Outdoor Horizon is a reader-supported site. Purchases made through links may earn a commission.

How Do Fishing Downriggers Work? (Full Guide)

Dropping your bait to the right depth can make the difference between a good fishing trip and a disappointing one. Fish will often feed at one particular depth, and if you are not accurate in your bait placement you may miss out. This is why a fishing downrigger can prove a valuable asset.

Fishing downriggers work by using a weight to position bait at a specific depth of water. When a fish bites, the fishing line is released from the cable holding the weight, allowing an angler to take hold of the rod and reel in the fish. The two types of downrigger are manual or electric.

The addition of a fishing downrigger to a boat has the potential to increase a catch by adding precision and consistency to the casting of lures or bait. In this article we will discuss what downriggers are, how they work, and how to choose the right downrigger for you.

What Are Fishing Downriggers?

Fishing downriggers allow you to position your bait at the required depth. The device provides more control and accuracy of your bait when trolling for fish behind a boat. You can place bait repeatedly at the same depth or accurately change depths when required to match fish movement.

Downriggers use weights to drop the bait to the required depth and anglers can have more than one downrigger in operation at the same time from their boat. Although trolling is usually associated with deeper water at sea, downriggers can be used in shallower water too. They can also be employed in both freshwater and saltwater fishing.

Anatomy Of A Fishing Downrigger

Downriggers range from basic models right through to more sophisticated models that can have smart features, such as on-screen trolling data. However, all downriggers have the same key components:

  • Boom arm
  • Rod holder
  • Winch
  • Cannonball (weight)
  • Wire cable
  • Release clip
  • Spool

These are the essential elements for all downriggers, being the key components that allow you to have more control over bait depth placement when trolling.

How Much Do Fishing Downriggers Cost?

A basic fishing downrigger can cost around $200, while a more top of the range model can see you pay nearer $2,000. There is quite a range of downriggers on the market. For most anglers a price of around $500 to $600 is what you might expect to pay for a fishing downrigger.

There are different types of downriggers as well as different features and accessories for the various models. It is key to balance an affordable budget with the most suitable downrigger for your boat when considering all the available options.

How Do Fishing Downriggers Work?

Fishing downriggers operate on a very simple premise. They use a weight to pull the spooled line down through the water to position the lure or bait at the required depth. The boom arm is the piece of equipment that allows for the safe extension of the weight from the boat. The boom arm tends to be up to 5 ft in length and is mounted to a base on the boat.

The weight is connected to the cable of the boom arm and to the fishing line spooled on the rod. The weight is then lowered to the desired depth with the line and lure trolling behind. When a fish bites, the line is released by a connecting clip and the angler can start to reel in the fish.

Types Of Fishing Downriggers

There are two types of downrigger to choose between: manual and electric. We will take a closer look at both of these below, starting with manual downriggers.

Manual Downriggers

Manual downriggers are easier on the budget and are portable, making them simple to remove when not in use. Manual downriggers are also more lightweight and have a smaller footprint than electric ones. These are both attributes that can make them a better choice for smaller boats. You will find manual downriggers available in different sizes to suit different boat sizes.

PROS:

  • Less expensive
  • Easier to maintain
  • Portable
  • Takes up less room

CONS:

  • Can be manually demanding when using in deep water
  • Slower to operate

Electric Downriggers

The alternative to manual downriggers is to go electric, but this requires a power source on the boat to operate the device. Once powered up, this type of downrigger uses an electric winch to lower and retrieve the weight to position the bait at the required depth. This takes away the need for reliance on muscle power, and is particularly handy when fishing in deeper waters.

With an electric downrigger you can easily retrieve the weight with a press of a button to get it out of the way once a fish bites. This allows you to fully concentrate on reeling in the fish. The range of electric downriggers on the market offer an array of features, including the ability to preset depths digitally and amend bait depths at the press of a button.

PROS:

  • Does not require muscle power
  • Easy to use when out fishing alone
  • Potential to preset bait depths

PROS:

  • More expensive
  • Needs power and can drain existing power sources
  • More parts means more repairs and maintenance

How To Choose The Right Downrigger

Whether you prefer a manual or electric downrigger is one of the primary considerations when choosing the right model. Anglers might opt for the less expensive manual downrigger to start with to ensure it is a method of fishing they enjoy. An electric downrigger is no mean investment and may be better as an upgrade or as a second downrigger.

However, equally important is to spend some time considering what you will be using your downrigger for and whether it is suitable for your boat. Two key considerations are the boom arm and the mounting of the downrigger.

Boom Arm

The boom arm is important as it extends from the side to take the downrigger weight, along with your line and bait, out and away from the boat. Booms can be up to 5 ft in length, although the average tends to be around 2 ft. In general, the larger the boat the longer the boom arm. On smaller boats the danger of longer booms is that, if they become snagged, they risk the boat capsizing.

If you intend to use heavy weights, a stiffer boom may be the better option. However, these can be harder to store away once done with for the day, as can longer boom arms. This is why many models on the market today are telescopic, allowing for easier storage.

Mounting

This is another key element of any downrigger and will depend on the size and type of fishing boat you are using. The simplest mount systems use clamps which attach to the gunwale and offer quick and easy set-up and removal. These tend to be found on downriggers designed for smaller boats, but their portability also makes them ideal for hire boats.

