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October 25, 2001

Rigs for All Reasons

Five dead-bait rigs the pros use for dolphin, tuna and billfish.

Sometimes pelagic game fish respond incredibly well to artificials and mug every lure in your wake; other days, these predators demand the genuine item and accept no substitutes. Learn these five dead-bait rigs from the pros and you'll be ready for everything from dolphin and tuna to sails and marlin.

Give 'Em a Wedgie
The split-tail mullet tops many an offshore angler's dead-bait list because, when properly brined and rigged, it holds up under long hours of trolling and entices a wide variety of predators. Jack Reid of Jupiter, Florida, gets more fish-attracting action from his mullet by rigging them "wedge-head" style. This technique involves cutting a slot in the mullet's head during the deboning process. "Water pressure forces the head to plane down and from side to side, so the bait swims for a few seconds, then comes up to skip on the surface before diving again," says Reid, who feels this erratic movement provokes more strikes than a chin-weighted, straight-swimming mullet.

The unweighted, wedge-head split- tail mullet swims well on a monofilament leader and proves especially effective in the long rigger position of the trolling spread. Using mono poses no problem because this bait attracts mainly billfish and dolphin. However, Reid recommends wire leaders when trolling weighted mullet where chances of wahoo or kingfish attacks increase. On the other hand, Mark Pumo of Baitmasters of South Florida points out that many of his customers in the Northeast insist on mono leaders and chin weights when targeting tuna. "It's easier for tuna to grab a straight-tracking, weighted mullet running under the surface," he says.

Reid, a charter captain who now devotes his time to rigging mullet and ballyhoo at Bluewater Trolling Baits in Jupiter, recommends a fillet knife over a deboning tool for prepping mullet. "The knife cuts away more meat, so the bait's streamlined and has better action," he explains. Since bait suppliers make prepped mullet readily available - deboned, wedged, split, brined and frozen - rigging baits becomes a quick process.

Reid says an 8/0 long-shank hook is about right for a 10-inch mullet, but you may have to use a larger hook to keep the point well exposed. Make an inch-long incision between or just behind the pectoral fins, then insert the hook eye until it reaches the cut-out "wedge" in the mullet's head. Thread the leader (wire or mono) down into the head, through the hook eye and out the base of the gill plates. If desired, slip a chin weight on the leader before closing the loop with a crimp or haywire twist. "The loop should be big enough to let the bait move freely while trolled, but not so big that it can lock sideways over the mullet's head if it gets whacked by a billfish," says Reid.

Weighted mullet rigs should be finished off with two tight wraps of floss around the head and knotted under the chin to hold the gills shut. Reid usually completes his unweighted mullet with one quick stitch to keep the hook in place because "when a marlin crushes the bait, it could drive the hook inside the mullet's body and neutralize the hook-setting capability." Position the hook so a 3/4-inch gap remains between the point and the mullet's belly, pass the needle and floss above the shank and tie off at the belly. The loop of floss prevents the hook from disappearing in the bait upon a strike.

These rigs can be trolled at a variety of speeds. One of Reid's favorite tricks is to troll both weighted and unweighted wedge-head mullet in the same spread.

Watch Your Back, Mack
Pumo has noticed a downsizing trend in dead baits for marlin. "Many anglers now use smaller baits such as 12- to 15-inch mackerel because marlin can turn and swallow them more easily, and that increases hookup ratios," he says.

"Always scrape off a mackerel's teeth before rigging," warns Pumo. "Otherwise, you could cut yourself or risk severing the floss as you tie the last knot." Then limber up the toothless mack by bending it back and forth, particularly in the tail section. "Commercially available mackerel are gutted but not deboned. They can be pretty tough, so work them over well," he says.

Use an ice pick to poke a hole in the center of the mack's head, just behind the eyes, then slip the hook eye up into the head. Pumo recommends size 11/0 or 12/0 Mustad 7731 hooks for small mackerel. Pass the leader through the head and hook, then out below the gills, and make sure you didn't miss the hook eye before crimping the loop.

