What is a downrigger & how do they work?
We pulled up on the reef at around 7 in the morning. It was a popular reef on the Gold Coast well known for its mackerel fishing. We were keen to try for a Spanish mackerel so had opted to forego the early morning bite period to try and catch some live bait that we intended to slow troll. We run 2 large live wells on our charter boat, RU4 ReeL, and they both had a good number of live slimeys swimming around in them, so we felt quietly confident even though the prime bite time was already over. The fact that a few of the other boats were starting to head home didn’t deter us and two live baits were deployed on the surface as far back as the boat traffic would allow; while the other two would be trolled on the down riggers. The third livey was let out, clipped onto the Downrigger ball and slowly dropped to 30ft while I was kicking the big Steber in and out of gear. As Scott walked across to let the final bait out the rod in the down rigger gave a buck and line started screaming off the reel.
Scott’s father Bob grabbed the rod and a good size spaniard was landed after a spirited fight. Well that was a good start! The baits were set again and this time a surface bait was hammered. As Scott leant over to pick up the rod, one of the rods in the Downriggers also went off. It was the start of a hectic session that saw us catch 4 spaniards, 6 spotted mackerel and a cobia in 2 hours with a few lost fish and missed bites added to the mayhem. All but 2 of the fish came on the Downriggers. It was an eye opener for me as to just how effective they could be when used in the correct way and in the correct place. In this article we will look at Downrigger in depth (excuse the pun) and how to get the most out of them.
What do they do?
A down rigger is similar to an outrigger in that it places your bait where you want it away from the other baits or lures. An outrigger lifts your bait up to the surface and moves it out of the bubble trail created by your propeller and into clearer water. A Downrigger simply drops your bait down into the water column to a depth of your choice and as with an outrigger when a fish grabs the lure or bait your line pulls out of the release clip and your are thus able to fight your fish weight free and unhindered. In essence it is a very simple method of fishing yet is often construed as being something that is very complicated.
People often mistake the large Downrigger ball for a weight that is actually fixed to your line and you have to pull it and your fish up from the bottom. This is however not the case and the weight is only there to get your bait down to where the fish are and acts independently. As soon as the fish bites your line it pulls the line out of the Downrigger clip, making the down rigger weight and your line two separate entities.
How does it work?
Downriggers were originally used in large lakes to target trout and salmon. As we fisherman are an inventive mob, we eventually worked out that we could use them in other fisheries and they found there way into the saltwater. Whether they are used in fresh or salt the principle around their use remains the same. They are a tool that can get your bait down to exactly where you want it whether trolling or on anchor. A down rigger takes guessing where your lure or bait is out of the equation as many of them come with depth counters, you can thus see the exact depth that you have your bait or lure.
A Downrigger consists of a large reel loaded with wire; this wire is connected to a lead ball which comes in varying shapes. This ball features a short length of wire which is attached to a line clip. To rig a bait or lure in a down rigger you start by letting your bait out behind the boat as it is moving forward. Distance is not a major factor but you can work on a basic rule of thumb that the shallower you fish the further back you should position your bait. Once it is out behind the boat place the rod in your rod holder and put the reel in free spool with the ratchet engaged. If it is a spin reel then simply back the drag off so that it is quite loose. Take the line and clip it into the downrigger clip. Downrigger clips come in various forms and often have variable tensions. If you are trolling a lure or a rigged bait that you want the fish to hook itself on, then you will need a bit more tension on the clip. Alternatively if you want the fish to move off with the bait first, like live baiting for marlin, then you will only want just enough tension on the clip to hold the bait.
Once you have the line in the clip you will need to let the ball down progressively while controlling the line coming off your spool. This takes a bit of practice as the initial start up can yank the line off your reel with a sudden jolt. I apply a bit of finger pressure to the spool of my reel to ensure that I don’t get a tangle. Once the bait is at the desired depth tension the line up so that there is a bit of a bend in the rod and set your drag accordingly. You are now ready to catch a fish.
When to use the Downrigger
You can catch just about anything on a Downrigger from snapper to marlin; and their uses are not limited to offshore fishing. On our charter boat we predominantly use them for targeting pelagic species like mackerel, cobia, marlin, and yellowtail kingfish; but snapper, various species of tuna and a variety of reef fish have been making up quite a respectable by-catch. We basically always use a down rigger when we want to get baits or lures down deeper in the water column. This decision is often spurred on by the fact that we can we can see fish showing up on the sounder and they refuse to come up and eat off the surface.
The down rigger offers a very natural presentation and can also often tempt fish into biting that will refuse a similar bait that seems unnatural to them. We have caught numerous snapper on down rigged live baits that have been intended for other fish, while other boats around us have been struggling to get a bite off the bottom using conventional methods.
Down riggers can also be used in estuaries when strong current make it exceptionally difficult to get baits down to the bottom. An example of this would be the Southport Seaway. It has some excellent structure in deep water yet fishing it with live or dead baits can be a challenge at the best of times. One can anchor your boat upstream of the structure you intend fishing and then after rigging your bait, clip it to your downrigger ball and let it down to where the fish will be holding around the structure. As soon as the fish grabs the bait, the line releases from the clip and you will be able to fight your fish.
What to use
You may have noticed that I keep referring to baits or lures when talking about down rigging. You can fish just about anything out of a down rigger either on anchor, on the drift or trolling. For example, you can use live baits, minnows, skirted lures or rigged dead baits; pretty much whatever you would conventionally troll on the surface can be trolled out of one.
On our charter boat we use our Canon Downriggers quite closely in conjunction with our Humminbird sounders. You can clearly see the Downrigger ball on the sounder (if your transducer is mounted on the transom) so it can simply be a case of adjusting the depth of the ball to the depth that you are marking fish on your sounder. If you can’t see the ball change your depth increments to feet to give you the same depth as your down rigger or alternatively you convert from metres to feet roughly by multiplying the meter amount by three. This will bring your rigs right through the fish. Cannon have also brought out a feature on their MAG 20 DT TS models that actually allow the downrigger to communicate with select Humminbird sounders. This means that the Downrigger can automatically raise or drop the Downrigger ball so that your rig travels at the depth you select from the bottom. The ball thus never gets snagged and is always in the strike zone.
As you increase your trolling speed you will cause the down rigger ball to blow back due to the resistance caused by the water. This will cause your rigs to run a bit shallower the faster you go. If you want to overcome this to a certain degree then you all you to do is up size your ball weight, or let more wire out of the Downrigger to compensate for the bow in the line.
Downrigging is a technique that can catch you a lot of fish when others fail to produce. It is not the be all or end all of fishing techniques and as with everything will not always produce fish, but if you have never tried it or own one but don’t use it. It may well be worth the effort and you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.