Ask The Experts: How to Set Up an Effective Artificial Trolling Spread

My boat can’t always make it offshore, but  when the weather calms down in the coming months, I’d like to do some blue water fishing. I’m not opposed to using bait, but my local tackle shop tends to sell some pretty rough-looking ballyhoo, and I’m an artificial enthusiast at heart. If I wanted to put together a trolling spread with only lures, what are my best bets to stack the odds in my favor? -Robert Butler

sailfish caught with artificial trolling lure
PHOTOGRAPHY: Capt. Matt Arnholt

Though many captains and crews statewide have strayed away from trolling to focus their efforts on live bait, pulling an enticing spread is still an effective way to put fish in the boat. This is particularly true in the coming months, when anglers will look to cover a lot of water in search of dolphin. Whether you’re on the hunt for mahi or simply want to keep all pelagic predators in play, trolling is an incredibly versatile tactic.

When anglers consider what to pull behind their boats, fresh bait always comes to mind. However, if you can’t get your hands on the right bait or simple prefer fishing artificials, you can still put together an effective spread. The key here is diversity, choosing lures that cover all your bases, and then executing a proper deployment of those lures to achieve the most realistic presentation.

If you prefer a simple four-line spread, you have a few options to consider. We like to start with a small, bubbler or jethead type lure way back in the spread as the shotgun bait. You’ll catch your fair share of dolphin on these versatile baits, but the small profile and longer distance from the boat sets the stage for blackfin tuna, which are notoriously boat shy. Your shotgun lure can be anything from a small bubbler to a daisy chain, but what’s more important than the lure here is positioning. You want that lure skipping along the surface perfectly, so make sure you’re paying close attention to your speed.

Beluga from Imperium Outfitters
Beluga from Imperium Outfitters

Next, you’ll want to set your left- and right-side lures. Again, your choice in lure depends on what’s around and what you’re targeting, but if you want to keep a few different species in play, don’t be afraid to try different presentations and patterns. If one style of lure seems to be getting all the bites, then it’s time to consider switching other lines out. But to find the fish, throw the variety pack at them.

When setting these lures, you don’t want them too far from the boat, but they should be dragging through clean water unclouded by prop wash. On one side, don’t be afraid to throw a larger lure out. Something that displaces a lot of water can ring the dinner bell for nearby predators, serving as somewhat of a teaser as well as a lure. One of our favorites is the Beluga from Imperium Outfitters ( in S3, which measures 8.5” and swims like a dream behind the boat. Furthermore, the Beluga is available in a variety of colors and can be purchased rigged or unrigged.

Opposite your larger bait, we recommend setting a smaller dolphin feather. This classic lure style certainly lives up to its name and is a mahi favorite, but it’s a bit heavier than traditional trolling lures and swims slightly below the surface, effectively diversifying your spread. An alternative to a dolphin feather would be really any other skirted lure, though you don’t want to be redundant and deploy something that’s already out there.

skirted lures

For your fourth lure, we highly recommend setting something back that will swim well beneath the surface. One very popular and very effective setup for kingfish and wahoo is rigging a flashy spoon behind a planer with a section of bite-proof wire attached to the lure after your shock leader. If you prefer not to mess with planers or don’t have sufficient tackle to do so, diving plugs are a great alternative. These divers come in different shapes and sizes with different swimming depths. Even miles offshore, we’ve had bites on the deep lure from dolphin and wahoo. The Yo-Zuri Magnum line ( offers a variety of different divers that are affordable and effective. Additionally, the venerable Yo-Zuri Bonita is a proven wahoo killer, but many species have fallen to its irresistible swimming motion.

Yo-Zuri Bonita
Yo-Zuri Bonita

Once you’ve got the right lures, the final step is rigging. While many lures come rigged with quality components, wear and tear sneaks up on you and, before you know it, it’s time to re-rig. Fur – furthermore, many of your favorite lures might come rigged with wire, cable or monofilament that’s a little too heavy for what you’re fishing for. To stack the odds in your favor even more, consider downsizing to lighter leader and small – er hooks, particularly when there are tuna in the mix.

The answer is yes, you can certainly achieve an effective trolling spread without bait. Be sure to head offshore with a variety of lures that cover all your bases, because you never know what will be the hot ticket item that day. However, while choosing the right lures and rigging them properly is important, setting your spread correctly and fishing the right areas matter more.