Pike. Smallmouths. Stripers. Walleyes. Muskies. If one of these is your favorite species, chances are you don’t have any downriggers. That means you’re not catching as many fish as you could be.
Downriggers aren’t just for salmon and trout, but tools for presentation that most anglers can benefit from. Normally, a good fisherman looks at tools this way: When fish are down 17 feet, find a lure that dives 16 feet. But a lure that dives deep on its own has an inherently different action than one that dives to only 3 or 4 feet. What if the fish won’t react to the deep diver, but knock the bejeebers out of the shallow-running bait? You could add a sinker to the line, but it’s not precise. You can only find the fish through trial and error, lengthening or shortening the line until strikes occur. And that only works with precision when using line-counters.
Downriggers are precise. Downriggers open the door for experimentation with all kinds of lures that otherwise can’t be fished deep. Take spoons, which have universal appeal to predators. The running depth of a spoon is determined by weight, rigging, and boat speed. Even with good guidelines for speed and leader lengths, however, trolling with spoons is imprecise without a trolling aid like a planer-diver or a downrigger. The time spent zeroing in on the right zone with long lines is better spent hooking fish.
Even guides and professionals fail to realize how downriggers could aid their cause immensely in some situations. Tim Dawidiuk is one exception among charter captains on the Great Lakes. He uses downriggers, not only for salmon and trout, but also for species like walleyes, pike, and smallmouth bass.
“It’s just another tool,” Dawidiuk says. “When smallmouths are suspended in deep water, downriggers work better. It gives you more options to cover more water faster. Granted, most smallmouth fishermen envision themselves pitching tubes or something, because feeling the bite is a big part of the appeal. But the biggest part of the appeal, for me, is solving the problem. Another big part of the equation is fighting the fish on the right tackle, tackle that allows you to appreciate the power of the fish. It’s not a problem. Tweak the rigging and you can make it work with anything, even ultralight tackle.
“For instance, cannonballs come in 2-pound increments from 4 to 16 pounds. I use a lighter cannonball for smallmouths, because we’re not trolling in extreme depths—usually no deeper than 25 feet, though sometimes down to 40. The lighter ball has a little more give, so I can use lighter line and tweak the releases to give long before the line snaps, even with 8-pound line. Smallmouths are real suckers for floating or suspending minnowbaits, which are naturals with this system, and a stop-and-go troll contacts and triggers more fish than pitching anything. But the beauty of it is the effectiveness of spinnerbaits, spoons, lipless cranks, livebait rigs, and other presentations people never think of putting behind downriggers.”
Anyone who has trolled for walleyes with downriggers knows the agony of reeling up a bait to find a drowned, undersized walleye too small to trip the release. “If you don’t scale back on the release, you’ll drag small walleyes around without knowing it,” Dawidiuk says. “Adjusting the release also allows you to scale back to 10-pound line. You have to reset and retune your release mechanisms. Walleyes have such a subtle hit, you have to do it.
“You can tweak the releases to give you a telltale sign with less powerful fish, too. With walleyes, I rig the release 12 to 18 inches away from the ball, creating a pendulum effect, which makes rod-tip action really easy to see so you don’t have to drag small fish around.
“Downriggers are great for walleyes when they’re suspended following baitfish early in the season, or when they go deep in fall. When walleyes are really deep in fall up on Big Bay deNoc, 40 feet down or so, downriggers represent a much easier route than leadcore, which calls for 300 to 400 feet of line out. On lines that long, you lose a lot more fish. You have less control of the fish from that distance, the fight lasts too long, and hooks wear a bigger hole. And it takes a ton more time getting the baits out there after landing a fish. Sometimes you’re trying to get the baits back there as fast as you can during a hot bite for 10-pounders. You can run shallow divers—which tend to be most effective at that time of year—and you can get ‘em deep right now with downriggers
“A big-lip bait dives way below the cables and cannonballs and, according to conventional wisdom, spooks fewer fish. A shallow runner behind a downrigger, however, in my opinion, is more enticing to walleyes than big-lip baits. But you’re not limited to body baits,” Dawidiuk continues. “Spoons, crawler harnesses, finesse rigs—almost anything that trolls for walleyes can be presented behind a downrigger. With leadcore, getting these options into the right zone requires trial and error, which has to be subtracted from real fishing time. With a downrigger, you know where the bait is all the time and adjustments are much quicker. You’re always within a foot or two of where you want to be. Time spent guessing is reduced to nill.”
