How to Use Downriggers

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So, you want to fish for the giant lake trout you're always hearing about, but you have never used a downrigger, a trolling device that uses a large weight to keep a fishing line and its lure at a controlled depth. Downriggers consist of a spool of steel cable (which can be motorized or hand operated), a weight, a clip (release mechanism) and an arm used to hold the cable while it is lowered from the boat. Although fine-tuning your trolling technique may require practice, using a downrigger is easy.

Things You'll Need

  • Boat
  • Downrigger
  • Fishing rod, about 7 feet long
  • Fishing reel, loaded with fishing line
  • Lure or live bait (large shiner or other medium-to-large baitfish)
  • Weights
  • Attach a properly sized weight to the end of the downrigger's cable. The size of the weight will vary depending on the depth you wish to fish. For freshwater fishing in moderate depths (20 to 30 feet), weights of 6 to 8 pounds are typically used. For saltwater fishing, weights of 10 to 20 pounds are typical.

  • Release no more than 15 feet of line from the reel. Attach the fishing line to the downrigger cable above the weight using the clip. Keep the length of line between the lure and the clip at less than 15 feet so that when trolling the fish is presented with the lure soon after the weight passes.

  • Open the bail on the reel to allow line to pay out freely. Lower the weight, letting out cable until the desired depth is reached. Some electric downriggers have counters that track the depth of the weight. Other downriggers, usually manual ones, require you to count the revolutions and calculate the depth as you lower the rig.

  • Reel in the main fishing line until the rod tip is bent with tension. Begin trolling. Tension on the line is necessary so that when a fish strikes the clip will release the line and the rod will spring up to alert you to a strike.

  • Set the hook and fight the fish. Play the fish carefully so that the fishing line does not become entangled with the downrigger cable. As soon as possible, retrieve the weight and cable, or, if there is another person in the boat, have him raise the rig.

Tips & Warnings

  • Do not drag the weight across the bottom while trolling. The weight could become entangled, requiring you to cut the cable.
  • Use light tackle to avoid "ballooning" of the fishing line - momentary slack in the line after a fish bites.
  • Locate the depth of fish schools with an electronic fish finder. It makes it easier to get the lures at the proper depth.
  • Use a downrigger with an arm length of 20 to 24 inches on smaller boats (up to 17 feet). For larger boats, use a downrigger with an arm length of 30 to 48 inches.

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