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Downrigger Basics and Beyond

Fishing 411 TV

Mark Romanack

When it comes to Great Lakes trout and salmon fishing, the award for the ultimate in depth control fishing goes to the downrigger. Since the first crude downriggers were designed and built in the 1960’s depth control fishing has never been the same.

For those Fishing 411 TV fans who don’t fish downriggers regularly, the concept is simple and deadly effective. A downrigger deploys a heavy lead weight (cannonball) that is in turn attached to a fishing line via a line release mechanism. When a fish bites, the line is tripped from the line release and the angler is free to fight the fish without having weight on the line.

Downriggers make it possible to deploy a wide range of fishing tackle at almost any depth you can imagine. It’s no surprise that the downrigger quickly became the foundation that Great Lakes trolling was built upon. These days anglers use a host of other gear to get to depth, but the downrigger is just as critical to fishing success today as it was at the beginning of the Great Lakes trout and salmon fisheries.

Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 TV holds a magnificent brown trout that was caught thanks to the “bottom track” feature on the Cannon Optimum TS rigger pictured in the background. This unique feature allows the downrigger weight to raise and lower as the bottom depth changes, keeping lures in close proximity to the bottom. This feature is a game changer for anyone who fishing bottom loving species like brown trout, lake trout and walleye.


Successful fishing starts with a solid grasp of the fundamentals and in the case of downrigger fishing, that goes double. To provide the best depth control with downriggers it’s important to use a downrigger weight that is appropriate for the depth to be fished and the trolling speeds applied.

A downrigger weight of eight pounds is adequate for fishing depths up to about 50 feet and speeds approaching 2.5 MPH. A 10 pound weight will be required for fishing depths in the 50 to 75 foot depths. When faced with depths ranging from 75 to 100 feet, a 12 or 14 pound downrigger weight is needed. If you find yourself needing to fish deeper, a 16 to 20 pound downrigger weight will be required.

Rather than carrying a host of different downrigger weights on board, many anglers simply opt for using a heavier 14, 16 or even 20 pound weight that is suitable for a wide range of depths and trolling speeds.

Unfortunately, not all downriggers are capable of raising and lowering the larger size downrigger weights.


Every since the invention of downriggers, anglers have been working on designing better line release mechanisms. To function effectively, a line release must hold the line firmly enough that the weight can be deployed to the desired depth without the line popping free of the release while the line is being set. Secondly, the line release must provide enough resistance that when a fish is hooked, the line holds tight in the release long enough that the struggling fish is hooked firmly. Thirdly, the line release must be light enough tension that when a fish is hooked, the angler can grab the rod, pop the rod tip and trip the release smoothly and easily.

All that sounds simple enough, but most line releases fail at one or more of these important goals. The most common failure is that when the downrigger is deployed, it becomes very difficult to trip the line release to swap out lures.

A simple solution for this problem is something we call the “loop trick”. Instead of placing the line into the line release in a linear fashion, the a loop is formed in the line by wrapping the line over your index finger and spinning the line to create a few twists of line and a protruding loop.

The twists of line are placed into the line release and the loop is left extending beyond the pinch pads on the line release. This simple modification makes it super easy to trip the downrigger for switching out baits.

Because the twists of line provide more purchase for the pinch pad line release, false releases are not an issue. The loop trick also makes it possible to use a heavier tension line release that is more suitable for trolling gear that has a lot of resistance in the water such as rotators, dodgers, lake trolls, etc.

For decades the Fishing 411 TV crew has depended upon the Off Shore Tackle OR8 Heavy Tension Downrigger Release for all their downrigger fishing needs. The extra tension of this release is ideal for trolling heavy gear and when the loop trick is employed, the release is easy to trip even when fishing light gear like spoons or plugs.

The LCD screen on the Optimum TS downrigger provides critical trolling information including surface speed, surface temperature, water temperature at depth and also trolling speed at depth. By integrating with proven Fish Hawk technology, anglers enjoy all this data right on the downrigger.


The basic design of the typical downrigger hasn’t changed much in several decades. The Cannon Optimum TS however is not your typical electric downrigger.

The Optimum TS is integrated to provide a host of features not found in any other electric downrigger. For starters, the Optimum TS interfaces with the Fish Hawk X4D depth and speed probe, making it possible to see trolling speed at depth and water temperature at depth on the LCD readout located on the Optimum TS units. At a glance this LCD provides critical trolling information including surface temperature, surface speed, sub-surface temperature and sub-surface speed.

The Optimum TS has other critical features including “bottom track” a feature that allows the downrigger weight to raise and lower automatically as the bottom depth changes. The angler can set the Optimum TS to keep the downrigger weight any distance desired from the bottom. A transducer senses the depth and enables the rigger to raise the weight as the water gets more shallow and in turn to lower the weight as the depth increases.

The Optimum TS makes it possible for anglers to fish structure with precision never before possible with a downrigger. This feature alone is a game changer for anyone who targets structure loving species like lake trout, brown trout or walleye.

The Optimum TS can also be set up so the touch of one button raises all the downriggers on board in unison. Each rigger on board can be connected using wireless bluetooth technology. It’s also possible to set up the riggers so the weight cycles up and down in the water column at desired intervals. This unique feature has the ability to trigger strikes from fish that may be following, but not committing to a presentation.

Optimum TS riggers can also be set to raise and lower the downrigger weights at different speeds. The exceptional power of the Optimum can raise even heavy 20 pound weights at lightning fast speeds, saving valuable fishing time and putting more fish in the boat.

The author caught this exceptional Lake Ontario brown trout by using the “bottom track” feature on his Cannon Optimum TS downriggers. Imagine being able to keep that Silver Streak spoon two feet off bottom no matter how the bottom contour changes!


The downrigger isn’t exactly new technology, but the technology that controls how downriggers function certainly has taken a step into the future. The downrigger is the ultimate in depth control fishing and the Cannon Optimum TS takes that concept to a level no other rigger can match.

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