Getting down with downriggers

Trolling is a very effective way to catch fish of all kinds, but the deeper you have to go, the harder trolling becomes because of the need for more weights and longer lines to get down to where the fish are feeding.

I grew up on a Michigan island at the mouth of the Detroit River as it empties into Lake Erie. This is prime walleye country.

I don't know what it's like now, but back in the 1950s you fished for walleyes in the shipping channels, which got to 50 feet deep. Walleyes tend to stay near the bottom in that kind of water. If you don't fish deep, you come home skunked.

A steady 1.5-mph current moving through the channel complicates Detroit River walleye fishing even more. You can't anchor, because huge lake freighters pass through the channels, either chasing you out of the way, or swamping boats with their swell. Trolling was the only answer to keep from being done in by a laker.

In the 1940's an ingenious autoworker in Detroit figured out a way to fish those deep channels using a hand-line with a spring loaded trolling reel that uses coated wire line or lead core line, and a sinker weighing one pound or more to get down to the bottom.

The first Detroit River trolling reels were made from used springs from old hand-cranked phonographs. Later, it became a metal reel that sat upright, attached to a seat or the gunwale of the boat. Some of the first lures to be used with these hand-lines were the Flatfish and the Daredevil.

These trolling reels are mounted in the front of the boat and fishermen sit in the back seat, working the line by hand, bouncing the bottom as the motor keeps you moving at a slightly faster speed than the current. Typically, you use two leaders — one on the bottom 6-10 feet long, and another 3-4 feet higher, that could be 12-30 feet long.

You feel the fish when you lift the line on the upstroke. As long as you don't get a big northern or a musky on, bringing the fish in by hand is relatively easy, as the spring-loaded reel takes up the slack, so you can still steer the motor with your other hand and there's no pile of line to get tangled. Not much fight, but practical.

Vertical jigging and drifting for walleyes in those parts did not begin until the 1960s, the same time that Jon Emory was developing a new trolling technique for fishing for salmon and lake trout on Lake Michigan — the downrigger — which has revolutionized trolling.

A little like the next generation for a Detroit River hand line reel, a downrigger begins with a spool reel that typically holds 100 to 300 feet of wire line that feeds out through a 2- to 4-foot boom. On the end of the line is a heavy weight that can be lowered to a desired depth. Weights are typically 6 to 10 pounds but can be more if circumstances warrant.

With that weight, it means that you can go almost straight down, saving the need to let out a long line to get down to the desired depth. With heavy sinker and letting a lot of line out on a conventional rig, you might be able to troll with a downrigger to a depth of 60 feet. With a little adjustment, you can get downriggers to take you down to 200 to 300 feet.

The downrigger is mounted on the stern or sides of the boat near the transom. Now here's the big breakthrough. A lure or bait on a conventional rod is attached to the cable by a breakaway release clip.

Then you lower the weigh down with a crank, or electric motor, so that when you are down to the desired depth you can just let the rod sit in a holder. When a fish hits your lure, the fish breaks the release, and you are now fighting the fish without the encumbrance of a heavy weight that otherwise is required to get your bait down to where the fish are located. Finally, deep trolling without heavy sinkers and line, and close to the boat.

The other plus with modern downriggers is a foot counter located on the spool. This tells you exactly where your lure is. A downrigger with a counter and a good electronic fish finder is a deadly combination.

As word got out about downriggers, a west coast engineer and avid fisherman named Dick Pool got excited. Dick started experimenting with making his own downriggers, and ultimately in the 1960s became the U.S. distributor for the British Columbia-manufactured Scotty Downriggers, a position that he held until six years ago when he sold his distributorship and launched his own tackle company, Pro-Troll.

Through appearances at sportsmen's expos, Dick Pool has probably taught more people to fish with downriggers than anyone else alive. So, as we move into full swing for fishing season, this is the man to consult when it comes to catching fish by trolling with downriggers.

Dick Pool is not your average fisherman. He applies his background in engineering to producing quality fishing gear that is based on science. For years Dick experimented with different versions of downriggers (giving him a chance to also catch a lot of salmon, stripers, lake trout, etc. in the process).

Not content with trial and error, Dick invented an underwater camera system that he could send down with the downrigger and photograph fish to see how they responded to the offerings he was trolling.

This led to a host of new lures and methods, and two popular videos on using downriggers to catch salmon — "Salmon Attack" and Pacific Ocean Salmon Fishing" that have been seen by thousands of people.

