Spread ‘Em Out: A Guide to Adding Outriggers to Your Boat

Photo by Joey Manansala

Adding a set of outriggers to any boat will increase the number of strikes by accomplishing two basic tasks: adding width to the trolling spread, and allowing the captain to troll more baits. Experienced crews typically troll seven or more lines when targeting yellowfin or albacore tuna in the Northeast. There is no way such a feat could be accomplished without those outriggers.
Outriggers are standard equipment on larger sportfishing boats, but they are becoming more common on offshore-capable center consoles. Perhaps the biggest advantage of using them is the added width they provide to a trolling spread. Most 26-foot boats have a beam of less than 10 feet. Try to run six lines from the rod holders and you will quickly build a bird’s nest. If you put a set of 18-foot outriggers on that same boat, you now have a width of nearly 40 feet to work with. You can run two lines in each rigger, two flat lines, and one shotgun straight down the middle of the spread.

Choosing Outriggers

To choose the right set of outriggers, consider the type of fishing you do most and what suits your boat best. There is a set of outriggers available to suit any boat capable of making the journey to the canyons, even smaller boats and center consoles. Some time ago, outrigger manufacturers realized that smaller boats need specially designed sets of outriggers and most offer various setups to suit any boat or application.

outrigger rollers
Deluxe carbon fiber outriggers by Gemlux (left) use rollers that swivel around the shaft for smoother-running halyards. Most aluminum outriggers (right) rely on simple eyelets.

Look at the design of your boat to choose the best setup. Outriggers can be mounted to a center console’s T-top with corresponding handles underneath. When not in use, these riggers lock in place, pointing directly at the stern. To set them out, the operator simply unlocks the outriggers and turns the handles to point them perpendicular to the boat. Depending on the materials used to build the boat and how thick the surface is where you plan to mount the outriggers, a reinforcing plate might be necessary.

When outfitting a boat, it is best to consult an outrigger manufacturer or experienced boatyard before mounting anything. Having a professional walk you through the process will save you time and money in the long run.

The length of the rigger pole to use depends largely on the size of the boat and number of halyards you plan to fish. Typically, boats from 26 to 30 feet use riggers from 18 to 30 feet in length.

outrigger clips
Outrigger clips come in two basic styles: roller (left) and wire-bail (right). Note the mark drilled into the tension-adjustment wheel on the roller-style clip. This index mark allows for quick resets of custom tension settings.

Most center consoles are equipped with telescoping outriggers, a feature that lets you retract the poles to about a third of their extended length for storage, trailering, bridge clearance or docking.

Most outriggers are aluminum, but several companies now offer poles made from carbon fiber, which is lighter and stiffer than aluminum. The stiffness minimizes whipping action in rough seas, which may yank lures and baits, spoiling their actions while trolling.

Carbon-fiber poles cost much more than equivalent aluminum models, and the composite material is susceptible to UV damage, so it’s important to protect carbon-fiber outriggers from the sun and would-be thieves by removing them from the boat between trips. (Nearly all outriggers feature quick-release mechanisms that allow you to easily remove the poles.)

Rigging Your ‘Riggers

Once you decide on the type of outrigger, you need to set them up with halyards, pulleys, and release clips. The halyard, also known as the outrigger line, runs in a loop up through the eyelets on the outrigger and through a pulley or a glass ring held just off the gunwale. Most riggers hold two halyards, one for the long rigger bait and the other for the short rigger bait.

outrigger roller
One way to add rollers to your outriggers is by attaching blocks to the rigger’s eyes with 1/32-inch messenger line tied with multiple half-hitches set with cyanoacrylate glue.

For smoother action when running the lines up and down, some anglers prefer rollers over eyelets along the length of the outriggers. This is especially useful when trolling high-drag offerings like spreader bars or big baits. Gemlux offers carbon-fiber outriggers with integrated rollers, or you can replace the simple eyes with roller blocks using a kit from an outrigger manufacturer. Turning blocks can be added without drilling the outrigger tube—epoxy-lined vinyl heat-shrink tubing protects the anodizing, and stainless-steel safety wires secure the blocks in position. Remember, if you switch to a low-friction halyard system, you will have to invest in halyard locks to stop the lines from creeping out of position, as the friction of a traditional glass ring just won’t be effective.

heatshrink tube turning blocks
Another way to add turning blocks without drilling the outrigger tube is by securing them with stainless steel wire over epoxy-lined vinyl heat- shrink tubing.

