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Hawaiian live-baiting: Why and how to use downriggers for big game

By BY DONNELL TATE, Harbor Report - | Sep 24, 2020

Running one bait deep and one on the surface is less trouble than having two live baits up on top. You don’t have to worry about what the two baits are doing back there to get tangled. 

Downriggers also get the maximum life out of your baits. If you have a weak bait that is not swimming well, putting it down will usually revive it. Maybe it is the colder water down deep. Or maybe on the surface it has to swim harder to keep its head down. 

The best argument of all for using downriggers is you get a better survival rate for marlin you want to release. Maybe it is the way they take the bait or the amount of drop-back, but they seem to get hooked inside the mouth most of the time. You end up having to fight the fish a bit more at the end, but they look good when the time comes to let them go.

Here are some details of how successful fishermen use downriggers to catch marlin, tuna and other offshore gamefish on live bait.

Teases and Releases

Use a rubber band as your release mechanism, attaching it to a snap swivel on a short leash running from the ball. Use a ball with a fin to keep it tracking correctly. Test the rubber band by stretching it to its elastic limit. Breaking the weaker ones in your hand will avoid lots of false strikes.

There is also the double-duty system, combining a rubber band with a mechanical release as a backup in case the rubber band decides to hang tough. If using an Aftco, Black’s or Rupp release clip, set the wire spring just tight enough to hold the band and the bait. 

The rubber-jawed, plastic spring clips release too easily. The jaws open at an angle, like an alligator’s jaw. If the holding surfaces were parallel, they might work better.   

Whenever your bait releases from the clip, always play it like there is a fish after it. You don’t want to take the bait away if the fish just dropped it. Of course, if a marlin is really hot, there is no way you can take it away from them.

Down and Flirty

How far down you place your bait depends on what you are fishing for and what you see on the recorder. Remember that the eyes of marlin and other gamefish are set to look up to search for food, so it is probably better to keep your bait above them. 

Be careful to avoid confused fish. When you are running a bait at 20 fathoms, remember that a marlin can see the surface bait from there. Some fish will eat the downrigger bait and then come up to take the surface bait.

When fishing for ahi, get the bottom bait up fast if a tuna hits the top one. After a yellowfin tuna hits the surface bait, it dives right down and tangles with the deep line.

You don’t need to use a lot of drop-back. The natural configuration of the line as it curves down to the ball seems to provide enough.

As you feed the line out as you lower the ball, the line goes out a little faster than the ball does. That automatically draws the line back into a little bit of belly.

By the time the line comes tight to the rod tip, the marlin usually has the bait down anyway.

You don’t need a lot of delay in feeding the bait, whether at the surface or in the depths. Go with just the drop-back and allow the time to transfer the rod from the holder to the gimbal.

Strike the fish when the line comes tight rather than feeding them longer. Your hookup rate will go up, and you won’t gut-hook as many fish. 

Fishing live bait on a downrigger is a slow-moving process that covers very little territory.

You can present more baits to more fish by moving with the current — two knots of over-water movement plus a two-knot current can take you 30 or 40 miles in a fishing day.

Even so, it takes a lot of faith in any method to keep fishing in places with no indication of fish or baitfish. Therefore, most downrigger fishermen stay with signs of life.

The downrigger is still another way to get a fish when standard methods aren’t working.