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How to use a downrigger

Last Updated: 23.06.24

Are you looking for more efficient ways to fish? With so many fishing guides around, it can be difficult to say which methods work best, but, with a little help, you can identify a few that can serve you all the time. In this guide, we will talk about downriggers, what they are, what they do, and how you can use one effectively.


What are downriggers?

Before moving on to explaining how to use a downrigger, let’s focus a bit on explaining what one is. Downrigging describes a method of trolling that involves a cannonball attached to the winch; this helps with carrying your line and plays an important role.

As you may well know, different fish species like hanging out deeper or closer to the surface. Larger fish, in particular, are not very fond of swimming close to the water surface, which limits your experience as an angler. Getting the larger fish, swimming close to the waterbed, to rise to the surface, is not an easy task, and, without the proper rig, you cannot be successful.

If that is the kind of situation you need to deal with, your best bet would be a downrigger. This setup helps your lure to reach deeper, at levels you would not typically be able to fish. With the help of a downrigger, you can lower your lures as deep as 250 feet, and keep them there for as long as it is needed.

Is it possible to use downriggers for saltwater fishing? Downrigging is a technique that was invented by saltwater fishermen, and from there, it became popular with other anglers, as well. Whenever you need to fish for species that like keeping close to the bottom, such a configuration can help you gain the extra edge for a successful fishing trip.


Where and how do you use a downrigger setup?

As you may well suspect by now, downriggers are most likely used for catching fish that live in deep waters, like large lakes and other bodies of water. Whether you want to learn how to use downriggers for trout or salmon, as well as other species living in such environments, the rules are practically the same.

Here are all the items you should have for a proper downrigger setup. You must make sure to have the proper lure for the fish you intend to catch. All the tackle you bring should be large enough to accommodate the setup and the catch. A large spinning reel should be a fixture, as should be a cannonball, and some clips to keep the downrigger in place.

It doesn’t matter if you intend to use the rig for saltwater or freshwater since it should work the same way, regardless of your choice of location. The most important part of your setup is the reel. Make sure that the reel cable is linked to the lead cannonball; you may purchase a lead ball in different shapes, but this is not an essential aspect.

A wire goes from the ball to the line clip to keep the rig together. When using downriggers for salmon, just as you would use one for other similar species, it is important to let the lure sink behind your boat. Move the boat so that you can properly rig the bait.

If you intend to troll the lure, to make sure that the fish will end up in the hook, make sure to apply more pressure to the clip. However, you must bear in mind that other species, like marlin, should be allowed a bit more leeway, so they don’t struggle much, which means that you will lower the tension on the clip. All these tips come in handy when chasing different types of fish.

Some practice is needed for lowering the line with the bait, but it is not rocket science. Yank off enough line from the spool to allow the rig to sink with the lure at the desired depth. You can control the line by keeping a finger on the spool. This way, you also make sure that your line will not get all tangled and messy.

When the line is properly tensioned, you will know that you have the setup in place, exactly how you want it to be. The tension in the line will transmit any vibrations, signs that the fish strikes, and you will be able to drag your prey up.


What fish species can be caught with a downrigger?

This is a fundamental question. Depending on what kind of fish you intend to catch, you may choose in favor of a downrigger or not. Some people are interested in how to use downriggers for walleye, while others prefer it for trout or salmon. But these are not, by far, the only species that can be caught with the help of a downrigger. Snapper, Marlin, cobia, mackerel, and many others, are on the list.

Fish that prefer to live close to the waterbed are a bit more difficult to fool with bait than other species. Their better-trained eyesight can tell them the difference between an artificial lure and their natural prey. One of the things that put them on high alert is the fact that artificial lures float on the surface, which is an unnatural thing for them.

But, if you use a downrigger, you bring the bait closer to them. The usual caution does not apply, and, as a result, the fish can be convinced to bite. Snappers, for instance, are known to be the most cautious of them all, and they are particularly hard to catch. However, anglers who have used downriggers swear by this method to catch plenty of snappers.

There are all sorts of situations in which you can use a downrigger with efficiency. For instance, if you fish in an estuary, where the high currents do not allow baits to sink, using a downrigger saves you a lot of trouble. You will be able to lower the bait at the desired depth, and you will not be affected by the strong currents at all.


Tips for downrigging in freshwater

If you are into trout fishing, you may well know that this fish prefers different depths, and that is why it is essential to use a downrigger. It used to be quite a common practice among anglers to use a lot of lead and wire lines, just to get the bait to sink. If you prefer trolling, a downrigger gives you just the perfect alternative to the method described earlier.

