Downriggers Fit for a King

Deliver baits and lures precisely in the stike zone.

This downrigger “cable” is actually monofilament, which won’t cut the line if a big kingfish wraps up.

Today you’ll find the majority of kingfish boats outfitted with a pair of downriggers, but as fishing accessories go, downriggers are relatively new to the Florida scene.

I vividly recall when the light first went on in my mind. It was the early 1980s, and set up with a pair of Cannon electric downriggers, we entered a Southern Kingfish Association Jacksonville First Coast Kingfish Tournament. Prior to the tournament, a thermocline had set in along the beaches of Northeast Florida, sending both baitfish and kingfish to deep water.

After a 40-mile run to an area of live bottom, we targeted a 6-foot ledge in 110 feet. My son, Terry David, rigged a pair of live cigar minnows to a double pogy kingfish leader and began lowering them deep with the first downrigger weight.

The Humminbird Chart-30 paper recorder marked a massive school of bait, from the ledge to midwater at 50 feet. Narrow marks on the graph indicated kingfish.

We dropped our baits to 50 feet, and within seconds angler Wilson Tennile was fighting a deep-running king mackerel. Five-minutes into our tournament day we gaffed a 45-pound kingfish and won the event.

Over the years, I’ve found the downrigger’s ability to repeatedly and precisely deploy baits at a certain depth unmatched. It’s a terrific asset not only to fishermen seeking kingfish, but also wahoo, tuna and occasional denizens of the depths such as sailfish and dolphin.

A large diving planer (in yellow), standard ball or fish-shape weight may be used to anchor the downrigger cable.

The king guys rack up incredible catches on downrigger baits, including the pending Mississippi record of 74.10 pounds, caught at an SKA event this fall (see Tournament Insider this month for details).

Part of this success story must be credited to the improvement of fishfinders, particularly the new high definition digital models. We can identify small ledges in 200 feet or more and more importantly, better identify where soft bottom meets hard bottom. Locating small ledges that hold blue runners, yellowtail and vermilion snapper that kingfish regularly feed on is hugely valuable. Kings (and other predators) hold on spots like this on a year-round basis.

Dishing line is twisted several times before placing it in the release clip; this maintains the desired distance behind the clip.

In many cases, kingfish anglers jig up a livewell full of blue runners at their targeted kingfish ledge, using size 10 to 14 sabiki bait catcher rigs, or 1-ounce diamond jigs. A small piece of cutbait or squid can be placed on the hook to attract more baitfish strikes.

Next, a live bait is rigged to a kingfish leader and sent down to a depth just a few feet above the schooling baitfish. A second downrigger is rigged with a live bait and sent down some 10 to 20 feet shallower. Baits are usually set back 20 to 40 feet from the release clip. The clearer the water, the longer the setback, as many downrigger fishermen feel that the downrigger weight tends to spook wary fish.

Large baits such as mature blue runner may be outfitted with one or more trailing hooks to catch short-striking kingfish.

Before placing the line into the release clip or pads, you twist it three or four times. For larger baits place the line farther back in the release clip pads, or in the case of the outrigger-style release, simply tighten the adjustment screw.

The rod is placed in the downrigger rod holder, or nearby gunnel rod holder, so when a strike occurs the fishing line does not tangle with the downrigger cable. Drag setting for tournament-style kingfishing is just light enough so that the line does not backlash, about one-pound. The reel clicker should be set so that a hooked kingfish can be heard.

Today, downrigger manufacturers design many products for saltwater applications, with corrosion-resistant electric motors, wiring, switches and other components. Some Florida guys still like the manual models, as they are light, easy to store and immune to electrical gremlins. However, electric downriggers are better suited for depths to 100 feet or more. With a flip of a switch the weight is retrieved automatically. Purchasing a cover for your electric downrigger to protect it from salt spray, or storing it in a locker, will extend the service life.

There are two methods of mounting downriggers. Most popular is a permanent mount, bolted through the top of the transom, or gunnel. A swivel mount allows for various positions of the downrigger for easy access and to afford a wider trolling spread. Rodholder gimbal mounts allow the downrigger to be easily removed and stored when not in use, while positioning the downrigger in a convenient location.

Tennis balls added to the cable to prevent hum.

Telescoping downrigger booms are an option, allowing for a wider spread of baits. King mackerel fishermen often attach a 100-foot length of 200-pound-test braided line, or 100-pound-test monofilament to the end of the cable to eliminate the hum caused by the wire passing through the water, which some think spooks fish. Another option is threading a tennis ball or large cork onto the cable.

King fishermen typically use a 5-pound round weight when downrigger baits are fished from just under the surface to 20 feet of water. Ten-pound fish-shaped weights are recommended when fishing deeper than 20 feet. The Z-Wing allows downrigger fishermen to troll lures and dead baits up to 8 knots while maintaining precise depth with minimal blowback in the downrigger cable. Typically, guys tow the Z-Wing on 200-pound-test braided line instead of cable, and use a No. 64 rubber band to tether the fishing line to the hole at the back of the Z Wing.

With traditional ball and fish-shaped downrigger weights, the most popular style of release is the outrigger style release, which is usually attached to the cable some three feet above the weight. The adjustment on the release can be set light for live baits, or heavier for lures and dead bait trolling. A safety pin-style release can be attached to the eye of the downrigger weight where the fishing line is placed between the rubber pads of the release clip.

"Stacker" release, with a snap and two pincers-one to hold the fishing line aft, the other to hold the cable at a selected depth.

Stacker release clips allow you to fish two lines off from the same downrigger cable. Here, the first bait is rigged to the weight and lowered to half the depth of water you are targeting. Next, a stacker clip is attached to the cable using a snap and release clip that is also attached to the cable to maintain its depth. Finally, a second line is placed in the remaining release clip on the stacker. The downrigger is lowered to the desired depth.

A final option, you can use the downrigger to sink a spoon or diving plug such as the Russelure, Mann’s Stretch 25+, Rapala CDMAG-18, MirrOlure 113 MR, Yo-Zuri Bonita or Sebile Acast Minnow. – FS

Fist Published Florida Sportsman Feb. 2010