Trolling in the Deep? Best Downriggers Explained and Our Favorites Reviewed

Whether you prefer the excitement of summer lake trout, the thrill of deep-running walleye, or the adrenaline rush of monster kokanee, there’s no better way to troll than a downrigger. Originally designed for commercial fishing, downriggers are now a popular technique for sport fishermen on large, deep lakes in the northern U.S and southern Canada and for saltwater anglers everywhere.

What is a downrigger? Is one right for you? And what should you look for if you’ve made the decision to invest in one?

To help you explore your options, we’ll explain the basics and sketch the outlines of outrigger fishing. We’ll also explore a few of our favorite outriggers, assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

Best Manual and Electric Downriggers

ImageDownriggerTypeArm LengthMount
The Runabout (Clamp-On)Big Jon Sports The RunaboutManual24”Clamp
Cannon Mini-Troll Manual DownriggerCannon Mini-TrollManualN/AClamp
Cannon Uni-Troll Manual Downrigger, 10 STXCannon Uni-Troll 10 STXManual24”-53” telescopingFixed
Scotty #1050 Depthmaster Manual Downrigger, Display Packed w/ Rod HolderScotty #1050 DepthmasterManual23”Fixed/Quick-Slide
Scotty #1106 Depthpower Electric Downrigger w/ 60-Inch Telescopic Boom & Swivel Base, Rod HolderScotty #1106 DepthpowerElectric36”-60” telescopingFixed
Captain's PakBig Jon Sports Captain's PakElectric24”, 36”, or 48” sectionalFixed
Cannon Magnum 10 STX Downrigger (Black)Cannon Magnum 10 STXElectric24”-53” telescopingFixed

Downrigger Basics: What You Need to Know

What is a Downrigger?

Downriggers are really pretty simple. They’re just a system for raising and lowering a weight into the water. When trolling, this allows you to run lures at precise depths and run them deeper than even the deepest diving lead core.

Mounted to the gunwale of your boat, they consist of a spool, a cable, a cranking mechanism, a clutch to control descent, and an arm. By attaching a weight to the end of a stainless steel or braided cable, you create a long, deep line to which you can clip your fishing line and lure.

When set up correctly, they can allow you to fish the entire water column, increasing productivity on large bodies of water, especially where fish are likely to be quite deep.

How do You Use a Downrigger?

After securing a downrigger to your gunwale, you attach a weight to the end of its cable. All other things being equal, the heavier that weight, the more vertical the cable will hang.

To that end, the more vertical your downrigger cable is, the less “blowback” you’ll experience. Blowback describes how far to the rear your line is pushed by drag as you troll, creating an angle that decreases the depth your downrigger is running.

After selecting the right weight for your ‘rigger, speed, and desired depth, you attach your fishing line to the cable with line releases that let go when a fish takes your lure. These need to be selected carefully so that they give when a fish bites, but not when the lure is pulled through the water.

Take a look at the diagram below. You’ll notice that–all other things being equal–heavier weights provide less blowback, running deeper and truer to the depth of the cable your downrigger lets out.

But the details really count, and from weight to cable material, tide and current to boat speed, weight shape to lure design, you need to know what you’re doing to get the most from your downrigger. We won’t cover these details here, but you experienced ‘rigger anglers know exactly what we mean!

how to use a downrigger

how to use a downrigger for lake trout

Where Do You Use a Downrigger?

Downriggers are pretty common gear among saltwater anglers who troll deep water. But they’ve also gained popularity on the Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods, Lake Simcoe, and other large, deep lakes. In fact, you can find downriggers anywhere anglers fish expansive basins for fish that run deep.

When Do You Use a Downrigger?

For saltwater anglers, the answer is all year.

For freshwater fishermen, downriggers are a summer staple. After the spring spawn, cold-water species like walleye will disperse over a large area, moving into the depths in search of cooler water. And species like lake trout and kokanee spend the entire summer in the depths.

In short, for much of the year, you’ll find fish like these below the range of a deep-diving crankbait or lead core. And when you need to troll deep, a downrigger is the best tool to ensure a constant, precise depth for your lures.

