Downrigger Basics
For years fishermen have searched for ways to improve their catch ratio and keep their friends happy. Many ingenious minds have gone to work and devised devices like outriggers, diving planers and even kites to aid them in catching fish.
Of all the devices to be introduced into the marketplace during the past twenty years, the downrigger has to go on record as being one of the most effective fishing aids ever designed.
The downrigger concept is not new. In fact, primitive types of downriggers were used by Indians fishing the Great Lakes during the 1800s. The first true downrigger was a commercial rig patented years ago called the "Hirty-Girty". This rig was used on the West Coast for deep commercial fishing. It wasn't until the mid 1960's during the inception of the Lake Michigan salmon fishery that the downrigger was successfully introduced as a valuable sport fishing aid. No one is sure of the exact origin of the current downrigger, but it is a known fact that the first designs consisted of window sash weights with trolling lines attached to a heavy line, and lowered to a desired depth. As salmon fishermen started refining the concept, new gadgets were being developed, one of which was a large tricycle wheel mounted on the back of the boat. The tire was removed and the wheel was wrapped with a heavy line and a sash weight was attactched. The weight was lowered and raised by turning the pedals. These devices were crude but they laid the groundwork for the sophisticated Walker downrigging system we use today. This innovation enables you to increase your chances of finding and catching certain fish.

Downrigging: How it works
The downrigger is a winch-type mechanism that feeds cable off a rotating reel through a guide system along an extension arm. A weight is attached to the end of the cable and the line release is attached to the weight. The fishing line from an independent rod is attached to the release mechanisms on the downrigger cable.
By lowering the weight, you can drop the line down to the desired depth. A footage counter is connected to the reel unit to indicate the specific amount of cable that has been released. At the desired depth the reel is locked into place.

The independent fishing rod is set in a holder attached to the downrigger or placed directly behind it on the gunwale. A bow is placed in the rod by tightening the line between it and the release on the downrigger cable. When a fish "strikes", it pulls the line from the release on the cable and thereby sets the hook. As tension on the line is released, the rod appears to snap straight up and allows the angler to play the fish without excess line weight.

The downrigging unit is typically mounted on the stern or along the rear side of the boat.

Basic Equipment
Downrigger design and construction vary with the manufacturer, however all downriggers have some similar components.
A. Reel - The wheel device on which the cable is coiled. Cable length is usually up to 600 feet.
B. Crank Handle - Device used to rotate the wheel to shorten or extend cable length. Manual cranks are standard, but more sophisticated units are electrically powered. Electric downriggers raise and lower via a 12-volt motor. Power required to operate Walker electric downriggers is minimal - about six amps for a 10lb. weight. Walker electric downriggers shut off if needed when the weight reaches the arm on retrieval via an automatic thermal overload or optional auto stop.
C. Clutch - Drag system that adjusts tension on the wheel. This allows cable to unravel when weight becomes entangled or caught on an obstruction. On Walker manual units, the clutch is built into the handle allowing weight to be lowered and retrieved quickly with one hand. Electric units have a clutch with friction pads working very similarly to the drag on a level wind reel.
D. Cable - Stranded stainless steel wire (approx. 150 to 195lb. test) used to connect weight and reel. Line releases are placed on this cable. Walker temp sense ready downriggers have special coaxial cable that can be used to provide water temperature sensing at depth of downrigger weight (see temperature sensing section.)
E. Arm - 1’ extension stainless steel and aluminum rods, adjustable to various lengths between one to six feet, along which the cable runs and is supported.
F. Swivel Head and Pulley - Located at the end of the arm, the swivel head and pulley ensures smooth lowering and retrieval of the weight.
G. Mounting - Provides for quick securing or release of downrigger unit. Walker Downriggers’ combo-Pak includes a swivel base that attaches to a 4”x6” deck mounting plate to allow for different positioning and ease in connecting lines to release. Another type of base is a quick mount base which slips securely and easily into an in-the-gunwale rodholder. Downrigger locking knobs for security are an option available on some units and are important to impede theft.
H. Weights - Used to submerge line to desired depth. Weights are usually six to twelve pounds and come in numerous shapes and colours. A good guide to what pound weight to use is a minimum of one pound per 10 feet with a maximum of approximately 16lbs. recommended. However, in most cases using more than ten pound weights on a manual unit can cause you to look somewhat like Popeye at the end of the day.
I. Release - Mechanisms used to attach line from fishing rod to cable. (See release section for details on operation and basic type.)
J. Counter - Usually attached to the reel, this provides accurate measure of the amount of cable that has been let out.
K. Rodholder - The fishing rod attached to the downrigger is placed in this unit which may be single or double rigged.


