What's the best trolling spread? No simple answer to this question exists. When deciding which tackle and baits to use and where to position them in the wake, charter captains must consider target species, sea conditions, and the skill of crew and anglers, among other factors.
To hedge their bets, savvy skippers also set out spreads that maximize chances for hookups by attracting the widest possible variety of pelagics in a given situation. For example, late summer off North Carolina typically offers shots at gamesters ranging from 15-pound dolphin to 500-pound blue marlin. In the South Pacific, anglers trolling off Tonga can see five different species of billfish in a day, along with tuna and wahoo.
Flexibility and willingness to adapt to changing conditions prove crucial to trolling success. Every seasoned pro interviewed for this article stressed that, yes, he has a few favorite lures and spreads - but if something doesn't seem to work on a certain day, he won't hesitate to change the setup. Look at the following "standard" spreads as guidelines (not hard-and-fast rules) for deploying baits in different situations. Then tweak as necessary to fit your boat, crew and conditions.
***Pictures of each spread can be found in the gallery above***
Boats leaving ports in New Jersey, Delaware or Maryland normally run 60 to 100 miles to reach offshore canyons where a pelagic variety awaits the baits. "Mixed spreads are quite popular in the Northeast because in a day's trolling anglers might raise blue marlin, white marlin, bigeye and yellowfin tuna. Crews usually pull both natural baits and artificial lures in the same pattern," says Lee Green of Stalker Outfitters (800-251-8263) in Westhampton Beach, New York.
Green recommends cleating off a dredge at the transom. "Put the dredge where you can see it; otherwise it does no good. On a flybridge boat, it shouldn't be more than 35 feet back," he says. On the other side of the spread, he runs a large plunger lure as a bridge teaser.
The flat-line baits, deployed on 30-pound tackle, ride about 10 feet behind each teaser. Here, Green uses a small jet head or naked medium ballyhoo in hopes of provoking whitey. "We run these baits close to the boat because of the typical difficulty in hooking white marlin. Getting bites in tight puts us in better position to hook up," he says. In addition to the flat-line baits in the water, a ballyhoo pitch bait on 30-pound remains at the ready in the cockpit.
"The short-rigger baits usually target tuna, so we use medium jet heads on 50-wides and place them about 60 feet back of the transom," Green says. He points out that when tuna run thick, most crews stow their 30s and put out jets on 50-wides in the flat-line spots as well. On the other hand, when the white marlin bite gets going strong, it's better to pull ballyhoo on 30-pound outfits in all flat-line and short-rigger slots.
With blue marlin in his sights, Green puts the big guns — in this case, 80-wides — in both long-rigger positions. Bait choice comes down to personal preference, though most anglers opt for Spanish mackerel or large plunger-type lures.
As a finishing touch, a medium jet head on a 50-wide rides shotgun at least 250 feet back to pick up any stray tuna.