What to Consider When Choosing a Downrigger

Choosing the right downrigger for your needs can be complicated. It’ll help if you keep the following things in mind.

Long vs. Short Arm

The smaller your boat, the shorter the arm of your downrigger.

  • 15 feet or smaller – For smaller boats, we recommend a downrigger arm length of roughly 20 to 24 inches. You don’t need a particularly long arm, and there’s no advantage to one. You just need enough length to clear the side of your boat and prevent the weight from smashing into it.
  • 22 feet and larger – Bigger boats need longer downrigger arms, and if you’re fishing from one longer than 22 feet, we recommend downriggers with arms of 30 to 48 inches. We also suggest that the higher your freeboard, the longer the downrigger arm you want to prevent the weight from swinging into contact with the side of your boat.

Manual vs. Electric

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. To find the one that’s best for you, you’ll need to think about how deep you troll, how much you want to pay, and how willing you are to crank that weight to the surface each time you catch a fish or need to re-tie a lure.

That said, we generally recommend electric downriggers if you’re fishing below 75 feet, as is often the case offshore or in really deep lakes. Manually retrieving lots of cable is a real chore, and it’ll slow you down quite a bit.

But if you regularly troll at depths of 40 to 50 feet, a manual downrigger can be an awesome choice. It won’t take much work to crank that weight up, and it’ll save you a lot of money.

Electric

Electric downriggers run on the usual 12V power supply common to outboard engines, trolling motors, fish finders, and other marine gear. They allow effortless retrieval, an arm-saver when you’re trolling deep.

Pros:

  • Easy to use when alone, especially if equipped with auto stop
  • Fast

Cons:

  • More expensive
  • More maintenance
  • More draw on your marine batteries

Manual

Manual downriggers use a hand crank to retrieve cable. While they’ll give you forearms like Popeye if you’re trolling deep, they can be a great choice if you regularly troll above 75 feet.

Pros:

  • Easy to maintain
  • Relatively inexpensive

Cons:

  • Lots of work if you’re trolling deep
  • Slower to use

Mounting systems

There are three common mounting systems for downriggers. Which is right for you is partially a function of your boat. But your willingness to drill and attach a mount to your gunwale may also affect your decision.

  • Clamps – Some smaller downriggers feature clamps that tighten on the gunwale of your boat, stabilizing the ‘rigger while allowing easy removal. These are ideal systems for very small boats and rentals.
  • Gimbal mounts Use a flush-mounted rod holder as a base by sliding a bottom-mounted rod into place. They’re relatively easy to remove when docking and offer plenty of strength. Just be sure to get the mount that’s compatible with your downrigger!
  • Fixed mounts These are the strongest options and perhaps the best choice for large boats. While they require drilling and permanent mounting, they’re the sturdiest and most secure way to attach a downrigger, and they allow it to swivel inboard during docking. Like gimbal mounts, you’ll need to be sure you get the right model for your ‘rigger!

Braid vs. Stainless Steel Cable

Stainless steel cable used to be the only choice for downriggers, but now a new breed of synthetics give you the option of braid as well. Which is best can be a contentious topic, and there are fans of both.

It’s worth noting that some fishermen swear by the tiny electrical pulse that a properly-grounded steel cable produces, while others think the hum they make actually attracts fish! We haven’t found evidence for either, but we’re not discounting anything.

Others love that braid is low-drag, quiet, and easy to tie. Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of each:

Steel

Stainless steel cable is a tried-and-true choice, and many downrigger anglers won’t use anything else. We like Scotty’s cable, and we think it’s a good option if you decide to run steel.

Pros:

  • Strong
  • Abrasion resistant
  • Relatively inexpensive

Cons:

  • Tough on your hands
  • Conducts electricity and needs to be grounded to avoid dangerous complications
  • Can cut fishing line
  • Demands a crimping kit
  • Creates more drag and thus more blowback
  • Can hum and be noisy at trolling speed

Braid

Advances in synthetic materials now allow ‘rigger anglers the option of synthetic braided cable. While there are braided ‘rigger cables to be had, many anglers choose a heavy-weight fishing line like Power Pro instead. If you want the purpose-built stuff, we like Scotty’s braid.