When rigging your outrigger halyards, make the lines extra-long, as they can always be shortened, but they can never be lengthened. There are many ways to connect the halyards to the outrigger clips, one of the most common being snap-swivels, which permit an easy change-out of a damaged release clip. I prefer to use stainless-steel split rings like I have on my tuna jigs. They are stronger and shorter than snap-swivels, and allow the clip to get about an inch and a quarter closer to the stop point way inside all those inches of outrigger tube I invested in. With split-ring pliers aboard, changing a damaged clip is not a problem.

Outrigger release clips are available in a wide range of styles. They use adjustable tension to allow the running line to break free from the halyard when a gamefish latches onto the lure or bait. I had good luck many years ago with wooden clothespins supplemented with #10 rubber bands, but there’s no need to get that primitive for good results.

The basic decision is whether you want your trolling line to run over a wire bail, much like a conventional rod’s guide, or over a true roller, as it does on a roller-guide-equipped offshore trolling rod. Both types of release clips are effective. What is important is that they are adjustable—sometimes you’ll want the clips to open with the slightest hit, but when you are trolling in heavy seas or dragging big baits, you will need to crank the tension down.

halyard stop ball
This black halyard stop ball has been drilled out to hide the crimp fitting. Plastic thimbles protect the halyard’s monofilament from the split ring and the exposed crimp has been shrink-tubed. Note how using a snap-swivel would reduce the halyard’s upward travel by over an inch.

A stop ball above the clip prevents it from pulling into the guide on the outrigger, which will indeed happen when you are staring at the lure in the spread as you pull on the halyard.

Care and Feeding of Your Riggers

Your boat’s outriggers get a workout every trip, whether you even hook up. There are a few simple steps that you can take to optimize your setup, make them nicer to use, and extend their life span.

Over time, the abuse from hookups and from the boat thrashing around adds up and the outriggers become ever more flexible and wiggly—until something breaks.

The tube-into-tube overlaps found in telescoping or collapsing outriggers are natural saltwater traps as spray runs downhill. Once the water dries out, the salt is left behind to accelerate wear at the pressure points that occur where the tubes overlap. Yes, there’s wear all around the tubes’ overlaps, but it gets concentrated at two spots as the tubes bend under trolling loads and when they are thrashing around while your boat is underway.

Damage begins as the thin surface layer of anodizing gets worn away, and it gradually advances deeper and deeper into the tube’s thickness. There’s a corresponding amount of wear on the inside surface of the larger-diameter tube, too. Eventually, it is usually the larger-diameter tube that splits. It is an evil cycle—the more the tubes wear, the faster they wear.

The aluminum fittings that pin the tubes together and carry the halyard eyes on some outriggers also suffer from wear when the tubes they run through saw back and forth as the outriggers flex.

The keys to minimizing this damage, which is to some extent inevitable, are simple. Get a layer of high-quality lubricant in the tube’s overlap region to minimize friction, while at the same time preventing saltwater from getting in.

I’ve had excellent results using TefGel from Ultra Safety Systems. It stays in place and contains Teflon. After laying down beads of TefGel, I’ll twist the tubes back and forth and slide them in and out until the overlapping surfaces are completely coated.

Extend the life of your outriggers with lubricant. Lay down beads of TefGel on the overlapping tubes and twist them back and forth until the surfaces are completely coated.

TefGel is aggressively tacky stuff, and by the time you’re done cleaning, lubricating, and then reassembling one outrigger, you will have it on your hands, unless you wear nitrile or latex gloves. I also suggest carefully wiping off any excess lubricant that may appear where the larger and smaller tubes overlap. One year I carried my outriggers to my boat with a bit of TefGel on my fingertips. I had TefGel fingerprints in the dirt and salt for weeks until a WD40 wipe made them disappear. I was impressed by how it persisted when exposed to the weather.

discolored TefGel
If the lubricant between the tubes changes color during the season, in contrast to the all-white appearance of the fresh TefGel, it’s time to reapply. WD-40, acetone, alcohol, and other solvents are all effective in removing TefGel. Be sure to clean the interior of the tubes where they overlap, not just the exterior surface.

