Side-Tracker Systems Put Spreader Bars in the Strike Zone

A new breed of trolling birds with directional keels position spreader bars in clean water to catch more tuna and other pelagics.

December 8, 2020
Yellowfin tuna caught using side-tracking spreader bars
Offshore anglers in the Northeast and elsewhere have discovered the effectiveness of trolling side-tracking spreader bars for species such as yellowfin tuna. Courtesy Sterling Tackle

The hottest type of offshore trolling lure for the new decade goes by a variety of names such as offset spreader bars, side-tracker bars, wide trackers and tracker birds. Introduced about three years ago by Sterling Tackle in Beesley Point, New Jersey, these systems have exploded in popularity, especially among Northeast tuna anglers.

Other companies now offer side-tracker spreader bars as well, including Carlson Offshore Tackle, ChatterLures, and Tournament Cable. As word has spread about the effectiveness of this gear, so has use in other regions such as Florida’s central Atlantic coast, the upper Gulf of Mexico, Puerto Rico and Southern California, according to Steve Breunig, founder and owner of Sterling Tackle.

Angled keel keep lures away from the prop wash
An angled keel in the bird-hub of Sterling Tackle’s Wide Tracker spreader-bar system causes the array of lures to swing outward, away from the prop wash and into clean water. Courtesy Sterling Tackle

Keel is the Deal

“At the heart of the system is a teaser bird incorporating a bar and an offset keel,” Breunig explains. “This hub causes the spread of lures to track wider and gets them into cleaner water outside the prop wash.” As with conventional spreader bars and daisy chains, only the stinger lure at the very back of the spread carries a hook. Sterling made its stinger interchangeable, allowing anglers to select a lure that best matches the predominant forage at any given time.

Sterling’s Wide Tracker system
Side-tracking spreader bars such as Sterling’s Wide Tracker system swing outward as much as 20 to 30 feet versus straight-running spreader bars or other lures. Courtesy Sterling Tackle

Stable and Steady

The concept occurred to Breunig while offshore fishing about four years ago. “Late in season, the bites seem to come from farther back, but the farther back I set the spreader bars, the more they creeped into the center, even when using outriggers,” he says. “We started to experiment with various keels on the birds to force them to the outside.”

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Within a few years, Breunig had perfected a system that worked so well that he didn’t even need outriggers to troll the spreads in clean water. Thus, the Sterling Wide Tracker system debuted. But his design involves more than just a keel. Creating the proper weight balance for the bird helps ensure stable trolling speeds, Breunig adds.

ChatterLures' spreader bars can be trolled from either side
The side-tracking spreader bars from ChatterLures allow you to change the direction of the angled keel to troll it on either side of the boat. Courtesy ChatterLures

Left or Right

Sterling’s Wide Tracker systems come in right- and left-hand versions and range in price from $99 to $145. Other brands also offer side-tracker bird-bar systems with adjustable keels. The directional keel on ChatterLures side-tracker bird, for example, pivots and locks so you can troll the spread on either side of the boat. These products range in price from $129.99 to $149.99.

Side-tracking spreader bars trolled from outriggers
Side-tracking spreader bars can also be trolled from outriggers to create an even wider spread. Most anglers also pull rigged ballyhoo or diving plugs on flat lines or center riggers between the side-trackers. Courtesy Sterling Tackle

Quite a Spread

Depending on trolling speed and distance, side-tracker bars such as Sterling’s Wide Trackers expand a trolling spread by 40 to 60 feet. However, don’t allow side-trackers to swing too far out, if you want multiple hookups. “They need to be out in clean water, but not so far out that a school of tuna can’t find other bars or trolled lures and baits elsewhere in the spread, such as down the middle or on opposite sides of the wake,” Breunig says.

Multiple speeds allow for trolling for different species
If conditions allow, Sterling Tackle recommends trolling speeds of 5 to 6 mph for bluefin tuna and 8 mph for yellowfin when using the Wide Tracker system. Courtesy Sterling Tackle

Trolling Speed

While the sea state usually determines trolling speed, Breunig likes to run the Wide Trackers at about 5 to 6 mph for bluefin tuna and 8 mph for yellowfin and bigeye tuna. As with any offshore trolling lure, rough seas force captains to slow down so lures remain in the water. To date, the biggest fish caught on a Sterling Wide Tracker was a 440-pound bluefin.

Pelagic gamefish can be targeted using the side-tracker spreader bars
Most offshore anglers target tuna with side-tracking spreader bars, but the systems are effective for host of other pelagic gamefish, including mahi, marlin and wahoo. Courtesy Sterling Tackle

Bonus Fish

Tuna represent the primary focus of side-tracker bar anglers, but a variety of other offshore species bite these lures, including mahi, marlin (blue and white) and wahoo. If you might encounter wahoo, Breunig recommends rigging with wire to prevent the inevitable bite-off from a toothy ‘hoo.


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