Pros:

  • Can have a higher tensile strength than stainless steel
  • Quiet
  • Low drag, creating less blowback
  • Easy to tie
  • You can generally get more on a spool due to its smaller diameter

Cons:

  • May require some additional equipment like beads for your auto stop to work properly
  • Water fleas can cling to braid
  • Still pretty tough on your hands
  • Braided cable’s knot strength is much lower than its tensile strength
  • Relatively expensive

Manual Downrigger Reviews

Big Jon Sports The RunaboutOur Pick!

The Runabout (Clamp-On)
Amazon 

Type: Manual
Arm length: 24”
Mount: Clamp

Big Jon Sports describes The Runabout as an “entry level” downrigger. Frankly, it’s anything but in terms of performance, and anglers who’ve used them are pretty much uniformly positive.

The Runabout’s spool is driven by arm-power, so if you regularly troll below 75 feet, it’s probably not the best choice. That said, this model is built like a tank and can easily crank weights from the bottom. Its clutch and brake system work well to control descent, too.

Sporting a 24-inch arm, you won’t need to worry about a raised weight smacking the back or side of your boat, leaving you to worry about the fish you have on the line.

The Runabout mounts directly on the gunwale of smaller craft, and it’s designed specifically for transom-mounting for anglers who run and fish their boats alone. Its quality clamps will fit transoms up to two inches thick.

An arm mounted rod holder completes this package, and overall, you can count us as impressed.

Pros:

  • Great crank
  • Great clutch/braking system
  • Strong arm
  • Awesome mount
  • Good rod holder

Cons:

  • Relatively expensive

Cannon Mini-Troll

Cannon Mini-Troll Manual Downrigger
Amazon 

Type: Manual
Arm length: N/A
Mount: 2 ½” clamp

Cannon knows that not everyone runs a large boat, and if you use a canoe, jon boat, or other small vessel, their Mini-Troll is an awesome choice.

Designed to be compact, the Mini-Troll features a one-piece design with a fixed, short arm. Honestly, that’s fine–you don’t need length on a small boat! Rated for a four-pound weight, it’s plenty strong for its purpose, and you won’t want to troll with more weight than that from such small craft.

At reasonable depths, its manual crank is plenty. What’s more, the tip of the arm features a depth counter, a feature we really like and know you will, too.

This ‘rigger clamps to the gunwale of your boat directly, using a large bolt. Be sure this is seated properly and tightened correctly, or you can lose it in heavy swells or waves.

If you want a rod holder, you’ll need to purchase an aftermarket kit that comes with a weight and line release. Unfortunately, it’s not cheap.

This is a capable small downrigger, and if you need a clamp-mounting manual, you could do a lot worse.

Pros:

  • Good crank
  • Equipped with a depth counter
  • Good clamp-mounting system

Cons:

  • Rod holder only available with aftermarket kit

Cannon Uni-Troll 10 STX

Cannon Uni-Troll Manual Downrigger, 10 STX
Amazon 

Type: Manual
Arm length: 24”-53” telescoping
Mount: Fixed

Cannon’s Uni-Troll 10 STX is the model we’d choose if we were running a larger boat but prefer a manual downrigger. Its simplicity delivers robust, long-lasting performance, and it’s also a good bit more budget-friendly than electric alternatives.

The Uni-Troll 10 STX’s 2:1 gearing offers plenty of power for retrieval, though we’d still recommend you go with an electric if you regularly troll deeper than 75 feet. Its braking system and clutch are excellent, and the enclosed arm tip controls line jumping really well. All things considered, you’ll be impressed with its performance.

Mounted via the same system common to Cannon’s electric downriggers, expect good things from this swiveling base, but not tilting. Nevertheless, it’ll provide you with plenty of options, including getting the arm out of the way during docking.

The Uni-Troll 10 STX also sports a telescoping stainless steel arm that’s adjustable from 24 to 53 inches, providing plenty of gap between a swinging weight and your boat’s freeboard.

