Get Down For Salmon

The downrigger is one of the most valuable salmon-fishing tools ever developed, but most anglers fail to get the most out of their 'riggers. Here are some suggestions to make your downrigger fishing more successful.

Downriggers are especially effective at taking baits and lures down to where big Chinook salmon are often found.
Photo by Terry Rudnick

Salmon were hugging the bottom, no doubt about it. Depthsounders sometimes mislead, but they seldom lie, and ours was showing plenty of fish in the lower 10 to 15 feet of the water column and only an occasional mark above that. The fish we were hooking and landing told the same story. We had a pair of 6- to 7-pound Chinook in the fish box and had released three or four smaller ones, and all bore the scrapes and scratches along the sides of their heads that indicated they had been rooting in the sand and gravel to feed on candlefish.

Acting on that evidence, fishing partner Clyde Revord and I were doing things the same way as anglers in a half-dozen other boats around us: slow-trolling fresh herring baits 20 to 30 feet behind downrigger balls that were all but bouncing along the bottom.

Friends in a nearby boat hooked what appeared to be a large fish, so we raised our rigs a couple of feet, shifted the motor out of gear and coasted past them, shooting several photos of their success from a few yards away.

As Clyde stepped back to kick the motor into gear, he let out a yell, and I turned to see my trolling rod bucking up and down wildly in the rod holder. My line had already released from the downrigger gear, and the reel started chattering like a berserk squirrel. Something powerful was headed for parts unknown.

I dropped my camera, wrestled the rod out of the holder and hung on as the fish peeled nearly 100 yards of line off the reel in its first run, then rolled on the surface for several seconds in a nearly successful attempt to give me a heart attack. We could see then that it was a Chinook much larger than the two we had in the box, but it was at least 10 minutes more before we coaxed it close enough to net, swung it aboard, and admired the 16-pounder. It may not have been a trophy, but the big salmon was enough to take bragging rights for that day among the group I was fishing with, and that was good enough for me.

The downrigger has, over the past 30 years or so, become one of the most important tools of all among West Coast salmon anglers. It allows them to fish baits and lures at greater depths, more easily, than any method developed before or since its arrival on the salmon scene. Besides allowing anglers to troll as deep as they want, downriggers also provide a sort of trolling "accuracy" at all depths that can be every bit as important to fishing success. Its effectiveness and ease of use are why you see 'riggers on tens of thousands of recreational salmon boats from the central California coast to the Bering Sea.

Some of those salmon anglers, though, get to know their downrigger's abilities and use them to their advantage much better than other anglers do. It needn't be so.

The downrigger is really a very simple machine based on a simple principle. It's a large spool connected to a boom with a pulley or roller on the end. The spool is loaded with 200 to 400 feet of wire, and at the end of the wire is a 10- to 15-pound weight. Attach a fishing line to the wire by means of a release device and send it down to any depth you desire. When a fish strikes, the line pulls away from the release and you have a direct connection to your fish without any cumbersome weight between you and that streak of silver at the end of your line.

Although simple in design, today's downriggers allow anglers to practice sophisticated trolling strategies. Used in conjunction with other modern-day fishing aids, the right tackle, basic knowledge of your quarry and some old-fashioned angling savvy, downriggers can make all the difference between a great day of salmon fishing and just another day on the water.

CHOOSING A DOWNRIGGER

If you're not already a downrigger fisherman but are thinking about becoming one, your trips down the tackle store isles and forays through the pages of mail-order catalogs will turn up three or four well-known brand names, each with numerous styles and a variety of options. Shop carefully and ask lots of questions to help you get the 'rigger that best suits your fishing needs. Options to consider include such things as boom length, spool capacity, manual or electric operation, swivel or solid-mount bases, digital or mechanical line counters, attached or separate rod holders, variations in line-retrieval speed and many more. Such things as size and style of your boat, number of rods you normally fish, where, when and how you like to troll and, of course, the size of your fishing budget all play a part in your decision.

I can't begin to guess what brand, style and combination of options is best suited to your needs, but I will suggest that you go with an electric if you can afford it. The price difference between a manual downrigger and an electric of similar quality is substantial, but you'll fish more effectively with an electric. Successful downrigger trolling is often a game of constant activity and experimentation on the angler's part, and you'll play the game better and longer if it doesn't wear you out. An angler is more likely to adjust fishing depths as needed or bring up rigs to check baits and clear hooks of debris if it's a quick and easy chore, and an electric downrigger makes it much easier. If it's too much work to move your rig up and down, you'll soon get lazy about making the little adjustments that catch more salmon.

What's more, the auto-retrieve feature on most electric downriggers lets you think about playing and landing hooked fish while the 'rigger handles getting the wire line and lead ball up and out of the way. If you've ever fought a hot fish with one hand while winding up the downrigger ball with the other, you know that it's multi-tasking at its most challenging!

MATCHED COMPONENTS

Something else for the beginning downrigger fisherman to keep in mind, especially if he's equipping a boat with all the necessary gadgets for successful salmon fishing, is that a decent depthsounder is a virtual must for productive downrigger fishing. Sure, you can troll around at various depths and eventually stumble onto fish, but if you let your electronics be your underwater eyes, you'll have your bait or lure at the right depth most of the time, not just occasionally. If you monitor -- and trust -- your depthsounder, you'll know when to raise or lower your rig into the strike zone, spot baitfish and underwater structure that attract salmon, and even detect rock piles or ledges before they have a chance to grab your downrigger weight and eat your tackle. Various transducers are available for all depthsounder models, and you'll want to use one w

ith a fairly wide cone angle so that you can watch your downrigger ball to be sure your bait or lure is where you want it to be.

