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Good Ole Reliable, The Downrigger


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What is the first thing you think of when somebody mentions fishing for salmon in the Great Lakes? Is it a big boat? Big waves on open water? Ever heard the phrase that buying the boat is the cheap part of Great Lakes fishing? Maybe you are very analytical and the first thing that comes to mind is downriggers.

I can remember back when my Grandfather used to dock his boat at Chalmers Marina in Whitehall, MI. The marina has since gone away and there really are no reminisce of it anymore. The memories however, are still with me. I remember as a kid getting up, stopping in at the local pancake house across the street from the marina, chowing down a short stack, then heading to the boat around 8 or 9am for our day’s journey. Back then it was 4 downriggers, 4 poles and that was it. My Grandfather had no cares for dipsies, lead core, wire, drop weights, or even planer boards. It was strictly two long arm riggers off the side, and two short arms off the back. We had many glorious days on the water back then, the fish were huge and plentiful.

The fish today are still as plentiful as ever. The size has gone down some, but still enough 12 plus pound fish out there to make things interesting. We so often get caught up in the new techniques and state of the art methods that we often forget about what brought us to where we are now in the first place. (I admit I’m one of them. I only have two riggers on my boat.)


Over the years down riggers have proven to be the most consistent technique on the water. They are a simple contraption to use, whether electric or manual.

All you need is the downrigger, cable, a 10lb ball, and a release.

To start off, you want to get yourself some decent dowrigger rods. (Don’t confuse decent with expensive.) When you are talking downriggers and salmon fishing you don’t have to go out and buy Loomis or St. Crouix rods. You are not in the river trying to feel a tiny little take, you are in the open water trolling around 2 to 3 mph. There is nothing tiny about the way these fish hit. My thoughts are more on the lines of the Shimano TDR, Eagle Claw, Diawa Heartland, Okuma Pro Series, and Pinnacle rods. Any of those rods should be around $30 dollars or less. Now that you have a nice 8’ 6†medium action rod to play with, you need to outfit that rod with a reel.

Do your research because if you are going to spend big money this is where you want it to happen. I’ve had excellent luck with Okuma Convector reels. Another great reel is the Diawa SG series. Of course the old reliable the Penn 209’s and 309’s work wonderfully for riggers. I like to have a big enough reel to comfortably hold 300 yards of 20lb test line. I prefer a smooth drag that is easy to set. (If you feel surging when a fish is pulling line out then you probably need to give that drag system a little attention.) Once I have chosen my reel, I will spool it up with 20lb Ande or 20lb Trilene Big Game. (You can go much lighter if you wish.) A higher quality reel is necessary for lighter pound test line. I often fish with a lot of novices, the heavier 20lb test lets you get away with MANY mistakes that 12lb wouldn’t let you get away with. You can also go a little heavier but, I don’t really recommend it unless you are only running J-Plug type baits. If you run too heavy of a line, spoons will lose action dramatically.

Now we move into the meat and potatoes of the meal. Time to find your favorite downrigger. There are so many out there to choose from and they all do a fine job. (Walker, Cannon, Big John, Scotties, Penn, Fishlander, Vector, and Proos.) Once you have your rigger it will probably come with 200 feet of 250lb test stranded cable. I prefer the NON-coated cable myself. With the cable, attach a giant swivel to the end. (Cannon makes the best termination kit I have found so far. There is NO crimping involved with it and is very reliable. I’ve never broken one since I’ve been fishing them for the last 8 years.)

With your swivel attached you are ready for some lead. I like to run 10lb Tru Tracs. You can also use the pancake or the shark style. If you are running four riggers, I would suggest using Tru Tracs on the back two riggers. Pancake weights work great for the sides (bend the fins slightly so they will plane out to the side a bit for better separation).

Once you have picked out your weights, you have to find a release that suit your needs. Personally I like the Off Shore OR-1 release (a spring pinch pad release). There are several others on the market, such as Cannon, Walker, Scottie, and just plain old rubber bands.


Now that you have spent the pension on the equipment lets go fishing! On my boat the first lines I set are the downrigger lines. Weather, water, and wave conditions determine how I run my riggers. One term you will hear often is LEADS (lEds). A lead is the distance you let your bait out before you clip it into your release.

Keep in mind that the shorter the lead, the more it will move with the cannon ball especially in wavy conditions.

During the spring I am usually fishing 6 to 30 FOW (Foot Of Water) with longer leads (100’ or so). If that isn’t working for me, I bring the lead in as close as 15’ behind the ball.

If fishing during summer, when calm, I will put leads out around 20 to 50 feet. If it is a choppy, I will shorten my leads (5 to 20 feet).

In the Fall (where there are a million other vessels trying to fish the same exact spot) I shorten up leads at all times (5 to 20 feet no matter what depth of water or wave conditions).

So if I leave you with nothing more than this. In the time we are in right now with all the crazed methods and techniques, none are as consistent or as simple to use as a downrigger.

Written and Illustrated By:

Jim Six(SixShooter)


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  • 2 years later...

I know that this is an old post, but dang!!!.. it's a good one! This rookie fisherman could even understand it. Frankly. it's better than most of the magazines that assume that you already know something and merely are adding the newest high tech approach. Well done!

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  • 9 months later...

I use a pair of old big jon manuals i got at a swap meet they work great,i use rubberband releases and actually enjoy crankin um up& down, for me it was a great bargain for [email protected] $150 with new cable and clinchers.electrics are sweet but the price is a lil prohibitive[according to my wife] HAPPY WIFE HAPPY LIFE! GREAT POSTING ! THANKS!

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  • 4 years later...

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