Like the other Cannon downriggers we review, it comes equipped with a depth counter, a feature we really like. And as you’d expect, it also comes with a rear-mounted, adjustable rod holder.

Overall, we’re pretty impressed by this downrigger.

Pros:

  • Good crank
  • Good clutch/braking system
  • Strong arm
  • Great mounts
  • Good rod holder
  • Equipped with a depth counter

Cons:

  • Base doesn’t tilt

Scotty #1050 Depthmaster

Scotty #1050 Depthmaster Manual Downrigger, Display Packed w/ Rod Holder
Amazon 

Type: Manual
Arm length: 23”
Mount: Fixed/Quick-Slide

Scotty hasn’t forgotten about anglers who prefer a smaller, manual downrigger, and their #1050 Depthmaster is a great choice, especially if you’re not using heavy weights.

The #1050’s gearing provides one foot of retrieval per crank, which is plenty if you’re not fishing deeper than 75 feet or so. The braking system used to control descent works well and performs solidly.

This Scotty model comes with a 1010 Quick-Slide Deck Mounting Bracket and all the hardware you need to attach it. But be aware, if the gunwale or transom on your boat is thin, you may need to purchase the Scotty #1015 Right Angle Side Mounting Bracket. That’s no big deal, as this option isn’t expensive.

The #1050 features a stainless steel arm that’s 23 inches long. That’s plenty for the small boats where this downrigger will find a home, and with the Quick-Slide mounting system, docking won’t be an issue. If you do need the side-mounting system, be aware that it’s fixed.

As you’d expect, there’s a nice Scotty 355 Rodmaster II Rod Holder attached to the arm.

While this ‘rigger is pretty basic, it works well without breaking the bank.

Pros:

  • Good crank
  • Good clutch/braking system
  • Strong arm
  • Great mounts
  • Excellent rod holder

Cons:

  • May require a fixed side mounting bracket to fit thin gunwales or transoms

Electric Downrigger Reviews

Scotty #1106 DepthpowerOur Pick!

Scotty #1106 Depthpower Electric Downrigger w/ 60-Inch Telescopic Boom & Swivel Base, Rod Holder
Amazon 

Type: Electric
Arm length: 36”-60” telescoping
Mount: Fixed

Scotty’s #1106 is a “big boat” downrigger with the specs and features to impress any angler. And as ‘rigger enthusiasts can tell you, it’s pretty much top of the line.

The heart of this ‘rigger is a powerful motor that can raise a seven-pound weight at about four feet per second or a 15-pound weight at a bit more than three feet per second. There’s not much difference there, and you’ll be impressed with the power the #1106 can generate, especially when you’re trolling deep.

This motor is complemented by a fully adjustable clutch so that you can customize your descent speed.

Of course, it comes equipped with an auto-stop system that uses included 1008 Stopper Beads. That’s close to a must-have if you’re running a downrigger alone, as it allows you to focus on your rod rather than your ‘rigger.

Scotty’s #1106 also sports a telescoping arm, collapsing to just 36 inches or extending all the way out to 60 inches for boats with a high freeboard. Mounted directly to this stainless steel arm, you’ll find a Scotty 358 Rodmaster II Rod Holder–just where you need it.

The #1106 comes with a 16-position fixed swivel mount and all the hardware you need to attach it. This gives you a full 360 degrees of versatility, making it easy to use and easy to pull inboard, too. And when combined with the tilting mounting bracket, you’ll never complain about the range of positions you can achieve.

Pros:

  • Powerful motor with great retrieval speed
  • Great clutch system
  • Strong, telescoping arm
  • Awesome mounts
  • Excellent rod holder

Cons:

  • No depth counter

Big Jon Sports Captain's Pak

Captain's Pak
Amazon 

Type: Electric
Arm length: 24”, 36”, or 48” sectional
Mount: Fixed

Big Jon’s Captain Pak is something of a legend, though it’s among the more expensive downriggers on the market. If that doesn’t bother you, and you run a large boat, you might want to consider this option–it’s a fantastic choice.

Driving the Captain’s pak is an engine capable of pulling a 12-pound weight at more than two feet per second. That’s impressive by any measure, though it plays second fiddle to the Scotty #1106 in that department. The brake and clutch controlling descent are excellent, and you can depend on them season after season.

