years fishermen have searched for ways to improve their catch ratio
and keep their friends happy. Many ingenious minds have gone to work
and devised devices like outriggers, diving planers and even kites
to aid them in catching fish.
Of all the devices to be introduced into the marketplace during the
past twenty years, the downrigger has to go on record as being one
of the most effective fishing aids ever designed.
The downrigger concept is not new. In fact, primitive types of downriggers
were used by Indians fishing the Great Lakes during the 1800s. The
first true downrigger was a commercial rig patented years ago called
the "Hirty-Girty". This rig was used on the West Coast for
deep commercial fishing. It wasn't until the mid 1960's during the
inception of the Lake Michigan salmon fishery that the downrigger
was successfully introduced as a valuable sport fishing aid. No one
is sure of the exact origin of the current downrigger, but it is a
known fact that the first designs consisted of window sash weights
with trolling lines attached to a heavy line, and lowered to a desired
depth. As salmon fishermen started refining the concept, new gadgets
were being developed, one of which was a large tricycle wheel mounted
on the back of the boat. The tire was removed and the wheel was wrapped
with a heavy line and a sash weight was attactched. The weight was
lowered and raised by turning the pedals. These devices were crude
but they laid the groundwork for the sophisticated Walker downrigging
system we use today. This innovation enables you to increase your
chances of finding and catching certain fish.
Downrigging: How it works
The downrigger is a winch-type mechanism that feeds
cable off a rotating reel through a guide system along an extension arm.
A weight is attached to the end of the cable and the line release is attached
to the weight. The fishing line from an independent rod is attached to
the release mechanisms on the downrigger cable.
By lowering the weight, you can drop the line down to the desired depth.
A footage counter is connected to the reel unit to indicate the specific
amount of cable that has been released. At the desired depth the reel
is locked into place.
The independent fishing rod is set in a holder attached to the downrigger
or placed directly behind it on the gunwale. A bow is placed in the rod
by tightening the line between it and the release on the downrigger cable.
When a fish "strikes", it pulls the line from the release on
the cable and thereby sets the hook. As tension on the line is released,
the rod appears to snap straight up and allows the angler to play the
fish without excess line weight.
The downrigging unit is typically mounted on the stern or along the rear
side of the boat.
Downrigger design and construction vary with the manufacturer, however
all downriggers have some similar components.
A. Reel - The wheel device on which
the cable is coiled. Cable length is usually up to 600 feet.
B. Crank Handle - Device used to rotate
the wheel to shorten or extend cable length. Manual cranks are standard,
but more sophisticated units are electrically powered. Electric downriggers
raise and lower via a 12-volt motor. Power required to operate Walker
electric downriggers is minimal - about six amps for a 10lb. weight. Walker
electric downriggers shut off if needed when the weight reaches the arm
on retrieval via an automatic thermal overload or optional auto stop.
C. Clutch - Drag system that adjusts
tension on the wheel. This allows cable to unravel when weight becomes
entangled or caught on an obstruction. On Walker manual units, the clutch
is built into the handle allowing weight to be lowered and retrieved quickly
with one hand. Electric units have a clutch with friction pads working
very similarly to the drag on a level wind reel.
D. Cable - Stranded stainless steel
wire (approx. 150 to 195lb. test) used to connect weight and reel. Line
releases are placed on this cable. Walker temp sense ready downriggers
have special coaxial cable that can be used to provide water temperature
sensing at depth of downrigger weight (see temperature sensing section.)
E. Arm - 1 extension stainless
steel and aluminum rods, adjustable to various lengths between one to
six feet, along which the cable runs and is supported.
F. Swivel Head and Pulley - Located
at the end of the arm, the swivel head and pulley ensures smooth lowering
and retrieval of the weight.
G. Mounting - Provides for quick securing
or release of downrigger unit. Walker Downriggers combo-Pak includes
a swivel base that attaches to a 4x6 deck mounting plate to
allow for different positioning and ease in connecting lines to release.
Another type of base is a quick mount base which slips securely and easily
into an in-the-gunwale rodholder. Downrigger locking knobs for security
are an option available on some units and are important to impede theft.
H. Weights - Used to submerge line to
desired depth. Weights are usually six to twelve pounds and come in numerous
shapes and colours. A good guide to what pound weight to use is a minimum
of one pound per 10 feet with a maximum of approximately 16lbs. recommended.
However, in most cases using more than ten pound weights on a manual unit
can cause you to look somewhat like Popeye at the end of the day.
I. Release - Mechanisms used to attach
line from fishing rod to cable. (See release section for details on operation
and basic type.)
J. Counter - Usually attached to the
reel, this provides accurate measure of the amount of cable that has been
K. Rodholder - The fishing rod attached
to the downrigger is placed in this unit which may be single or double
Correct application of line release systems is essential for successful
downrigging. Releases can be mounted (1) between a cable and a downrigger
weight, or (2) at any location along the wire. The ability to attach the
release at any point affords placement of more than one line on a single
downrigger cable. Stacking must be attempted with caution as multiple
hookups may cause line crossing.
Release designs vary in complexity, from a single rubber band to Walkers
patented spring-set, adjustable tension release mechanism. Choice of type
and design are dependent upon application. Walkers adjustable tension
releases are always appropriate when high and slow speed trolling of lines
having varying weights is expected over the course of a season. Correct
release tension, best learned through experience, allows for release only
when a fish bites the bait, and not when normal lure resistance occurs
while trolling. When manufactured releases are not available, a rubber
band may be substituted in the following way: Pull one end of a #12 rubber
band through the other until it cinches down on your fishing line. Attach
the rubber band loop to a snap swivel located above the downrigger weight.