“I’ve chased pike in Canada with downriggers a lot,” Dawidiuk says. “They sometimes cruise around down at 70 feet in oligotrophic lakes. I’m not talking snakes. At those depths, small ones run 8 to 10 pounds, big ones well over 30 pounds. You can run anything—spoons, spinnerbaits, livebait—but stickbaits, like the F-18 Rapalas in black-silver or blue-silver, are my favorites. From July through August up there, pike are deep. We occasionally catch monster pike out in the abyss when fishing for salmon in the Great Lakes, too. If you want to target these fish, nothing works better than a downrigger.”
In other lake types that stratify, big pike cruise open water just above or, sometimes, just below the thermocline by midsummer, which is generally 20 to 30 feet in depth. (A thermocline is a distinct separation between top and bottom layers of water in a lake, with little or no oxygen occurring in the lower layer in most systems.) Planing a lure along a thermocline simply can’t be accomplished as efficiently with any other tool. A good sonar unit, tuned correctly, can read a thermocline. That means you can watch it rise and fall. Big winds blowing from the same direction for several days can push a thermocline down deeper at the windward side the lake, while at the other end, the cline teeter-totters up. With the push of a button, a downrigger immediately raises or lowers the bait a foot or two to keep it in the pike’s path.
“Downriggers are one of those tools you don’t use all the time for all species,” Dawidiuk says, “but they have a time and place for all species of larger predators. Muskie fishing, too. My father used to muskie fish in Lake of the Woods with downriggers 20 years ago. He was kind of pioneer in that respect. To stay in that 15-foot range, he found baits that really needed downriggers—didn’t have lips. He used 6- to 8-inch twistertails on the back of wooden baits he made himself. And he did really well. Caught one 42-pounder and many in the 50-inch range. Now, in Lake St. Clair, it’s common to use downriggers for muskies.”
John Oravec, our salmon guru from Lake Ontario, spends the months of October and November guiding clients to the biggest pike and muskies of their lives on Lake Ontario, the Niagara, and the St. Lawrence. “One of the first things that comes to mind when you say ‘downrigging for toothies’ is the ability to run a spoon precisely across the top of a weedbed,” Oravec says. “Zebra mussels have cleared the water in Lake Ontario to the point that weedlines can run deeper than 20 feet. With a flat-running lure like a spoon, a downrigger keeps it tracking along perfectly, just ticking the tops of the weeds. With a flatline presentation, it’s too easy to make mistakes, and you spend the day harvesting weeds.
“The fun of downrigging for toothies is how a pike or muskie rips the bait off close to the cannonball. These animals aren’t shy about the rigging, so you can put lures five feet behind the ball. When they bury the rod tip, you’re up close and personal.
“Downriggers make it real easy to bracket the propwash underneath with a short line for muskies or northerns. Just run the lure 3 to 5 feet behind the ball and drop the ball only 2 to 4 feet. That helps you crowd an extra lure or two into the spread without introducing the potential to hopelessly tangle everything after a big rip—and it’s effective. It’s common knowledge that muskies are attracted to the propwash, and bracketing the propwash has become popular in a lot of fisheries, including Lake St. Clair, where they used to run muskie lures right in the propwash.”
And talk about wild. You’re a rod length from an MX missile when it erupts from the propwash and tries to rip the transom off the boat. “Downrigging is always more sporting,” Oravec says. “Leadcore is effective, but it’s no fun. With downrigging, once the release trips, it’s mano-et-pesche with a hot fish that’s close to the boat.
“Negative muskies routinely hold right on bottom at 25 to 50 feet. Or, sometimes, their food is down there right on bottom. The most frequent fish muskies feed on here are bullheads and suckers—bottom fish. Dragging cranks on bottom with downriggers is so much more effective than flatlining. In fact, you can’t do it with flatlines. With downriggers, you’re getting the bait down there with much less line out. And with a diving bait like the Believers or a Bagley DB06 or DB08, the cannonball is high off bottom, out of harm’s way. Just get the lure back behind the boat about 50 to 75 feet, clip it on, and send it down. The cannonball and cable are now out of the picture. That’s the beauty of the system—no danger of snagging the equipment and no danger of spooking negative muskies in the ultraclear water of Lake Ontario.