Some bait riggers use several pieces of floss when sewing shut the gills and belly, but Pumo prefers one 3-foot length because it offers speed and simplicity without affecting quality. Begin stitching in the gill plate just behind the jaw, leaving about 6 inches of tag end. Stitch down the belly, running the floss under the hook shank (not above the hook as done with the mullet). Don't stitch too close to the hook's bend where it exits the belly, since this could cause the bait to spin. Work past the hook to the end of the body cavity, then stitch back up to the mouth. Push the needle up through the lower jaw and out the top of the nose, then back up through the jaws again, forming a loop on each side to hold the mouth closed. Tie off under the chin and trim tag ends.

Going one step further, Pumo takes another piece of floss and, beginning between the two dorsal fins, stitches along the top of the mackerel's back toward the head. When he reaches the head, he wraps two turns around the mono leader loop, pulls it snug, stitches back to the starting point and ties off. Wrapping around the leader provides a pulling point at the top of the head like a trolling bridle, keeping the mackerel swimming under the surface. Also, the extra stitches in the back help keep the bait in one piece during those stressful, bill-whacking moments when a marlin attacks.

"Mackerel that have been brined or juiced with formaldehyde can be trolled at high speed in the same spread as lures," says Pumo. "Adding a skirt to the bait also prolongs a mackerel's trolling life."

Consider a Squid
A popular bait in the Pacific and Northeast, where squid are an abundant natural prey, this tentacled mollusk could well be your ace in the hole when times get rough, no matter where you're fishing. Rigged baitfish or lures lose action and become ineffective when bumpy seas force boats to troll at slow speeds, but, according to Pumo, "Squid perform best at 4 or 5 knots."

Pumo also reports that more anglers have begun to use squid, rather than baitfish, as pitch baits. "They float back nicely and offer a high hookup ratio because fish can swallow them easily," he explains.

The "quick and dirty" squid rig involves squeezing an egg sinker on the leader a few inches above the hook, then threading the leader through the squid's body. The sinker acts as a stopper to hold the squid in place, and the hook is hidden in its head. This method works well when rigging small squid for dolphin, but Pumo advises using a crimp to stop the sinker because squeezing the lead (some folks just smack it with a hammer) can damage monofilament and cost you a fish.

Taking time to bridle-rig squid results in a more natural presentation, whether the bait's trolled, pitched or -- for broadbills -- drifted deep. Pumo notes that more light-tackle anglers have been using this soft-bodied, boneless bait because "you can rig squid on smaller hooks and still hook billfish solidly." Several key points to properly rigging squid:
* Keep the head from tearing off by sewing it to the mantle.
* Make all stitches through the mantle's toughest part, along a line in the middle of the back.
* Bridle length must allow the squid to hang naturally straight (too short and the leader bends, too long and the squid bunches up on the hook).
* Hook, leader and bridle should be centered so the squid trolls without spinning. Store squid in very cold brine solution because contact with fresh water causes discoloration.

Strips Are Simple
Those new to the dead-bait game may want to start out with a less complicated yet highly effective rig for offshore trolling. "Bonito strips are easy to do properly and quickly," affirms Greg Rigg, former vice president of Bluewater Trolling Baits. "A poorly rigged ballyhoo spins and won't catch fish, but it's not crucial for strip baits to be absolutely perfect," he says in encouragement to novices.

Whether you're cutting your own from a freshly caught fish or selecting commercially available strips, watch for small details that make a big difference. Strips about 1/8-inch thick work best, and they should be cut on a bevel, angled from the skin toward the meat so no flesh is hanging over the edge. The leading edge should be straight across, with the strip tapering to a point at the other end. Strips must be rigged with the meat's grain sweeping back in order to keep water pressure from separating flesh from skin while trolling. You can use freshly cut strips, but Rigg strongly recommends brining to toughen them up. "It's like comparing fresh steak to beef jerky: Cured meat is chewier," he says.

Rigg cuts his bonito strips about an inch wide and uses 7-inch lengths for sailfish and dolphin. He trolls shorter baits for kingfish and notes that a 10- or 11-inch strip rigged with a Hawaiian Eye is fantastic for wahoo.

The next time you're plagued by picky eaters scoffing at the lures in your trolling spread, toss one of these dead-bait rigs over the transom and tell those fish to chew on this.