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What is a Downrigger on a Boat? – Explained

Written by J. Harvey / Fact checked by S. Numbers

what is a downrigger on-a boat

Whenever people ask me, “What is a downrigger on a boat?”, I can’t help but feel a a little too enthusiastic. That’s because of my deep love of fishing and boating, hobbies in which a downrigger is used.

Boat downriggers are fishing tools characterized by their depth control functionality. They allow you to accurately adjust how deep or shallow you want to place your lure. Some even actively help to catch fish better.

Defining a Boat Downrigger


Using an electric downrigger is like always having a fishing buddy that helps you fish smarter rather than harder. It gives you the ability to position your lure precisely where you want in the water column and keep it there.

With this adjustability and accuracy, it’s entirely possible to deploy the bait right next to your potential catch every time you fish with a downrigger, which is what a standard downrigger is commonly used for.

Its main purpose is to help make life easy for every angler out there by enabling precise depth control when fishing from a boat. As such, it’s mostly found in a classic trolling boat, positioned and mounted on the back gunwales.

What kind of fishing enthusiast would say no to a higher success rate in catching fish found in deeper water like muskies, marlin, swordfish, brown trout, sturgeon, and kingfish, to cite a few?

Some downriggers, like those made by Scotty, are even designed to imitate fish movements to increase your chances of a bite from predatory species.

Moreover, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one downrigger deployed at a time. You can use multiple downriggers to cover various depths and, in turn, catch different species of fish. Just be sure you’re able to manage all those lines, though!

Downrigger Mechanism Explained


I’m going to use my Scotty downrigger to highlight how modern trolling downriggers work. If there’s one thing deserving of praise in my successful Great Lakes excursions, it’s this bad boy. It’s either Scotty or Cannon for most anglers.

Before we start, the biggest tip I can give you is that you need to get your downrigger set up properly because once you do, it will do most of the job for you. This is how fishing with downriggers usually goes:

  1. Prep work: this involves attaching the downrigger line and leader line to the weight (aka cannonball). The weight is the one primarily responsible for taking your bait to the desired depth.
  2. Set the lines: loosen the tension on the reel of your fishing rod and release enough line to trail behind the weight. Then, attach the leader line to the fishing line using the release clip.
  3. Securely place the fishing rod on your vessel’s rod holder. When using a downrigger that’s electrically powered, make sure you install stopper beads on the downrigger line, around six feet from the weight.
  4. You can then release the downrigger brake and lower the weight to your desired depth. Most downriggers come with a depth indicator, so be sure to monitor the exact depth from there and adjust accordingly.
  5. A good sign that you’ve achieved the intended depth is when the tips of the fishing rod are arcing downward.
  6. From here on, you can start trolling, which involves baiting fish with a moving boat. This is where the downrigger becomes useful, ensuring the bait will stay precisely where you placed it in the water column.
  7. Make adjustments by raising the brake to lower the rig or engaging the motor to raise it up.
  8. Each time a bite is received, the release clip is activated, causing the separation of the fishing line from the downrigger line. The option to manually release it is always available by pulling the rod toward oneself to open the clip
  9. The catch can be easily retrieved by engaging the auto-stop, which activates the motor to raise both the entire rig and weight. This process can then be repeated for more catch

With this brief explanation, the question ‘How do downriggers work?’ has essentially been fundamentally answered. There’s plenty of waiting involved, but on a good busy day, the fish find your bait irresistible.

If you want a more detailed breakdown, here’s how each component works:


  1. Cannonball (Weight) – The cannonball acts like an anchor, taking your bait to the depth your specific fish frequents.
  2. Boom Arm – Extends from the side of the boat to safely deploy the cannonball without hitting your vessel. It also sets the downrigger at the right angle, preventing tangles when using more than one downrigger.
  3. Winch – Stores the wire cable and is used to let out or reel in line. By doing so, the bait’s depth can be adjusted as well. Most come with a clutch that stops the downrigger if it snags.
  4. Release Clip – Attaches to the cannonball and holds the fishing line in place. Its tension can be adjusted to control when it releases the bait.

Some anglers use homemade clips with a snap link to prevent premature unclipping and improve visual indication of fish strikes.

Other downrigger accessories include power grips, weight hooks, terminal kits, stop bumpers, and swivel mounts, all of which help to ensure a successful fishing experience and deliver more convenience for the user.

For more tips on how to make the most out of your downrigger, please take the time to watch this video. I learned a ton of techniques that I still use to excellent results from it:

When to Use a Downrigger


While I’m definitely among the many who prefer to use a downrigger every time I want to go out fishing, there are definitely scenarios more ideal than the others for it.

For example, you’re basically only able to properly use it if you have total control over how deep you can position your bait in the water column. If you don’t, you might wanna consider another method to fish. If you do, downrigger is the way to go.

Additionally, if you’re struggling to catch deep-water fish, then a downrigger can be a real godsend. By trolling, you can catch tons of deep-water fish while also spare all the by-catches, preserving the local ecosystem.

Not everyone is a fan of trolling, though. But if you don’t mind the kind of “set and forget” (obviously, only up to a certain point!) nature of a downrigger setup, then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


I hope you are now properly informed about what is a downrigger on a boat with the help of the factual information I shared here.

It’s an implement most modern anglers depend on precisely because it’s a revolutionary invention that takes the hassle out of fishing, deep water, or otherwise.

There is simply no better alternative for lowering your lures and making sure they stay in place for as long as you need them to than downriggers.

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