Bas (Largemouth) 40-60' 65-75°
Bass (smallmouth) 40-60' 65-68°
Lake Whitefish 15-20' 45-53°
Muskellunge 8-60' 58-65°
Northern Pike 8-60' 58-65°
Salmon 5-80' 45-57°
Sauger 40-60' 55-70°
Striped Bass 40-100' 60-70°
Trout 15-100' 46-55°
Walleye 40-60' 55-70°
White Bass 20-60' 66-74°
Yellow Perch 40-60' 62-70°

Correct application of line release systems is essential for successful downrigging. Releases can be mounted (1) between a cable and a downrigger weight, or (2) at any location along the wire. The ability to attach the release at any point affords placement of more than one line on a single downrigger cable. Stacking must be attempted with caution as multiple hookups may cause line crossing.
Release designs vary in complexity, from a single rubber band to Walker’s patented spring-set, adjustable tension release mechanism. Choice of type and design are dependent upon application. Walker’s adjustable tension releases are always appropriate when high and slow speed trolling of lines having varying weights is expected over the course of a season. Correct release tension, best learned through experience, allows for release only when a fish bites the bait, and not when normal lure resistance occurs while trolling. When manufactured releases are not available, a rubber band may be substituted in the following way: Pull one end of a #12 rubber band through the other until it cinches down on your fishing line. Attach the rubber band loop to a snap swivel located above the downrigger weight. If stacking lines, then repeat above and attach the other end of the swivel to the downrigging cable, using a second rubber band and snap.

Line from release to lure
The amount of line from the release mechanism to the lure is an important consideration when downrigger fishing. When you are fishing in shallow water, the boat may spook the fish; therefore it may be necessary to locate the lure a greater distance behind the weight to enable fish to re-enter the troll alley following passage of the boat. Generally, if you think fish are disturbed by boat movement, move the lure further from the release.
The greater the distance between lure and release, the greater the line drop after a fish strikes. Line drop describes the slack period from the time the line is pulled free of the release to the time that it comes taut to the tip of the fishing rod. A this time the lure is free-falling, possibly simulating prey that has been stunned as the result of an attack. If you are fishing for game fish that stun their prey and return to consume crippled bait, this could be to your advantage. If bait does not stall in the water after line drop, the game fish may think its prey has not been injured and is not catchable.

Lure Action
Another important consideration in downrigger fishing is the action of the lure. An old charter captain trick is to take a top section off an old fishing rod and tie a three to five foot piece of monofilament to the end. On the other end of the mono, tie the type of lure you’re running. Occasionally drop the lure into the water holding the rod section in your hand and watch the lure action while trolling. Adjust your boat’s speed to impart the lure action you want. If your lure is of the diving type, the distance it will dive must be considered if stacking it next to non-diving lures or if fishing close to the bottom. A diving lure that would normally dive 10 to 15 feet if free trolled, will also dive 10 to 15 feet from the release point with a downrigger. This should be taken into account when setting release position and weight depth.