Most boat owners will probably prefer a fixed mount for their downriggers. While less flexible, fixed mounts offer more strength and durability. Downriggers need to be installed on a stable platform toward the back of the boat to safely cope with the water resistance when trolling and from the attached downrigger weights.

Installing a mount that tilts means you can tilt it forward inboard when it is time to dock. A tilting mount will provide just one fixed position when you are fishing, so if you want more versatility a swivel mount may be a better choice. With a 360 degree turning circle and the ability to lock the downrigger in multiple positions, this increases your options and can prove very convenient.

Further Accessories

While downrigger type, boom arm length, boat size and mounting system are the key elements to consider, there are a plethora of additional features and accessories offered by some manufacturers. As discussed, when you first use a downrigger, it may be best to keep it simple while you become more experienced with the device.

However, the choice of downriggers available on the market can seem a little overwhelming at first. Between the smaller downriggers and the high end models there are extra add-ons and variations in feature sizes and performance levels. These include:

  • Adjustable speeds
  • Bottom tracking
  • Rod holder variations
  • Mounting bases
  • Depth counters
  • Weight capacity
  • Wireless integration

The bottom line remains asking yourself what you are looking to achieve with your downrigger and how/if any additional feature or accessory actually helps. Manufacturers have online guides that suggest the most suitable downriggers based on information you supply, such as boat size, where you intend to fish, your experience levels and whether you prefer a manual or electric downrigger.

How To Fish With A Downrigger

1. Attach The Weight

Before the boom is employed you need to attach the weight, often called a cannonball due to its shape, to the boom arm cable. These weights come in various sizes and weights, with a heavier weight used at more extreme depths or when the current is strong. Weight sizes tend to be between 5 lbs and 15 lbs.

The weight is then also connected to your fishing line using a release clip. This usually consists of a snap link attached to an eyelet on the weight. With the required weight attached, you can place the fishing rod in the rod holder on the downrigger.

2. Lower The Weight

You are now ready to lower the weight and lure down to the required depth. Using a fish finder helps you pinpoint the depth you want to fish. You can free spool your fishing reel while the weight is slowly lowered. Your fishing rod will arc as it takes the strain from the weight. You use the line counter on the downrigger to position the lure at the exact depth required.

The downrigger cable will enter the water at an angle rather than straight down with the weight due to water resistance. This angle is determined by the type and size of weight used, the speed of the boat, and the depth of the water. Termed blowback, high-end downriggers can use technology to assess this angle of entry and accurately position the bait.

Otherwise, a useful way to determine blowback is to drop the weight all the way to the bottom. Providing you know the depth at this point you can compare it to the reading on your downrigger to evaluate the blowback. From there you can make the necessary adjustments when positioning your bait.

Fish finders can also help here, but for many, experience will teach you how much additional cable you will require to place the bait at the exact depth you want.

The weight will keep the lure at the same, consistent depth as you troll the line behind the boat. This movement helps to make the lure look like a natural source of bait fish. The weight prevents the lure from drifting up and away from your target fish.

3. Line Release

When a fish bites, the release clip connecting the weight to the fishing line is activated and lets go of the line. The release of the weight from the line will see your rod react, springing back up from its previously bent position. This is the signal that the fight is on!

4. Reeling In

Once a fish bites and the rod straightens you can remove the rod back out of the holder on the downrigger. It is now down to you to successfully reel the fish in. With rod in hand, you can move around the boat as is necessary to land the fish.

What’s The Difference Between A Downrigger And An Outrigger?

You may have noticed other boats that have long poles extending out either side. These are outriggers, and instead of trolling lines down they spread the lines out over a wider stretch of water. Using outriggers, you can set up multiple lines across the length of the poles to present multiple lures.

Outriggers present the bait just below the surface and in the clearer water away from the white water generated by the boat. In contrast, downriggers are used to target fish that have settled at deeper levels. With a downrigger, you can set a weight to position bait at the exact depth where you have located the fish.

The method of trolling the lures using an outrigger reproduces the effect of a school of bait fish in order to attract the game fish you are targeting. The outrigger poles can extend out to 35 ft on larger boats and may be mounted on the gunwale or a hardtop. Both outriggers and downriggers can be used in saltwater and freshwater.

Some of the more common fish species targeted when using downriggers include:

  • Lake trout
  • Brown trout
  • Walleye
  • Kingfish
  • Salmon
  • King mackerel
  • Sharks
  • Bass

With outriggers, some of the more popular fish to target include:

  • Marlin
  • Kingfish
  • Sailfish
  • Grouper
  • Trout
  • Salmon

How Deep Can You Fish With A Downrigger?

Recreational anglers and charter boats will generally fish up to a depth of 300 ft. The most common range to fish at is between 30 ft to 100 ft. These sort of depths are more manageable when using manual downriggers too, but once you start fishing at larger depths then the benefit of an electric downrigger to winch the weight becomes more apparent.

Depth is a key factor alongside trolling speed when considering the blowback angle of the downrigger weight as it descends. The deeper the weight travels the more water resistance it encounters, and this can increase the angle of the weight to the downrigger. In terms of trolling speed, most anglers will look to troll between 1.5 mph and 3.5 mph, depending on the fish type they are targeting

Final Thoughts

Downriggers help you catch more fish when trolling by placing your bait at the depth you know the fish are located. By using a downrigger, bait can be accurately delivered right among the fish. When a fish bites, a release clip lets go of the fishing line, allowing you to reel in the fish with ease.