Getting to the bottom of it

By Jono Booysen
[Originally published in the November 2020 issue of SKI-BOAT]

ANYONE who has spent time on the water behind the steering wheel of a boat, watching the sounder, would have seen that on some days the fish are holding right down close to the reef. These are also normally the days that the current is flying and even though you have tried using the trusty bottom sinker and elastic band, you just can’t get your lines deep enough to entice a strike. This is when a downrigger is worth its weight in gold.
The basic concept behind a downrigger is a large reel loaded with wire connected to a heavy lead weight. This weight has a release clip that the fishing line is attached to. When the ball is lowered to the desired depth, it takes the line and bait with it. Whether you have a manual or electric, both have built in line counters which indicate how deep the weight is. This helps put the bait/lure at the exact depth of the strike zone. When there is a strike, the line releases from the downrigger and the angler can fight the fish without any weight attached.
There are two types of downriggers — manual and electric. The advantage of the electric ’rigger is that when there is a strike, all you need to do is press a button and the weight is retrieved and automatically stops when it reaches the surface. This means that you have an extra person available to clear other lines. This luxury does, however, come with a hefty price tag.
had downriggers. This was a bit of a problem when fishing in tournaments if all the fish were down deep in heavy current. One couldn’t simply bring a downrigger with and use it on any boat, as they have specialised bases fixed onto the gunwales which need to be sturdy enough to hold the weight of the lead while trolling.
To overcome this hurdle, I made a very crude portable downrigger. It consisted of an old scarborough reel loaded with heavy leader, and a shortened fibreglass bottom rod. A short section of rope was looped over the handle to prevent the reel from backwinding. This ’rigger could be put into a flat rod holder on any boat and worked just as well as the permanently mounted versions. In fact, I still use it on the odd occasion.

When it comes to deciding which downrigger weight to use, there are many different options available. What you are trying to achieve with a downrigger is to get the most vertical angle you can get, especially at a relatively fast speed, with the least amount of weight.
To achieve this, you need something that is hydrodynamic. By this I mean the weight has as little resistance in the water as possible. It might seem strange, but at 5 knots, a 5kg lead ball will often track higher in the water column than a 4kg weight of a different shape, just because of the resistance factor. Not only does the downrigger operate more efficiently, but it also makes a big difference to the poor person who has to manually retrieve the weight.
The two weights that I prefer are the lead-filled pipes (cut off at an angle) and the disc-shaped lead with a rudder. These two shapes stay deep when trolling at speed or if the current is ripping, and they don’t twist and spin in the water. I find that a 4kg weight is ample for most situations.
The other option is the Z-wing. It is a large planing board that works like deep diving lure, and the harder you pull it, the deeper it goes. It works pretty well, but puts more strain on the downrigger arm and base.

Traditionally, thin stainless cable was used on the downrigger reel. The cable was much thinner and stronger than the nylon of the time, so it made sense for it to be the material of choice. There were a few problems with it though.
Firstly, if you didn’t wash the wire thoroughly before storing it, it would eventually rust through. Trust me when I say it is a really nasty surprise when you suddenly have a 4kg lead ball attached to your fishing line and you have to retrieve it from 50m because the wire broke and the elastic band didn’t.
The second issue was the noise that the cable made while being pulled through the water. Everyone who has used cabled downriggers will remember the unique “singing” noise it made. This noise was thought to be off-putting to fish.
The solution to both these problems came with the introduction of braid. Replacing the cable with 150 lb braid gave the longevity and silence required. Even my homemade version was respooled with braid, marked at 5m intervals using a permanent marker. I like to use high vis braid to make it easier for the skipper to see where the line is when turning the boat, as it sometimes gets very close to the motors.

As with outriggers that hold your line in position until there is a strike, downriggers also need a release mechanism. This could be an outrigger clip or stock standard snap swivel. As a safety precaution, a rubber band is used to attach the line to the release mechanism.
When using a bait that needs to be fed to the fish, then the clip can be set to release at a lighter resistance. When fishing with lures or bait that hook the fish on contact, set the clip as tight as it can go. The rubber band will then break before the line can release. When using a snap swivel as a release mechanism you are limited to the latter method.

Again, similar to outriggers, there are several ways to configure the downrigger, all depending on your personal preference. (See diagrams overleaf.)

Setup 1:
The standard, and most commonly used configuration, is where the braid is connected directly to the weight. As mentioned, I prefer the lead filled pipe or disc shape lead. A release clip/snap swivel is tied onto a short section of heavy nylon which is attached to the rear of the weight. This is a very simple setup and is the most stable when setting the line and trolling.

Setup 2:
The configuration that I use is a bit unorthodox, but then again, I have never been one to confine myself to fishing “norms”.
I attach the braid to a stainless-steel ring. This ring has a short section of 300 lb nylon attached to my release clip. Also, from that ring, going down to the weight, I attach a series of flasher blades. Below the flashers is my weight. With this config my main line is clear from the weight and flashers. When I deploy the downrigger, the weight and flashers are in the water and out of the way. I use this when trolling at slow to medium speed as there is obviously more resistance.
If the vertical angle comes up too high, I either put a heavier weight on or remove the flashers. When fishing in really deep water where there is not much light, adding a lightstick or two between the flashers really gets the disco going down there. Contact me if you are interested in getting a set.

Right, so now that everything is set up and ready to go, how do you deploy it? I find the best practice is to first put out your surface lines then the downrigger rod, followed by any other weighted line.
For the ’rigger rod, let the bait out about 15m or so, then attach a rubber band. Put the rod into a holder with the drag set to about a third of strike, or get someone to hold the rod for you. The downrigger arm should be over the side of the gunwale with the weight hanging from it, with the line counter set to zero.
Clip the rubber band into the clip or snap swivel, and slowly lower the weight to the desired depth, being careful not to go too far and risk hooking the bottom. Push the reel’s drag up to the strike position and wind up the slack. The rod tip will now be bent towards the water. It takes a bit of getting used to, but you will quickly get the hang of it.
If the angle is vertical, you should be able to see the weight on your echo sounder. This makes it easy to adjust the depth to where the showings are.

When you get a strike on the downrigger, two things could happen …
One is that the rod tip gives a bit of a flick and then keels over and the reel smokes off… fish on.
The other thing that could happen is that the rod, which had a proper bend in it while trolling, flicks straight as the clip releases or rubber band pops. This is where the angler needs to crank the reel asap to get the slack out and keep the hooks in the fish.
Either way, the line has released and the weight needs to be retrieved to prevent burn offs.
When the weight is out of the water, I find it better to put it in the boat instead of letting it hang in mid air where it will swing around and cause possible damage.
The effectiveness of a downrigger cannot be disputed; it is a great weapon to have in your fishing arsenal. However, with anything that works really well, there will inevitably be a squabble about who gets to play with it first and send their line down on the ’rigger.

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