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October 25, 2001

Blue-Water Bar Hopping

Dredges and Spreaders Entice Pelagic Game Fish to Step Up and Take Shots at the Bar

Looking for a way to draw more game fish to investigate your offshore trolling pattern? Put to use our knowledge of the way pelagics typically feed, pursuing schooling baitfish such as ballyhoo, tuna and flying fish. If productive lure spreads resemble small groups of prey, wouldn't a larger school of potential meals attract even more attention from hungry predators? You bet.


"Spreader bars make a commotion on the surface, and fish"hear that noise," says Capt. Rich Barrett, who skippers the Grander, a 46-foot Whitaker, on fishing missions in locations ranging from Northeast canyons to South America. "A few years ago, somebody gave me a spreader bar rigged with Green Machines," he recalls. "I was reluctant to try it because I prefer using natural baits for yellowfin, but the spreader bar was so productive I couldn't take it out of the pattern."

"Spreader bars make your pattern look more realistic by increasing the number of baits," says Lee Green of Stalker Outfitters in West Hampton Beach, New York. "A standard, four-rod trolling arrangement places only four baits in the water. Put two spreader bars on your flat lines, and suddenly you've got 32 baits swimming in your pattern - 15 baits on each bar, plus two rigger baits. I believe this gives fish more confidence in coming up to the boat."

RAISING THE BAR
Several daisy chains of lures or baits dangling from a thin metal rod comprise a spreader bar, which performs exactly as the name implies: It distributes the trailing baits over a wider area, kicking up surface commotion when trolled. The entire assembly attaches to the main line (or leader) of a rod and reel via a pull point at the bar's center.

Most spreader bars consist of a center line flanked by one or two daisy chains, also called wings, on each side. The center line is always longer than the wings. While all the other baits on the bar serve as hookless attractors, the last one on the center line holds a sharp steel surprise for hungry attackers intent on enjoying easy pickings. Predators zero in on this "stinger" hook-bait because it mimics a weak straggler trying to catch up to the school. Then, rather than scoring a quick snack, the fish finds itself in a hunter-becomes-hunted role reversal.

Early versions of spreader bars - large, heavy contraptions festooned with mackerel - were employed by anglers pursuing giant bluefin in the Northeast. "New materials have allowed manufacturers and anglers to innovate with these things," says Chuck Richardson, president of Tournament Cable. "At one time, spreader bars only worked with heavy tackle. Now you can find them to match any class of tackle all the way down to 20-pound-test."

While stainless steel once represented the only sensible option in terms of construction material for bars designed to pull large baits in salt water, today's modern alloys offer attractive advantages. "Tournament Cable's spreader bars are made of titanium," says Richardson. "Titanium's qualities include lightness, corrosion resistance and flexibility, but these bars, like stainless steel, can get bent out of shape. We're currently experimenting with a nickel-titanium alloy called nitinol, which was developed for use in surgical procedures. Nitinol is very strong, yet light, and it springs back to its original shape when flexed. We expect it to work very well, especially for light-tackle spreader bars. The main problem is nitinol's cost: more than $140 per pound."

BAR EXAM
  Like good fishing rods, spreader bars must combine appropriate amounts of flexibility and backbone so they can perform their intended task. That's why manufacturers offer bars of various weights or thicknesses. "Stalker's low-speed bar is designed to pull large, heavy baits such as 17-inch shell squids, so it has to be very rigid in order to keep the pattern wide," explains Green. "A high-speed bar is made for pulling lighter baits. It flexes more, so it's less likely to tangle or trip over itself."

A bird keeps Tournament Cable's Splash Bar (foreground) riding high. Calcutta's umbrella dredge (center) comes rigged with Bullyhoo and folds for convenient storage.
Photo By Andy Hahn

Rigging tip: Use large beads held in place by sleeves crimped to the monofilament to position shell squids on spreader-bar lines. Some skippers put Styrofoam floats inside the squids to increase buoyancy, or insert sections cut from plastic cups to help squids retain their shape.
Photo By Andy Hahn

As Richardson puts it, greater flexibility helps prevent bars from "crabbing," or sidestepping across the surface. Also, if a bar's too stiff, baits go through the water in a straight line. "Flexing adds action to the whole spread as a bar opens and closes," says Richardson.

