Whether in freshwater or saltwater, fish often concentrate in a particular strata of the water column, held there by food, temperature, oxygen levels or other conditions they find to their liking. This can challenge anglers who want to keep their baits or lures in the zone, particularly when trolling. While leadcore line is one way to get offerings to run deep in the water column, downriggers are a much more precise and controlled way to troll baits and lures when fish are holding at a specific depth.
If you’re not familiar with downriggers, they are essentially devices that mount to your boat specifically for deepwater fishing. A heavy lead weight is lowered down on a steel or braided cable, taking your bait or lure down with it. A release device lets the line go when a fish bites, allowing the angler to fight the fish on any type of gear. Depending on the type of downrigger, the weight is raised to the surface when not in use, either by cranking a handle or using an electric motor.
Here are some tips for more effective downrigger fishing:
Follow your fishfinder. Use your fishfinder to look for schools of bait and fish, as well as thermoclines (hard temperature breaks) that often mark as a steady line between the surface and the bottom. Any of these can signal the right depth range to set your trolling lines. Keep a close eye on the screen to make sure your downrigger weights are far enough above structure, trees or other obstacles to avoid getting snagged.
Test the waters. Until you figure out at which level the fish are holding, run your downriggers at different depths. You can also “stagger stack” two or more trolling lines on each downrigger by using adjustable line releases that clip onto the downrigger cable. Once you find a pattern of strikes at a particular depth zone, adjust all your gear to focus effort in this area.
Consider the conditions. Don’t rely solely on the downrigger’s “depth gauge,” as boat speed, and the speed/direction of the current can affect the actual trolling depth of your lure or bait. You can often observe the actual running depth of your gear on the fishfinder display, and raise or lower the downrigger to get into the strike zone. As with any type of trolling, try varying your boat speed in small increments to find the “sweet spot” that makes the fish bite. Remember that this can change whether you’re traveling with or against the wind or current.
Keep Fishing. Don’t stop the boat when you hook up. Instead, maintain trolling speed while fighting a hooked fish. This increases the chance of multiple hookups as your gear moves through a school of fish, but more importantly, it helps keep hooked fish up on the surface behind the boat and away from tangles with other lines and downrigger cables.