“You’re able to step over humps by raising the ball and lowering it, and that keeps your lure in the strike window much more effectively than reeling in line and letting it back out over structural anomalies. One of the other big benefits, any time you’re dragging a lure—the downrigger cable acts as a straining device for surface weeds. Often the best spot is around floating weeds. The same dynamic that concentrates the weeds or ‘salad’ in there—thermal bars, wind, current—is what concentrates bait. Downriggers provide a lot more lure time, more effective fishing time, in this scenario. I look for surface junk, while most anglers avoid it like the plague. You have to go through a series of routine checks but, ironically, the lures on downriggers are seldom fouled. Cuts down on the work while increasing efficiency.
“Grandmas, Legend Lures Perch Lures, plastics, bucktails, spinnerbaits—anything that can be trolled—will work behind a cannonball. I’ve been using Cannon downriggers for muskies since 1985, and I’ve never had a breakdown. I don’t know where else you could punish a unit more than we do. They’re tough, durable, and don’t cost any down time.
“You really need a downrigger to stack lures. You can run two lures on the same rod, each covering a different depth. When you see fish on the graph that follow standard lures and won’t hit, you need a tailgunner. I run a spoon off a Roemer Release off a stacked rod, as an afterthought. While most lures are running 50 feet behind the ball, I’ll run a ‘tailgunner’ spoon like the Tony Acceta Pet 150 to 200 feet back.
“When muskies are 50 or 60 feet down in big river systems like the St. Lawrence, they’re out of the range of accurate flatline techniques. You need a heavy cannonball. When you’re putting speed on, it’s a 10- to 12-pound ballgame. That’s where downriggers become critical for muskies. You can’t have both speed and depth in big river systems without downriggers. When muskies hold close to points and inside turns, standard trolling techniques cut corners and can’t take the lure to the fish. If you want to get on the inside turn or alongside the tip of a point with precision, nothing puts a trolled lure right on the money, on the spot-on-the-spot, like a downrigger. Flatling and boards will cut the corners.”
Oravec uses 10-foot medium-heavy downrigger rods with Daiwa 47H reels spooled with 15- to 20-pound Berkley Big Game. He adds 30-pound Vanish Fluorocarbon leaders just above his homemade Berkley SteelStrand wire leaders. “It’s so much different than getting one on a jerkbait rod,” Oravec says. “For a couple moments after the line releases, the fish has freedom. A longer rod picks up slack faster, but a muskie has time to wrap up in the line. That’s why you need some 30- to 40-pound line ahead of the leader.
“When the lure is pounding bottom and it snags up, there’s enough stretch in mono that a sort of self-ejection takes place with downriggers. With a flatline, you’re pounding hard and lures stay stuck, but once the release gives on a downrigger there’s recoil. The stretched line snaps back and the rod pops up, and most snags come free without having to do anything special.”
A white bucktail jig is one of the all-time great goodies for deep stripers. In fall, when stripers move deep in many southern reservoirs, traditional anglers drop white, gray, or yellow hair jigs to various depths and troll slowly. The method is effective, but not precise. Knowing exactly where the jig is becomes a guessing game, and every change in speed changes the depth of the presentation. The typical answer is to deploy as many rods as possible, with varying amounts of line out, evincing images of spider rigging for crappies.
Striper guides on Lake Cumberland in Tennessee (and elsewhere) have discovered how much easier this game becomes with downriggers. This past fall, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange filmed with Tim Tarter, who guides for stripers on Lake Cumberland. “We used plastics instead of hair,” Stange said. “The combination of downriggers with Berkley Power Pogeys and Power Mullet (and various other shad-body baits) on the jigs allowed us to troll faster and cover more water. It also made for less confusion on the boat. We used only four rods, two on each downrigger, and did just fine because if we saw fish on sonar, we could make instant adjustments and feel confident the baits were in the critical zone all the time.
