How to Do It (Better) with Downriggers

10 tips to join the fraternity of successful downrigger anglers

Kick off your summer season the right way

Fishing doesn’t have to be all trial and error. Introduced in the mid-1960s on Lake Michigan, downrigging is a trolling technique that allows you to control your depth. The device uses a reel filled with a small-diameter cable to take your lure or bait of choice to a desired depth. Downrigging is especially effective during the summer months because fish start to roam in deeper layers of water where temperatures are more optimal for them. Downrigging opens up opportunities to find and catch fish and will save you fuel and money in the long run. Here are some tips and tricks to fine-tune your downrigging technique.

Choose a good downrigger

Downriggers have a range of different shapes and sizes to reflect boat style, fishing type, budget and personal preference. An electric downrigger is convenient for its hands-free operation and easy retrieval of gear but requires a reliable power source and wired installation. On the other hand, a manual downrigger — generally the more affordable and portable option — will get the job done but requires more physical labor. When choosing the right model for your downrigger, you have to consider the spots available for mounting and other gear already on your boat. Whether you opt for manual or electric, get a downrigger you feel will be easy for you to use, and mount it somewhere that is easily accessible.

Decide on a type of downrigger cable

In addition to your preferred fishing line, you’ll need to choose your preferred downrigger cable, to which your fishing line will be attached via a release clip. Your two main choices are synthetic braided line or stainless-steel cable. Both have their merits and drawbacks, and your choice will depend on your preferences and where you fish. 1) Braid requires lower maintenance and is overall much easier to use than steel cable. With its thin profile, you experience less water resistance when trolling. In addition, braid does not kink, and the synthetic material it’s made from doesn’t carry an electrical charge, which can be problematic in saltwater. Its main fallbacks are that its susceptibility to damage from grit and its likelihood to break if nicked. 2) Stainless steel offers a few advantages over braid, as its stiff nature does not tangle as easily and it can transmit an electrical charge to actually attract fish. However, the steel cable produces an annoying hum while trolling. You also should replace stainless cable every year and maintain the stainless wire so that it doesn’t rust.

Mount releases properly

The purpose of a downrigger release is to hold the line firmly until a fish strikes your lure and creates enough resistance to hook the fish. Releases can be mounted at any location along the wire or between a cable and a weight. The ability to attach the release at any point on the cable allows you to fish with multiple lines on a single downrigger cable. Fishing more than one line off the downrigger is a great way to fish assorted depths and increase your catch. To do so, lower your main line to 15 or so feet and add another line through an additional release. In some areas, anglers fasten on dodgers and flashers, but more release pressure is needed to such hardware from tripping the release.

Pay attention to your line from the release clip to the lure or bait

The amount of line from the release mechanism to the lure is important because the greater the distance between lure and release, the greater the dropback will be after a fish strikes. Move the lure further from the release so as to not disturb the fish through boat movement. The distance the lure is run behind the weight of the downrigger will change depending on conditions. Locating the lure at a greater distance behind the cable and weight allows fish more chance to re-enter the troll alley following passage of the boat. However, running the lures as close to the downrigger weights as possible helps to eliminate line stretch when trolling mono, making it easier for the hook to penetrate the fish. This also makes it easier for the fish to pull the line out of the release so that you know you have a fish on your hook. A short lead works well when fishing deeper than 75 feet.

Don’t be afraid to add weight

As you troll deeper and faster be sure to use enough weight to minimize blowback and to keep your downrigger cable at a near-vertical angle. 10 pounds is typical for most saltwater applications. The amount of weight needed on a downrigger depends on the speed and depth, and there are tables that reveal weights that work best under different trolling conditions. (Just remember to raise your downrigger weight before traveling to a new fishing location!)

Control your trolling speed

Speed is a critical element of downrigger fishing because it determines how your lures are acting below the surface. Trolling speed varies according to the type of lure, depth fished, and the fish species targeted. Typically, trolling from speeds of one to five knots is a good range to catch fish. Use a slow trolling speed to reach greater depths and avoid tearing the hook from the bait. If you increase your trolling speed, take note that the angle of the downrigger cable will also increase. If you are pulling more than one lure, make sure that all the lures function properly at your trolling speed. A sonar unit can help make accurate depth determinations for weights and lines.

Keep tension on your line

If your boat is moving, your main line will most likely balloon out to the rear of the boat. To minimize excessive slack, the key is keep the line tight (which helps you see/feel bites) but allow enough play to avoid the line releasing prematurely. It takes practice!

Maintain your equipment

While cleaning up after your fishing trip, you should get into the habit of doing a maintenance check on your equipment. – Inspect cables for frays or kinks – Wipe down electrical cables. – Lubricate pulleys, swivels, and snaps.
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Get down with downrigging

Downriggers are a valuable piece of fishing equipment that are worth the investment. Equip yourself so that you can kick off your summer fishing season right and get to practicing proper downrigging technique. The angler scored a hefty Chinook using a Scotty Downrigger. To successfully make your downrigger more functional, there are a few accessories that you might want to purchase, such as an offshore release, a rod holder, and a speed/temperature probe. A fish finder can be especially useful because it can trace the location of fish, allowing you to take your lure to the exact depth the fish are feeding.
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About the Author

David Johnson is the Marketing Manager at Anchor Express. Founded in 2003, Anchor Express is one of the leading online retailers of marine electronics and boating & fishing equipment. In his free time David enjoys writing, craft beers, and practicing Brazillian Jiu Jitsu at his local gym.