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April 23, 2007

Steady as She Goes

Tips from the pros on finding the ideal trolling speed

Before asking Capt. Bart Miller a simple question - what's a good trolling speed for blue marlin? - put on a helmet and flak jacket, because the veteran skipper and lure maker will shoot right back with a barrage of his own questions.

"What are the sea conditions? How big is the boat? What size marlin are you targeting? Which sizes and styles of lures are you pulling? What's the angle of line coming off the 'rigger clip?"

Founder of Black Bart Lures (561-842-4550, www.blackbartlures.com), Miller vehemently opposes a drag-'em-and-snag-'em approach in which crews simply put out a spread of lures and head off to the races at their "usual" speed. "I hate to prescribe predetermined trolling speeds," he says. "The worst thing you can do is work with a single, set rpm all the time. Conditions such as seas, current and wind change from day to day, or even by the hour, and crews must make adjustments to keep lures working properly."

Trolling in Tune
Miller begins building his spread by setting out the short-position lure on the wake's second wave and bringing up the rpms until the artificial looks right. "Speed typically ranges from 7 1/2 to 9 knots, but I'm more concerned with how the lure acts than specific boat speed," he says. "The short lure serves as a tuning fork to help compose a spread that performs music to my eyes."

Once he gets the short lure running to his satisfaction, Miller knows the others will fall into step. When deploying the rest of the lures, he sets out the closer ones first and works his way back to the farthest baits. "It makes no sense to start with the long lure so far back that you can't see well enough to tune it properly," he says.

During the day, Miller constantly monitors the spread to verify that each lure continues to perform at its best, and he won't hesitate to adjust the rpms or switch lures to sweeten the visual appeal. "I don't want to see lures jumping out of the water or turning lazily," he says. "I don't want to look back and see lure action that doesn't turn me on. Every bait in the spread must spark a marlin's predatory drive."

And he expects the crew in the cockpit to earn their pay: "Once lures go out, the mate shouldn't sit on his hands and wait for a bite. Deckhands should work up an honest sweat and feel tired at the end of the day from trying to keep the spread looking its best," he says.

Capt. Eduardo Baumeier fishes a private boat and pursues blue marlin in the waters off Rio de Janeiro and Cabo Frio, Brazil. He has placed high in many local tournaments and has tallied 13 blues (some released, some weighed in) of 500 or more pounds - not counting scads of smaller marlin. His largest fish so far, caught in February of this year, weighed 936 pounds.

"I've seen or heard of blue marlin taking lures trolled at speeds ranging from 3 to 20 knots," Baumeier says. "In my experience, it's hard to troll too fast as long as you can keep the lures behaving well. I find that 8 to 8 1/2 knots works best for fish and conditions in my area, although some crews here like to troll at 10 to 11 and catch their share of blues."

Because he fishes light tackle (30- and 50-pound stand-up), Baumeier uses relatively small lures and size 10/0 or 11/0 hooks; most artificials in his spread measure no more than 12 inches in overall length, with head diameters of 1 1/2 inches or so. After deploying lures, he typically trolls in his comfort zone of 8 knots as long as conditions allow. Heavy seas or persistent winds may force him to back off the throttles, and that's when things get a bit trickier.

"In general, it takes more effort to keep artificials working properly at slow speeds than high speeds," he says. "Of course, there are limits at the high end - lures shouldn't tumble and fly out of the water - but at low speeds, the fine adjustments get even more critical and have a more pronounced effect on performance. You have to pay more attention to details like a lure's distance behind the boat and position on a wave, and the line's height coming off the 'rigger."

Like Miller, Baumeier maintains an endless watch to make sure lures stay in tune all day. Going from an up-sea heading to quartering or down-sea changes the influence of wave direction and action, requiring adjustments in speed to keep lures performing well. "It takes constant monitoring. Lure fishing isn't as simple as many people think," he says.

Billfish have no qualms about telling you what they think of your trolling speed. Fish that come up behind a bait and track it while showing little interest before fading back to the depths might as well shout, "You're pulling those things too slowly!" If you notice fish checking out the spread but not getting excited enough to strike, keep bumping up the speed until you provoke an aggressive reaction.

Pulling Ballyhoo
Anglers must deal with a different set of variables when fishing with dead baits. Ever wonder why skippers place a premium on fresh or fresh-frozen ballyhoo? Bait quality represents an often-overlooked factor that exerts considerable influence on trolling-speed options: Fresh or brine-toughened ballyhoo lasts longer and stands up to the pummeling of faster speeds, while poorly preserved baits wash out quickly.

When targeting Atlantic sailfish, crews in Rio use only skipping ballyhoo - no chin weights, no swimming rigs. Spreads most often consist of two flat lines, two 'rigger lines and a pair of chain teasers deployed from the bridge, typically trolled at 6 to 7 knots. But when seas grow heavy or brisk winds kick up, boats must slow down to prevent baits from spending more time out of the water than in.

Baumeier says sails usually prefer slower-moving baits in rough seas and advises anglers to carefully watch every fish raised to see how they approach and take the baits. On any given day, the fish telegraph their preferences to observant crews. "I've seen days when sailfish only took baits that barely seemed to move, trolled at just 4 knots," he says. "I've also seen sails hit lures trolled at 12 knots."

Sailfish seem to prefer fast food in flat seas, and fortunately, calm conditions allow boats to troll at a quicker pace more comfortably. Savvy anglers use small chugger heads or octopus skirts over ballyhoo to keep baits from washing out when fish ask for higher trolling speeds. Baumeier warns that as the boat speeds up, so must a fisherman's reaction time. "Trolling faster requires anglers to stay on their toes because fish tend to attack aggressively and take baits more quickly," he says.

Asked to name his pet trolling speeds for Pacific sails, Capt. Brad Philipps (www.guatbilladv.com) says he pulls a mixed spread of ballyhoo and teasers at 7 to 8 knots in Guatemala's normally calm seas. He bumps it up to 8 or 9 knots when using artificial teasers only; at that speed, the lures perform well, and sailfish come in hot enough to make the switch to a pitch bait or fly.

On those rare days when Central American seas get snotty, Philipps makes adjustments. "I slow down a touch and bring the lines lower on the 'rigger," he says. "If necessary, we use weighted ballyhoo, especially on the upwind 'rigger so the bait doesn't blow across the spread."

Philipps says if the spread looks dead, you're not going fast enough. Baits must simulate a fleeing meal to stimulate fish to attack. Conversely, you should ease off the throttle when baits or lures touch down only briefly before launching over the waves again. He says there's nothing worse than having your offerings keep smacking the surface and tumbling end over end. Your quarry represents the ultimate judge. "If you get no bites while other boats in the area are hooking up, the problem could be your trolling speed," he says.

According to Philipps, successful captains learn to recognize correct trolling speeds for different conditions thanks to experience and a fishy sixth sense. A captain's preference for a particular trolling speed may reflect his boat's "sweet spot." Engines turning at a certain rpm range may produce a set of harmonics that raise billfish like the Pied Piper. When baits look right, lures smoke as they should and the whole setup "feels good," Philipps knows he's in the groove. The fish tell him so. "Most importantly," he says, "I know I'm pulling the right spread at the right speed when we're getting as many or more bites than the boats around us."