BoatGear: Installing Downriggers
Written by Tom Greenberg - Team Experience Outdoors   
Saturday, 13 January 2007 03:55
No matter what the size or age of your boat, downriggers and rod holders are essential tools for the trolling angler.  Downriggers and rod holders really get a lot of use (and sometimes abuse)…so make sure yours are up to the job.   Buy the best quality products your budget will allow because good quality gear will be working long after the great deal you got on cheap stuff is forgotten.  Once you’ve purchased your equipment, proper placement, mounting and wiring will insure that you get years of trouble-free service from your trolling gear.


When installing downriggers and rod holders on your boat, flexibility of use is a big consideration.  Can you adapt your equipment to suit your different fishing needs?  Rigging for salmon or steelhead trolling is often different from walleye setups…and what about fishing for perch or crappies?  Fishing single-handed may require a different configuration too.  A properly configured boat can adapt to all of those different uses as needed.  Consider a track-based system for maximum flexibility allowing you to rearrange the placement of rod holders and downriggers to suit your needs.  Track systems also make it easy to remove them completely for different fishing formats, storage, trailering, or security reasons.

Before installing any piece of equipment on a boat, always spend some time playing with placement and positioning.  It may help to make mockups or cardboard cutouts that you can move around to try out different locations.  And try to imagine what it will be like to actually fish with things mounted in those positions.  Do you have a clear shot to get to the equipment?  Can you get a rod out of its rod holder? Is there room to net a fish?  Is there a way to get power to the downriggers?   How long do the downrigger booms need to be to clear the boat?  Is everything mounted at a convenient height?  If you have an outboard motor, can you still tilt it all the way up without hitting anything?  Is all the gear outboard of the cockpit so you don’t run into it moving around?  Your original ideas may not work for some reason…something in the way, the mounting area is too small, not enough clearance, can’t get access to the area underneath for wiring and thru-bolting, etc. Try to be flexible in your planning, sometimes you have to get creative, but there is usually a good mounting solution for every boat.

In the rest of this article, I’m going to concentrate on installing downriggers.  Much of this info is applicable to rod holders too, but we’ll cover those in more depth in an upcoming article.


Downriggers must be solidly mounted to prevent damage to your boat or potentially losing a downrigger overboard.  Always install your downriggers by thru-bolting them and make sure you use backing plates or large washers to spread the load.  A downrigger’s long extended arm with a heavy cannonball on it is basically a big lever that can exert a tremendous amount of destructive force to your boat.   Downriggers bouncing from the wave action, or bouncing going down the road on a trailer can cause your boat gunwales to flex, bend and crack.  Whether they are hard mounted to the boat, mounted on swivel bases, or part of a track-based fishing system, downriggers mountings need to be properly supported and reinforced to prevent stress cracks and failures.  I can’t say it enough times…always thru-bolt things like downriggers and use backing plates…never use self-tapping screws! 

Also, make sure you carefully seal all holes you drill in your boat.  I use 3M 4200 (not quite as permanent as the 5200) to seal every hole I drill.  It’s a cheap and easy way to prevent against water intrusion that may cause delamination or rot to wood cores embedded in the gunwales.  If your boat is fiberglass; make sure you use a chamfer bit to bevel the edges of the holes, otherwise eventually you will get spider cracks in the gelcoat radiating from each screw hole.

ImageIf you don’t want to permanently mount your downriggers, a good mounting alternative is gimbal mounts that slide into recessed rod holders in the gunwales of your boat.  You can mount your downriggers directly to the gimbal mount, or to a track attached to the gimbal.  Gimbal mounts have the advantage of making your fishing equipment removable.  This can be really helpful, especially if you need to remove your equipment for security or storage reasons. If your boat does double duty as a family cruiser or skiboat gimbal mounts may be the solution for you.  Even if you have a limited mounting area, by creatively using vertical (90º) recessed rod holders in tight spaces or narrow gunwales, you can still mount your fishing equipment on gimbal mounts. With gimbal mounts, the built-in rod holders in your gunwales are taking the brunt of the load.  As with permanently mounted downriggers, make sure your recessed rod holders are reinforced and securely thru-bolted.  Don’t assume anything…crawl under there and look for yourself!

ImageYou may find that you can’t mount your downriggers permanently or with gimbal mounts because of the design of your boat.  In that case, another installation alternative is rail mounting.  In the past, rail mounts had a bad reputation for slipping, rotating and gouging your rails, but a properly designed rail mount can be a very effective solution to an installation problem.  Rail mounts can hold individual downrigger bases (swivel or fixed) or track systems. A trolling bar can span across 2 rail-mounted tracks to give a secure mounting location for your downriggers. They can also be a great way to mount rod holders on hardtops, radar arches, or handrails.  Again make sure that your rails are properly installed, visually check, if possible, to make sure they are thru-bolted and backed.

