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October 26, 2001

Tuna in Your Back Pocket

Compact trolling spreads expand your chances of connecting.

Westerly winds raised a tight 3- to 5-foot chop as we trolled over the Fingers, a productive area 35 miles southeast of Point Judith, Rhode Island. Scattered shearwaters and petrels represented the only signs of life on this sunny, breezy morning in early August. Suddenly the right flat line snapped and my neck nearly did the same as I whirled around to prepare for action.
The line went limp, but before I could become disappointed the rod bent over again -as did the left flat line, then the left gunwale rod. I stood paralyzed, watching one fish after another shoot out from the deep to attack our lures. By the time everything was sorted out, we'd put one albacore in the boat and had missed a combined six hits on three other lures. Not the greatest hookup percentage, but exciting fishing nonetheless. What made it so great? All of this action unfolded within spitting distance of the back of the boat!

How Close Is Close?
My father and I have enjoyed similar scenarios countless times while fishing off Rhode Island aboard our 21-foot Robalo center-console, Peg O' My Heart. I had always heard that trolling for tuna requires a large spread of lures pulled as far behind the boat as reasonably possible. But that's no easy task for small-boat owners. Not wanting to spoil the versatility of our boat with gunwale-mounted outriggers and facing limited room on the T-top, we developed a different strategy: create short, tight spreads to mimic packed schools of bait by running lures as close as 10 feet behind the boat and no farther than 125. Since our boat has just an 8-foot beam and no outriggers, we end up with six lures in a very small space.
Ideal for small boaters, tight trolling spreads work on larger boats, too. We've successfully employed this technique on boats from 20 to 32 feet long, both inboards and outboards. Put simply, trolling lures in close offers versatility with minimal effort. This tactic, while borne of necessity, has proved very productive for many reasons.
Tuna are schooling fish, and they prey on schooling fish. Within these schools, competition leads to multiple hookups. Weekend-warrior anglers must maximize opportunities to catch fish, and we get far more multiple hits/hookups on our closely packed lures than on those deployed farther back.
Small-boat anglers don't enjoy the elevation of a big tower from which to look down over the spread or into the water. Keeping lures right off the transom allows for monitoring them more easily for both fish and weeds, changing lures quickly and controlling very precisely how they run.
Maneuverability ranks as my favorite aspect of trolling short spreads. One day while trolling for albacore, we jockeyed for position with 20 other boats in a small area. Our close, tight spread helped us turn more sharply without tangles, allowing us to fish effectively in close quarters. Despite all the boat traffic, we managed a double header of tuna on the pair of lures riding just 12 feet behind the transom.
Opinions vary about how much drop-back is enough; however much you like, you can control it more accurately by keeping lures closer to the boat. Hand-to-hand combat eliminates much of the stretch that plagues fishermen with long lengths of monofilament between them and striking fish, especially with 30- to 50-pound lines. I prefer very little drop-back because many fish that strike in close to the boat do so with lightning quickness. There's no time to play around with special drop-back techniques -just hit 'em hard and hit 'em fast. We usually get more solid hook-sets this way.
Setting the Spread
Whether you fish from a big or small boat, several tips will make this type of trolling most effective. A typical "back-pocket" spread includes two short lines on the second wave, two on the fourth wave and one long line down the middle. The sixth line, like a wild card, changes according to the situation. For instance, pull one lure that differs from the others to spice up the spread when blind-trolling. Subsurface plugs like a Rapala Magnum CD26 running under the spread often trigger the competitive spirit of the tuna.
After fish have betrayed their presence, replace the subsurface plug with another short line rigged from the leaning post to place a lure in the middle of the spread on the third wave. Incoming tuna frequently knock down this lure first. If you don't have a leaning post, rig a clip on a bridle across the stern, place the rod in the corner rod holder and move the short-corner rod back to the next holder. Making things fit your boat may require some experimentation.
Limited space leaves no room for teasers or daisy chains tight to the transom; the boat itself acts as an attractor, and having a hook in every offering helps make the most of opportunities. Historically, fishermen have designed rigs like daisy chains and spreader bars based on the theory that predators pick off baitfish lagging behind the school. Compact trolling spreads imitate schools of bait with no stragglers, so lures had better be enticing in order to provoke strikes. The slow, slithering action of a daisy chain just behind the boat does not scream, "Hit me!" to tuna like a darting Cedar Plug. We do, however, employ a short chain of four 5-inch chuggers chased by a 12-inch lure, running about 125 feet back.
Action and size stand out as the most important factors in choosing lures. The old adage, "Big lures catch big fish," goes out the window here. Our time-tested favorites are hex heads and Cedar Plugs (a.k.a. cigar plugs) in 5- to 7-inch lengths. These lures present an attractive side-to-side darting action and troll 2 to 4 inches under the surface. Concerning lure color, we've always done well off Rhode Island using combinations of green and yellow, but each region has its own most popular patterns.
Those who fish in smaller boats know how a 4- to 6-foot sea can affect trolling speed. I say, "Work with it!" Variations in speed only add to lure action. We generally troll at 7 knots but may work as slow as 5 1/2 knots on sloppy days or bump up to 8 1/2 knots in calm conditions.
Precise lure placement represents the second important ingredient for cooking up a productive, tight-to-the-transom spread. White water from our boat's wake begins to thin out at the second wave (about 10 feet from the stern); that's where we run the closest lures. Position them at the bubbling boundary of turbulent and clear water just inside the wake's outer edge. Lures darting in and out of the patch of clear water play a game of hide-and-seek that drives tuna crazy. When tuna investigate, the brief glimpses they get of the lure force them to strike quickly. I've seen fish follow and examine -but not strike -lures deployed farther back; however, tuna seem to act much more decisively when they come close to the stern.
Fishing a tight spread does not require a whole new set of rods and reels, but some styles prove better than others. Any of the major brands of short, fast-taper stand-up rods do the trick to set hooks firmly when lightning strikes close. As for reels, I prefer the smooth, fast retrieve of Shimano TLD 15s and TLD 25s packed with 30- and 50-pound line, respectively. Reels in the 9/0 class with 80-pound line do the job for larger lures deployed farther back. Drags set between 12 and 19 pounds drive home hooks and help tire fish quickly. Be careful, though; Too much drag can cause close lures to slingshot into the boat after a missed knockdown.
Short drop-backs deliver the best results on Peg O' My Heart. The simple technique involves running line down from the rod tip through a roller clip attached to the transom or threaded through the scupper. A release clip hung from the reel seat on the rod also performs nicely. This setup provides a small amount of drop-back while lowering the angle of pull, so lures don't skip out of the water. It also reduces windy-day headaches, when lures set farther back can be blown across the spread, crossing lines and frustrating fishermen.
The shallow angle at which we pull lures drags snap-swivels through the water, but this has never presented problems since they run so close to the prop wash. However, we do prefer smaller, 60- to 80-pound ball-bearing swivels on 6- to 8-foot 80-pound mono leaders. Short, light leaders allow lures to dance more freely in the wake. The blitzing strikes typical of this type of trolling permit you to go with lighter leaders because tuna rarely swallow lures and bite the line.

