Please Release Me, 
Let Me Go!
or the Reel Low Down on Downrigger Releases 

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Downrigger Releases Done Right
By Capt. John King                                                                    MichiganSportsman Copyrightę2001.


OK, this is the business end of all your down rigging skills terminate, and the "reel fishing" begins.  Up to this point in time you might have spent a whole bunch of dough in the hopes that mechanical marvel called a downrigger springs life with a fish chewing on your well thought out presentation.  You've studied speed, colors, water temperature and the species you're after, now everything comes together.....or you so, you hope!  

Pandemonium best describes the moment when the first hit of the day happens, no matter how fast you move, it seems like slow motion as you rush to get the rod out of the rod holder.  Then tragedy strikes, as you come up empty and Mr. Fish has managed to escape and dislodge the magic lure you sent down to him.  So now, you're standing there looking stupid, knowing you were out witted by a fish, or at least that's the way I feel.  The trick here is, not to have this happen very often, cutting down on missed fish means the difference between a full box and a skimpy one.  Let's face the facts, we all like to go to the cleaning table with a respectable catch, not a fish or two.  By the way, the guys with only a fish or two are the quiet ones who don't usually have much to say.

Cutting Your Loses

First off, you've need to understand exactly what occurs when a Trout or Salmon attacks your bait.  Most fish that will actually strike have made their mind up some distance from the lure and will charge in with a slash and destroy attitude.  I've been able to come by this information from those who have the underwater StrikeVision TV cameras.  Once a fish feels the hook and not being able to swim free, a violent reaction takes place underwater with all the antics of a surface busting, twisting and freaked out Steelhead.  This is where you part company with the bait you've towing, and invite Mr. Fish to test your prowess with a fishing rod. 

Now, this is the moment of truth whether you'll in point of fact get a hook stuck in the fish's chops or miss the strike.  So, your release is called on to accomplish what you can't do from the surface.....hook the fish!  No matter how much yanking and reeling done initially from the surface, everything is taking place well below your boat.  In most cases you'll just be jerking on slack line, because of the additional belly of our line drifts back from water pressure, pulls your line away from the cannonball.  The deeper you fish, the more predominate this factor comes into play.  The idea is to hook the fish and not give him sore lips.

Important tip:  Every time you miss a hit, you've essentially taken your downrigger out of commission for about 5 minutes if you're fishing a 100 down.  That 5 minutes in the morning first light bite can never be regained.  You're better off with to stiff a release than to soft, that way if a fish missed the hook, your stuff is still down there fishing, not being reeled in and being reset.

Tension Builds in Choosing the Right Release

This is no simple task, believe me, because there's an almost limitless supply of down rigging releases to chose from.  I know, I've been treated more than fairly by the Off Release folks including Bruce De Shano and patent owner Mary Shaw, but I'll try not to making this a glorified advertisement for Off Shore Release.  I will discuss all the types of releases fairly, that I've used over the past 33 years of Great Lakes Salmon fishing.  No one release is perfect, and the way that I look at it, the "best" hasn't been invented yet.  Downriggers are a reasonably new invention to the fishing scene that serve a purpose to fish with lighter tackle and still get your lures down depths where the fins, scales and gills reside.

There's a tremendous difference between hooking 2 to 4 pound Cohos off Benton Harbor in April, compared to driving the barb into a 30 pound hard mouthed King in August, off Manistee.  Now, this creates a wide disparity in the releasing tension requirements on all over the counter release devices.  Compound this problem by throwing in the equation of 20 feet down, compared to a 120 feet and the consequence of have just the right hook setting power is vaulting a task for any product to accomplish.

The best bet here is; to being flexible and knowledgeable enough to be of top of ever changing conditions and "hook up" on a high percentage of bites.  How many times have you heard about the fishermen that had 20 strikes and only 3 fish to show for his efforts?  Simply put, if you had 14 strikes and boated 12 fish that could be considered a decent morning.  Now, if you've only had 7 strikes and still end up with a half a dozen that's still respectable enough at the cleaning table to keep your head held high.  I strive for a 90 percent "hook up ratio" for the return on my investment of; time spent on the water, any less I'm not happy.  This can be accomplished by having the right tension on your releases for the depth of water you're trolling in.

Depth vs. Pressure vs. Specie

This is a triple barrel dilemma, because each factor comes into play.  The importance of this trio is the key to success.  The deeper you fish, the more vertical pressures increases from the horizontal pull of the water on the line attached to the downrigger release.  I know it sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, but its not, it's just simple physics at work.  Now to simplify matters, the force exerted by depth of a 100 feet wants to pull the line out of the release.  When a fish grabs on a "too light" release for the job there's no hook setting power left to drive the hook deeply into your soon to be adversary.  The rule of thumb is the deeper your trolling the more snug the release has to be.

The type of fish you're targeting does affects the amount of tension desired.  Smaller fish like Walleye won't release a tough set strong release, so you'll have a hitch hiker you can drag all over the lake.  Decoys work when duck hunting, but towing a small fish generally will spook the aggressive fish from your trolling spread.

Lure selection makes a large impact on the pressure setting.  Say, we're fishing a hard pulling set of cowbells or a size "0" dodger.  These type of rigs generate one heck of a lot of drag on the release, straining it before your finned quarry even nibbles on it.

 Off Shore Release

Bruce DeShano a.k.a. Mr. Off Shore Release  started with Mueller 40 amp electrical clips by gluing rubber pads to them, and the pinch pad release was born.  The Mueller clips sufficed for a while, but there wasn't any way to increase or decrease the amount of tension.  Only by varying the depth of the line inserted into the release could you attain some degree of change in pressure.  This was Off Shore's first of many successful products launched.  I first saw the newer plastic releases at the 1983 Outdoorama held at the State Fair Grounds at 8 Mile and Woodward in Detroit when I met Larry Hartwick, who I still know to this day.

