For many ocean and lake anglers, using downriggers is the key to catching fish.
From ocean salmon to bottom-hugging lake trout and late day Kokanee and trout, downriggers are a must.
I’ve been on boats with hand cranks and electric s, and I know budgets are always a consideration for many folks, but I feel if you regularly fish deeper than 30 to 40 feet, using hand cranks is a bad idea.
A side view of what the finned pancake weight with two delta style flashers would look like in the water. Adding those two flashers really helps bring big Chinook up from the depths!
Fishing 60, 80, or in some cases down to 200 feet or better, using hand cranks are a beast. Hand cranking a downrigger ball weighing between a minimum of 8 pounds and up to 15 is a whole lot of work, and anglers using deep water hand cranks tend to check their baits or lures less frequently than they should. If I don’t get bit in 20 minutes or so I’m bringing up my lure or bait to check it out.
Many times it’s fouled on the way down, especially when fishing flashers, or it’s got seaweed on it, or even a small trout or trash fish, or your baits been stripped off on an unnoticed short strike. With electrics, it’s easy to clean your lures off and drop them back down, but with hand cranks, it’s a dreaded chore. So for the most part this article is about electrics, and for the purpose of this article I’ll be talking about the two Scotty electrics on my boat, but all of this information is applicable to any good brand of electrics downriggers.
For many years traditional downriggers sold with braided stainless steel wire line (or cable) in lengths for 100 to 500 feet, and available in pound tests from 100 to 250 pounds.
Wire works great, but with it comes many inherent problems. A wire cable connected to a heavy lead ball is the perfect transmitter of an electric charge down the cable to your bait or lure.
If your boat or equipment is not properly grounded a charge can travel down your cable and reply fish away from your lures or bait. If your boat is aluminum or steel the problem can really be magnified if your boat is not properly grounded. However, as much as an excessive charge can repel fish, the right charge can attract fish.
Years ago I fished with a friend who had a black box hooked up to his downriggers. We would be marking ocean salmon on his fish finder and he said: “watch this” and turned up the current his black box that was deliberately hooked up to his cables.
You could clearly see the marks on the fish finder screen racing off the screen. That charge was like a cattle prod and instantly made the salmon zip away from his cables.
Even without the black box technology, knowledgeable anglers would test the current traveling down their cables with an ohm meter to determine if they were putting off a repellant charge on their downrigger cables.
Other inherent problems with wire line was kinking, or corroding or rusting, in which case the strength of the cable was cut in half, or worse, the kinked line would part, sending your downrigger ball and cable on a one way trip to the briny deep. The wire would also fray from wear, and was it easy to get stabbed with a razor sharp piece of frayed wire. And stainless steel wire would rust and corrode, and had to be inspected and replaced every few years.
Replacing the terminal connection where the clip that held the downrigger ball was no easy feat either. Special clips and connectors were sold, and if not done right kiss another downrigger ball goodbye!
Today, modern technology offers us downrigger cables in super braids, which are stronger than steel and thinner in diameter than steel.
The folks that make Scotty Downriggers offer a special Spectra fiber downrigger braid that is meant to replace the traditional stainless steel braided wire cable. A major advantage to switching to braid, is there are no worries about your boat or downrigger cables putting out a negative charge since the material does not transmit electric current.
The braid doesn’t corrode or kink, so it will last for many more years than the wire cables.
The knot for connecting the braid to the terminal connection is a breeze, as my photos and captions show. I call this my Andy knot because guide Andy Klint showed me this knot last year while I was fishing with him up at Qualicum Rivers Winter Harbour Fishing resort in Winter harbor, B.C. Over the last 4 years I have learned so much from all of the guides up there when it comes to fishing downriggers. It takes less than a minute to tie and it’s a great knot for many connections.
Scotty offers two different pound tests of their Spectra cable braid, 175 and 250. Although it would seem the heavier pound test would be the better option, it is not. You want your downrigger ball to travel as vertically as possible, and the heavier pound test braid is thicker in diameter and will swing back much farther than the 175-pound test.
When using braid it is truly stronger than steel of equal diameter, but it has two drawbacks. One is it does not transmit an electrical charge, so if you rely on black box technology braid will not work for you. You must stick with wire.
