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December 24, 2003

Sabiki Savvy

Expert Advice on Choosing and Using Bait-Catching Rigs.

If you're the type who strolls into a tackle shop and pulls a few packages of sabikis off the rack without really looking ("Hey, they're all the same"), then you may also be the type who wonders why the other guy always seems to pluck more pilchards off the bait patch. Sabikis, quills, gold-hook rigs, bait makers - known by many names, they become tangle-prone, shirt-snagging terrors when entrusted to the wrong hands. When properly selected and employed, however, these multihook marvels produce livewells full of healthy, hardy baits. Take the time to compare various rigs and you'll see that all sabikis are not created equal.

Branching Out
A sabiki's basic components include the main line and three or more branch lines (droppers), each sporting hooks decorated with feathers, thin strips of processed fish skin or small plastic attractors. Though certain details may seem insignificant at first, the individual characteristics of main line, branches and hooks (also called quills) determine how well they work together as a balanced unit.

"Pay close attention to the branch's diameter or its pound test because line diameter directly affects visibility," says Capt. Ray Rosher of Miami (305-788-3474; A full-time charter captain who consistently finds his way to the winner's circle in south Florida sailfish tournaments, Rosher, along with two partners, formed R&R Tackle several years ago. As if all that weren't enough, he also catches and sells live baits commercially. In his constant on-the-water research and development, Rosher always looks for ways to improve the company's sabiki rigs.

"In murky water or when baitfish feed aggressively, they'll hit almost anything. But heavily pressured or finicky fish aren't so easily fooled," he says. "A thick main line usually won't spook baitfish, but they'll see the branch ahead of the quill. Our first experimental sabiki had 15-pound main line with 8-pound branches, and that rig proved less productive than lighter ones when I used it for pilchards in clear water off Miami. So we scaled down to 10-pound main and 5-pound branches, and that rig works very well. Trimming just 3 pounds off the branch's line strength made a huge difference."

Branch lines should be long enough to allow quills to move naturally and seductively through the water, but excessive branch length promotes tangles and restricts the number of droppers attached to the main line. When studying ways to improve pilchard rigs, Rosher examined existing models. "I felt the branches were longer than necessary and spaced too far apart," he says.

By slightly shortening the branches, Rosher found he could maintain the quills' fish-catching attraction while adding more droppers to the same length of main line without making the rig unmanageable. "Where other rigs had only six hooks, I could squeeze in eight by shortening the branches and placing them closer together. If several quills break off, you can keep using that sabiki effectively with just four or five branches. But if you start out with a six-hook model, it won't take long to get down to an inefficient two or three hooks; then you have to change rigs," he says.

Placing quills too close together leads to problems because many baitfish swim upward when hooked. If two hooked fish tangle, or if one fish crosses with an empty branch, the hooks work against each other, and the fish pop off when the line tightens. "While my objective is to keep branches as long as possible and fit as many as I can on the main line, I have to maintain proper separation between dropper knots to prevent hooks from coming in contact with each other," Rosher says. For example, he spaces 4-inch branches at 10-inch intervals on the main line. With the sabiki stretched tight, the hooks always remain at least 2 inches apart.

Depending on the targeted baitfish, having more branches per sabiki may not always prove advantageous. "In the Gulf of Mexico, hardtails [blue runners] stand out as the bait of choice for king mackerel," says Capt. Bob Clement (251-666-4446;, who charters his 34 Fountain 401K out of Mobile, Alabama, and fishes the Southern Kingfish Association tournament circuit with his wife, Capt. Julie Clement. "For hardtails, I use Daiichi sabikis with size 4 hooks and 20-pound branch line. These rigs come with six quills, but if you hook six hardtails in the 3- to 5-pound range, you'll never land them. So I usually cut the main line in half and fish each piece as a three-hook rig for hardtails in the Gulf," says Clement.

Good as Gold
Manufacturers produce a wide variety of sabikis with different hook sizes and quill types in an effort to tailor products to suit specific bait-catching situations. The term "gold-hook rig" no longer describes many of the sabikis on the market today. For instance, Daiichi sabikis feature the company's patented red Bleeding Bait hooks. Does color make a difference? "When they were introduced last year, I tried the Daiichi rigs side by side with other brands I'd been using. The red hooks outfished the others by a ratio of 3-to-1. That made me a believer," Clement says.