Off Shores major claim to fame is their ease of simplicity to use.  If you're a beginning or experienced Great Lakes fisherman you can't go wrong with the pinch pad release they offer.  This release is a "no brainer" fail safe device that performs flawlessly with no need of experience.  The gripping power of the standard OR-1 medium tension is just right for depths up to 60 feet for most people.  The material that grips the line won't fray your monofilament, even with repeated sets in the same place.

Money Saving Tip:  Buy the OR-2 Stacker Release and you can make 2 OR-1's at a savings of your hard earned cash.  Just use some spare downrigger cable for the attachment wire.  For the price of 2 crimping sleeves and a snap you'll save about 2 bucks a release.

Important Tip:  My philosophy is I don't care about the smaller fish that won't thrill my guests.  Smaller fish are box fillers, I strive not to miss the large fish and have my releases set as such.  I probably run some of the stiffest you can set.  I use the double spring OR-8, Salt Water Off Shores 90 percent of the time.  My releases can't be tripped from the boat, nor should they be, because if you run fixed sliders like I do, they'll just tangle and spin around the main line if you don't ride them up on the cannonball. 

Big Jon Releases

Over the years BJ has made many styles of releases to accompany their downrigger line.  The first one, I became acquainted with in the late 70's was the Big Jon Barrel Release.  This was a crude, but highly functional product.  It worked by running the line through a plastic or nylon ring or doughnut until the desired amount of lead was let out, then you spun the plastic ring about 5 times.  You then clipped it onto the barrel which had three different notches for differing tensions.  To simplify, it was a clip that snapped into a grove like a clevis pin on a trailer hitch.

Next was the BJ Free and Easy, this product consisted of a metal piston that snaps down after you spun the line around the piston about 5 or 6 times.  It was constructed out of a durable material called Lexan and performed well for me in the late 70's thru the early 80's.  The only problem with this release is after a while the little nylon tension button started to wear it was impossible to keep the release dialed in just right. 

The BJ Band Buster is the one they ship with the down rigger now and it works in conjunction with the Rubber Band part of this article.  The Band Buster is just a hook to grad the rubber band with, and BJ even ships you small assortment of band to chose from.

Walker Releases

In all honesty all of my experiences have been bad with Walker Releases.  However, both  Capt. Pete "Pedro" Ruboyianes and Capt. Dave Engles swear by them.  Both of these Captains live, eat and sleep tournament fishing and have won every major tourney in the state with Walkers, so I know they work.  The plan is for me to get them to explain to me the best way to set them up and use them, because my knowledge of this type of release is nonexistent. 

Rubber Bands

Rubber Bands have been used as a release for downriggers since riggers where invented.  The big deal with the bands is that they're cheap and reliable.  Offering a high percentage of bites vs. fish in the box. Keep in mind, no article would be complete with out the mention of bands. 

If you're still interested in gaining knowledge of rubber bands there's 2 sizes you'll be using.  First is a size 16 for smaller or spring fishing before the fish have reached adulthood.  Second is the size 32, which is for deeper trolling and larger fish.

To use bands you'll need to know the four basic ways of fixing to band to your line.  First one is most reliable and only requires a half hitch (back thru itself), then synch it down tightly.  To finish, half hitch it again and attach to a S hook or some other way to the cannon ball.    This way the line is locked down and when a fish breaks the band you'll have a small knot that in most cases will be left on your mono.

Second. is do a double hitch then synch it down, but this style might allow the band to slip on the fishing line.  If the line slips through the release when a fish tugs on it you're losing hook setting power. 

Third, is to wrap the line around your first 3 fingers three times.  Then do a half hitch with the rubber band around all 3 loops. 

Forth, way makes sure the rubber band falls off the line when the release is tripped is by wrapping the band around the line and stick the two loop ends into a S hook.

Hint:  Keep the rubber bands packaged up and out of the sun until you're ready to use them, because a little UV will hurt the breaking strength. 

Fishing lines

Any type of monofilament line you buy has to under go the constant abuse of a downrigger release, no matter what kind you use.  Using a low stretch hard surface trolling line like Ande is vastly superior to the limp casting type mono like Trilene XL, but Trilene XT does a great job id you can afford it.

The pound test fishing line your using can make a major difference if you choose to use a pinch pad release.  The pads will grip a lighter pound test harder than a heavier diameter line.  Also, use fresh new replacement pads for these of release, use super glue to bond the pad to the plastic part. 

The newer space age lines like Spider Wire, Gorilla Braid and Fire line belong on the diver rods in the summer, not your downrigger reels.  The lack of stretch actually works against you when you're targeting large summer King Salmon.


(1.)  Constantly inspect your line for weak spots, kinks or frays
(2.)  It's better to have a too hard set release, than a light one
(3.)  Use at least 25 or 30 test when fishing attractors, or you'll be going to the tackle store
(4.)  Buy replacement pads if you use pinch pad type releases and use them
(5.)  Use a stiffer release setting below lines below 50 feet to increase hook setting power
(6.)  Keep your rods snugged down hard as possible to the release, for less line belly
(7.)  Used fixed sliders only when fishing deeper that 50 feet
(8.)  Reel up the slack in the rod holder when a fish strikes, and you'll boat more fish
(9,)  Leave the power hook sets for TNN and ESPN TV Bass fishing shows
(10.) If you use rubber bands, keep the floor clean or they'll foul bilge pumps
(11.) Rubber bands are destroyed by UV, so store them out of direct sunlight 
(12.) ...............? 

This article was completed in 2001 by Capt. John King

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