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Getting Down With Downriggers

By Mark Romanack

The author caught both this coho and king salmon
with the help of a Cisco Fishing System 
and an Off Shore Tackle OR1 Medium Tension 
Downrigger Release.
The back of the boat looked like a porcupine. Fishing rods jutted out in every direction, their silhouette making a dramatic fishing scene against the rising sun. Strategically placed rod holders held more than a dozen trolling rods and the captain was preparing yet another line.

“When you’re trolling you use as many lines as the law allows,” stated Bruce DeShano.  The owner of Off Shore Tackle Company, and Riviera Downriggers, Bruce DeShano is addicted to trolling.      

DeShano knows that trolling is the quickest way to both locate and catch fish. Despite the growing popularity of planer boards, diving planers, lead core line and a wealth of other modern trolling methods, downriggers remain one of DeShano’s favorite ways to troll.

“Most anglers associate downriggers with deep water fishing,” says DeShano. “What these anglers don’t realize is that downriggers are also a versatile trolling aid. The ultimate in depth control fishing, downriggers can be used to present countless lure types and trolling hardware. Riggers can also be used to fish the surface or more than 100 feet deep if the situation dictates.”

Downriggers are produced in both manual and electric operated models. Choosing between these models is a decision that’s mostly about cost.

Downriggers continue to be one of the most effective “depth control”
options available to the ardent troller.
It’s hard to dispute the convenience of an electric downrigger. A powerful 12 volt motor quickly lowers and raises the downrigger weight as needed, making it both quick and easy to set lines. Unfortunately this convenience comes with a price tag that’s about twice as much as manual operated models.

Manual riggers are just as effective at catching fish as the electric models. In addition to the obvious cost savings, manual riggers are not as susceptible to repairs as electric models.

“In general it’s safe to say that manual riggers are the best bet on smaller boats,” says DeShano. “Electric riggers are a good investment on larger Great Lakes style boats.”

Downriggers are normally mounted and fished in pairs. The size of the boat helps to determine how many riggers should be used.

“A set of two downriggers is adequate for boats ranging from 16-20 feet in length,” says DeShano. “Longer and wider boats provide more beam and enough room to mount four downriggers.”

Charter boats depend heavily on downriggers and the average fisherman
needs at least two 
downriggers to get started “depth control” trolling.
If only two riggers are to be mounted, they should be positioned on the gunnel (the deck mounting
plates must be bolted, not screwed in position) near the back of the boat, says DeShano. “The arm or boom should face perpendicular to the gunnel to increase the outward trolling coverage. Riggers mounted in this fashion are referred to as the out downs. The most common arm length for out down riggers is 48 inches.”

On larger boats with I/O or stern drive engines it’s common to mount an out down rigger at each corner and a third rigger in the middle commonly called the “chute rigger”. These days few boats are set up with more than three riggers.            

A downrigger is only as good as it’s weakest link. In most cases the downrigger line release is this weak link. All sorts of things are used to attach the fishing line to the downrigger weight including rubber  bands, alligator clips and other home-made solutions.

“It has always amazed me how anglers will spend hundreds of dollars to purchase good downriggers, then insist on using a two cent rubber band as a line release,” says DeShano. “The line release is the single accessory what makes or breaks how a downrigger functions. If the release tension is too light, the line will trip from the downrigger weight before the hook is set soundly into the fish’s mouth. If the release tension is too heavy, tripping it after a fish is hooked becomes impossible.”

The Fish Hawk is an invaluable sub-surface speed
 and temperature probe that allows anglers to
determine their trolling speed at the 
downrigger weight.
This is precisely why Off Shore Tackle produces three different models of line releases designed especially for downrigger fishing applications. DeShano’s first product at Off Shore Tackle was the OR1 Medium Tension Downrigger Release designed for trout and salmon fishing applications. He later introduced the OR4 Light Tension Downrigger Release commonly used for targeting walleye, spring browns, cohos and other smaller fish. Off Shore also produces a heavy tension downrigger release known as the OR8 that is ideal for trolling with rotators, dodgers, flashers, cowbells and other heavy duty trolling gear.

The lead lengths employed when fishing downriggers can be short, long or anywhere in between. The lure to be used usually determines the best lead length.

Light flutter style spoons like those typically used for trout and salmon have the best action when fished on short leads. The best success on spoons is normally achieved with a lead length from 6-15 feet.

Crankbaits are often fished 100 feet or more behind the downrigger weight. Longer leads with crankbaits don’t hurt the action of these lures and allow anglers to tempt fish that might otherwise be spooked by the boat.

Attractors including flashers, dodgers and rotators are generally fished 10-30 feet behind the downrigger weight. Increasing the lead length on rotators increases the circling action they provide.

Downrigger fishing is an art in of itself and one of the most dependable fishing methods on the Great Lakes. Effective on trout, salmon, steelhead, walleye and a host of other species, the downrigger has become a timeless part of the trolling scene.