Downrigging 101

Over the last 15 years it has been amazing to watch the rise in popularity of downrigging on saltwater rivers, creeks, bays and harbours, especially around Sydney. For those of you that aren’t familiar with this technique it is basically another way to present bait or lure to the depth that you want. It gives us the anglers, the opportunity to cover ground and choose the species to target.

Getting To Where The Fish Are

Rigged and ready to go - a down rigger set up in action.

Rigged and ready to go – a down rigger set up in action.

Downriggers are mounted to your boat or attached to your boat via a rod holder. They are basically winches that have a horizontal pole mounted to a plate that keeps everything away from the side of your boat. The winch is fitted with wire (or 200lb braid) and to the end of the wire we attach what is known as cannonballs, downrigger weights or in times before terrorism, bombs ( 4lb-15lb). Attached to the cannonball is a piece of braid and a clip. The pressure clip is where we pinch the line that has your lures or bait attached. Fitted to good quality downriggers are a depth counter so you know where your offerings are at all times.

The Rules Of Downrigging

Another flatty that fell to a bait presented by downrigger

Another flatty that fell to a bait presented by downrigger

Downrigging can be a pleasure to do or can be frustrating if you do things in the wrong way. The first rules of downrigging are, to know the depth of your chosen area, the direction of water flow and which is strongest, tidal movement or wind. When deploying your baits or lures it is important go with the strongest movement be it current or wind. If you try to deploy baits or lures across current or strong winds lines can become crossed, props can be found and they are just two of the ways to lose confidence. It is important when downrigging to have confidence in bait or lure presentation and to know that they are being presented to the strike zone.

Targeting Flathead

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A display of several different down rigger set ups.

For instance one of the easiest fish to catch is flathead. All you need is a hard bodied deep diving lure, your normal flathead fishing gear and an area that has sand preferably with a drop off. A typical scenario for me when trolling for flathead is to grab a lure that dives about 4m, let it out the back of the boat around 10m and attach it to the downrigger clip hanging off the cannonball. I then drop the cannon ball to 2 – 3m off the bottom and start my trolling at around 3 knots. It is necessary to “load up the rod” and by this I mean you wind the fishing reel with the rod in the rod holder until the rod has a big curve in it. This loading up of the rod is so that when a flathead hits your lure and rips it out of the clip the rod hooks the fish for you. Sometimes the areas that I do fish are quite muddy and can cause the lure to be pulled from the clip which can be frustrating, but there is an answer. The answer is to grab some a rubber band, pull it to tension it slightly. With a fingertip in one end of the band take the other end and wrap around your fishing line 7 times. Grab the loop from that end and feed through where your finger tip and pull tight. This loop that has now been created is then placed inside your clip and when the rod is loaded up again, there is some give in the set up and usually only a fish striking will break the band away from the clip. If it does still keep pulling out of the downrigger clip, change the clip over to a swivel and snap.

Fishing Current

This image shows the correct way to attach the rubber band to the line for release.

This image shows the correct way to attach the rubber band to the line for release.

In areas of strong current I head for drop offs and troll across the current. The lure churns up the sand as it darts and flashes along attracting as much attention as it can. Flathead being the ambush predators don’t take long to smash the lure once it has been seen. When targeting flathead it is important to travel with the current or across it. If you travel against the current you are approaching the fish from behind which will often scare more fish than you will catch. You also need to think about the cannonball weight and shape. There are different weights available and they vary from 8lb through to 15lb and vary in shape. The torpedo shaped weights are for areas with strong current and for those that are trolling fast for fast moving pelagic fish. The round shaped balls are best used when targeting bottom dwelling fish. The shape allows the weight to bounce off the reefs, sand and mud without damaging the downrigger by getting caught on the bottom.

Tuning And Adjustments

Flathead are a top fish to target while down rigging. This fine fish was caught from Peter's charter boat in Pittwater.

Flathead are a top fish to target while down rigging. This fine fish was caught from Peter’s charter boat in Pittwater.

For those of you that would like to know the size of the rubber bands that I use, they are size 16 and size 18. Both are quite strong bands and will allow you to load up the rod nicely. It is also important to have a lure that works at slow speeds. The vibration and flash are important when targeting flathead and as your confidence grows you can also play around with soft plastics and live baits. The great thing about starting off with a target like flathead is there is every chance that other predators will be encountered as well. You are always in with a chance to catch trevally, bream and jewfish depending on what you are using as you bait or lure.

The Basics Covered

As your confidence grows you will find yourself going out first part of the fishing trip and gathering a few flathead for dinner before moving on to target other species in no time at all. This month I have chosen the basics to help those that are just starting out downrigging. Next month we will move it up a notch and using the same set up explain how to target some of those wonderful gut straining, tackle smashing kingfish. So until next article get out there and experiment whilst catching flathead. Play around with drop back lengths off the clip and downrigger weight depths and weights. Downrigging is a very effective way to catch fish and be warned, it can be addictive.
Peter LeBlang

About Peter LeBlang

I have had a passion for fishing since the tender age of 3 when I caught my first mackerel with my father and grandfather. I never liked to eat fish back then and still don’t now! Since then I have been lucky enough to catch massive dogtooth tuna in Vanuatu, big Gt’s at Fiji, Barra, Mackerel, Jacks and Queenies at the top end of Australia just to mention a few. Now days I love to target and show people how to catch big kingfish, jewfish, snapper and flathead with a variety of techniques. My favourite fish to catch are kingfish using live bait on downriggers. I am lucky enough to be based on Pittwater in Sydney. I own and operate Harbour & Estuary Fishing Charters and this has led me into article writing and reporting for wonderful outlets such as Kaydo Fishing World. I also do fishing reports on radio for ABC Big Fish programme, 2CCC (Central Coast) on Saturday mornings. My biggest love in life are my kids, wife and family. Remember that fishing is only fishing when alone but when you can share it with someone, then it becomes an adventure. Peter.

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