Their significance to sport fishing is indescribable, to the point one could argue the prosperity of the entire industry hinges on the miniscule halfbeak. These streamlined baitfish can be rigged in a variety of manners to appeal to an innumerable amount of game fish species and feeding scenarios, with boat sales, marina developments, global tourism, local charter fleets, tackle innovations and more all fueled by this short-lived forage species that are commonly purchased frozen for $15 a dozen.
Members of the Hemiramphida family and part of the order Beloniformes that includes hundreds of additional species of flying fish and needlefish, the diverse grouping of halfbeaks is distributed across tropical seas worldwide and aptly named for their elongated upper jaw structure. Among the several species that comprise the family of halfbeaks, balao are commonly encountered from Maine to as far south as Brazil, and also in the Eastern Atlantic along the Canary Islands and south along the coast of Africa.
Though balao (Hemiramphus balao) are a completely different species than Atlantic ballyhoo (Hemiramphus brasiliensis), their distribution is widely overlapping and they often school together. Identification can be challenging, though educated anglers are very aware of the defining features. Looking at balao, it’s easy to see why they are called bluebacks, compared to ballyhoo which have earned the moniker greenbacks. However, despite the similar scale coloration, balao can be identified by their red-tipped tails, while ballyhoo tails display an orange coloring. Bluebacks also have larger eyes and are known to feed on plankton, compared to ballyhoo that forage on algae. This is the next indication to species identification, as the green excrement common to the freshest ballyhoo also ensures longevity when trolled as their preferred diet produces more durable skin and scales helping prevent the dreaded washout.
A host of Pacific halfbeak species also exists from Southern California to Peru, however top crews partaking in the epic marlin and sailfish bites off Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico often fish with Florida Keys caught ballyhoo that are brined and packaged with unparalleled care. Some crews fish with local bait because it is what they can get fresh, but when money is no object—and traveling teams are raising over 50 billfish a day—it’s not uncommon to have cases of frozen ballyhoo shipped in from the states.
During the winter months ballyhoo are prevalent around the entire Sunshine State, but the heaviest concentrations can be found in South Florida and the Keys with the forage fish gravitating to the warm water of Florida Bay.
Mark Pumo of Baitmasters tells us there are two distinct stocks of ballyhoo that move down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as temperatures cool to the north. Over 95 percent of the state’s commercial ballyhoo landings are made by harvesters in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, where these beaked baitfish seasonally gather over shallow patch reefs by the thousands and are captured with surface skimming lampara nets.
Whether pitching baits to juvenile blue marlin in Costa Rica, sailfish in Stuart or white marlin in the Dominican Republic, Florida Keys caught ballyhoo are without a shadow of doubt the most versatile and effective natural offerings for enticing pelagic game fish in any of the world’s oceans.
Today, big game fishing has evolved into a science with high tech equipment, innovative accessories and modern vessels that can reach distant fisheries once inaccessible—and hang out for a couple of days totally self-sufficient! Yet with all of the advancements and evolution that continues, it’s still all about the bait.
Dead bait ballyhoo trolling has seen many incredible enhancements over recent years and rigging techniques are constantly evolving. Regardless, the best mates can make a dead ballyhoo swim as if it was alive, and the daily routine along Sailfish Alley is surprisingly similar to the practices employed across global hot-spots.
Closely akin to the elite teams chasing unfathomable billfish release numbers off distant seamounts in Costa Rica, the standard spread of competitive crews in Florida comprises two natural dredges. As dead bait trolling tactics have been elevated to unprecedented levels with the incorporation of multi-tier natural dredges, the workload and effort has greatly increased. Though not everyone has the means to fish in this manner, elite crews know the more you put in, the more you get in return. As boats leave the dock in the morning, many coolers will have twice as many teaser baits ready to go as hooked baits.
The simple truth is that we don’t all have skilled mates at our disposal. No matter your level of approach it’s important to remember that a clean and efficient spread will be more productive than a chaotic cluster of lines you can’t control on your own. Billfish aren’t biased and anglers aboard center consoles and sportfish yachts continue to develop and refine new methods to streamline the process of catch and release.
...the daily routine along Sailfish Alley is surprisingly similar to the practices employed across global hot-spots.
Because sailfish are pack hunters, it’s best to keep your dead-bait trolling spread tight to capitalize on the opportunity of hooking multiple fish. And if you have the means to fish a teaser or two, be sure to place hooked enticements where they will catch the eye of fish frenzied on the fakes. When you see a fish on the teaser, pop the nearest flat line out and either crank it up or drop it back to bring it in view. It’s also a good idea to keep teasers and rigged baits close to the boat so you can keep a close eye on what’s happening beneath the surface. A shotgun bait is the exception, but when outrigger and flat line baits are fished too far back you will inevitably miss a lot of fish that were meandering in the spread and could’ve otherwise been teased into striking by prospecting baits through the wash.
Whether you prefer to rig with floss, copper wire, a swivel or o-ring, with or without a chin weight, ensuring your circle-hook is firmly mounted and exposed on the head of the ballyhoo is the only way to go. The practice of catch and release has certainly helped improve billfish stocks worldwide, 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.
If you’re serious about catching billﬁsh on the troll, then you need to be ready to put the reel in freespool once you spot a fish in the spread or line pops out of the clip. If the fish feels any tension at all it will drop the bait and swim off in the opposite direction. Minimizing resistance on the drop back is key and will be enhanced with an outrigger release clip that is set to pop under the slightest tension. The goal is to be vigilant watching your rigged ballyhoo ride the waves and hopefully beat the fish to the rod.
The last consideration is trolling speed, of which there is no magic number. The prevalent sea state, distance baits are pulled behind the transom, whether you are heading down sea or right into it, and the type of wake your boat produces will largely influence the ideal trolling speed. With that being said, 5 knots is a good starting point, and when you finally spot a fish in your wake be sure to log the engine rpm, ocean conditions and specific bait positions within the spread so you can replicate the results and pick up on noticeable patterns.
According to many scientists, Atlantic menhaden are the most important fish in the sea, though I beg to differ. Ballyhoo might not have the same large-scale commercial interests as pogy, but they have universal appeal in any trolling spread and play a giant, yet for the most part silent role fueling the global sport fishing industry. Next time you set the spread, take a minute to admire and honor these miniscule forage species that feed fisheries worldwide and continue to prove their worth as a driving economic factor.