Trolling speed and cable angle
Trolling speed is very critical and should vary according to type of lure, depth fished and species sought. When trolling live or rigged baits, you should allow them to move as naturally as possible; therefore, a slower trolling speed is usually preferred. A faster speed can tear the hook, if not adequately secured, from the bait. Artificial lures are normally trolled faster than live bait. As trolling speed increases, the angle of the downrigger cable off the stern also increases. As the boat moves through the water, the cable and weight tend to trail behind, which produces cable deflection.
To make accurate depth determinations for weights and lines, you should use a sonar unit (fish finder) when downrigger fishing. Metal weights often appear as a solid line on the sonar unit.

Sonar units (fish finders)
There are many types of sonar units on the market to fit almost any budget. They are almost a must when downrigger fishing. Sonar units keep the angler informed on many useful facts. These include how far the fish are under the boat and the contour or structure of the bottom. This information saves downrigger weights when you are running them close to the bottom and the contour changes abruptly.
Mount the transducer of your sonar unit on the stern of the boat. Be sure it is away from the propwash of the boat as this will affect performance. The mounting of the transducer on the stern will allow the monitoring of your downrigger weights and lures. Consult a marine electronics dealer for details.

Temperature sensing equipment and use
Water temperature is a primary determinant of fish distribution. Temperature may act to concentrate food organisms that attract fish, or may be a physiological barrier through which fish will not move. Generally, water temperatures decrease with increasing depth. As wind keeps the surface layer well mixed and uniform in temperatures, the temperature decreases rapidly within a subsurface layer of water called the thermocline. During mid-summer months, the thermocline contains favorable dissolved oxygen and nutrient levels for fish and prey. Knowledge of fish temperature preferences, coupled with the ability to measure temperature at various depths can contribute to angling success. Many types of water temperature sensing equipment are available. The simplest is a thermometer, used only to measure surface temperature, that can be hand-held over the side of the boat. A variation of the thermometer is a temperature sensor permanently mounted to the hull.
To measure temperatures at various depths, Walker’s coaxial temperature sensor system utilizes a special kind of downrigger cable which conducts an electrical signal from a sensor placed near the downrigger weight. As the weight is lowered, temperatures are read off two separate sources on a DTS-3000 display unit on the boat. This equipment is flexible enough for practically any application, whether you are taking an isolated survey for the water column or a continuous reading at various depths while trolling.
Downrigger deck plates and swivel bases are sometimes attached to mounting boards, usually placed atop the transom of a boat and containing two to four downrigger units and associated fish-finding electronics and equipment. Because each downrigger is equipped with its own mountable base, located at any point on the gunwale or transom of the vessel, mounting boards are not essential for downrigging.
In general, to position four downriggers on a moderate size fishing boat, downriggers with long arm extensions are used for port and starboard positions, and short arms are used for stern mounting. Common sense should be exercised when locating downriggers so as to minimize potential interference with adjacent lines. Spacing is most important. When running four units, at least two of the four should have four to six foot arms to achieve a desired spacing of at least four feet between all units. In small boats, this is easily achievable as a maximum of two units is suggested running port and starboard. When mounting electric downrigging units, you might wish to consult qualified boat electrician.

In the instructions, manufacturers generally outline any necessary maintenance required for various downrigger models. Read them. Because downriggers have moving and often electrical characteristics, visual maintenance and upkeep should be part of the cleanup routine following a fishing trip. Cables should be inspected for frays or kinks and replaced as necessary. Electrical cables should have no cracks and remain waterproof. Lubrication of pulleys, swivels and snaps, etc. should be done often to prohibit corrosion and ensure smooth working characteristics.

Today’s boat angler is faced with increasing operating costs due to rising fuel and maintenance expenses. The longer the time spent angling for fish the higher the costs. Downrigger fishing provides a way of locating and catching fish faster, thus saving fuel and
Much of this article was derived from an article courtesy of the New York Seas Grant Extension Program, Brockport, N.Y. by R.B. Buerger and C.F. Smith.