Secondly, although stronger than steel, braid does not handle shock as well. You must use a rubber downrigger snubber when using braid to absorb the shock of suddenly stopping a heavy ball, or you stand a chance of popping the ball off.
The Scotty people recommend always using a rubber snubber anyway for wire or braid. Whether you use braid or wire cable there is another advantage to always using a rubber snubber as your cable to ball connection. If you are hugging the bottom with your troll andhang up, the rubber snubber will often bounce your downrigger ball free of a snag. Hanging up a downrigger ball can be an ugly experience, and even though you might eventually lose your downrigger ball, you’ll get to keep your cable and downrigger machine. Here’s the best part about switching to braid….there is absolutely no annoying hum. Braid is totally silent on the troll. Wire hums, and some days it flat out drove me crazy.
So if you are now sold on switching to braid here’s how to switch.
It’s really simple, but it works a whole lot better with two people. I wear heavy leather gloves to protect my hands in case the wire on my downriggers is frayed.
To remove your old wire cable from your downrigger switch your downrigger to the “release” position and start pulling the old wire cable off the downrigger spool. Make sure you wear heavy leather gloves as frayed wire can cause nasty, rusty, painful wounds.
Grab the wire and have your assistant put the downrigger clutch into the release or drop position and start pulling the wire off your spool.
Once you have it all pulled off, clip it off the downrigger spool arbor and properly dispose of it. Since it’s metal it can go into your recycling can, but if you let it lie loose it can be a deathly snare for birds, pets, marine life, and even more tragic – kids!
Take a moment and put your old wire in a trash or recycling bin! Properly dispose of old wire. It is a deadly snare that can kill wild life, fish and even pets if not disposed of properly. Since the wire is metal it can be recycled!
With the old wire off, its time to tie on your new braid to the arbor on your downrigger. Since braid is more limp than wire, I found it almost impossible to pass the end of the braid through the two small holes on the arbor. I finally passed a doubled-up piece of 30 pound mono through the top of the spool, slid the end of the braid through the mono loop, and pulled it through the arbor hole.
After cutting the old wire from your downrigger hub thread the new braid through the hub holes and tie it off.
Then it was easy to pass it back through the other small hole and tie it off inside the spool housing. When winding on your new braid and put as much pressure on the spool as you can as your partner hits the downrigger retrieve button or switch.
Wear your heavy leather gloves as the heat coming off the applied pressure can be really uncomfortable, even when wearing gloves.
Once wound on, tie your braid connection knot and attach your rubber snubber. I like the ANDY knot, and it’s a breeze to tie.
The ANDY Knot. Double up the braid into about a 10 to 12 inch loop.
Make another loop in the middle of the doubled up braid.
Stick your finger into the loop and twist it up three times
Then place the original loop through the loop at the end of the triple twist.
Then pull it up tight. This is a great connecting knot for all braid and mono lines, and it's super fast to tie!
Pass the loop through the eye of the snap swivel and around the entire snap swivel...
...and pull it up tight. Then slide the small rubber bumper down and on top of the snap swivel.
The next step you need to do on the water, because you need your downrigger to properly wind the braid onto the spool. If you are running 300 feet of cable get in slightly deeper water, attached your downrigger ball and drop it until you have just a few feet of line left on your downrigger spool.
Now hit the rewind switch and let your downrigger do its thing.
Once the ball is up you are set to go for several years.
One thing I must mention, and one of the features I love about my Scotty electrics is they have little plastic sensors that act as automatic line stops. As the cable is retrieved the line stop goes through a sensor ring and it automatically stops the retrieve of the cable when the line stop is sensed. You can adjust exactly where you want the retrieve to stop. I usually move mine so that my downrigger ball stops just under the surface of the water. I don’t want it swinging around out of the water and hitting my boat or snapping off. Remember I mentioned that braid is a smaller diameter than the old style wire. It is, and the old Scotty auto stop beads for wire won’t lock onto the thinner braid. The wire stops will not stay where you place them on braid. Scotty offers packs of their new red line stops made especially for braid. These are a must if you are using Scotty downriggers and braid. Just follow the grooves and thread them onto your braid exactly where you want the ball to stop on the upwards retrieve. The auto stop feature is virtually fool proof, and I can have a new angler comfortably using my Scotty’s in a few minutes of training.
