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December 27, 2001

How Pros Pick and Pull Plugs for Big Offshore Game Fish

Trolling plugs come in several shapes, sizes and styles. One type is the lipped plug, with lips made from either plastic or stainless steel. One of the oldest makers of plastic plugs is L&S Bait Co., maker of MirrOlure baits. The company constructs plugs with both plastic and metal lips.

Big ‘hoo!'' shouted Capt. Brent Ballay of Venice, Louisiana, as the drag screamed on one of our trolling outfits. ''I told you they like that purple plug. It’s one of the best col-'' Before he could say ''colors,'' another wahoo came crashing into the spread. It hit even harder than the first and threatened to take our plug into the oil rig about 150 yards away. ''Tighten the drag!'' said Ballay, obviously concerned about losing half of our double hookup. So I tightened up a bit, and the fish relented.We lugged the first fish boat-side, and it turned out to be a 53-pounder. I passed the rod to another angler so I could shoot some photos of both fish before they went on ice. The second one, a 55-pounder, ate a pink MirrOlure and fought a few minutes longer before it reached the gunwale. With that visual proof in front of us, Ballay shared with us how trolling plugs became old reliables for wahoo fishing around the rigs. ''We were trolling marlin lures on Easter Sunday about five years ago,'' he said. ''We passed by a buoy on one of the rigs, then hammered the wahoo. If we had continued to pull the [surface] lures, we would’ve caught a few. But since we dropped the plugs, we ended up with 15.''Offshore trolling plugs come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. But they all share a common purpose - to catch big pelagic game fish with their subsurface action. Anglers who use these plugs should know how to recognize the optimal time and conditions to break them out while understanding the best way to fish them in their trolling spreads. Go Deep Trolling plugs offer anglers the ability to diversify trolling spreads and run them deeper without needing a downrigger or a planer. Ballay started using this type of plug in the late ‘80s with local charter skipper Mike Frenette after having lackluster results with other lures in offshore waters tainted with the silty outflow of the Mississippi River. ''We used to use Tuna Clones and feather dusters, but when the water got dirty, we couldn’t really fish anymore,'' says Ballay. ''Diving plugs offer a way to get baits under the dirty water, which typically only goes down 5 or 6 feet.'' Ballay loads his trolling spread with plugs. He likes to deploy three up top and one on the downrigger, which he sets at a depth of about 25 feet. Sometimes he’ll drop a plug on a second downrigger at a depth of 75 or 100 feet. This setup allows for decent coverage over a variety of depths, increasing the odds of hooking up. ''Sometimes all they’ll bite is the downrigger plug, but other times they’ll hit all of ‘em,'' says Ballay. ''When we fish with the downrigger, we don’t put any high-speed trolling lures up top because we have to troll at 5 knots. However, sometimes we drop a bird way back as a teaser just in case the fish are surface-feeding.''His tackle consists of Penn International 30s or 50s on Tuna Sticks and uses 30- and 50-pound line. He sets his drags at about 10 pounds (any more typically bends the hooks after a hookup) and staggers his plugs at least 20 feet apart to keep them from tangling. Ballay uses the Rapala CD-18, MirrOlure 113MR and Mann’s Stretch 18+ and 30+ and varies the color pattern for each targeted species and season. ''Purple’s good for king mackerel, while pink works well for wahoo or tuna in the spring or fall,'' says Ballay. ''In the summer, I like the white/blue or blue mackerel pattern because it looks like a flying fish.'' Western, Eastern TacticsOn the West Coast, Capt. Dave Bacon of Santa Barbara, California, has been dropping plugs during the summer and early fall for more than four decades. He says plugs offer a definite advantage over surface trolling lures when he goes ''paddy-hoppin’'' around kelp paddies for dorado. ''The plugs create havoc under the surface,'' says Bacon. ''They’ll give off a really nice action, while creating a visual and sonic attraction.''Dorado hang out under the shade of the kelp, Bacon explains, looking for any baitfish that stray too far from cover. So by dropping plugs and trolling a few circles around the cover, he’ll know pretty soon how deep the fish are. This method usually leads to multiple hookups when fish are present, but if they’re holding too deep, Bacon will stop the boat and drop heavy jigs to draw strikes. Paddy-hopping offers one West Coast plugging opportunity, but Bacon’s favorite scenario starts when he spots a rip or current line. Then he gets ready for a variety of species that could include billfish, bonito, barracuda, dorado or thresher shark. ''When we’re in trolling mode, we love to see a current break,'' he says. ''I like to drop plugs back and troll along the rip. It’s