A few last thoughts on mounting…

When considering mounting locations, always make sure that you allow enough clearance around your downrigger for it to swivel (assuming it’s on a swivel base).  

Do you need to mount any additional rod holders nearby?  Being able to clear rods out of the way by moving them to other holders can be a huge advantage when netting a fish. 

Raising the downriggers off the gunwales on taller swivel bases can really help the fishablility of a low-gunwaled boat.  Anything that gets the downriggers up into a more convenient position to access them is helpful. 

O.K.  We’ve finally got our downriggers mounted where we want them.  They are accessible, solidly mounted and we’re ready to go fishing, right?  Not so fast…we have some wiring to do first!


Ever wonder why some downriggers seem to run so slow?  Proper wiring is essential to get the best performance out of your riggers.  Always use the correct gauge of wire for the length of the run.  As they said in Star Trek, resistance is futile.  Well actually, resistance is inevitable…and the smaller the wire gauge (size) the more resistance you have.

To keep your downriggers humming at their maximum speed, keep the wire leads from the downriggers as short as possible; because most downriggers come factory-wired with fairly small gauge wire.  One great way to accomplish that is by mounting a terminal block (also called a buss bar) in the transom area near the downriggers.  Then you can wire each downrigger to the buss bar; from the buss bar you run large gauge wire to the battery.  Some downriggers have circuit breakers built in, if yours don’t, make sure you fuse the individual downrigger runs between downrigger and buss bar, or better yet, use inline circuit breakers.

ImageWhen mounting buss bars, make sure they are securely mounted to the boat’s transom or another appropriate surface (I like to use 3M 5200 for a permanent bond) and that they are well protected from water.  Make sure that the mounting location is above any possible standing water (like bilges, splash wells or drain areas), and that it is mounted away from potential spray from washdown hoses.  Remember, electricity and water don’t mix!  Use insulated wire connectors to insure that no shorting can occur; and then put heat shrink tubing over the joint where the wire enters the connector for an even better seal.  Cover the whole buss bar assembly with a removable cover, or use a waterproof grease to coat the buss bar terminals. 

If your downriggers are permanently mounted on your boat (and aren’t designed to be removable for storage or trailering), you should hardwire your downriggers to the buss bar.  If possible, try to route the wire of your downrigger down through the center of mounting base or the swivel base.  If you can’t route the wiring down the center, you may be able to drill a hole in the side of the swivel base (depending on the base design) and route the wire in that way.  If you do that, make sure you leave enough wire outside to allow the downrigger to swivel or tilt up.  Routing the wiring through the base will give you a nice clean installation with no wires hanging loose in the cockpit.

ImageIf you want your downriggers to be removable, install flush mounted twist-lock electrical connectors.  These will make it easy to pull your downriggers off the boat while still insuring a secure electrical connection.  That way you have no dangling wires getting in the way and nothing to get wet and cause failures.  I recommend using the Marinco twist-locks that are designed for electric trolling motors.  They’re a little costly, but they will last for the life of your boat.

ImageOnce you’ve installed your buss bar and wired the downriggers to it, it’s time to wire the buss bar to the battery.  Make sure you use heavy gauge wire for this run!  Depending on the length of the run, you should use at least 10 gauge wire, on a longer run I recommend using 6 gauge wire (a lower gauge number means larger diameter wire).  This stuff isn’t cheap, but it will make your riggers scream.  Always wire directly from the buss bar to the battery terminals.  If you are running the wire through the engine compartment or bilge, make sure that you fasten the wire with cable clamps every 18-24".  There is no need to fuse this run, because the individual downriggers are fused or have circuit breakers. 

Remember that choosing quality electrical materials is very important.  Make sure you don’t use automotive wire; it won’t hold up in the marine environment.  Always use marine grade wire and connectors to prevent corrosion.   Also make sure you use heat-shrink tubing where appropriate to prevent shorting and protect your connections.  A little attention to detail now goes a long way toward eliminating problems in the future.

Now that the wiring is done, let’s talk about batteries for a minute.  Hopefully you have two batteries with a battery selector switch installed on your boat.  The downriggers will draw quite a bit of current and should be wired to the “house” battery to prevent discharging your starting battery.  If you only have a single battery, make sure the engine’s alternator is capable of keeping it charged as you troll.  For those that don’t have two batteries, we’ll cover installation of a second battery, a battery selector switch, and an AC-powered battery charger in an upcoming article.

You made it!  You are ready to hit the water with downriggers that will really hum.  Having downriggers that are properly positioned and mounted, and paying careful attention to wiring details, will make your trolling time more efficient and productive.

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