Ribbonfish are certainly not the most handsome of fish. Long, thin and toothy, many saltwater anglers actually mistake these prehistoric looking creatures for eels or a strange breed of sea snake. However, they are in fact a fish, Atlantic cutlassfish to be exact. Common in bays and other inshore waters, ribbonfish’s primary habitats are the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic.
Ranging throughout nearly all coastal waters between New England and South America, these scaleless, silver-skinned strips of flesh and bone have become immensely popular as baitfish among competitive kingfish anglers. Most frequently encountered in inlets and passes at 18 to 30 inches, Atlantic cutlassfish will often reach four feet in length and weigh in excess of five pounds. The current world record is just over eight pounds.
Although many are caught in trawler nets and sold sporadically in bait shops, those caught on hook and line will make the best baits, as anything other than delicate handling will result in scarring along their tender silver sides.
There are many ways and many places to catch ribbonfish, but a good place to start is in one of the many major inlets along the east coast. Here, schools of smaller baitfish such as finger mullet and menhaden congregate to feed, especially after dark. In turn, ribbonfish filter into these areas with less than good intentions and slash veraciously through pods of unsuspecting forage as they hover near the surface.
In order to capitalize on this potentially productive scenario, dangle a glow light over the gunwale and create your own boatside baitfish buffet. Small chunks of pogy, shrimp or previously caught ribbons on size 6 or 8 trebles will do the trick. Long, 7 to 7-1/2 foot light action spinners will facilitate longer casts, while slow, steady retrieves will generally produce better results than erratic jigging actions or dead sticking methods. Leader systems should consist of two to three feet of at least 40 lb. monofilament with 12 to 18 inches of #3 coffee-colored wire twisted to your treble.
In heavy current, a split shot or small egg sinker may be necessary to get the bait further through the water column into the ribbonfish’s strike zone. Small glow sticks affixed just above the hook will add an extra dimension to your presentation. Ribbonfish can be targeted during daylight hours, but are generally less concentrated and more difficult to catch. Unlike their behavior patterns exhibited under the cloak of darkness, by day ribbonfish actually prefer to feed in the deeper portions of the water column. However, locating schools of baitfish moving from open water into areas with near-coastal structure such as bridges, piers, seawalls and jetties will lend itself to encountering a few ribbons in the feeding mood.
In these situations, casting Rat-L-Traps or other diving plugs will elicit the strikes you’re looking for. Traces of wire are almost always a must when gathering ribbonfish for bait.
Unlike menhaden, mullet or herring, ribbonfish require special care prior to freezing. In order to prevent your baits from “washing out” during trolling presentations, it is important to take a few measures to preserve their natural resilience.
As per the recommendations of several of the State’s most respected kingfish tournament competitors, prepare a large c o o l e r with a combination of two pounds of baking soda, three 48-ounce boxes of Kosher salt (not iodized), a five-gallon bucket of sea water and an 8- pound bag of ice. When you do hit the mother lode, take care in the way you box your ribbons. Don’t let them flop around on the deck. Instead, swing them cautiously into the cooler of brining solution and remove the hook. Remember, these toothy critters will slice indiscriminately through the flesh of fish and of human hands and fingers. Use a de-hooking device to prevent an unnecessary visit to the Emergency Room.
Once you’ve corralled a good supply of cutlassfish for your cooler, achieve better brining results by not allowing your ribbons to freeze in the solution. Instead, soak the baits in the salty slush for 8 to 12 hours, remove and freeze in vacuum-sealed bags for later use. RIGGING
Most competitive kingfish anglers use stinger rigs to send their baits back to hungry kings. Although there are probably as many variations as there are kingfishermen, there is a general consensus among experts that some weight should be added to the front of your rig in order to facilitate a natural nose-down swimming action.
In order to create this type of trolling rig, begin by hooking your ribbonfish through the lower and upper lips with a 1⁄2- to 3/4- ounce jig head or bucktail.
Then, using #4 wire, evenly space four 3X treble hooks along the ribbonfish’s side with enough slack between hook placements to allow the bait to wiggle freely when trolled.
From the jig head, run 18 to 24 inches of #4 wire to a barrel swivel. Finish things off with three to five feet of 40 to 60 lb. monofilament leader between the swivel and your 20 to 30 lb. running line using an Albright Special or Double Uni-knot. Conventional trolling reels in the 20 to 30-pound class will be your best bet for bagging big kings.
Although kingfish are notorious for feeding on free-lined baits near the surface, ribbonfish should always be trolled deeper with t h e aid of a downrigger. If the sub-surface ribbonfish bite is hot, send one to within a few feet of the bottom and set another in the middle portion of the water column.
The final touch for one of your ribbonfish rigs should be a Sea- Witch. Adding size and silhouette to your presentation, these nylon skirted trolling lures also help prevent your bait from “washing out” at higher trolling speeds.
Finally, it’s safe to say that ribbonfish have saved many a day when other prime kingfish baits are in short supply. Their shiny, silver sides and snake-like swimming actions are irresistibly attractive to their toothy pursuers and have accounted for some of the most respectable catches in kingfish tournament history. Learning how to catch, cure and present these highly-effective baits will no doubt improve you kingfish catching consistency.
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