Downriggers and Outriggers for Fishing Boats

Downriggers on a Contender 35 ST center console boat. Photo: Contender Boats via Intrinsic Yacht & Ship.

Downriggers on a Contender 35 ST center console boat. Photo: Contender Boats via Intrinsic Yacht & Ship.

If you enjoy fishing and you own a boat, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about downriggers and outriggers. Anglers new to the sport may not understand just what these items are, how they’re used, and why you’d want them on your fishing boat in the first place. So let’s take a look at some of the basics about this fishing boat gear and how they are used by anglers to catch the species of fish they’re going after.

What Are Downriggers Used For On Boats?

When you are angling in deep water, a downrigger helps you to control the fishing line, and therefore you have more control of the fishing bait. A downrigger is a device that places the lure at deeper depths. It consists of three to fix foot horizontal poles which support a cannonball connected by a steel cable. They are made of five key components:

• The downrigger base
• A spool and line
• A boom (an extended arm)
• Cannonball or planer weights
• Release clips and terminal hardware

A downrigger’s base attaches to the gunwales of your boat, either via a bolted-on mount or a rod holder drop-in mount. Most bases can swivel on the mount or otherwise you can angle them so that the boom swings out over the water when you’re ready to deploy the downrigger. The spool holds either cable or solid braid line, usually ranging from 100- to 300-pound test. There’s a large clip for attaching a three- to 10-pound lead “cannonball” weight at the end of the line. Some anglers prefer to use a diving planer like a ZWing to take their lines down deep, rather than the lead weight. The final critical element of a downrigger is its release clips, used to hold the fishing line to the downrigger line until a fish strikes the lure or bait.

Downrigger Accessories

Downriggers have a number of accessories and features that can get more and more complex. Electric versions are available which reel up the downrigger line at the press of a button instead of winding by hand. Many offer line-counters, so you always know exactly how deep your cannonball is running. Many versions have rod holders, so you can sit your fishing rod right next to the downrigger as you troll.

Why Use Downriggers?

Downriggers allow you to troll a bait or lure down to and even over depths of 100 or so feet. This function makes them very popular on freshwater fishing boats used in the Great Lakes and other northern waterways, where species like lake trout are commonly caught from deep waters during the summer months. But they’re also used by saltwater anglers, commonly to troll sub-surface lures or baits for species like wahoo, tunas, and other pelagic fish that may hold at thermoclines deep beneath the ocean’s surface.

A major reason why anglers often prefer to use downriggers as opposed to merely adding more weight to their fishing lines is that once a fish strikes, the release clip holding the fishing line to the downrigger line pops free. From then on, the angler is able to fight the fish without any additional weight.

What Are Outriggers?

Outriggers are intended to spread lines out rather than send them down, so they don’t utilize extra weight and have one less major component than downriggers. Boat outriggers are poles made from aluminium, fiberglass. They are used for offshore fishing, which is known as the term trolling. Their function is to allow anglers to have multiple fishing lines on them, and prevent the lines from getting tangled together because they prevent lines. Outriggers are made of four essential components which include:

• Outrigger poles
• Outrigger bases
• Halyards
• Release clips

Outrigger poles are used on many types of saltwater fishing boats and can differ quite a bit, ranging from 12’ long poles for small center consoles up to 50-plus-foot-long versions for large convertible sportfishing yachts. Larger outrigger poles often get extra support from spreader arms and support cables. They require a lot of work to remove from the boat, while many smaller versions are telescopic so they can be collapsed prior to trailering a boat.

Outrigger bases are also quite diverse, with some designed to be mounted on a hardtop, others that fold out from the side of a cabin, and a few that mount directly onto the boat’s gunwales or drop into a rod holder base. At or near the outrigger’s base or along the gunwale, a small pulley or ring is usually installed for the outrigger’s halyards, which run up along the pole through a series of eyelets. Depending on the size of the outrigger, it may be able to support between one and three halyards. Each halyard has a release clip rigged in-line, which holds the fishing line in place until a fish strikes.