Regardless of color preferences, hook size must match the baits you're trying to catch. As mentioned earlier, Clement employs size 4 hooks to catch blue runners. For pilchards, Rosher recommends PG4 or PR4 models from R&R. The product codes stand for Pilchard Green and Pilchard Red (indicating quill color), with hooks in size 4. "Don't let the number confuse you, because we use Chinese hook sizes. In this case, No. 4 compares with an American size 12," he says.

After deciding on hook size, anglers still must choose from a wide variety of quill dressings. Options include real fish skin, feathers, plastic squid or shrimp, and Fishskin (a lure-skirt material trademarked by Area Rule Engineering). Rosher offers advice for narrowing down selections: "Goggle-eyes prefer quills with some mass, such as feathers or plastic squid bodies. The thin texture and iridescent finish of natural fish skin work better for pilchards," he says. "To generalize for fishermen throughout the world, I'd recommend fish-skin quills without feathers for baitfish under 5 or 6 inches."

Rosher's experience in catching goggle-eyes demonstrates the importance of always carrying a diverse selection of sabikis. "Don't assume the fish will bite what they hit last night or last week. Start out using at least two different rigs," he says. He usually begins fishing with his two "tester rigs," an R&R GIL10 - which has six white feathers, two pink and two black - and an SQ8, which has plastic squid in a variety of colors, such as blue, red and clear.

"Pay close attention to which quills the baits hit," Rosher instructs. "When using a multicolored rig, sometimes I catch fish only on black quills or only on white ones. Sometimes the squid rig works better than feathers and vice versa. If the baits are hitting mainly black quills, for example, I then put out another rig with all black. Along with multiple color options, you need a variety of branch lines so you can lighten up if the fish get shy."

Jigging Styles
"Traveling to fish throughout the Southeast has taught me to adapt sabiki techniques to suit different situations," Clement says. "In the Gulf, we sight-fish for hardtails by slowly approaching oil rigs and looking for activity on the surface. Here, the trick is to cast across a bait school rather than directly into it. You then get hits as the sabiki falls through the school. If you cast the rig right into the middle of the school, it spooks the fish."

Clement switches tactics when hardtails fail to show on the surface. He noses up to an oil rig and drops a sabiki to the bottom, then jigs it quickly, working his way up until he finds fish. "After three or four sharp, upward strokes of about 2 feet, hold the rod still for several seconds. That's when you'll get hit. I believe the jigging gets the hardtails' attention, and the settling quills prompt them to bite," he says.

A sounder often takes the guesswork out of pinpointing productive depths. For just this reason, Clement uses Daiwa 40HC line-counter reels. "When I mark bait at 40 feet, the line-counter reel lets me drop a sabiki right to them. As soon as the rig reaches their depth, I click the reel in gear and usually start hooking up immediately," he says.

Many king mackerel pros fishing the Atlantic Coast rely on cast nets to guarantee a well full of pogies for a day of slow-trolling. At a recent tournament in Morehead City, North Carolina, Clement followed suit by netting pogies, then went a step farther. "While prefishing the event, we found sizable kingfish well offshore. I always try to catch and use naturally occurring bait, but pogies don't usually roam that far out. So we used sabikis to catch cigar minnows and Spanish sardines," he says. "Wrecks and hard-bottom areas make the best places to find cigar minnows. Using the sounder, you'll see that cigars tend to school in a vertical orientation rather than spreading out at a uniform depth. They may range over a 20-foot-tall section of the water column. To catch cigar minnows, drop the sabiki into their midst, jig it rapidly several times and let it settle. I use the same technique for Spanish sardines."

To catch cigar minnows off south Florida, Rosher first draws them into range with chum. "Cigs come up and eat right out of the chum bag," he says. "Hold your rod over the transom so the sabiki hangs within a foot or two of the chum bag, just down-current. Keep the rod dead still, with the sabiki's top swivel at the surface. When you feel a tap or light pressure on the line, slowly lift the rod. Jerking the rod will snatch the quill away from the fish or rip its lips. Gently lift the rig from the water, and if the baits make a run, lower the rod carefully to follow them down. Turn them as soon as you can - the minnows only make about a two-second run - and lift them into the boat. If you get too forceful with the rod, most of the fish come off the hooks."

Rosher finds an almost-do-nothing approach irresistible to goggle-eyes. "Very rarely do gogs bite sharply jigged quills. They like falling quills, but sometimes prefer stationary quills. On some nights, I catch more goggle-eyes by just leaving the rod in the holder. At times, I may even have to lift and lower the rod to compensate for boat movement to keep the rig stationary," he says.