A trick for extending the life of your outriggers is to spin every other tube a half-turn relative to the next tube, and then reassemble them. The load points on the inside and outside ends of the overlap regions of the rotated tube will be reversed, and bending forces will start working on previously unworn sections of the tube, making the assembled outrigger less flexible for a few more seasons.

Saltwater damage also occurs on the outside of the outrigger tubes, not just where they overlap. This damage is less likely to cause failure, but saltwater and mineral spots from rain, and the loss of gloss they produce, certainly don’t look professional. As with anything else on your boat that’s made of anodized aluminum, a careful washdown after each trip (and perhaps the use of Salt Away or a similar product if you are so inclined) will reduce surface deterioration. Treat your outriggers the same way you treat your reels—since most outriggers are anodized aluminum, as are most reels.

When you drop the riggers at the end of the season, it’s an opportunity for more maintenance. Start with fresh, soapy water and then see what the tubes’ surfaces look like. Are the spots still there? I’ve had good luck using a soft cloth soaked with WD-40. If that is ineffective, a Mister Clean Magic Eraser soaked with WD-40 may do the trick, but be careful. Too much scrubbing can wear away the protective anodizing on the aluminum.

Once you’ve done your best at cleaning the tubes, you won’t be able to wax them until you remove whatever products were used to dissolve the spots; otherwise, the wax won’t adhere to the aluminum. A benign solvent like alcohol will get the job done, then plain wax followed by a thorough buffing with a soft cloth will protect the tubes for next season. There are lots of boat waxes that contain mild abrasives to restore the gloss of dulled gelcoat, and they may also polish away minor mineral and salt spots, but again, there’s the risk of polishing away some of the anodizing. Try a small spot first.

bent outrigger
Nothing symbolizes offshore fishing quite like the sight of long, glimmering swept-back outrigger poles as a sportfishing boat prowls the canyons.

Maintaining Outrigger Clips

Do you release the drags on all your reels when the fishing season is over? You should, to save the springs and compressible washers in the drag stack. If your release clips have springs, backing off on the pressure down to the minimum will prevent the spring from getting a permanent set and reducing the drag range. If the clip is a different style, where a squeeze-screw pinches together two plastic arms, zero squeeze for the non-fishing months will prevent permanent bending of the arms.

While you are at it, check the halyard locks on the outrigger lines. They should get released, too. Why put a multi-month dent in the soft coating on the pulley? Be sure to check all the pulleys’ coatings. If just one is chewed up, order rebuild kits for all of them in your halyard locks. Lose a fishless winter night to a halyard lock rebuilding project instead of a night before an offshore trip next season.

Saving Tension Settings

Every second of offshore fishing is both precious and expensive. How much time have you wasted adjusting your outrigger release clips when you switch trolling lures or face changing sea conditions? Big boats with triple-spreader outriggers can run many more halyards with clips that don’t get readjusted, set only for ballyhoo or splash bars, but small boats will probably have to change release-clip settings when the drag of what’s being pulled behind the boat changes.

It does seem a shame to unwind all the effective clip adjustments that were figured out during the trolling season, losing those tension settings forever. That perfect rough day adjustment for trolling a 36-inch splash bar rigged with high-drag 12-inch squids? One you back off the clips, that setting is gone. What about the light-release setting for a naked ballyhoo run way back, or one for a weighted and skirted horse ballyhoo? They’re gone, too. Imagine how many unintended clip openings could occur next season until you get the release adjustments dialed in again.

Drilled and painted index marks on the clip adjusters, some temporary marker dots, and a simple counting of turns while you unwind last season’s release settings will help you quickly get the clips reset. Don’t just drill an index hole anywhere on the adjusting wheel. Check out full tight and full loose positions, select one as the starting point, and then drill the index hole where you can see it.

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