What Is A Downrigger?

When fishing by boat, trolling offers the means to cover large amounts of water, while you search for and locate where the fish are located.  I've heard it said that 95% of the surface water of a lake contains no fish.  That means that in order to catch fish while out on a boat, you need to get your baits and lures down to where the fish are.  While there are several methods for doing so, in this post we are going to take a quick look at downriggers and what they have to offer.

A downrigger is a device that allows a heavy weight to be lowered into the water.  The fishing line is then attached to the weight and lowered to the desired depth.  When a fish takes the bait, the line is released from the weight and the the angler is left fighting only the fish, not the weight that was used to get the line down the water column.  Let's take a look at the parts of the downrigger:

The Downrigger

The downrigger itself is the actual device that makes this all possible.  It attches the boat, more on that in a minute, and offers a spool of wire (or sometimes heavy fishing line), an arm to get the line out away from the boat, and a pulley to facilitate dropping the weight or bringing it up.  Depending on the model, the downrigger can either be manually or automatically controlled.

Simple Clamp on downrigger
At right is a very simple downrigger with a clamp mount.  It can be used to attach the downrigger to a small boat or canoe to give small watercraft owners an additional method for fishing their favorite waters.  The compact design and ease of attaching/detatching this style make it easy to remove when it isn't needed, or pulled off for storage.  This is generally the cheapest style of downrigger to buy, but works best with lighter weights.

Manual downrigger
Stepping up, the downrigger at left offers a little more durability, while still being fairly affordable.  This type mounts to a special mounts that is typically either attached to the boat.  It offers a longer arm, to get the cable and weight further away from the boat and it gives you a little more leverage when reeling up the weight.  Although different brands may vary a little bit from each other, they will typically hold around 200 feet of stainless steel cable, making them useful at most freshwater depths.  (Especially here in Colorado).  If you don't need, or can't afford an electric downrigger, the manual models can offer you a lifetime of fishing for a fair value.

Fully loaded electronic downrigger

The next model, at left, is the electronic downrigger.  This main difference is that they offer you the ability to raise and lower the weight at the push of a button, rather than physically cranking a lever.  Not only is it easier (imagine raising and lowering the weight a couple dozen times when you the fish are really biting!), but it also allows you to bring the weight up while you are still fighting the fish.  This reduces the chance of the fish becoming entangled in the cable and leaves the weight at the water line, ready to go when you bring your fish in.  Some electronic models can even be connected to a fish finder, allowing for depth adjustments from the finder as you locate schools of fish, or the water depth changes.

The Line

Typically, stainless steel cable is used to attach the line.  The cable doesn't stretch and is plenty strong to keep you from losing the weight.  Some people also use heavy duty braided fishing lines instead of the wire.  This fishing line provides less drag, resulting the weight dropping deeper, and prevents the "hum" sometimes associated with the wire.

Downrigger weight
The Weight

The weight is what brings your fishing line down to the depth that you want it at.  Sometimes referred to as "Canonballs," due to their round shape and lead composition, they come in different weights, such as 4, 6, 8, 10, 12lbs.  The heavier weights allow greater depths when moving fast or when you have a lot of cable out.  The weights typically have two eyelets, one to connect the cable to and another for your release.  There are also a wide variety of colors available, plus you can paint them any color you would like.  While black is the classic color, you can try different colors to see what works for you.

The Release

Line release
The release is the ever important device that allows your line to be attached to the weight, but to release once a fish bites it.  There are different amounts of grip that a release can have, varying from a light grip, to a heavy grip.  The light versions are perfect for shallower waters and smaller fish.  The stronger versions are designed for fishing deeper depths and for hard hitting fish that need a little more resistance for setting the hook.  The release can be one of the most frustrating parts of using a downrigger, you want enough tension that it doesn't release prematurely, but you need it loose enough that it doesn't drag any fish that you hook.  Setting the release takes practice to set it properly and consistently.

Hopefully you have an idea of what makes up a downrigger.  Check back for more articles on how to use your downrigger.

If you want to try a different method of trolling, namely lead core, check out my three article series on using lead core line:


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