Putting It to Use
I can think of only one situation in which this trolling technique doesn't work. Anglers working the waters off Rhode Island early in the season (late June to mid-July) often find large schools of tuna actively feeding at the surface. However, these fish act extremely skittish and reluctant to bite; troll anywhere near them and they disappear. It sometimes seems you need to run lures a half-mile back before tuna will even take a look at them. For this reason, close-to-transom spreads rarely produce our early season tuna. Aside from that, I cannot think of a time when short lures have not caught fish.
Trolling behind commercial draggers in the Northeast presents a scenario especially suited to back-pocket techniques. As weekend warriors, we try to get on the water early to make the most of our time -and often begin fishing before draggers have pulled their nets and established lines of "floaters" (floating, discarded bycatch that provides a free buffet for tuna, marlin and sharks). In this situation, make two or three trolling passes up a dragger's wake. Just remember to keep a safe and courteous distance because you don't know how many other boats have pestered them recently. If you draw no strikes or see nothing on the fish finder, troll over to the next dragger. Schools of tuna looking for bait tend to roam from one dragger to the next, making this prime time for multiple hookups.
The number-one rule when trolling tight spreads: Know your quarry, yet stay prepared for anything. Off Rhode Island, we typically troll up 20- to 50-pound tuna, but 100-plus-pound fish are not uncommon. However, it doesn't always take a truly huge fish to catch you off guard. We once spent an entire morning catching 10-pound bonito and little tunny, so we brought out lighter tackle to make the fight more enjoyable. Sure enough, an hour later a 60-pound bluefin hit a 5-inch lure in our wake and nearly spooled the reel. It was the only big fish to hit that day, and we were lucky to get it in the boat.
As with all other fishing, pay attention to details, keeping a sharp lookout for birds, bait and optimum water temperature to help locate tuna; however, nothing replaces experience and instinct. If intuition tells you a particular area holds fish despite the lack of outward signs, be patient. We've enjoyed excellent results on days when things at first looked bleak. Sometimes using different lures or techniques -or working just a little harder -makes the difference between an empty fish box and the chance to enjoy some tuna steaks.
My strongest argument for trolling lures in close: It works. This method has produced on sloppy days and on flat-calm days, when fish were concentrated and when searching an apparently desolate ocean. Yellowfin, bluefin, albacore and white marlin -fish ranging from 10 to 100-plus pounds -have all pounced on lures just 10 feet from our stern.
We typically make day trips 20 to 55 miles off Point Judith, Rhode Island, targeting tuna ranging from 30 to 80 pounds and more. Two or three anglers easily manage the trolling system described here; a few adjustments in tackle or lures will certainly fine-tune tight-trolling tactics to your home waters. The simple setup delivers fast-paced, in-your-face action without the big-boat expense. So instead of reaching for your wallet, you'll be pulling tuna out of your back pocket.

Chris Jalbert grew up fishing Rhode Island's inshore and offshore waters. He finished medical school in May 1999 and now continues his training in Springfield, Massachusetts. His busy schedule has kept him from fishing as much as he'd like the past few years, but every chance he gets, he returns home to chase striped bass, sharks, tuna and marlin.