"But you don't want too much flex. It's important that a spreader bar's pattern remains open," says Green. "Some high-speed bars have a tendency to fold in on themselves like a '. They run very well, but you don't get the full benefit of a bar that way."

Almost anything goes when it comes to choosing which baits to string up behind bars. "You can get creative with a spreader bar and rig it with shell squids, jet-heads or just about any other type of lure," says Richardson. "I believe than rigging bars with natural baits - ballyhoo, mullet, mackerel - is the best way to go, but that takes a lot of time. Some guys like to mix things up by putting artificials on the wings and a natural ballyhoo in the hook-bait position."

Because they're easier to rig, use and store, Green prefers artificials on his bars. He recommends selecting hook baits to match target species: "Our Ultimate Spreader Bar features a snap swivel at the end of the center line and a variety of interchangeable hook baits on short leaders. You can target dolphin with a small lure, bigeye tuna with a large jet-head or marlin with a chugger-type lure. For white marlin, you may want to use natural ballyhoo as the hook bait," Green says.

According to Green, arriving at a bar's ideal pattern - the correct number and placement of lures on the center line and wings - results from on-the-water, trial-and-error testing. Rather than plowing through the water, the bar should ride just above the surface while the lures or baits trail behind. "Lures that skip across the surface, such as shell squids, can be rigged close to the bar on short leaders," Green says. "Rig jet-heads or other heavy lures farther back so they don't drag the bar underwater."

Factors that determine how many lures a spreader bar can support include the bar's length and strength, along with lure type. For example, Richardson recommends attaching nine shell squids to a 36-inch, medium-flex bar. "But you can put 13 squids on a heavier bar of the same length," he says.

"We put 15 baits on our 40-inch, high-speed bar when rigging with 6-inch squids," says Green. "The same bar only has 10 baits when we rig it with wet-heads because they're heavier."

SPREAD THE NEWS
While shopping for spreader bars, consider the tackle you'll be tying them to. "Use common sense when matching bars to trolling gear," Richardson advises. "A 9-inch bar with a bait on each wing and a stinger down the middle works fine on 20-pound tackle, and you can also use it on heavier gear. On the other hand, you can't expect to pull 48-inch bar on 30-pound outfits."

First-time bartenders should start out with one spreader in the pattern so they can get a feel for working with it. When setting out a bar, don't drop the whole assembly off the transom - prop wasp will make a tangled mess of it. "Carefully lower the baits and bar over the side of the boat, where clear water and forward motion allow the lines to flow back without tangling," says Barrett.

"The easiest way to deploy a bar is on the third or fourth wave, running straight from a rod tip in the flat-line position. That helps it stay up on the surface," says Green. After gaining confidence and experience, incorporate more bars into your offshore arsenal. "When trolling multiple bars, keep them in the center of the pattern, running from flat lines or the short-rigger spots, and place single baits on the outside," says Green. "This creates a bait-ball effect just behind the prop wash."

Barrett's preferred yellowfin pattern consists of two spreader bars in the short-rigger slots and another bar pulled from a center rigger. Single ballyhoo baits follow-up in the long-rigger positions. "The bars are on fairly short lines because I like to make sharp turns when trolling," he says. When tuna seem scattered, Barrett switches to search mode by replacing ballyhoo baits with lures and bumping up the speed.

Using 50-pound outfits provides Barrett with the happy medium he needs when pursuing yellowfin. "The gear is heavy enough to pull spreader bars as well as take on big tuna from the chair, yet manageable for stand-up anglers when we get multiple hookups," he says. Another trick includes chafing of the main line: "Don't run the naked mono through the rigger clip because bars create a considerable amount of drag. Make a floss loop [handcuff] and clip that to the rigger. This lets you set a tighter release tension without damaging your line."

THE MORE THE MERRIER
Tournament anglers and record seekers who wish to take advantage of spreader bars' fish-calling qualities without violating IGFA rules (see sidebar) can employ the devices as teasers. Calcutta Baits recently introduced two spreader-bar teasers in its Gunslinger series: The 25 Special consists of a 4-foot bar and 25 Calcutta Bullyhoo (artificial ballyhoo) distributed on five lines, while the 44 Magnum features a 6-foot spreader and seven lines pulling 44 Bullyhoo.

