitor the rod tip while lowering the downrigger ball and bait to the desired depth. The rod tip serves as a superb indicator of the bait's condition. You should see a steady pulsing of the rod tip, indicating a healthy, albeit sometimes frantic, critter swimming below. If the bait dies or the line tangles in the downrigger cable, the rod tip stops pulsing. A static rod tip means it's time to haul the works to the surface and have a look at things, just to be sure.

Practice diligently, pay attention and learn the special adjustments or little details required to cleanly deploy different types of baitfish. You'll find, as I have, that certain baits require a fast drop and others a much more cautious approach to keep them from swimming hard into the downrigger gear.

Small baits like goggle-eyes tend to rush the boat if not lowered quickly once they're tossed astern. To avoid problems with small baitfish, our crew attaches the main line to the release clip before bridling a bait. Once the bait hits the water, we immediately start lowering the downrigger so there's no chance to foul in the cable.

Larger baits like skipjack or peanut yellowfin call for a different approach. Use a slower, more controlled descent for football tuna because they exert more pressure on the line. Rocketing such larger baits down to the depths often results in premature popping of release clips and tangled lines.