A downrigger has the advantage of being more lightweight. That makes it much easier to manipulate, too. And, you don’t have to worry that your tackle is cumbersome and annoying to use. While it is true that downriggers are more a thing for saltwater fishing, you will find plenty of anglers nowadays who do not mind to get a little adventurous and use this method to catch trout.

Here is a tip you can use to enhance your chances of success with this fishing method. Apply two or even three lines to the same downrigger. This will give you an extra chance to catch more fish, and you will be more efficient than other anglers who struggle with a traditional rod and reel setup.


Using downriggers for saltwater

Downrigging is exceptionally efficient for saltwater fishing, and it lets you place the bait close to the fish. One ambition for saltwater anglers is to cover as much water surface as possible, and, for that, they use different methods. To cover more depth, a downrigger is a way to go.

At harbor entrances, where the currents tend to be strong, downriggers can be used with the same efficiency. There are certain challenges associated with how fast or easy you can pull the fish out of the water, once it strikes, but these fishermen seem to be prepared for all sorts of scenarios. They pick strong re-curve hooks that do not allow fish to escape once caught.


What kind of baits and lures can be used with a downrigger?

One thing you may wonder about is what bait or lure to use with this kind of setup. You can use a downrigger for trolling or drifting, but there is nothing wrong with focusing a little on the possibilities to use different baits and lures. Lie baits, rigged dead baits, skirted lures, and minnows work well with this setup, and you can increase your chances to catch something with the utmost efficiency.

There are other possibilities to remember, too. For instance, if you use a charter boat, a mix of hummingbird sounders may prove very effective when coupled with a downrigger.


Instructions for operating a manual downrigger

While you can use automatic downriggers, some anglers still prefer to experiment the pleasure of using a manual downrigger. A few steps must be followed to make sure that your downrigging technique is successful.

Set the boat to go at trolling speed, and let the line to release from the spool. Make sure to control the line with your thumb to ensure that the lure descends at the desired depth. Once that happens, stop the reel from spooling, by using the drag clicker. At this point, the only thing that remains for you to do is to put the rod in the holder and focus on the line.

Catch the line just near the rod tip with one hand and use the other to control the way the line is released. Right now, the cannonball is in the water, and you must lift it so you can attach it properly. After you do this, you can let the cannonball in the water so that it can sink with the bait.

The next step is to grab the reel and start loosening the disc that keeps the cannonball in place. By letting it loose, you allow the cannonball to sink into the water until you reach the depth you desire for your bait. Bear in mind that you must rotate the knob counterclockwise to make sure that it gets loosened.

Once you notice that the cannonball is starting to pull down on the reel, you can start cranking the reel to allow the descent of the cannonball. Keep an eye on the line counter; that should be placed on top of the rig, for easy viewing. That will allow you to calculate the depth you need.

The moment you decide to stop the descent, as the desired depth was reached, you should tighten the disc again; do that by rotating the knob clockwise this time around. This way, you will ensure that the cannonball will not sink further.

Now that you have the cannonball in place, you should focus on the drag. You need to set the drag clicker on the reel; this will allow you to tighten the fishing line until you notice that it is no longer slack.

With all the setup in place, it is the right moment for you to wait for fish to strike. Once that happens, you will have to retrieve the bait. A brusque movement is recommended for releasing the line and jerking the fish upward that, by now, might have started to struggle. The quicker and stronger you are, the more chances to land the fish caught in the hook.

The next step is to bring the cannonball back to the surface. First, loosen the knob and crank the reel in the clockwise direction. Once the cannonball is visible, you can tighten the knob and secure the cannonball. This is everything you need to know to operate a manual downrigger successfully. While it may not be very complicated, it may take some practice to do it right.


Various fishing methods can be used to land more fish, and downrigging is one of them. Even if it originates in the practices embraced mainly by saltwater anglers, it can be used by freshwater fishermen just as well. Whenever you have to deal with fish that prefer to swim close to the bottom, the only way to convince them to strike is by bringing the lure closer to them.

Downrigging is the way to do it. The technique is not very complicated, and only a bit of practice is needed. There are plenty of advantages to this fishing method. One is that you can be more efficient, while another is that you can attach more than one line to a downrigger, multiplying your efforts to catch fish. By employing the simple tips described above, you can become more proficient at using this method, too.



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