“To start a trolling pass, we made a long cast, clipped the line to a basic Cannon Universal Release, and ran the baits down there. The jig was then 60 to 80 feet behind the ball. Cumberland is clear. This was in October, when stripers school deep. They started the day near the surface, and by early morning, they’d start tracking schools of alewives deeper over 40- to 60-foot flats. By late morning, they were off the 60-foot breaks and some went as deep as 90 to 100 feet, which is really too deep to troll jigs with any other method. It’s no problem running jigs that deep with a downrigger at whatever speed is effective.”
Tarter said the introduction of alewives as a forage base in Cumberland initiated the move to downriggers for most guides there. “Alewives go deeper than shad and range more in the water column,” Tarter says. “They keep moving. Alewives are mobile, so stripers school more in pursuit of them. They’ve become the favorite forage of the stripers in Cumberland. So, instead of scattered, milling individuals, we’re hunting wolf packs on the trot now.
“Stripers can move 20 miles in a day when shadowing pods of alewives. Before we started using downriggers, even when we located a large school of stripers, they’d be gone before we could set up for bait fishing. Downriggers allow us to stay on the fish. We’re much more mobile, and we’re presenting baits faster. Alewives have stripers feeding deeper than they used to, and the deeper they go, the larger the school. They’re moving too fast to stay on top of them with bait.
“I troll from 11⁄2 to 31⁄2 mph with 3/8- to 1/2-ounce jigs most of the time, but it’s like anything else. You have to match your lure to the size of the forage. In lakes where stripers are after big gizzard shad, we might go to a 7‑ or 8-inch plastic bait with a 1-ounce jig. For all techniques, I use 17- to 20-pound mono most of the time.
“We use downriggers mainly in fall. Occasionally we troll crankbaits and other lures. But, when you come over a school of stripers, they’ll generally hit whatever you put down there, so that’s why we don’t get too fancy. If you find them, chances are good they’re going to hit.”
Cumberland isn’t the only lake where downriggers have caught on down south, Tarter says. “Lake Norris, Smith Lake, Tim’s Ford—most striper guides are turning to downriggers on those lakes now. Some are even rigging live shad with downriggers, especially in lakes like Cumberland and Norris where the DNR is stocking alewives, and stripers are ranging deeper. It’s the easiest way to get the bait deep fast, and it’s more accurate.”
Downriggers are easy to mount and easy to remove when you don’t need them. Once the release trips, you’re straight to the fish with the right tackle. No boards, sinkers, planers, or extra do-dads hanging on the line. Downriggers have other advantages, too. Like adding dimension to your thinking while adding resale value to your boat.
Prices And Options
Downriggers today range from the simplest units imaginable to complex, computerized versions that automatically raise and lower the cannonball to follow bottom contours. One company (Computrol), for example, offers this range of choices:
One of the smallest and easiest portables to operate is the Cannon Mini Troll, a clamp-on version designed for small craft—including canoes and johnboats—that can cover depths down to 100 feet or more. It retails for only $59.99.
Other manual (hand-crank) units include the Cannon Easi-Troll ($159), Sport Troll, and Uni-Troll ($259), which are fine for anglers with bass or walleye boats that envision using downriggers only occasionally. Motorized versions are a little more expensive, but offer more features and get baits down quickly for serious walleye and striper anglers. The Cannon Mini-Mag ($319.99) comes with a low-amp-draw 12-volt motor that’s guaranteed for life and offers PIC (Positive Ion Control for attracting predators). Yet this model is light and recommended for small- to mid-size boats.
The Cannon Magnum 10 ($469.99), the next unit up the line, offers the same kind of features with the addition of a stronger, faster motor and a heavy-duty telescopic boom for better reach and cable control. The Mag 20 ($849) holds more cable (400 feet of 150-pound stainless steel cable), and offers a motor with the fastest retrieve ratio on the market (235 feet per second), also guaranteed for life.
For big-water salmon, walleye, or muskie fanatics, Cannon offers the Digi-Troll IV ($1199.99), which has all the above plus bottom tracking sonar combined with computerized functions that raise and lower the balls to keep lures a constant distance from bottom. Now you can “crash” bluff banks without actually crashing. Or you can program it to present baits that rise and fall in a cycle within a range of three different descent and retrieve speeds. This isn’t kid stuff.