Hooked Up Again!
The sun was just clearing the tops of the resort condominiums on Siesta Key as I cruised along on plane. Heading south along the beach I couldn’t help but enjoy the beautiful SunCoast morning. Instinctively, my eyes scanned the surface of the serine Gulf searching for signs of life.
Initially, I only noticed a few surface swirls but that was about it. Moments later and slightly offshore of our location, a small white bird wheeled and dove, then another and another. I quickly changed course to investigate and as I drew nearer, I could clearly see fish breaking the surface. Showtime! I thought to myself. Pulling the throttle back, I settled down into a slow trolling speed. “Ok guys, let ‘em out” I instructed. My two clients flipped out a couple of spoons as I steered toward the action. As we approached, it became very clear; it was an absolute feeding frenzy. A helpless school of baitfish trapped between the jaws of the toothy fish below and the sharp talons of the scavengers above. “Get ready” I yelled. Suddenly, both rods doubled over and drags screamed in protest. A short battle later and a pair of tasty 6 lb. mackerel were packed on ice, destined for the dinner table later that evening.
Mention trolling and immediately a certain image comes to mind. Glistening teak, shiny gold reels and giant billfish. But the truth of the matter is small boaters can also be extremely successful at this ‘big boat’ game. I fish a 19’ skiff and using the same inshore tackle that I would for sea trout, snook and redfish, I am able to consistently troll great catches of mackerel and more. And if you own a small boat, trolling should be incorporated into your game plan, as it will work for you too! Small boat light tackle trolling is both easy and fun, resulting in action packed trips for the whole group. Under the right conditions, it’s an extremely effective technique that can keep you hooked up!
There are excellent trolling opportunities throughout the inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico and often, only within a mile or so of the beach. In the spring, and then again in the fall, huge schools of baitfish migrate along the coast. Avoiding persuasive predators, they instinctively hug the shoreline for safety. Trolling in a zig-zag pattern parallel to the beach provides anglers an opportunity to cover a large area of the coastline in their search for action. Spanish mackerel, king mackerel and false albacore are primary targets, but ladyfish, bluefish, jack crevalle, cobia and even the occasional tarpon will also be taken.
Light to medium action tackle is the most suitable equipment and both spinning and conventional gear will do just fine. Just make sure that if the possibility of a larger fish exists, which is usually always, your reels are of the high capacity nature and capable of holding plenty of fresh 12 to 15 lb. mono. Not to say that braid wouldn’t work but in this application, you want a little stretch as the elasticity will act like a shock absorber under the stress of a hard strike. It’s enough already knowing that a big king, albie or temperamental tarpon can spool a small spinning reel in just a few heartbeats.
Crucial to your success when trolling along any shoreline, is presenting your offerings well below the surface, in the active feeding zone. Even though you will be fishing in fairly shallow coastal waters, most of the action will still occur in the lower half of the water column. There are three different techniques to accomplish the proper presentation and we’ll talk a little bit about each.
Using trolling sinkers is probably the most common method of presenting baits below the surface, although planers and diving plugs are close seconds. The two common types of trolling sinkers are known as keel and torpedo sinkers.
Either type will do, although I prefer the keel type as I find they result in less line twist. While trolling the coastline, in most situations, keel sinkers ranging from 1 to 4 oz will do the job nicely. As mentioned, diving plugs can also be deadly, especially when targeting kings. There are numerous brands of plugs designed for saltwater trolling applications with multitudes of colors, styles and sizes to choose from. Generally speaking, the larger the lip, the deeper the plug will dive. My personal preference is the Mann’s Stretch series.
The Stretch 15 is a good choice for use with light tackle. However, diving plugs do have a drawback. Plugs rigged with treble hooks increase the possibility of injuring fish which you may intend on releasing and the multiple hooks make fish handling a tricky job. Removing one of the trebles or replacing them all with single hooks are pretty good ideas. Planers are the third option to achieve a deep presentation. These handy devices come in various sizes, with #1 being the smallest. These small planers will dive down to about 8 feet and although the larger #2 will in fact swim deeper, it will require a fairly stout rod and reel.
So, for purposes of our discussion, we’ll stick with the #1 as it really is the ideal size. A brief note on tackle: conventional outfits are the recommendation for use with planers.
Rigging in preparation of trolling the beaches is fairly simple. Use a bimini twist or spider hitch (much easier to tie) to double the last 5 feet of line. Using a uni-knot, tie the double line to either a trolling sinker, a barrel swivel or a planer. Behind the trolling sinker, add 10 feet of 30 lb. fluorocarbon leader, then tie on your spoon or strip bait that you intend on using. With a planer, attach a black snap-swivel to the rear of the planer and tie on a 20 foot length of the same 30 lb. fluorocarbon leader. Complete the rig with your choice of lure or bait. If you choose to fish a diving plug, just add 5 feet of leader material between the barrel swivel and the plug and you’re ready to go.
If large kings or other toothy critters are predominant, it wouldn’t hurt to bump the leader up to 50 lb. test. You could always add a short trace of wire as well, but keep in mind that wire leaders reduce the number of strikes. A good option is to stick with mono and just re-tie when necessary.
