The Lost Art of Downrigger Fishing

By: “WormDunker”

These days everybody thinks you have to use leadcore, wire line, drop weights and countless other modern ways to catch salmon and trout. Believe me these are not new ways to catch our great lakes fish. The downrigger was invented (by a fisherman I’ sure) to do away with these methods and make it much easier to catch these fish in a easier and more sporting way. Before I go any further with this story let me assure you I’m am not an English major so I apologize to you for the spelling and grammar now. I can catch fish pretty good but I can’t spell worth a hoot and type with one finger so you may have to guess at some of the words.

If you have read some of my past posts I still have a problem with computer fishermen being experts and I by no means think I am an expert. I used to be on the Cannon Pro staff back when I chartered and went around to different Steelheader’s club and other fishing clubs and taught fishing with downriggers. The method I use is just basic stuff that I have used for over the last 33 years but it works for me and hopefully it well help pick up an extra fish or to.

To start off I try to fish for aggressive feeding fish so this means I’m on the water and set up well before daylight. The key to my style of downrigger fishing starts with the weight itself. I have over the years used all kinds and colors of weights and what works best for me is a weight I make my self and I paint it white. I started experimenting with weight shapes and colors years ago. As far as how I settled on color before we all started using silver spoons no matter what your favorite color spoon was rather it was green, chartreuse, blue or any other shade the back side was white. I have yet to find a color that works better. As for as shape its kind of fish silhouette and the weight has all rounded edges makes them crank up easier, track better, and they have a bendable tail that I tune (will cover more on this later).

The second part of my system, lead length, comes from watching my graph. If you have ever seen a school of bait fish with salmon feeding on them they ball the bait up and the kings come from all sides and feed on them. So I NEVER FISH MORE THAN 15ft. BEHIND THE WEIGHT. Usually I fish seven feet but sometimes in spring when I fish 10 ft. of water I will drop back to 15 if my props are throwing sand. The weight is easier to see, feel, and hear through their lateral line than the lure. The fish will hear, see your weight and if the lure is way back they are gone before the lure gets there. As long as we’re talking leader length the further away from the weight the less action the lure has and if the currents are running real hard they may have to much or no action at all. Ever wonder why your lures get all balled up and you didn’t make any sharp turns? That’s good sign strong currents are running. Another reason to run short leads is that you can turn short to chase fish, get back on a way point quicker and dodge boat wrecks with out a tangled mess.

The third part of the system, I always use the V pattern with the weights deepest in rear and alternate them 5ft. from side to side. Again I’m trying to create my own school of bait (lures) with six downrigger weights, six lures close behind and six more lures 5ft. above the lures. I have quite a school of bait to attract fish. Usually you fish your weights above where your marking the fish. They swim up to see the lowest weight and lure and it may not be what they want but they have quite a selection to choose from.

downrigger fishing

The only exception to the V pattern is there is a sharp drop off (bank). I will get on the bank and put downriggers in a angle to match depth and angle of bank that the fish are suspending off of it shallow to deep.

I have tried all different kinds and types of releases, Walker, Cannon, Big Jon, Off shore, rubber bands and even pinch pads and what works the best for me is Blacks outrigger releases on the down riggers. I can adjust them loose enough to use Flutter spoons for walleye and tighten them up to use a big flasher with a J-Plug as an add a line. I have used with as light as 8lb. test line and as heavy as 30lb. test and never had a line break our chaffing problem.

downrigger fishing

Above is a picture of the weight I use and the Black outrigger release. It also shows the way I think is best to rig and add lines. Half hitch the rubber band on line then put swivel over the knot and through the loop in the band (again 5ft. above the weight). I use Inter core rods and can’t use this method because a piece of rubber band can jam in rod.

You can see the tail on the weight was bent so it makes the weight track to the outside and pull lure with it. Then I troll, S-ing the boat and it makes the weight swing out and it reaches as far as it can. The weight will dart back as I turn speeding up the outside lures and slowing the inside lures (triggers flowing fish).

Now that the water has cleared up from Zebra muscles, the trend in charter boats is to run fewer downriggers and more lead core, wire line, and dipsies, but the last time I looked at Cannon Digitrolls they were over a Grand a piece and you can buy a lot of lead core line for that. With downriggers repeatability is easier (catching another fish with the same lure at the same depth and speed) than with the other methods and much easier for the beginner in heavy boat traffic. Since the advent of Zebra muscles, I don’t bounce bottom any more but have a weight rigged up with a heavy wire (I think its a #9 stainless wire) two foot long to rub bottom to stir up laker when things get real bad.

I’ll just cover a little on lures (everybody has their own favorites). In spring I use a lot of gold and copper colored blanks until the water settles or clears and I use mostly magnums until June. All bait fish this time of year are adults and the young of year haven’t hatched yet. From June on I always start out before light with black/raspberry, double black/glo, and N.K.28 double green/glo (the double glos have been my best bait last three years, I make them myself they don’t sell them) and double glo/chartruse charged up with my flash camera. Then I let the fish tell me what color to use. I have never ever caught a fish on a fish catcher but I do run a lot of dogger and fly/gloquid off Dypsy and lead core when I have enough people to on the boat to use extra rods. This year I’m gonna add wire dypsy for the same reason I fish downriggers,…. the noise and the bubbles the wire makes.

This basically is my system. I call it divine madness when it’s working the fish can drive you mad keeping up with them. I often hear people say they have never caught a double or even had one on. Well when your spread is all helter skelter you won’t. The best I’ve done was 10 fish on at once and landed 49 fish in 90 minutes (posted picture and story earlier) with this system. Now that I don’t charter and fish with mainly three people, my average fish per trip is the lowest it has been in years. When I chartered, I averaged 25 fish per trip,….last year I only averaged 7 fish fish per trip. So far this year my average has gone up. First trip this year I got skunked (everybody takes a turn in the barrel if you fish long enough), second trip three kings, and last Saturday we got 15 kings and 11 lake trout. Three trips, 29 fish, that’s 9 fish per trip. I hope to get better as the water warms.

If you are a beginner and just starting out, the very best advice I can give you is to go out with a charter and see how it’s done, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I fished a year and never took a fish (my parents caught a few lakers) so we went out on a charter and saw we were fishing too slow and other things we were doing wrong. Try some of our sponsors like Coldwater Charter’s on Lake Michigan or DreamCatcher on Lakes Erie and Michigan.

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