the ultimate situation for trolling a plug. Predators start foraging for bait, and sooner or later you’ll find whatever is there.''Bacon’s setup consists of Penn International 975s with 25-pound line and 7-foot Seeker Black Steel rods. If he suspects threshers are in the area, he’ll use Penn GTI 340s with 60-pound line and a heavier 6 1/2-foot rod. To put space in his spread, he uses outrodders (chrome rod holders that point out to the side), which he mounts on the forward rod holders. From those, Bacon deploys a couple of Braid Little Speedys. He likes the sardine and skipjack patterns best. Then, his aft lines terminate with a couple of Rapala CD-18s in either the dorado or green mackerel patterns.In the Florida Keys, Capt. Jim Sharpe of Big Pine Key likes to pull plugs for wahoo, skipjack or blackfin tuna under certain situations, such as when he finds a board or something else floating offshore. He likes to drop a blue mackerel-patterned Rapala CD-14 way back in the spread (up to 250 feet), using the center or upper rigger. ''We were trolling recently and found a board, so I dropped a plug and we ended up with five wahoo and three tuna,'' Sharpe says. ''I also like to put one on the downrigger in grassy situations, because the cannonball acts as a weed guard.''ConstructionTrolling plugs come in several shapes, sizes and styles. One type is the lipped plug, with lips made from either plastic or stainless steel. One of the oldest makers of plastic plugs is L&S Bait Co., maker of MirrOlure baits. The company constructs plugs with both plastic and metal lips. Sales manager Eric Bachnik explains the differences between the two: ''Plastic lips are easier to run because they can take a lot of impact, and the lip doesn’t come out of tune. ''With the metal-lipped baits, many factors could cause the lips to bend, leading to aggravation. Most plastic-lipped lures have a tighter wiggle, meaning side-to-side action of the tail isn’t very large. They tend to go deeper, leading to more strikes from below. Metal-lipped lures have a snakelike motion with their swing at the tail.''One potential disadvantage of the plastic-lipped baits is a lack of sturdiness in the connection from lip to plug. Sometimes this can cause the bait to separate during a hookup or extended fight with a big-game fish. To avoid this dilemma, Bachnik says, MirrOlure inserts an extra piece of plastic through the lip into the bait’s body when the plug is molded, for added reinforcement. Mann’s Baits also makes a variety of plastic-lipped trolling plugs. Marketing administrator Suzanne Newsom says the company stresses toughness and durability for its saltwater line of products. ''We use a through-body wire on our Stretch G50+ trolling plug,'' she says. ''It reduces bite-offs.'' Mann’s typically does a production run of 3,000 lures each day and tests them at random, putting them into a pond or an aquarium to check for action. She says advantages of plastic-lipped plugs include cheaper cost, added balance and greater stability.Another type of trolling plug is the vibrating or wobbling plug. This bait’s action imitates movements of small bonito, mackerel or dorado. These typically are made of hard plastic. Dennis Braid makes eight models in three different shapes and several sizes to target a wide range of game fish. He says this type of plug offers several advantages. ''The Little Speedy [vibration-type lures] will outfish surface lures,'' he says. ''They’ll catch the eye of a tuna or wahoo sooner, and the vibrating action attracts the game fish before a surface swimming lure will.''One important point about using these lures, according to Braid, is rigging. When setting up your terminal gear, use wire, but try not to go over 125-pound-test. When anglers go too heavy on the wire, that creates drag, keeping the lure from diving effectively. If fishing for smaller fish, you can even switch over to 80- to 130-pound fluorocarbon. Watch Those Hooks!These skippers point to just a few potential negatives of using trolling plugs. First, be careful when using models with treble hooks to pull a hooked fish into the boat. A lively dolphin can really do some damage if you’re not paying attention. Debarb the trebles or switch to single hooks to greatly reduce chances of injury.Also, if you’re fishing a strong current and making a lot of tight angles and turns, watch out for line tangles. It’s best to troll directly into or with a rip. Finally, always carry a pair of needle-nosed pliers if using metal-lipped plugs. These lures occasionally get out of balance. If the plug’s diving to the right, bend the front of the lip to the left, and vice versa. Most of the time a slight adjustment will do the trick.Altogether, the pros far outweigh the cons when using offshore trolling plugs. These baits provide variety to any spread, so anglers can increase their chances of hooking up with surface-shy game fish.

Offshore Trolling Plug Manufacturers
Boone Bait
GUIDES MENTIONEDCapt. Dave BaconSanta Barbara,
Capt. Brent BallayVenice,
Mann’s Bait
Capt. Jim SharpeBig Pine Key,