WATCHING YOUR DEPTH

You should have enough confidence in your depthsounder to believe what it tells you, but you might not want to have the same faith in your downrigger's line counter. Sure, most of these devices are accurate, but even a precise line counter tells you only how much wire line is gone from the spool, and that doesn't necessarily translate into how far down your bait or lure is running. The number on the line counter probably includes three or four feet of wire between the spool and the end of the boom and the three or four feet of wire between the boom and the water's surface. There's a 6- to 8-foot discrepancy between what the line counter registers and your actual lure depth -- and that doesn't begin to account for depth you're losing if you're trolling against a strong current and your downrigger ball isn't hanging straight down at a 90-degree angle to the water's surface. If your bait is riding higher in the water than your downrigger ball, as it often will, you lose a little more depth.

Consider all these factors and it's easy to see that you may be fishing 15 or 20 feet closer to the surface than your line counter says you are. That depth difference could make a huge difference in whether the fish you're seeing on your depthsounder are getting a chance to see what you're offering them. Keep all these variables in mind and make the proper adjustments to actually fish the depths you want to fish.

RIGGING HIGH IN THE WATER COLUMN

While they're called "downriggers" for good reason, making them especially useful for the husky Chinook salmon we often find at substantial depths, anglers shouldn't overlook the downrigger as a valuable tool for catching coho and other salmon species found closer to the surface.

A downrigger will allow you to fish your bait or lure at exactly the same depth all day long, or to adjust that depth by fathoms, feet, even inches, if necessary. Other trolling methods don't allow that kind of accuracy and consistency, and it can be as useful in shallow water as in deep water.

To illustrate that point, several years ago I was on a coastal salmon trip with a couple of friends. Near an offshore rock pile we started marking fish about 35 feet down, and concluded they were likely coho salmon. The boat was equipped with a pair of downriggers, and I was invited to use one, but I declined, opting instead to fish an in-line diver to take my plug-cut herring to the magic depth. Each of my friends snapped their lines to one of the downrigger releases and lowered their rigs until both line counters showed 33 feet.

The line on the port side popped free of the release within 30 seconds, and the starboard line released seconds later as the rod was being lifted from the holder to get it out of the way of the first fish. Five minutes later we had a pair of shiny, eight-pound silvers in the box. The daily salmon limit at that place and time was three fish, and within a half-hour both of my partners had scored limits, while I was still trying to zero in on the magic depth with my less-accurate system. I finally scored with my first salmon about the time my partners each boated their third fish.

Since they were done for the day, I quickly snapped my line into one of the downrigger releases, lowered to 33 feet, and caught my second and third salmon in short order. I came home convinced that there are times when fishing precisely the right depth can make all the difference, and we couldn't have accomplished that precision without downriggers.

TWO LINES ON ONE DOWNRIGGER

In case you're wondering why I didn't snap into one of the downrigger lines earlier, part of it was stubbornness and part of it was the fact that each 'rigger was equipped with a single release, which allows only one line to be fished on it. So-called "stacking" of two or more releases on the same line allows anglers to fish more than one fishing line on a single downrigger.

Besides allowing more than one angler to get his line into the depths, stacking allows for fishing at various depths at the same time. If you have only one downrigger but are marking salmon at, say, 60 to 90 feet, you can run one line down to 85 feet, another at 65, and greatly increase you chances of hooking up. A word of caution on stacking, though: Don't stack the releases too close together or you'll have a huge mess of tangled lines on your hands.

All the various kinds of downrigger releases allow you to increase or decrease the amount of tension required to pop the line out of the release. As a general rule, setting the release tighter results in more hooked fish. The tighter tension allows deeper hook penetration before the line slips from the release and also cuts down on "false releases" that may occur when fishing in rough water or into strong current.

Keeping your hooks needle-sharp will also result in more solid hook-ups when trolling with downriggers. Check hook points every time you bring your bait or lure to the boat, and don't be shy about using your hook file often. Sharp hooks make a big difference no matter what salmon-fishing method you're using, but they are especially important in downrigger fishing where you may be running long lines and are counting on getting a solid hook-set on the initial strike. That strike may likely be the only chance you get.

OTHER EQUIPMENT

Your choice of rod, reel and line also can play an important part in your salmon-fishing success with a downrigger. Today's revolving-spool reels offer the line capacity, gear ratios, line control and other advantages that make them good choices for downrigger fishing.

Many salmon anglers still fill their reels with monofilament, but a growing number of them are switching to braided line for most of their downrigger fishing. The high-tech braids available now are much more expensive than monofilament, but their low stretch can make a big difference in the number of strikes, resulting in fish that are hooked and landed. Braided lines also are much smaller in diameter than mono of the same test, which reduces line drag and "belly" in the line.

As for rods, most successful salmon trollers prefer a long, soft-action stick for use with downriggers. A downrigger rod should be at least 8 1/2 feet long; some anglers like 9-footers or even longer. A slow-taper rod that "gives" all the way from the fore grip to the tip is much better than a fast-taper rod. Many salmon fishermen find that fiberglass rods suit their downrigger-fishing needs better than graphite.

Fishing tackle isn't the only equipment you need to pack into your boat before the start of salmon season. Remember to carry extra downrigger weights, extra wire, connector sleeves, snaps, snubbers, crimping pliers and anything else that will allow you to make downrigger repairs and adjustments on the water. There's nothing worse than locating a bunch of eager biters, figuring out the combination that works, then snapping off a downrigger ball or suffering some other equipment failure that renders you helpless in getting your bait or lure into the strike zone. Buy extra hardware and the necessary repair tools and keep them together in a safe place on the boat.

Thousands of West Coast salmon anglers are using downriggers to their advantage, but only a small number of them are using this important piece of equipment to its full advantage. Use a downrigger the way it should be used and you might join that elite 10 percent of salmon anglers who catch 90 percent of the fish.

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