Downrigging 101: What Is a Downrigger?

Using a downrigger doesn’t only maximize your time out of the water, it also increases your fishing productivity. But what is a downrigger exactly? It’s a fishing device that lowers your fishing line through the water column and keeps it at the desired depth.

Here’s a closer, in-depth look at this fishing gear, when to use it, and why it’s a must-have for every fisherman. 

Downrigger: What Is It?

A downrigger is commonly used when salmon fishing or trolling in deep water.  It consists of a downrigger line, cannonball or downrigger weight, release arm, release clips, boom arm, crank, and a rod holder

These components work together in ensuring that your bait is kept at the desired depth, and not drifting upwards away from the fish. Once a fish bites, the clip will release the fishing line from your downrigger and you can reel your catch as you normally would.

It also has two mounting options — clamp-on and permanent mounting. 

  • Clamp-on: This type of mount has clamps so you have the downrigger on the gunwale without damaging the boat. It is compact and removable, making it a great choice for beginner anglers or for those who rent boats or kayaks for fishing. 
  • Fixed Mounts: On the other hand, fixed mounts require drilling. Since it is permanently attached to the boat, it is sturdier and can’t be isn’t easily yanked out. 

Tip: You can have multiple setups to increase your chances of catching fish, especially when you are fishing for bottom-dwelling species like lake trout and salmon. 

What Are the Types of Downriggers

There are two types of downriggers – manual and electric. A manual downrigger, as its name suggests, requires you to manually lower or raise the bait using a hand-operated crank. On the other hand, electric downriggers feature an advanced mechanism that allows faster and effortless retrieval and release. It also has a brake or clutch.  

Here is a closer look at these two types of downriggers. 

Manual Downriggers

Scotty #1073DP Laketroller Manual Downrigger, Post Mount, Display Packed BLACK, Small

A manual downrigger like this Scotty downrigger requires you to use a hand-operated crank to lower and retrieve the bait. It is often used on smaller boats because it is lighter and doesn’t require drilling.


  • Easy to use; no learning curve
  • Fast, drill-free installation
  • Relatively inexpensive compared to electric counterparts


  • Tedious to use, especially when using heavier weights
  • Slower retrieval and lowering of the weight

Electric Downriggers

Cannon Optimum 10 TS (Tournament Series) Electric Downrigger

This type of downrigger like the Cannon electric downrigger does most of the work for you. It is equipped with an advanced mechanism and features like automatic retrieval. Some of the best electric downriggers even have depth presets and bottom tracking. 


  • Perfect to use when lone fishing
  • Weight retrieval is convenient, often just one push of a button
  • Some downriggers have depth presets and automatic options


  • They are costly
  • Use batteries
  • More maintenance is necessary

Downrigger Components

As mentioned earlier, this device has different components working together in ensuring your bait stays at the depth where your target fish are. Here is a closer at each of these parts. 

Cannonball or Flash Weight

Cannon 2295182 Flash Weight, 8-Pound

You cannot talk about downriggers without flash weights. A cannonball weight makes it possible to take the bait down to your desired level. Some companies even make cannonballs attractive to keep the fish coming your way.

Cannonballs weigh differently, usually between 5lbs to 15lbs. However, you can use a heavier flash weight in deeper waters, about 60 ft.

Above that, cannonballs rely on transducers and depth counters to determine how far into the water they should go.

Release Clips

Scotty #1181 Mini Power Grip Plus Line Release, 18-Inch Leader w/ Cannonball Snap

Release clips have snap links attached to the cannonball. The same snap link connects to a crimped wire joined to a tensioned clip. The clip holds the line in the rod of the downrigger.

Most come with different tension settings for versatility. For instance, if your bait has more resistance, increasing the release clip’s resistance ensures that it does not release the bait before the intended time.

Bomb Cable Attachment

This is an important component of a downrigger. It attaches the downrigger cable to the cannonball. It needs to be strong enough to handle the flash weight’s size and the water currents.

Most anglers use heavy steel (stainless) or durable plastic for the bomb cable attachment. Regardless of the material you choose, make it a habit to check the cable connection before trolling with a downrigger. 

Boom Arm / Telescopic Boom 

The boom arm offers the necessary extension to keep the stainless steel cable away from touching the rear of your boat. Moreover, maintains a safe distance from the rod’s line to avoid tangles. This component typically has a telescopic design for flexibility to extend or shorten the arm and for easier storing. 

Braid or Steel Cable

Scotty #1000 Premium Stainless Steel Replacement Downrigger Cable 200-Foot Spool

When you go shopping for a downrigger, you will most likely get one with a standard stainless cable. However, most anglers choose to replace the cable with a heavy braid. 

A steel cable is sturdier and won’t break easily. Unfortunately, this type of cable is noisier in strong currents and costly to replace. In addition, the cable causes damage to the boat or downrigger if the downrigger lacks an automatic brake release.

On the other hand, braid cables are lighter, more affordable to replace, and can easily break away. However, they are not as durable as steel cables.

How Does a Downrigger Work

Now that you know what is a downrigger, it’s time to find out how it works.

A downrigger has a downrigger cable that holds a 10-pound weight cannonball (or more). A release clip is then attached to the weight, while the other end holds the fishing line. You then place your rod into the dedicated rod holder.

As you lower the weight either by using the hand crank or pushing the lower button of an electric downrigger, the fishing line also goes down. By referring to the line counter of the downrigger, you can determine how much of the cable is in the water and to what depth. 

When a fish bites, the clip will release the fishing line, and then you can take the rod out of the holder and reel the catch in. Again, you can either use the hand crank or push a button to retrieve the weight. 

When Do You Use a Downrigger

You use a downrigger when targeting bottom-dwelling fish such as: 

  • Groupers
  • King mackerels
  • Amberjacks
  • Cobia
  • Walleyes
  • Trout
  • Salmon

The Low Down on Downriggers 

Many new and inexperienced anglers wonder “What is a downrigger?” If you are one of them, a downrigger is a fishing gear that uses a weighted downrigger ball so you can fish at a specific depth and prevent lures like spoons from drifting upwards to the surface of the water.