If stacking lines, then repeat above and attach the other end of the swivel
to the downrigging cable, using a second rubber band and snap.
Line from release to lure
The amount of line from the release mechanism to the lure is an important
consideration when downrigger fishing. When you are fishing in shallow
water, the boat may spook the fish; therefore it may be necessary to locate
the lure a greater distance behind the weight to enable fish to re-enter
the troll alley following passage of the boat. Generally, if you think
fish are disturbed by boat movement, move the lure further from the release.
The greater the distance between lure and release, the greater the line
drop after a fish strikes. Line drop describes the slack period from the
time the line is pulled free of the release to the time that it comes
taut to the tip of the fishing rod. A this time the lure is free-falling,
possibly simulating prey that has been stunned as the result of an attack.
If you are fishing for game fish that stun their prey and return to consume
crippled bait, this could be to your advantage. If bait does not stall
in the water after line drop, the game fish may think its prey has not
been injured and is not catchable.
Another important consideration in downrigger fishing is the action of
the lure. An old charter captain trick is to take a top section off an
old fishing rod and tie a three to five foot piece of monofilament to
the end. On the other end of the mono, tie the type of lure youre
running. Occasionally drop the lure into the water holding the rod section
in your hand and watch the lure action while trolling. Adjust your boats
speed to impart the lure action you want. If your lure is of the diving
type, the distance it will dive must be considered if stacking it next
to non-diving lures or if fishing close to the bottom. A diving lure that
would normally dive 10 to 15 feet if free trolled, will also dive 10 to
15 feet from the release point with a downrigger. This should be taken
into account when setting release position and weight depth.
Trolling speed and cable angle
Trolling speed is very critical and should vary according to type of lure,
depth fished and species sought. When trolling live or rigged baits, you
should allow them to move as naturally as possible; therefore, a slower
trolling speed is usually preferred. A faster speed can tear the hook,
if not adequately secured, from the bait. Artificial lures are normally
trolled faster than live bait. As trolling speed increases, the angle
of the downrigger cable off the stern also increases. As the boat moves
through the water, the cable and weight tend to trail behind, which produces
To make accurate depth determinations for weights and lines, you should
use a sonar unit (fish finder) when downrigger fishing. Metal weights
often appear as a solid line on the sonar unit.
Sonar units (fish finders)
There are many types of sonar units on the market to fit almost any budget.
They are almost a must when downrigger fishing. Sonar units keep the angler
informed on many useful facts. These include how far the fish are under
the boat and the contour or structure of the bottom. This information
saves downrigger weights when you are running them close to the bottom
and the contour changes abruptly.
Mount the transducer of your sonar unit on the stern of the boat. Be sure
it is away from the propwash of the boat as this will affect performance.
The mounting of the transducer on the stern will allow the monitoring
of your downrigger weights and lures. Consult a marine electronics dealer
Temperature sensing equipment and
Water temperature is a primary determinant of fish distribution. Temperature
may act to concentrate food organisms that attract fish, or may be a physiological
barrier through which fish will not move. Generally, water temperatures
decrease with increasing depth. As wind keeps the surface layer well mixed
and uniform in temperatures, the temperature decreases rapidly within
a subsurface layer of water called the thermocline. During mid-summer
months, the thermocline contains favorable dissolved oxygen and nutrient
levels for fish and prey. Knowledge of fish temperature preferences, coupled
with the ability to measure temperature at various depths can contribute
to angling success. Many types of water temperature sensing equipment
are available. The simplest is a thermometer, used only to measure surface
temperature, that can be hand-held over the side of the boat. A variation
of the thermometer is a temperature sensor permanently mounted to the
To measure temperatures at various depths, Walkers coaxial temperature
sensor system utilizes a special kind of downrigger cable which conducts
an electrical signal from a sensor placed near the downrigger weight.
As the weight is lowered, temperatures are read off two separate sources
on a DTS-3000 display unit on the boat. This equipment is flexible enough
for practically any application, whether you are taking an isolated survey
for the water column or a continuous reading at various depths while trolling.
Downrigger deck plates and swivel bases are sometimes attached to mounting
boards, usually placed atop the transom of a boat and containing two to
four downrigger units and associated fish-finding electronics and equipment.
Because each downrigger is equipped with its own mountable base, located
at any point on the gunwale or transom of the vessel, mounting boards
are not essential for downrigging.
In general, to position four downriggers on a moderate size fishing boat,
downriggers with long arm extensions are used for port and starboard positions,
and short arms are used for stern mounting. Common sense should be exercised
when locating downriggers so as to minimize potential interference with
adjacent lines. Spacing is most important. When running four units, at
least two of the four should have four to six foot arms to achieve a desired
spacing of at least four feet between all units. In small boats, this
is easily achievable as a maximum of two units is suggested running port
and starboard. When mounting electric downrigging units, you might wish
to consult qualified boat electrician.
In the instructions, manufacturers generally outline any necessary maintenance
required for various downrigger models. Read them. Because downriggers
have moving and often electrical characteristics, visual maintenance and
upkeep should be part of the cleanup routine following a fishing trip.
Cables should be inspected for frays or kinks and replaced as necessary.
Electrical cables should have no cracks and remain waterproof. Lubrication
of pulleys, swivels and snaps, etc. should be done often to prohibit corrosion
and ensure smooth working characteristics.
Todays boat angler is faced with increasing operating costs due
to rising fuel and maintenance expenses. The longer the time spent angling
for fish the higher the costs. Downrigger fishing provides a way of locating
and catching fish faster, thus saving fuel and
Much of this article was derived from an
article courtesy of the New York Seas Grant Extension Program, Brockport,
N.Y. by R.B. Buerger and C.F. Smith.