Tips for using a planer...
Planers work a lot like the plastic lip on a diving plug. The principle is that the planer will dive well below the surface, dragging your lure or bait behind it. When a fish strikes, the force will pull the planer back, causing the ring to slide forward, thus ‘tripping’ the planer. This allows the angler to enjoy the battle without the added pressure of the planer digging into the water.
When deploying a planer, you must ‘set’ it in order for the planer to swim properly. This is easily done by first routinely letting your bait or spoon trail behind the boat. Then, lower the planer into the water with the sliding ring at the top. You will notice the planer beginning to dive as soon as it breaks the surface.
Let out the desired length of line and you should be all set. When using a conventional reel, always keep some pressure on the spool with your thumb as failure to do so will result in an instant whopper of a backlash.
There will be a constant bend in the rod as you troll. When a fish strikes, the rod tip will shoot up, then quickly bend over again, bouncing as the fish struggles. With powerful fish, this will be accompanied by the sound of the drag screaming. You can use the clicker on the reel to help alert you of a strike.
As far as what lures to drag when prowling up and down the coast, metal spoons are by far the number one choice. They have terrific action at various speeds and are effective on a number of different species. Remember to equally match the size of the spoon to the prevalent forage in the area. This can be critical, especially with false albacore. Often times the predominant baitfish in the area will be tiny and these keen eyed gamesters will avoid hitting the larger spoons. If you don’t see any baitfish, experiment with various sizes and adjust accordingly. As far as color is concerned, you really can’t go wrong with anything in silver/chrome. However, some color can increase your success, especially in dirty water conditions. Still, size is the most important consideration when dragging spoons.
Another lure that works surprisingly well when trolled behind a sinker or planer in your hunt for action is a standard diamond jig. These very plain looking metals really catch fish. They seem to be particularly effective in very clear water conditions when mackerel and bonito become a bit spooky. Again, match the size of the diamond jig to the baitfish in the area. Soft plastic bodied jigs will also do the trick, but they tend to roll and spin at higher speeds. Plus, there is the durability factor. Most soft bodied jigs will not hold up under the repeated vicious attacks from crushing jaws.
When heading out for a morning or afternoon of beach trolling, scout the area with a pair of binoculars to find signs of surface activity and a starting point. Don’t just pull the throttle back and throw a few lines over while aimlessly hoping for the best. Any concentration of working birds or even birds deviously sitting on the surface should not be overlooked. Nor should any signs of bait be ignored, so keep a sharp eye out for even the most subtle surface swirls. When the action heats up, work the edges of the activity in order to avoid spooking the fish and putting them down.
If no surface action is spotted, keep a close eye on your color machine. Areas of hard bottom and steep drop offs will also hold bait and should not be ruled out. Artificial reefs and wrecks are also fish magnets and plenty litter the inshore depths. On occasions, even these small spots can save the day so a log book with some good numbers is an important tool.
Dragging several lines off a 16’ to 20’ boat which may not be equipped with outriggers can be a little tricky. Setting your spread properly is a very important procedure in avoiding tangles. Ideally, when trolling parallel to the shoreline from a small boat, you should fish three outfits. Two rods rigged with trolling sinkers & spoons and a third with either a planer or a diving plug is an ideal set up. A good rule of thumb when setting your mini trolling spread is to keep the deeper baits close in and the shallower lines further back.
On this trip off Siesta Key, our efforts continued to pay off as the sweet sound of “I’m hooked up again” rang out for the better part of the day. A marauding school of spanish mackerel were destroying a large school of bait and we were fortunate enough to be right in the middle of the action. By maintaing the same speed after a strike, resulted in double and even triple headers. Remember though, once you do pull back the throttle, do not put the engine in neutral. Always maintain a forward movement; otherwise the lines can become a tangled mess.
As you can tell, trolling the many West coast beaches with light tackle can be very exciting and extremely rewarding. My professional occupation as an inshore fishing guide is to provide my clients with an enjoyable and memorable day on the water. Bent rods result in a lot of smiling faces. I have discovered that this light tackle trolling technique allows anglers of all skill levels the opportunity to catch lots fish, and maybe even the fish of a lifetime! If you have a small boat, add it to your arsenal and it will help you catch more too!
Since moving to Sarasota back in 1980, Capt Jim Klopfer has been hooked on saltwater fishing. Like many Florida residents, Jim is originally from the northeast where he grew up in the Washington D.C. area. Capt. Jim has been a full time guide now for more than 10 years. He specializes in light tackle spin and fly fishing and targets all the usual West Coast species. Captain Jim equally enjoys drifting the flats, working the back country, bottom fishing and of course light tackle trolling. Captain Jim’s reputation with kids, novice anglers and tournament pros speaks for itself.
If you would like chase a giant tarpon or if you’re just looking for a relaxing day on the water, Captain Jim Klopfer is a great choice. Call Adventure Charters: 941-371-1390, www.FishingSarasota.com
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