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How To Use A Downrigger: Tips and Techniques to Master Deep Water Trolling

If there’s a more effective deep-water trolling method than a downrigger, we’d like to know what it is!

Downriggers are simple systems designed to allow precision trolling, and though the idea is easy to grasp, the complexities can be frustrating if you aren’t in the know.

If you’re new to downriggers, or just having trouble getting one to work for you, we’d like to help.

Below, you’ll find a thorough explanation of downriggers, attention to some common problems, and some tried and tested tips to get your trolling game in high-gear.

Keep reading!

We’ve talked about downriggers before, and if you’re new to them, we show you what to look for when buying the best downrigger.

Downrigger Basics

Downriggers are an essential tool for precision trolling, and though mastering their use may take some careful study, it’s worth it.

The basic idea of a downrigger is easy to understand. Essentially, a downrigger just lowers and raises a heavy weight in the water column, allowing you to run lures at precise depths--much deeper than the deepest diving lead core.

how to use a downrigger

The more weight you use, and the slower you troll, the deeper you’ll run your downrigger.

Their components aren’t very complex, either. A spool, a cable, a cranking mechanism, a clutch to control descent, and an arm--that’s it. But by attaching a weight to the end of a long cable, you create a deep line to which you can clip your fishing line and lure, as well as accessories like flashers.

When set up correctly, they enable you to work the whole water column, increasing productivity where fish are likely to be quite deep. And you can attach more than one line to that cable, a sure-fire technique to improve your odds.

In our downrigger buying guide you'll see our favorite is the Big Jon Sports’s The Runabout.

Anglers who’ve used this downrigger rave about its performance, and you can count us as impressed, as well.

For deep trolling, there are better options, but if you regularly run 75 feet or shallower, this tank-like downrigger is hard to beat. It’s powered by a great manual crank that’s paired with a clutch and brake system that just won’t quit.

And it’s 24-inch arm keeps the side of your boat from taking a licking!

But whichever model you choose, a few savvy tips can help you get the most from your downrigger.

Downrigger Tips to Improve Your Success

Minimize Blowback

It’s a hard-and-fast rule that more speed will pull your downrigger farther behind your boat, raising it in the water column.

As Mike Schoonveld warns, “If you picture your downrigger ball as trailing along straight below the boom on the downrigger, you are wrong. If you see fish marks at 70 feet so you lower your downrigged baits to 70 feet on the depth counter, you are still wrong. Because of blow back [sic].”

Drag on the body of the weight, as well as the cable, pulls your downrigger ball rearward, decreasing its depth. In practice, that means that if you’re making 7 knots, letting out 50 feet of cable won’t have you running 50 feet deep. That difference--the loss of depth created by speed - is called blowback.

how deep are you trolling

High school trig can tell you exactly how deep you’re running.

Think about blowback as a measure of 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.

With your boat absolutely still, your downrigger cable will run along line C. But any forward movement will cause your weight to move rightward to some degree along line B, creating angle b.

You can use some trigonometry to accurately calculate the depth you’re actually trolling, or you can eyeball the angle of your downrigger cable and adjust accordingly using this chart from Montagu Lee:

fishing depts vs downrigger angles

More weight on the downrigger can reduce blowback, as can lower speed. These two variables work in tandem, and the following is always true:

More speed=more blowback

Less weight=more blowback

Other variables matter, and cable material, weight shape, tide, and current can all affect the depth at which your downrigger runs. But to combat blowback, you’ll either need to slow down or use a heavier (or more hydrodynamic) ball and cable.

Watch the Slack on a Strike

But in downrigging, there’s more to worry about than blowback.

You attach your fishing line to the cable, and even the thinnest, most hydrodynamic lines will billow and bow behind that cable. It’s simply unavoidable.

slack on line when using downrigger

This image gives you a good sense of the problem.

Though running at an angle, your downrigger cable will be more or less straight. Your fishing line won’t, and it’ll have some slack--how much is hard to judge.

And slack lines are never a good thing.

In this case, a good clip and sharp hooks really help. By providing the right amount of pressure on your terminal tackle--and running your lure or bait straight to the rear--a good clip paired with sharp hooks can allow for solid, automatic hooksets.

But--and this is a big but--you’ll still have a slack line for a second or two with that fish on the hook, and things can go wrong at this point pretty easily.

Resist the temptation to set the hook! More often than not, that’s a done deal at this point, and you’ll risk tearing it free if you give your rod a hard tug now.

Instead, we recommend using a longer, lighter rod than you normally might--one that will naturally bend while trolling. That’ll supply some tension, and as the rod straightens when the line is released from the clip, it should help take up that slack.

Don’t Forget the Flashers

If you’re trolling for salmon without flashers, you don’t know what you're missing!

Flashers imitate adult salmon feeding on bait fish, and by adding them to your downrigger, you can encourage real salmon to come in to check out your bait or lure.

To say that they’ll increase your catch is something of an understatement.

Some flashers are designed to be attached to your cable. Ryan Dodds offers the following advice: “When setting the flasher out behind the downrigger, the amount of line can also be varied. Hot Spot recommends starting with approximately 18 feet of line out behind the downrigger clip, to the flasher. This amount can be increased or decreased. If the amount is increased then one downside is the increased probability of snagging up the gear on one side of the boat with the gear on the other side, especially if the tides are running strong. When I’m fishing in strong tides, windy conditions, or, areas with alot [sic] of boats, I tend to shorten up the distance that I set my rigs out in order to reduce the chances of problems.”

flashers for downrigging

The always-effective Hotspot Flasher is available in a tremendous variety of colors and patterns.

hotspots agilator flasher

Hotspot’s Agitator is no slouch, either!

But so-called “dummy” flashers are attached to the ball, simulating a school of fish.

dummy flashers for downrigging

Dummy flashers are attached to an eye on the ball.

Whichever option you go with--or both!--you’ll get more hits, more often.

Stack for More Fish

Downrigger cables can hold more than one fishing line, a technique appropriately called “stacking.” Plenty of anglers know about stacking, but they haven’t learned hot to stack properly.

As a result, they experienced fouled lines and quit this awesome technique before it could prove itself!

stacker clip for downrigger

We really like Scotty’s stacker/clip combo

Stacking properly is all about distance and length. You need to keep the stackers far enough apart that they don’t foul one another, and you need to keep the line lengths short.

As Cal Kellogg recommends, “As a general rule the stackers should be placed no closer than 10 feet apart and the lines trolled off them should be no more than 25 feet long.” Greater distances between stackers and shorter lines will decrease the odds of fouling.

Conversely, too many stackers too close together, trailing long lines, is a recipe for disaster.

Done right, stacking is a double, triple, or even quadruple threat!

Final Thoughts

If you’re new to downrigging, or just working out the kinks on this excellent trolling system, a few tips and tricks can really help.

We hope you found this article valuable, and if it helped you, we’d love to know!

Please leave your comments and questions below.

About The Author
John Baltes
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.