In lieu of a telescoping arm, Big Jon offers a three-piece sectional boom, giving you the option of 24, 36, or 42 inches. That’s plenty for just about anyone, but if you want a longer arm, you’ll need to look at the Cannon Magnum 10 STX or the Scotty #1106 for that.

The Captain’s Pak mounts via a fixed, four-by-four inch bracket, and it comes with all the hardware you need to attach it to your gunwale. As you’d expect, it swivels to provide 360 degrees of versatility, locking in eight positions for easy fishing and docking.

Be aware that it doesn’t tilt like the Scotty #1106. That’s not a deal-breaker for us, and we doubt it will be for you, either.

You’ll also find two adjustable rod holders held in ball cradles; they’re a snap to adjust and excellent quality. And like the Cannon models, this Big Jon features a depth counter.

Pros:

  • Powerful motor with good retrieval speed
  • Great clutch system
  • Strong sectional arm
  • Great mounts
  • Awesome dual rod holders
  • Equipped with a depth counter

Cons:

  • Mount doesn’t tilt

Cannon Magnum 10 STX

Cannon Magnum 10 STX Downrigger (Black)
Amazon 

Type: Electric
Arm length: 24”-53” telescoping
Mount: Fixed

Cannon is a trusted name in downriggers, and the Magnum series goes a long way in explaining why. Our favorite is the 10 STX, and we think it’s a great alternative to the Scotty #1106 for those who prefer this brand.

Cannon claims to have the fastest, most powerful motors in the industry, and their product information claims a retrieval speed a touch over four feet per second. We’re not sure which weight they used to calculate this, but in any case, this motor is sure to please! Expect to be impressed by how quickly it’ll raise a 12-pound weight from the depths.

As you’d expect, the Magnum 10 STX offers an auto-stop system that reliably brings the weight to the waterline every time.

It features a fixed, swiveling base that comes with all the hardware you’ll need to attach it. This gives you plenty of options for trolling, and also allows you to swing the ‘rigger inboard easily. It does suffer a touch in adjustability when compared with the Scotty, in that it doesn’t tilt. Whether that’s a big deal or not will depend on your needs–but we don’t think you’ll notice.

The Cannon sports a telescoping stainless steel arm that can collapse to 24 inches or extend to 53 inches as you need. Behind the motor, you’ll find an adjustable rod holder, as you’d expect.

A final feature we appreciate on the Magnum 10 STX is a depth counter. While the cable angle can affect actual depth, this is still a useful guide, and something we think most downrigger fishermen will like.

Pros:

  • Powerful motor with fantastic retrieval speed
  • Great clutch system
  • Strong, telescoping arm
  • Great mounts
  • Equipped with a depth counter

Cons:

  • Base doesn’t tilt

Our Picks – Big Jon Sports The Runabout and the Scotty #1106 Depthpower!

In some sense, there’s no “best” downrigger–only the right one for you and your boat. And when selecting the right option, be sure to consider arm length, how deep you troll, how you’ll mount your ‘rigger, and whether you want to run steel or braided cable.

That said, there are a few differences that tell between the models, and a few features that set them apart. If you’re leaning toward a manual downrigger, we recommend you take a close look at Big Jon’s The Runabout.

Built for years of abuse on the water, The Runabout is the manual ‘rigger that sets the standard for all others. It cranks and releases well, provides plenty of space for a swinging weight, can handle a heavy ball, and mounts easily to the gunwale or transom of a small boat. We’ve got nothing but praise for this product, though it’s not the cheapest option.

If you’re in the market for an electric downrigger, we really like the Scotty #1106. Powered by a beefy motor, it’s fast and easy to use. Its telescoping arm gives you plenty of options, and it offers what we think is probably the best mounting system you can find. If there’s anything lacking, it’s the absence of the depth counter you’ll find on the comparable Cannon and Big Jon.

Keep in mind that these are all respected products offering outstanding performance, and any of them will serve you well out on the water.

Please leave a comment and let us know what you think of our choices.

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