Dick not only improved on the design of downriggers, but with his camera he came up with new and more effective baits, and ways to present them.

One thing they found, for example, is that most fish, especially salmon, trout and stripers, are more likely to come up to strike at lures than to go down, because these fish are hard-wired to always be looking above them for food.

So, as the water warms, they hang down where the temperature is more suitable, and then will dart up for passing food, or lures.

Dick has investigated the theory that fish bite best at certain water temperatures. In saltwater, for example, salmon that are not migrating to spawn prefer 56 to 57 degrees; which is also preferred by plankton and the baitfish that eat the plankton.

Find that temperature and its depth and you will find the fish. Downriggers help make sure that you are at the right depth.

Each species has a different favorite temperature range. In freshwater, as summer comes and the surface temperatures climb, trout and salmon head down. That means finding the thermocline, which is the layer of water between the warm surface waters and the colder depths, and fishing there.

Obviously depth finders and temperature reading equipment help determine where cold and warm waters meet. There are devices available to detect all of this and much more to fine tune your downrigger system.

One special area where Pool's engineering background has led to important advances in fishing success with the downrigger is in the study of electrical fields. It has been known for decades that most fish, especially sharks, have electroreceptors that sense subtle electrical fields. This is a special problem for aquariums where sharks are kept. They keep bumping into places in the walls where fields are strong and wear their snouts down.

According to Pool, every boat creates a subtle voltage around it, the "Battery Effect," which can be as strong as 1 volt. Any difference in metals below the waterline will create an electrical field around the boat. Boat manufacturers know this and they add a "sacrificial zinc anode" into the design, usually on the motor or outdrive, to reduce or eliminate corrosion.

Commercial fishermen have known this for 30-40 years. Now, recreational sport fishermen can not only adjust their electrical voltage around the boat, but they can use it to attract fish.

Dick says the field extends as much as 300 feet away from the boat, but the area where this is especially important is about 40 to 50 feet. If the voltage is wrong, it will drive fish away, however, if the voltage is within a certain "comfort zone," a downrigger steel line and boat that have the right electrical field around them will actually attract fish, rather than drive them away. So, how do you tinker with the field?

To adjust the voltage in a boat-downrigger circuit, Dick has invented a "Black Box" device, which runs about $120. For another $8.95 you can buy a book that is the ultimate guide to using the device to make your boat and fishing lines irresistible. Dick swears by the Black Box, and he has the pictures with lunkers to prove it.

Stripers, trout, salmon, walleyes, sharks, halibut, king mackerel, and marlin are among the fish that Dick and his pro staff have caught using downriggers. Each species requires slightly different adjustments for depth, water temperature, poundage for releases, etc.

Halibut, for example, hang out on sandy bottoms. Dick's research shows that you can actually drag your downrigger across the bottom to catch halibut. The dragging sends up clouds of dirt that attract the big flatties to investigate your bait.

Salmon, Dick finds, also can go really deep, beyond where most sport fishermen every try. He has used a special downrigger to get down to 500 feet in Monterey Bay to catch Chinooks when no one else is scoring. There is no other way to get down that deep and troll.

What I've shared in this brief article is just a taste of of the downrigger wisdom of Dick Pool. For more, Dick has written a 112-page book, "Downrigger Fishing Techniques," which you can purchase from Echipsales.com s," for $9.95. This is the all-time best-selling book on fishing with downriggers. Dick sells 5,000 to 10,000 copies a year.

You can pay anywhere from $100 for hand-crank model downrigger that you could put on a kayak or a rowboat, to $1,000 for an electrical unit that is connected with a depth finder and sonar system that automatically adjust the depth of your bait to account for sonar readings. If you are going to spend that kind of money to get into downriggers and black boxes, his book, "Black Box Techniques" is a must.

A leader in in the California and national sport fishing community, Dick Pool is now serving his third term on The Board of Directors of the American Sport Fishing Association. That is when he is not out fishing, or trying out new gear, or running Water4Fish, an organization that seeks to help restore the California salmon fishery by improving habitat for natural spawning salmon and steelhead.

In honor of his his lifelong work in fisheries conservation and leadership, in 2009 Dick Pool received two prestigious awards — The American Sportfishing Association's Norville Prosser Lifetime Achievement Award for extraordinary contributions to fisheries conservation and the enhancement of Sportfishing in America; and The International Gamefish Association's 2009 International Fisheries Conservation Award.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.