School is in Session

A Lesson in Dredge Fishing

Capt. Steve Dougherty January 29, 2014

Considering the history of sport fishing, dredge teasers are a relatively new concept, yet in their short existence they’ve quickly become an influential tactic top blue water anglers can’t afford to overlook. But even if you aren’t in the running for Release Captain of the Year, you should still do all you can to make your spread as appealing as it can be. There are a many effective teasers on the market, but when you see the lit-up pectoral fin of a free-swimming sailfish trailing your three-dimensional dredge your heart will skip a beat and you’ll forever be a believer.

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Photo: Scott Kerrigan/aquapaparazzi.com

It’s safe to say dredges are one of the greatest enhancements to offshore anglers’ arsenals within the last decade. Traditional teasers, spreader bars and daisy chains certainly still have a place and time, but dredges provide another dimension to your spread and offer a larger profile game fish can key in on from a distance that no surface running teaser can replicate. Although there are a lot of different dredge designs and configurations on the market including 4-arm, 6-arm and 8-arm dredges with double and triple tiers, no matter the size of your teaser the idea is to provide the appearance of a tightly packed baitball. Adorned with dozens of artificial or natural offerings, dredges can make the difference between getting bites and getting skunked. While artificial offerings are preferred for ease of rigging, natural enticements make game fish go wild. The tradeoff for presenting the real thing is countless hours rigging numerous hookless baits. During a hot bite crews can go through hundreds of baits in a day, especially if bonito and meat fish are feeding with fervor.

While artificial offerings are preferred for ease of rigging, natural enticements make game fish go wild.

Most crews prefer to use mullet over ballyhoo because they last longer without washing out and create a larger profile, but ballyhoo are cheaper to acquire in mass quantities…that is unless it’s the mullet run and a school of giant silver mullet happens to swim by your dock. Still, dredge fishing with natural baits can be a real headache but you can lessen the pain by supplementing your dredge with a mix of artificial offerings. To give game fish a real taste, place your natural enticements on the outside branches of your dredge and fill the gaps with artificial offerings on the inside. You should also choose your enticements based on the prevalent forage and game species in your region. If you’re not chasing billfish, you can run smaller artificial sardine patterns to entice tuna, dolphin, wahoo and more.

Dredge fishing with naturals can keep a crew busy the entire day as they inspect and replace baits, but you can still achieve the effect of a live baitball behind your boat without all of the hassle by going 100-percent artificial. Imitation offerings are available in numerous baitfish patterns, are durable, easy to rig, and provide more lifelike action than even the most energized ballyhoo or mullet ever could. One thing they don’t offer is the natural scent or flaking scales if smacked by a ruthless billfish. Pelagic game fish can be fooled, but they aren’t ignorant. If you choose to fish an artificial dredge, you need to be quick on the draw to pitch a bait or adjust a flat line when a predator is fired up on the fake. One quick taste of plastic and the fish might fade away.

When it comes to fishing a dredge, the placement and retrieval system varies greatly depending on your vessel. Large sportfish boats often run dredges from dedicated electric teaser reels in the bridge and through pulleys mounted on the lower outrigger braces. Others choose to run dredges directly off specialized teaser rods outfitted with powerful reels like a Hooker Electric. Center console anglers can use teaser reels too, but many employ an electric downrigger or simply cleat the teaser off the transom. Because dredge teasers pull a significant amount of drag, standard rigging no matter your retrieval method requires nothing less than 200 lb. mono.

Another common aspect among all dredges is the necessity of weight to keep them underwater, and this is something that will vary depending on the makeup of your dredge, trolling speed, and distance pulled behind the boat. A 12-inch, 6-arm dredge adorned with holographic enticements is lightweight and will tend to rise toward the surface, so you may need to add a heavy trolling lead in order to achieve the proper presentation. On the other hand, a triple tier dredge rigged with six-dozen mullet and 2 oz. sinkers on each already weighs a significant amount. In either case, the goal is to present the dredge under the surface to a point where you can barely see the baitball silhouette. The perfect position will come with experience and like with other aspects of trolling and lure dynamics, tight turns force inside and outside dredges to flutter and swim to the surface to add yet another dimension to their allure.

It’s important you present your dredges in a trail of clean water. If you can’t see the dredge you’ll never know of its effectiveness. This is why large sportfish boats have the advantage of being able to run dredges farther back in the spread, with the captain in the tower still being able to see if a fish is on the attack. Center console anglers are limited to how far back they can pull a dredge while still having the ability to spot fish and jump into action to quickly present baits. In general, you want your dredge to swim 20- to 40-feet behind each transom corner, but the exact distance will vary greatly depending on the weight of the dredge and trolling speed.

Fishing a dredge is a highly effective technique, but since you are pulling hookless baits they really only help attract attention to your spread. To maximize on any opportunity you must position a hooked bait in the near vicinity or just behind the dredge where it will appear as if it has separated from the pack and is unable to reach the safety of the school. This will trigger an instinctive attack for any nearby pelagic that’s on the hunt.

The famous bait-&-switch is another proven tactic but unlike daisy chains, dredges pull a whole lot of drag and you won’t be able to quickly retrieve your dredge like you could with a typical squid chain. You definitely don’t want to let a fish attack a dredge for long and you’ll have to slowly retrieve the dredge as you methodically make the switch, but when done properly the fish will immediately focus in on the singled out offering and lose interest in the school.

While dredges are used mainly on the troll, South Florida’s highly competitive live bait sailfish circuit has recently jumped on the bandwagon. While power drifting into the current, crews fly kites off the transom, which creates the ideal scenario to drift a dredge through the spread. With a dedicated teaser man constantly working a dredge from midship, the surface spread of live baits can be enhanced with a realistic baitball flashing in the depths below.

So just like the sailfish that catches a glimpse of three-dozen offerings racing by, you can’t resist missing the action. Remember that dredge fishing can be as simple or serious as you choose to make it, so give it a shot. The sport fishing crews that put in the most get the most in return and if it were easy everyone would be doing it. While secrets still exist, common ground among top blue water professionals is that if you aren’t using a dredge you’re getting left behind.

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