Spread ‘Em

Natural or Artificial - Which Do You Prefer?

Capt. Mike Genoun September 14, 2009

In the wonderful world of offshore fishing, when it comes to deploying an effective trolling spread there are as many options for Florida anglers as there are fishermen. And while every veteran skipper has his preferred method of approach, a number of simple techniques have stood the test of time and continue to produce outstanding catches season after season. While knowing these nuances and the logic behind each will certainly improve your overall skills, selecting which particular enticements to pull and precisely where to position the baits in your trolling spread remain a daunting task – one that varies wildly depending upon targeted species, geographic region, prevailing conditions, depth of water, etc.

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Ask any weekend warrior and he’ll tell you that one of the biggest challenges he faces when heading offshore is deciding exactly which lures or baits to pull. Will plastic and metal do the job today, or will success likely come with natural offerings? While there is no one correct answer to this question, there are a few basic factors fishermen should consider to help simplify the decision making process.

A 40-pound wahoo could very well be a day saver, but heaven forbid the trophy unglues…that same beast was more of a burden than a blessing.

Before we get in too deep, I’d like to share that it’s my opinion that one of the most important elements to offshore trolling, or fishing in any venue for that matter, has nothing to do with lures, baits, or how many lines you have in the water. Rather it’s one simple word – confidence. If you do not have confidence in your presentation, your chances of achieving angling success will be substantially diminished. You’ll find yourself constantly second-guessing and constantly making adjustments to your presentation. It will be difficult to establish any sort of pattern and ultimately you will hit the dock fishless and frustrated.

Keeping this philosophy in mind, many offshore anglers hungry for success often ask, “If I caught a few fish on Lure X in the past, why not just drag an entire spread of Lure Xs?” Actually, that is not a bad idea, especially for beginners just starting to explore the arena we so adore. One of my all-time favorite trolling lures is a small 4” blue/white chugger. From the first time I introduced this lure into my spread nearly a dozen years ago, this relatively tiny bait has enticed sailfish, dolphin, blackfin, skipjack, wahoo and more. I call it a Zinger because nearly every time I drop one back in the pattern, it doesn’t take long before the reel ZINGS to life! Optimistic in this proven fish-catchers ability, I am not ashamed to admit that there have been occasions when I’ve dragged an entire spread of these fabulous fakes. The approach produced, but not as well as I had thought. That is, until I threw a little variety into the mix. I discovered that as soon as I would deploy a larger, more brightly colored lure in the spread, BAM! The odd bait would get whacked every time – more proof that an effective trolling spread mimics feeding activity. Sure a pod of the same size and color baitfish racing through the ocean seems appealing, but introduce the presence of a feeding predator into the melee and natural instincts take over forcing pelagic game fish to investigate.

An additional key factor is location. Even the best lures and perfectly presented trolling spread will produce very little in a lifeless ocean. Success near shore and in the deep blue is heavily reliant on fishing promising areas likely to contain forage and the game fish that feed on them. Floating debris, distinct color and temperature changes, bird activity, submerged structure – all point the way towards blue water bonanzas.

Not to be overlooked, eliminating tackle and angler failure are also important factors for maximizing every opportunity that presents itself. A 40-pound wahoo could very well be a day saver, but heaven forbid the trophy unglues because of a failed knot or escapes due to a faulty gaff shot and suddenly that same beast was more of a burden than a blessing.

Real or Realistic?
Along the southeast coast, out to around 300-feet of water, my preference leans toward the natural side of things when setting a productive trolling spread. Reason being is that natural baits often require a fairly slow trolling speed in the four to six-knot range. The slower speed allows me to methodically work bait concentrations, distinct edges and sharp contour lines. I also believe king mackerel, sailfish and other prolific species primarily feeding near-shore experience more fishing pressure and are less likely to be enticed by even the finest fakes. It’s here where natural strip baits and rigged ballyhoo account for consistent action against a wide variety of highly sought after predators. This is especially true during the warmest months of the year when game fish seek shelter from sweltering surface temperatures by roaming deeper in the water column. Rarely will you see my boat trolling within sight of land without a pair of planers deployed. These deep baits fished 40 to 60-feet below the surface, often ballyhoo/lure combinations, have accounted for everything from wicked wahoo to savage sharks, while skirted bonito strips fished off the riggers and flat-lines keep us connected with dolphin, blackfin, sailfish and more. I should point out that when fishing natural baits near-shore; rig with wire!

Out in the deep blue where enthusiastic anglers are faced with vast expanses in what often appears like miles of endless ocean with little to no defining structure, the situation is altogether different. Skirted lures now rule the roost. Jet heads and chuggers requiring a faster trolling speed in the six to ten-knot range in order to track effectively are better suited for this application by providing blue water anglers the ability to cover large areas in their search for drag-screaming success. That is not to say that natural baits do not produce offshore, because they certainly do. Rigged ballyhoo continue to account for phenomenal catches in nearly every depth of water.

Blue marlin aficionados, especially those competing in big money tournaments, take the business of offshore trolling very seriously with specific lures dragged at exact speeds in very precise locations. Weekend anglers looking for a few thrills don’t have to be so anal, but should do everything in their power to increase their odds of success. It should come as no surprise that six different sizes, type and color trolling lures randomly dragged behind the boat are not going to resemble a natural feeding scenario. At the very least, some level of thought and preparation should be put into each trolling spread. Ideally, match lures in length and position them in some sort of formation with lures presented on the face of alternating wakes at varying distances behind the boat. Don’t overlook the fact that lures tracked directly in the prop wash and way back in the shotgun position will produce fantastic results. Whatever you do; don’t fish more lines than your crew can comfortable handle. A well-managed four or six-rod spread can be equally effective as a poorly managed eight or ten-rod spread.

Ultimately, the proper answer to the question of which trolling spread do you prefer, natural or artificial, should be “both.” Each has its time and place, and occasionally a combination of the two is exactly what the fish gods are looking for. Consistently successful crews know all too well that in the world of offshore trolling, the only certainty is that there are no certainties. They keep their options open and are capable of adapting to whatever situation they are faced with – always well prepared and always ready to modify their search for the ultimate spread.

Tease Me Please

Near-shore or offshore, teasers are becoming increasingly popular for attracting attention to any trolling spread. With so many options, selecting effective teasers can also be a daunting task. Dredges, spreader bars, bowling pin teasers, Mylar, plastic, metal, and the list goes on and on. One company has recently launched a new teaser that perfectly mimics a billfish in both size and shape. Nevertheless, teasers work. If you aren’t sure where to start, you simply can’t go wrong with Mold Craft Wide Range (pictured) and Super Chuggers which can easily be presented from dedicated teaser rods, from teaser reels leading to outrigger eyes, or directly from stern cleats with a length of heavy-duty leader material.

Rig It Right

Equally as important as which lures or baits to pull and exactly where to position them, comes rigging. I rarely fish pre-rigged lures unless I know for certain the rigging materials are nothing less than first rate. When a 50-pound bull engulfs a lure is not the time to find out the off-the-shelf leader material or hook was under par. Rather, get your hands on unrigged lures and finish them off yourself. This way success or failure is in your hands.

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