Pilchards seem less fussy about jigging style, perhaps because of their competitive schooling behavior. "Pilchards form such tightly packed schools that they mark as a solid wall and light up like fire on a color recorder," Rosher says. "When a sabiki gets down to their level, it doesn't really make much difference if it's held still or jigged. When one pilchard sees something that a thousand other pilchards haven't yet eaten, it grabs the quill."

No Christmas Trees
Proper technique and a sensitive touch go a long way toward preventing the transformation from neat sabiki to tangled disaster. First of all, don't lower a rig without monitoring the line. "Pilchards can hook themselves on a totally slack line because they pull against the weight and against each other. Before you know it, they've turned the sabiki into a fist-size ball of monofilament and baitfish all rolled together. Charter captains call that a Christmas tree," says Rosher. "Depending on your budget, you can then spend 20 minutes trying to untangle the mess or cut it off and tie on another rig."

Avoid Christmas trees like the Grinch by letting line out slowly and maintaining contact with the sabiki at all times. Simply opening the bail and dumping line fails to transmit bites. Stop every few seconds to bounce the rig on a tight line as it falls. Hold the rod high, let out 4 feet, stop the line with your finger and drop the rod. Then lift the rod again as line spools out, hold and drop. "Staging the line down like this lets you check the rig to see if any baits have hit," Rosher says.

Leaving a finger on the line allows an angler to detect bites and react accordingly. When you feel a hooked fish vibrating, don't reel up immediately. Instead, Rosher recommends closing the bail or locking the spool and gently bouncing the rod in hopes of hooking more baits. "Don't hurry to reel in after getting the first bite," he says. "Wait five seconds or so, then begin winding slowly - about one turn of the handle every second or two - to ease the fish up. Once you're halfway to the surface, reel a bit faster. That's how you get big strings of baits to the boat. Many people make the mistake of rushing once they hook up: They feel a bite, jerk hard and reel fast - and catch one baitfish or none.

"Goggle-eyes, threadfin herring and pilchards all swim upward when hooked. Closely monitor tension on the line after hooking the first fish, or you'll get tangles," Rosher warns. "If you notice slack, start winding to keep the line tight. In this case, you've probably hooked so many baits that they're able to overcome the weight and swim upward with it. To avoid a knotted rig, you have to compensate by retrieving line. Switch to a heavier sinker if baitfish keep tangling."

Boating Baits
Unless rig-stripping predators such as 'cudas or kingfish threaten to pilfer your pilchards, don't speed-crank loaded sabikis back to the boat. "Set drags lightly to avoid overpowering baitfish on the line, and use rods with soft tips for shock absorption," Rosher says. "Don't use a brisk, lift-drop-reel fighting style to retrieve bait rigs because this alternates excessive pressure with no pressure on the fish. Consistent pressure is more successful, so reel steadily and let the baits run if they make a surge."

Wind the rig all the way to the rod tip (put a bead on the line ahead of the swivel to protect the rod tip), and carefully lift it from the water. "Some folks seem to think that a full string of baits is too heavy to lift with the rod, but don't grab the line with your hand," says Rosher. "Without the rod's flexibility, either you'll lose the entire sabiki or baits will shake off because there's no give as the rig comes out of the water."

To keep the operation going smoothly when baits start biting, each person on board had better know his job. With three other people on his boat, Clement mans the controls while two anglers jig sabikis and the third wields a bent-wire dehooker to deposit baits in the livewell. "The more hooks in the water, the faster we fill the livewell. But when things get fast and furious, it's good to have a designated dehooker to put baits in the well," he says. That person also checks a bait's condition, separating bleeding or gill-hooked fish from healthy ones.

Some skippers ask anglers to drop the entire sabiki, baits and all, into the livewell so they can unhook baits as the angler lifts the rig. That way, any fish that fall off drop into the well. The drill on Rosher's Miss Britt goes like this: Anglers lift sabikis slowly from the water and hold the rod high overhead, then grab the sinker at the bottom of the rig and, while stepping away from the transom, lower the rod to a nearly horizontal position. "Holding the rod horizontally keeps baits swinging freely on branches rather than slapping against the main line, which would scrape off slime and scales," Rosher explains. The angler backs up to position the top quill over the well while the mate uses a dehooker to flip baits into the well without touching them.

Don't get discouraged when unwelcome guests clip branches off your bait rigs; losing baits and sabikis to toothy bandits has an upside. "Baitfish on top usually indicate predators below," Clement points out. "If we're constantly getting nailed while catching bait, we try to fill the well quickly and put out a livey in the same area. That trick has accounted for many kingfish on our boat."