Plumbing the depths
  |  First Published: March 2011

Around 7am we pulled up on a popular reef off the Gold Coast. We were keen to try for a Spanish mackerel so had forgone the early morning bite period to try to catch some live bait that we intended to troll slowly.

We run two large live wells on our charter boat, RU4REEL, and they both had a good number of live slimy mackerel swimming around in them. We felt quietly confident even though the prime bite time was already over.

The fact that a few of the other boats were starting to head home didn’t deter us and two live baits were deployed on the surface as far back as the boat traffic would allow.

The third livie was let out, clipped onto the downrigger ball and slowly dropped to 30’ while I was kicking the big Steber in and out of gear. As Scott walked across to get the final bait out, the rod in the downrigger holder gave a buck and line started screaming off the reel.

Scott’s father, Bob, grabbed the rod and a good size landed a good Spanish mackerel after a spirited fight – that was a good start!

The baits were set again and this time a surface bait was hammered. As Scott leant over to pick up the rod, one of the downrigger rods also went off.

It was the start of a hectic two hours in which we landed four Spaniards, six spotted mackerel and a cobia, with a few lost fish and missed bites added to the mayhem.

All but two of the fish came on the downriggers.

It was an eye-opener for me just how effective they could be when used in the correct way and in the correct place.


A downrigger is similar to an outrigger, in that it places your bait or lure where you want, it away from the other baits or lures. An outrigger lifts your bait up to the surface and out of the propeller bubble trail into clearer water.

A downrigger simply drops your bait to the depth of your choice and when a fish grabs the lure or bait, your line pulls out of the release clip and you’re able to fight your fish weight free and unhindered.

It is a very simple method of fishing yet is often construed as being something very complicated.

The downrigger ball is there only to get your bait down to where the fish are and as the fish strikes it pulls the line out of the release clip, freeing your line to fight the fish.

Downriggers were originally used in large lakes to target trout and salmon but eventually found their way to the saltwater.

In fresh or salt, they can get your bait down to exactly where you want it, whether trolling or at anchor. A downrigger equipped with a depth counter eliminates guessing where your lure or bait is.

A downrigger consists of a large reel loaded with wire connected to a lead weight, often a ball, which features a short length of attached to a line-release clip.

To downrig a bait or lure you start by letting it out behind the moving boat. Drop-back is not a major factor but you can work on a basic rule that the shallower you fish, the more dropback you should use.

Place the rod in a rod holder (many downriggers have one attached) and put the reel in free spool with the ratchet engaged. If it is a spin reel then simply back off the drag until it is quite loose.

Take the line and pop it into the downrigger clip.

Downrigger clips come in various forms and often have variable tensions.

If you are trolling a lure or a rigged bait that you want the fish to hook itself on, you will need a bit more tension on the clip.

Alternatively, if you want the fish to move off with the bait first, like live-baiting for marlin, you will want only just enough tension on the clip to hold the bait.

Once you have the line in the clip you need to lower the ball progressively while controlling the line coming off the reel.

This takes a bit of practice and the initial start-up can yank the line off your reel with a sudden jolt. I apply a bit of finger pressure to the reel spool to ensure that I don’t get a tangle.

Once the bait is at the desired depth, tension the line up so that there is a bit of a bend in the rod and set your drag accordingly. You are now ready to catch a fish.


From snapper to marlin, you can catch just about anything on a downrigger and their uses are not limited to offshore fishing. On our charter boat we predominantly use them for pelagic species like mackerel, cobia, marlin, and yellowtail kingfish but snapper, various tunas and a variety of reef fish have been quite a respectable by-catch.

We always use a downrigger when we want to get baits or lures down deeper in the water column. This decision is often spurred on by the fact that we can we can see fish showing up on the sounder but they refuse to come up and eat off the surface.

The downrigger offers a very natural presentation and can also often tempt fish that refuse a similar bait that seems unnatural to them up shallower.

While other boats around us have been struggling to get a bite off the bottom using conventional methods we have caught numerous snapper on downrigged live baits intended for other fish,

Downriggers can also be used in harbours, bays and estuaries when strong current makes it exceptionally difficult to get baits to the bottom.

The fishery for big Sydney kingfish relies heavily on downriggers to present live squid and fish down deep. Pittwater and Sydney harbour are downrigging hot spots.

The Southport Seaway has some excellent structure in deep water, yet fishing it with live or dead baits can be a challenge at the best of times. One can anchor upstream of the structure and clip a bait to a downrigger ball and let it down to where the fish are holding. As soon as the fish grabs the bait, the line releases and you are able to fight your fish.


You can fish just about anything off a downrigger at anchor, on the drift or trolling. For example, you can use live bait, hard minnows, skirted lures or rigged dead baits – pretty much whatever you would conventionally troll on the surface can be trolled from a downrigger.

Our charter boat uses Cannon downriggers in close conjunction with Humminbird sounders. If your transducer is mounted on the transom you can clearly see the downrigger ball on the sounder, so it can simply be a case of adjusting the ball depth to the depth you are marking fish on your sounder.

If you can’t see the ball, change your depth increments to feet to give you the same depth as your downrigger or, alternatively, roughly convert from metres to feet by multiplying the metres by three.

Cannon also have a feature on their Mag 20 DT TS models that allows the downrigger to communicate with select Humminbird sounders. This means the electric downrigger can automatically raise or drop the ball so that the bait or lure travels at a set distance from the bottom. The ball never gets snagged and the lure or bait is always in the strike zone.

An increase in trolling speed causes the downrigger ball to blow back, due to water resistance. This drag will cause your rigs to run shallower the faster you go.

To overcome this to a certain degree, upsize the ball weight or let out more wire to compensate for the bow in the line.

Downrigging is a technique that can catch you a lot of fish when others fail to produce.

It is not the be-all and end-all of fishing techniques and, as with everything, will not always produce fish. But it may well be worth the effort and you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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