Outrigger Accessories

While there aren’t many accessories for outriggers, it’s common for outrigger systems to be set up in a custom fashion to match the fishing style of the owner and crew. They may have extra eyes and/or pulleys used to deploy dredges and teasers. Some have multiple angle and height adjustments, and some very large expensive models even have hydraulic systems that swing the poles off to the sides of the boat at the press of a button.

Why Use Outriggers On Your Boat?

Rather than try to make baits go deeper, outriggers spread your fishing lines out and hold them away from the boat and each other. After the outriggers are deployed an angler first pulls the halyard until the clip is within easy reach. Then it snaps in the fishing line, and pulls the halyard in the opposite direction, so the fishing line is suspended out away from the boat by the clip. When a fish strikes, the clip pops open, and the angler can fight the fish directly from the fishing rod tip.

Many anglers believe outriggers deliver another advantage. The momentary slack created in the fishing line when a clip pops open provides a period of “drop back,” allowing the gamefish to take a bait or lure it into its mouth before tension is applied to the line.

Does Your Boat Need Downriggers or Outriggers?

In some fisheries, downriggers would be considered quite advantageous. In some others, few anglers would head for the fishing grounds without outriggers. That said, there aren’t any fisheries you’re eliminated from if you don’t have these tools. You may not be able to troll lines 100 feet deep without downriggers, but you certainly can try jigging with spoons. And you may not be able to tow ten lines behind your boat without outriggers, but you certainly can deploy four or five.

That said, if you partake in a fishery where downriggers or outriggers are often employed, you’ll probably have a lot more success. We recommend  getting them for your boat and learning how to use them effectively. Just like your fishing rods and reels — and even the boat itself, these things exist because they fulfil their purpose: helping you catch more fish.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Does A Downrigger Do On A Boat?

A downrigger is a fishing apparatus on a fishing boat that is utilized to employ the trolling method of fishing, by placing a lure on a fishing line and lowering it to a desired depth below the surface so that it can be dragged (trolled) along behind the vessel.

Downriggers VS Outriggers: What’s The Difference?

Outriggers are long poles or antennas that extend out on either side off the rear of the boat (starboard and port) and pull (or troll) your lines, lures and bait behind you. Downriggers, on the other hand, extend beneath the boat. Outriggers are primarily used for surface lures in order to emulate a school of bait fish (great for pelagic species like Mahi and Billfish) and also help anglers to cover a wider path, as they spread out on either side of the vessel. Downriggers help to target deeper depths and cover a bigger column below the boat which helps place bait right in front of the nose of certain fish. For colder areas where the fish may swim a bit deeper below the surface, they can be vital.

Are Outriggers Worth It?

For many anglers who troll for certain species of fish (such as pelagics) nearshore or offshore, on a regular basis, outriggers are most certainly worth the cost since they are considered essential fishing gear to get the job done. For certain types of fishing and tournament competitions, they are absolutely vital.

Do You Need Outriggers To Troll?

Outriggers and downriggers are essential for any serious trolling however, if the vessel has multiple rod holders along the transom and rear starboard and port gunnels, many anglers successfully spread baits apart utilizing these holders and angling the rods out from the boat to drag the lures behind the vessel and keep the baits along the surface of the water. Trolling lines in this manner can work well for certain species, such as Yellowfin Tuna.

How Fast Can You Troll With Downriggers And Outriggers?

The most efficient trolling speed for downriggers and outriggers depends largely on the type of bait being used and the species of fish being targeted. One thing to consider is the different swimming speeds of common fish. While some of the fastest fish in the world can swim up to 60-70 MPH (such as swordfish and some species of tuna), other fish swim only a few miles per hour (such as cod, pike, carp and mackerel). Consider this when deciding on your most effective trolling speed.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld,, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.


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