Calcutta Baits president Howard Christians developed these teasers after talking to skippers who fish for sails off Mexico. They all told me, "The more the merrier, the bigger the better, when talking about teasers," Christians says. He tested prototypes of the 25 Special during the Old Salt Loop tournament off Clearwater, Florida, last September. The results proved very convincing. "Compared to daisy chains or single teasers, the spreaders look like bigger schools of fish. We won the tournament, outfishing boats using "normal" teasers. We released an estimated 350-pound blue marlin and a white marlin, and boated a 152-pound yellowfin along with several dolphin - not to mention missing shots at another blue marlin and a large yellowfin," he says.

The key to success involves placing baits close to the teasers. Christians ran spreader bars from the riggers on bridge-teaser lines, then positioned a "loaded bait" (in this case, a lure/Bullyhoo combination) about 10 feet to the outside and slightly behind each teaser. Each side also had another lure/Bullyhoo combo riding two waves behind the first. A shotgun lure far down the middle completed the setup. "Fish come up to investigate the boat noise, see a school of baitfish and jump on the weaklings falling behind," says Christians.

Stalker Outfitters also offers spreader bars rigged specifically for use as teasers. "The overall length of the lines on a teaser bar should be about 4 1/2 feet, compared to 8" or more on a hooked spreader bar," says Green. "Shorter lines, as well as heavier monofilament, help prevent the baits from tangling when the bar's pulled up out of the way and hanging from a rigger. We usually rig lures on teaser bars slightly closer together, or put fewer on each line to make the pattern more simple."

GRATEFUL DREDGE
Working like 3-D spreader bars, dredges pull chains of lures or baits behind four to six arms fanned out around a central pull point. Sometimes called umbrellas - but not to be confused with umbrella rigs favored by fishermen in the Nort-east after bluefish and stripers - these devices mimic a bait ball and help put curious game fish in a feeding mood. Unlike spreader bars, dredges are designed to run underwater, and they do not carry a hook bait.

Some skippers, such as Capt. Franky Pettolina, view dredges as the ultimate teaser. Pettolina (410-289-1915) charters the 46-foot Post, Last Call, out of Ocean City, Maryland, and pursues Cancun's sailfish in winter. "When billfish bites are tough to co"e 'y, dredges produce," he says. "It's a cumbersome teaser, but the effort pays off. Compare results between a boat using a dredge and one that doesn't - you'll see that, on a day-in, day-out basis, the dredge raises more fish."

Manufacturers such as Calcutta offer dredges pre-rigged with artificial lures. Despite this convenience, Pettolina invests time in hanging natural mullet on his dredges. "I've had more success with 8- or 9-inch mullet," he says. "Mullet have wider profiles than ballyhoo, so they make more of a disturbance in the water."

Dredges must run deep in order to be effective. Depending on sea conditions, Pettolina uses 16- to 8-ounce weights then trolling at "dead-bait speeds" between 5 and 6 knots. "Know the old saying, the bigger the weight, the dumber the mate?" Pettolina asks. "With dredges, it's the exact opposite. Don't be afraid to add plenty of lead to keep the dredge down. Make sure it stays at least several feet underwater, even when the boat makes turns. If a dredge pops out of the water, baits can flip over one of the bars and snap it off."

Pettolina usually deploys a dredge from a stern cleat so it runs 40 or 50 feet behind the transom, holding 10 to 16 feet under the surface. In his pet billfish pattern, Pettolina runs a single dredge on one side and pulls a daisy-chain teaser or double dredge on the other. "Then I position baits close to the dredge," he says. "Pin down flat-line baits so they run just ahead of the dredge, to the inside of the spread. Rigger baits should ride slightly behind and to the outside. The dredge needs to ride far enough back that it stays in clean water, out of the prop wash. Billfish are attracted by the dredge, then come up to pick off the flat-line or short-rigger bait."

Since deep-running dredges don't remain visible to the crew at all times, pull in the line every so often for a quick inspection. "Something with teeth can blast through and clip off several mullet, and you'll never know," warns Pettolina.

Why not add spreaders and dredges to your offshore bag of tricks? Once you see how effective they are, your baits will be spending more time behind bars.