The next major improvement is the style of downrigger ball you choose.
Some are round cannonballs, some are cast iron with a primitive fin, but my favorites are the pancake-shaped weights with the metal fin coming off the back.
The thin finned weights track well, but the round cannonball style weights often spin and twist, causing a terrible tangle when they do. Finding the finned pancake weights in the pounds I want (usually 10 to 15 pounds) is about as hard as finding chicken’s teeth. The guide up at Winter Harbour Resort actually resorted to making their own 15 pound finned weights.
I searched the internet and made calls, and was slightly embarrassed to find my good friend Doug Hays at Oregon Tackle up in Portland actually has a 13 pound finned downrigger weight in his product line.
Besides tracking well, the thin pancake weight has much less drag in the water than a round cannonball weight. Remember you want your downrigger weights as straight down as possible.
To wind your new braid onto your downrigger I recommend two people. Wearing heavy gloves apply maximum pressure to the spool of braid as your down rigger winds the new braid onto the hub. A small soft rubber bumper and a heavy duty snap swivel comes with the new braid, so once wound on pass the rubber bumper onto and up your braid a few feet. Then tie the connecting ANDY knot to the heavy duty downrigger snap swivel. It’s an easy knot to tie, and it works great!
Now comes another little trick I learned from the great guides up at Qualicum River’s Winter Harbour lodge. They take their pancake weights and bend the trailing fins slightly inward. This inwardly bent fin forces the downrigger ball further out and away from the boat, which widens your troll pattern and makes your baits visible to more fish.
Don’t have a big vise to bend the fin? No problem as the seam in a staircase will do just fine. Just slide down the fin and bend the weight slightly by hand. If you are trolling two downrigger balls make sure you bend the fins of each weight in opposite directions.
Just remember when you clip on your downrigger weight the bent fin must always be facing inwards towards the boat. If you reverse these finned weights both weights will track inwardly, and if fishing deep enough both lines, gear, weights and cables will tangle…under your boat.
This is an ugly event that should be avoided at all costs. If you are fishing in your boat make sure you take the responsibility of hooking up the finned weights to the correct sides of your boat.
Another great trick when trolling with the finned pancake weights is attaching your flashers to the fin rather than to your fishing line.
I love torturing Nick Amato, my friend, and editor of STS, and originally I discussed an article on this alone called “How to decorate your balls for more ocean salmon”.
I finally decided to let him off the hook. But I do strongly recommend decorating your downrigger weights for several reasons.
You get plenty of fish-attracting flash this way, but once hooked up there is no flasher drag while fighting your fish. I use two of the larger delta style flashers. For many years I used the Fish Flash flashers, or a KoneZone flasher. I have also used the Delta Tackle Flashers (out of B.C). They were the first ones to offer their flashers in a UV finish.
Lots of companies make the delta style flashers. On the left is the original Big Al’s Fish Flash, The Delta Tackle (B.C.) flasher, the GDF counter-rotational flasher, and a Konezone flasher. They all work just fine, but only GDF makes the traditional flasher with a counter-rotational roll and the new clockwise roll. All the other flashers on the market roll counterclockwise.
Last year the folks who make the Hot Spot flashers introduced a modified wing on their flasher and it spins at a slightly faster rate than the Fish Flash. I hook up a combination of two flashers off the fin, and this has worked great for me. I tried going to three of the larger flashers and it was too long, and it tangled with my downrigger cable and my downrigger clip on the drop. Also with the downriggers brought up while fighting a fish, the two flashers tuck in nicely behind the boat.
Using three flashers can present a tangle problem once your hooked fish gets near the boat. Late last season my creative friend Wayne Parker of Good Day Fishing ( GDF) in Salem, Oregon showed me his new prototype flashers and I immediately bummed a few from him.
The Fish Flash on the left has the typical bent fins that cause it to roll counterclockwise. GDF offers flashers that roll in both directions. Depending on troll direction to the sun’s position, having two flashers rolling in opposite directions consistently puts out more flash.
