downriggers to the average bass fisherman, and it's likely his face will contort, his eyes will squint, he'll throw his hands up high over his head, and he'll grumble something about "hating to troll."
That's understandable because downriggers and trolling are as synonymous as bass boats and bait casting. For the angler seeking to catch bass in areas seldom worked by average fishermen, however, the downrigger is a remarkably effective means to that watery end.
Simply stated, a savvy angler who knows how, where, and when to fish lures and baits deeply and precisely with the aid of downriggers will catch more and larger bass under certain conditions than will anglers employing other fishing methods.
It's important to understand that downriggers and trolling are not for everyone. Indeed, downriggers aren't a never-fail aid to livewells full of fat fish. The angler who looks at the downrigger as a simple, refined fishing tool that's part of a total arsenal of bass-catching techniques, however, will experience fewer fishless days afloat.
In its simplest form, a downrigger is merely a heavy weight attached to a line that is lowered to an exact depth that's specified at increments on the line. By attaching an angler's fishing line to the downrigger weight with a "release device," the lure or bait attached to the fishing line is delivered at precisely the depth the fisherman desires his lure to be worked.
Downriggers were first used by West Coast salmon fishermen and Great Lakes anglers who needed to get lures very deep to exacting depths. In recent years, downriggers have been employed extensively by striped bass anglers and by fishermen seeking other deep-living freshwater species such as walleyes, pike, and muskies.
Yet, to the bulk of the nation's bass fishermen the downrigger still is a foreign device, suspect for its trolling mandate and disdained for its awkward appearance hanging off the transom or gunnel of an otherwise built-for-show-and-speed bass boat. That's too bad, since the use of downriggers makes just as much sense for bass fishermen as it does for anglers seeking other species.
Although almost all downrigger anglers troll, the use of downriggers for bass fishing is far more versatile. Anywhere there is flowing water, for example, anglers can anchor "upcurrent" of a structure, set out lures or baits with downriggers, and "troll" the structure without moving the boat. This kind of fishing is deadly for fishermen working natural structure, such as deep points and channel dropoffs, and manmade objects, such as riprap, bulkheads, and bridges. Hotwater discharges and tailraces below dams are other places where downriggers can be used from an anchored position. Plugs, spoons, spinners, and other lures wiggle and wobble seductively when they're taken deep with downriggers in current. While at anchor you can easily fish live shiners, shad, even crayfish and earthworms with downriggers, too.
For the angler who dislikes trolling, downriggers likely are not for him, but to state that controlled-depth fishing is "boring" or requires less skill than casting is to misunderstand the refined tactics needed by downrigger trollers who consistently catch fish.
The deeper that bass are found, the more concentrated are their schools and the more difficult are they to catch. So, in no other kind of bass fishing is proper interpretation of structure needed more than when deep water is probed. In addition, the angler employing downriggers constantly must be aware of the slightest change in bottom contour and the presence and location of thermoclines. He must alter lure speeds with deft precision, and he must be acutely attuned to the preferences deep-living bass have for the lures and baits he's trolling.
Deep trollers should take careful note of water temperature and thermoclines. Any prime deep structures such as "humps," ridges, riprap, channel edges, etc. that occur at the same level as the lake's thermocline (easily seen on fathometers) likely will yield largemouths. The beauty of working such deep structures with downriggers is the exacting precision with which anglers can present baits and lures. There is no guesswork regarding lure presentation. The downrigger allows the lure to be positioned at the right depth and speed to entice strikes.
Suspended bass, even if they're not ultradeep, are most precisely targeted with downriggers. If a screen marks fish at 19 feet over a 30-foot ledge, for instance, a downrigger angler can easily, quickly, and precisely present lures to those fish.
Precision deep trolling with downriggers has tremendous applications for other bass species, too. Spotted and smallmouth bass that habitually hold deep along steep, rocky bluffs are suckers for downrigger trolling. Striped and white bass in open reservoir waters can present migraines for fishermen using standard casting techniques. Such fish are setups for deep-water structure searching, however, when downriggers are employed. Night trolling with downriggers is another whole new fishing method yet to be fully explored that should produce hefty catches of all bass species.
Many anglers who have a bundle of greenbacks wrapped up in modern bass boats cringe at the thought of installing downrigger paraphernalia on transoms, decks, and gunnels. Drilling holes in a bass boat's transom or stern deck for downrigger plates is a palm-sweating endeavor, especially for anglers who intend to sell their rig a year or two in the future. But in recent years downrigger companies have devised some remarkably ingenious installation systems that alter a boat's looks very little. Furthermore, downriggers can be installed and taken off a boat quickly.
Companies such as Walker, Cannon, Big Jon, Penn, and others market downriggers that can be rigged easily to any small skiff or bass boat without detracting from it's beauty. The downriggers I put on my Ranger, for example, simply required that I drill four, 1/4-inch holes through the boat's rear deck for each of two stainless-steel downrigger mounting plates. The holes are so small that they cannot be seen, as the boat's deck carpeting covers them. I used stainless steel bolts and nuts to prevent rusting. To ensure no water leaks through the deck into the boat's rear storage area, I coated the plate bolts with silicone sealant. The sealant also acts as a bolt lubricant when removing the plates when I sell the boat. When the plates are permanently removed, I'll fill the 1/4-inch holes with more sealant, which will make the rear compartment as watertight as when it came from the factory.
The 6-inch square stainless-steel deck plates rise only 1/4-inch above my boat's rear deck, so they're unobtrusive when the downriggers are not on the boat. The swivel bases for mounting my two downriggers can be installed in seconds by simply tightening two stainless-steel thumb screws that fit into the deck plates. In less than two minutes I can put the downriggers on or take them off.
Other downrigger "quick-fit" installation systems that work on small boats include those having special mounts that drop into oar locks and some with "screw clamp" mounts that tighten on the gunnel or transom. One of the best mounting systems is a downrigger base that has a long post that drops into a boat's built-in gunnel rod holder. Most large boats have such rod holders, and they can be installed easily on most fiberglass fishing boats (even in the transom or rear deck). When the downriggers are not in use, only the gunnel-level rod holder shows, with no plates or swivel bases evident.
For people who still dislike drilling holes in boat decks, gunnels, and transoms for rigging downriggers, they can do like my father, Tom. When rigging his bass boat for downriggers, he simply used a large 1-inch x 18-inch plywood board that was cut to the width of his boat. He fastened downriggers and rod holders to the board and quick-fitted it to his boat with "C-clamps" (available at hardware stores) whenever he needed it for trolling.
Refinements in downrigger use for bass anglers are many, and more are constantly being developed. For example, "scent pads" are available for downrigger balls. The fabric pads stick to the balls and absorb applied commercial "fish scents," which in turn attract bass to the lures trailing behind. For anglers trolling downriggers through deep weedbeds or similar cover, special banana-shape downrigger weights are available. These "bananas" resist fouling when brought through cover, unlike standard round downrigger balls.
Another consideration bass anglers must take into account is the length of downrigger arms used on small skiffs. If more than one downrigger is used, it's wise to have "arms" at least four feet long to keep lines well away from each other as well as away from the boat's motor.
Finally, downrigger bass fishing isn't for everyone. It's not an easy system to master, nor is it a lazy man's method of putting fish in the boat. There also are no guarantees that it always will produce bass. But under the right conditions, no system of fishing will better allow anglers to present lures and baits to bass, and that ultimately equates to more fish. That's all anyone can ask of a fishing system.