Lake Michigan Downrigger Tricks

Downriggers are a basic tool for Great Lakes anglers, but there's a lot more to successful fishing than just attaching a cannonball and sending it down. Here are some tips to help you boat more fish.

By Capt. Mike Gnatkowski

Downriggers were invented on Lake Michigan. Manufacturers can trace their roots to Lake Michigan's fledgling salmon program back in the late 1960s and early '70s. Downriggers were the brainchild of industrious anglers fervent with coho fever who were experiencing the thrill of the first return of salmon to their planting sites, as well as the frustrations of not being able to catch them.

The early downrigger designs were nothing more than coffee cans filled with cement, with 10-foot increments marked along the string that the weight was lowered on. Releases were usually clothespins or something similar. The archaic downriggers were crude to say the least, but the devices planted a seed that evolved into what we know today as precision controlled-depth fishing.

There is a lot more to downrigger fishing than just attaching a cannonball and lowering it into the water. In fact, simple things like the weight, shape and color of the cannonball are factors that can contribute to your success, or lack of it.

Most anglers buy into the theory that cannonballs or downrigger weights need to be as unobtrusive as possible. Black or other dark-colored cannonballs become invisible or inconspicuous at depth. The addition of prism tape to the fin adds a little attraction to imitate a school of baitfish or feeding salmon. I have a friend though who swears by yellow or chartreuse cannonballs. He claims they attract fish into his spread. The number of fish he puts on the board every day would seem to lend some credence to that theory.

It's a good idea to run cannonballs that are all the same shape and weight. Finned weights tend to track in a straight line and prevent tangles. Round weights can spin. Cannonballs that wander or swing inside or over other weights on turns can produce massive tangles. Standard cannonballs weigh 8 pounds, but heavier weights can get lures deeper with less cable out and cut down on swayback when fishing deep. Most savvy charter captains use 10-, 12- or even 14-pound cannonballs to cut down on swayback and give truer depth readings. Obviously, the lighter the weight, the farther back it will travel behind the boat. This phenomenon increases with depth. With a light 8-pound cannonball and 100 feet of cable out, you may be only getting your lure down 60 feet. Replace that 8-pound weight with a 12-pound cannonball, and your lure may be reaching the 80-foot depths with the same 100 feet of cable out. Of course, how far your cannonball is down depends on trolling speed, too.

Downriggers are a great tool when big salmon are shadowing schools of baitfish. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Another advantage of using heavier cannonballs is the added resistance afforded by a heavier cannonball, which results in better hookups. When a fish grabs a trailing lure, starts shaking his head and begins to fall back, the weight swings or is pulled back by the fish, creating a pendulum effect. A heavier cannonball provides more resistance. A fish that hits a bait trolled behind a 12- or 14-pound weight encounters more resistance, resulting in better, more consistent hookups.

The most important link between your cannonball and the fish is your downrigger release. Releases come in a variety of styles. Many anglers prefer the pinch-pad type of release, like those manufactured by Offshore Tackle, Invader, Cannon and others. Mechanical releases, like those made by Big Jon and Roemer, are popular, too. The purpose of a downrigger release is to hold the line firmly until a fish strikes your lure and create enough resistance to hook the fish.

Releases that are adjustable give anglers more options. "I like Cannon's Uni-Release," said veteran Great Lakes skipper Mike Cnudde. "They're a pinch-pad type release, but you can adjust the tension on the pads by turning an adjustment dial. When the fish go deep, you can crank the release down tighter and get better hookups." Mechanical releases also feature tension screws that allow anglers to adjust the release tension depending on the depth and conditions.

One of the best and most consistent downrigger releases ever made is a No. 18 rubber band. Rubber bands are inexpensive, consistent and produce positive hookups. Rubber bands stretch when a fish grabs the lure instead of just "popping free" like when a conventional downrigger release is used. Hookups are sure and solid. The rubber band can be half-hitched on your line and then attached to a device made to hold rubber bands, like Big Jon's Band Buster, or you can slide it onto a large, open snap. Another option that I use is to lay the rubber band parallel to your line, wrap the rubber band around your line three or four times and then grab the loops at both ends of the rubber band and slide them onto the snap, which acts as your release. This effectively doubles the strength of your rubber band and produces sure hookups even when fish are deep.

Another trick I learned years ago is to add a 3-foot length of downrigger cable off your cannonball to act as a release. I use a Tru Trac Klincher on each end of the cable. One end is attached to the cannonball, the other I leave open to hold my rubber band release. When I take up the slack on the rod once the 'rigger is set, the cable and rubber band release are pulled slightly upward, higher than the cannonball. I like my rods to be torqued over as tight as possible with no slack in the line and the rod almost parallel to the water. That way, all the rods are in the same plane, they can be easily seen, there is little slack when a rod releases and a strike is instantly visible.

When a fish grabs a downrigger lure with this setup, the rod doesn't stand straight up with the line totally slack. Instead, the rod tip is usually jabbing toward the surface of the water. As the fish pulls the cable and rubber band downward instantly at the strike, usually you have the rod in your hands before the fish breaks the rubber band so you can really stick it to him, or you pop the rubber band release and drive the hook home. Either way, there is no slack in the line at any point. My hookup percentage with downriggers speaks for itself. The same rig can improve your hookup success when using pinch-pad releases, too.

Most successful captains have a trolling pattern that they set when using downriggers. The idea is to create a productive trolling pattern and minimize tangles. Generally, the deeper downriggers are in the center and set progressively shallower to the outside of the spread. As a rule, the deeper the 'rigger, the shorter the length of lead from cannonball to lure; the shallower the 'rigger, the longer the lead. Nothing is set in stone. Spoons can be set as close as 5 feet apart on downriggers. It is wise to keep dodgers and flashers no closer than 10 feet apart.

Sliders or stacks add to the productivity of any trolling spread. Sliders can be either fixed or free. I never use free sliders. If my downriggers are working at 50 or 60 feet, I don't want my sliders running at 25 or 30 feet like they do if they are allowed to freely find their own depth at the bow in the line. I want them down there where the fish are active!

I usually fix my sliders 5 feet above the cannonball and bottom lure by using Legendary Tackle's Elberta Clip'r. The Clip'r holds my lure securely, comes on and off quickly, and creates resistance that helps me hook fish that hit the sliders. For more information on the Elberta Clip'r, contact Legendary Tackle at or call (231) 223-7790. By running my sliders 5 feet above my bottom lures, if I have my downriggers set at 60, 50 and 40 feet I also have lures at 55, 45 and 35 feet when I'm using sliders. That's an effective trolling pattern.

Speed is the most important element in downrigger fishing. Two things determine how your lures are acting far below the surface - length of lead and trolling speed. The shorter the length of lead, the more animated your lures will be. The longer the lead, the faster you need to troll to get the same action out of your lures.

There are numerous devices on the market designed to give accurate trolling speeds both on the surface and at your cannonball. They can be a tremendous aid in getting the trolling speed just right. But spend enough time on the water and you'll soon find that there are visual clues that can give you a good idea of the proper trolling speed. Look at the angle on the downrigger cables and the number of bubbles coming off them. The bend in your diver rods is another clue. If your divers are laid back, lazy with just a slight bend, you're probably going too slow. If your divers are torqued over and line is creeping off the reel, you might want to back off a little. In general though, if you think you're going fast, go faster. You'll cover more water.

* * *

With lead-core line, in-line planers, wire divers and other tactics all the rage these days, anglers forget just how productive downriggers can be. Try these tricks, and downriggers will again be a mainstay in your arsenal.

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