Three things intrigued me about his new delta style flashers. One is all his finishes were UV, and he offered a great selection of color combinations in the UV. The second thing he did differently was to put the reflective tape on both sides of his flashers.
On most flashers, the backside of the tape shows through the clear plastic blade of the flasher, and it is not nearly as reflective as the front side. But the most important difference for me was that Wayne offered the flashers in the traditional counter-clockwise roll, and also in his new clockwise roll. I instantly started combining the two flashers rolling in the opposite direction behind my downrigger weights, and I do believe the opposite rolls give me more constant flash depending on my troll direction relative to the sun’s position.
More flash means bringing more fish in close!
When trolling for ocean salmon, or trolling in general, you want your spread of lures or baits to cover as much water as possible.
If you have 4 or 5 anglers in your boat you can run one angler off a downrigger at 90 feet, stack another at 50 feet on the same downrigger cable, and stack the other side at 35 and 20 feet down. And you can still run one or two flat lines just below the surface for marauding Coho.
One of my favorite features on my Scotty electrics are the sensor stops that work with the auto retrieve system. Special line stops are positioned on the braid to stop your downrigger ball at a predetermined position. I usually like my weights to stop about a foot under the surface. As the cable is retrieved the sensor passed through a tube that senses it, and the downrigger automatically stops the rewind.
However, if you are just fishing one or two guys it’s impossible to run a good spread under current Oregon regulations. One of my constant annoyances with ODFW is their inability to understand the concept of allowing us to fish multiple rods per angler.
I have fished several tournaments in the Great Lakes and there 3 to 4 rods are allowed per angler. I would be more than happy to pay 25 bucks for a second ocean salmon rod, and $50 more for a third-rod license. ODFW would raise more money, and the ability to limit out sooner would lessen the environmental impact because boats would spend less time on the water.
Both Coho and Chinook are suckers for tuna!
Their inability to really grasp this is further flawed when I see a licensed commercial fisherman in a sport sized boat fishing the Tillamook jetty alone with 6 rods in the water. But it is what it is, and someday the nice folks at ODFW will catch up to us progressive-thinking folks.
In the meanwhile here’s a great trick to catch more big ocean Chinook while targeting Coho.
Flatlining for Coho just a few feet under the surface with plug cut herring is such a hoot, but enticing a few large Chinook up from the depths is always a bonus. Here’s a great way to do it without breaking any “one rod per angler” laws. Whether you are alone or with just one buddy I send one downrigger ball down to 50 or 60 feet trailing two large delta style flashers and leave the other downrigger at 25 to 35 feet.
The idea here is deep cruising Kings will see your deepest flashers and come up to investigate. Then they will see your mid-level flashers and come up closer to the surface. At that point they see your flashers or small dodgers in front of your subsurface plug cut baits and come to the top to attack your baits.
Last year my buddy Don Armstrong and I got 7 Chinook over 25 pounds, including a 34, 36 and 41 pound king, all on flat line plug cut baits running no more than 8 to 10 feet under the surface.
As much as I love to fish plug cut herring I don’t like fishing it much below 60 feet.
The old Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes said “when you throw a forward pass three things can happen and two of them are bad!” Well, when you fish plug cut baits way deep on downriggers, three things can happen and two of them are bad.
One, you can hook up, and that’s just wonderful!
Two, a fish can steal your bait and you might never notice it, so you spend an hour or so trolling around a bare hook.
Or lastly, they strike and tear up your bait, so instead of a sexy roll, you’re now trolling a herring that resembles a lump on your hook.
I do much better down deep with herring imitations. For years I fished Bait Buster lures down deep, and now I mostly fish the Brad’s Super Plug Cut lures. I load them up with Pro-Cure Super Gel in either the Herring, Anchovy or Squid flavors, and will often add just a drop of the Garlic Plus Super Gel or the Garlic Plus Oil.
I am excited to try the Bloody Tuna Gels and oils this season on my herring and herring imitations.
I hope this gives all of you downrigger aficionados a few insights into making your angling days more productive. I’ve always felt if you get one good idea or technique out of an article or book it’s worth the read. I hope I’ve accomplished at least that.
See you on the water.
- written by Phil Pirone (Owner of Pro-Cure Bait Scents)