Tournament Tested

Two dead-bait ballyhoo rigs every competitive sailfisherman should know.

Capt. Steve Dougherty November 23, 2012

Circle-hooks aren’t new by any means, but offshore anglers who troll for pelagic game fish have been the slowest group to embrace the shape. No matter the reason for the unwillingness to change, anglers participating in billfish tournaments around the United States have no choice and are required by federal law to utilize tournament approved non-offset circle-hooks when fishing natural baits—dead or alive.

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Photo: Richard Gibson / Hi-seas Photography

While rigging techniques for natural trolling baits are constantly evolving and many captains have their own preferred methods for presenting Spanish mackerel, split-tail mullet and more, the following ballyhoo rigs will certainly get you in the game. From here don’t be afraid to implement your own ideas in response to what you see and experience on the water. Remember there’s no perfect rig for every scenario. In the end, the ultimate goal is to have your trolled bait perform as if it was casually swimming without a worry in the world.

No matter what rigging technique you employ it is essential you prepare your ballyhoo for the greatest action and longevity in the water. Selecting the freshest ballyhoo possible is also crucial in avoiding the dreaded wash out. If you can’t catch them yourself, when purchasing frozen, unrigged ballyhoo there are a few things you should look for. First off, the eyes should be clear and the bellies should be white. If you see any blood in the bag or yellow discoloration on the baits you should dig deeper in the freezer or visit another retailer.

Start by taking your frozen ballyhoo and placing them in a brine solution. Bionic Brine works great. This helps toughen the ballyhoo for greater durability while locking in the freshness. From here you’ll want to remove the eyes by pushing a dowel or similar tool through the eye socket. Next, hold the bait firmly in your hand and work it back and forth in an S pattern. This will help separate the meat from the backbone and enable the bait to swim with a more natural and lifelike presentation. The next step is to forcefully run your fingers along the belly of the ballyhoo, starting at the head and working your way toward the tail. The goal is to push the belly contents out of the anal cavity. Rinse your baits in the brine solution once again and you are now ready to start rigging.

1. X Rig

Perhaps the fastest way to rig a swimming ballyhoo, this technique is relatively easy to master and enables anglers to store prepared ballyhoo in the cooler without an attached hook or leader. When you need fresh bait simply grab a ballyhoo out of the cooler, insert your hook and you are ready to fish. Start by cutting a 24″ section of rigging floss. Double the floss back on itself and insert the tag ends through a 1/2 oz. egg sinker. From here take the loop created in the floss and place it over the ballyhoo’s head so the line rests behind and under the gill plate. The egg sinker should firmly tuck under the chin. Now separate the two strands of rigging floss and bring them over the ballyhoo’s mouth. Make an overhand knot and pull the tag ends apart so the knot slides toward the ballyhoo’s head. When you tighten the knot it should effectively close the ballyhoo’s mouth.

Next, take the two tag ends and insert them through the eye sockets in opposing directions. This is what creates the X on the ballyhoo’s head and is where you will eventually insert your circle-hook. Wrap the two tag ends around the ballyhoo’s head and make another overhand knot underneath the gill plates. With the knot tightened and the gill plates firmly shut you can trim the tag ends. When you are ready to fish simply place your circle-hook under the X formed on top of the bait’s head and make sure the hook lays flat.

2. Wire Loop

The wire loop rig is easy to master and like the X rig it enables you to store baits in the cooler without attaching a hook or leader. For this rigging technique you’ll need to utilize copper rigging wire, but it’s important you choose the 14 inch variety and not the typical 9 inch copper wire. Start by making a tiny haywire twist in one end of the copper wire, making sure the formed loop is large enough to fit over the barb of your hook. I like to twist the wire around the hook so the finished loop is the perfect size. You don’t want the loop to be too large, but large enough to pass over the barb.

Before you go any further you’ll want to pierce a small hole with a rigging needle through the ballyhoo’s upper lip. From here you can place the copper wire underneath the ballyhoo’s head so the loop extends just beyond the ballyhoo’s bill. While holding the loop in place feed the copper wire through the bottom of the ballyhoo’s head so it exits the hole you pierced in the upper lip, effectively closing the bait’s mouth. Make one wrap around the bill and back through the eye socket, making sure to snug it tight. Now go behind both gill plates and back through the eye socket. Start wrapping the remaining copper wire along the bill and over the wire loop. Finish with a few tight wraps to lock the wire. When it comes time to fish and you’ve inserted the pre-rigged hook through the loop you can twist the hook in the same direction of the haywire to tighten to loop.

The two rigs seen here have proven their effectiveness with sailfish and more, but don’t think you’ll become an expert rigger overnight. With practice you’ll pick up on small subtleties that impact your bait’s presentation and natural swimming abilities. Rigging ballyhoo isn’t difficult, but if you screw up just one step your bait likely won’t swim properly.

The practice of catch and release has certainly helped improve fish stocks, but the implementation of circle-hooks has further enhanced populations of highly desirable game fish. Thanks to this small innovation, tens of thousands of billfish are released unharmed each year. Master these techniques and give circle-hooks a chance whether you’re tournament fishing or not.

Causing significantly less damage to game fish by providing consistent corner hook sets, non-offset circle-hooks are now required by law for anglers fishing both live and dead bait billfish tournaments within the United States. Every angler has his/her favorite hook, but approved hooks vary from event to event so make sure yours is on the list. Here are some favorites:

Circle-Hook Selection

  • Daiichi #D94Z
  • Eagle Claw #L2004
  • Gamakatsu #221
  • Mustad #39954BLN
  • Owner #5174
  • VMC #7385

Sound Advice

While many anglers don’t have another option but to scout out the freshest ballyhoo at local tackle shops, during the winter months along the southeast coast of Florida anglers encounter large numbers of ballyhoo with relative consistency. To load up with a few dozen prime baits, anchor over broken bottom in 10- to 30-feet of water and get a chum bag in the water. If there are any ballyhoo in the vicinity they will appear in your slick within a matter of minutes. A cast net is a good way to catch a bunch in a hurry if they ball up, but a tiny gold hook baited with a squid tentacle will catch singles holding deeper and further back in the slick. A small float or bobber placed 24- to 36-inches above the hook will help with casting. Anything heavier than barely visible 4 lb. test leader will usually go ignored.

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