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January 04, 2011

Pitch Baits Right!

Try this proven strategy, and boost your offshore score.

It was among the most humorous things I've seen on the water. Friend Harry Vernon III and I had a full spread of baits and teasers in play aboard my boat as we trolled offshore of Boat Harbour in the Abacos, Bahamas. Off the transom, a 96-fish Stripteaser dredge created the illusion of a large baitball some five feet beneath the surface. This fake smorgasbord proved too much for a 40-pound bull dolphin. Lit up like a neon sign, the bull charged the dredge and tried to devour the reflective bait decals.

I grabbed the flat-line outfit, which towed a medium-size ballyhoo at the surface and behind the dredge, and reeled the bait ahead of the feeding dolphin. But the dolphin was too focused on trying to eat fish decals to look up at my bait. I jigged the bait a few times, vying for the dolphin's attention, to no avail. Suddenly, it turned passive and began losing its vibrant colors. Did we blow our opportunity to catch it?

What happened next really befuddled us; the dolphin, now dull green and blue, lethargically swam into the middle of the dredge and stayed there. Appearing relaxed, it seemed content to swim among the fish strips - and it did for a minute or so. Vernon later joked that it looked like the fish was either enjoying an invigorating massage from those plastic strips or trying to breed with the fish dredge. Whatever its inspiration was, we caught the dolphin, but this required me to reel the bait ahead of the commotion and free-spool it back past the dredge. Then the dolphin lit up and consumed the bait. It was the perfect pitch-bait tactic, executed with a flat-line bait.

What's the Pitch?
Pitch-baiting is primarily an offshore big-boat billfishing trick in which a couple of rigged outfits remain ready for deployment. Should a sailfish or a white or blue marlin rise behind a surface teaser or dredge, an angler grabs the appropriate outfit and pitches the bait back to the fish. If a fish is on a surface teaser, the angler's job is to position the bait so that it takes the place of the teaser - which is reeled up and away from the fish by the captain. The goal is to coax the fish off the teaser and onto the bait. If this is done correctly, the fish heats up and is likely to feed aggressively. This aggressiveness, combined with the short distance between the rod and the fish, means minimal line stretch, and successful hookups are the norm.

When a fish rises behind a dredge, it's basically the same drill, though the dredge remains in place. Like my earlier example with the dolphin, successfully hooking a fish in this situation often requires a bait free-spooled back and down to just alongside or behind the dredge, where it appears as if the predator has injured it. Should the tactic appear natural, the charged-up fish will consume the bait, just as our big dolphin did.

Some may question the merits of pitch-baiting. Won't a full spread of baits or lures already in place catch fish? A well-tuned trolling spread certainly will, yet pitch-baiting enables a crew to take advantage of a fish that rises onto teasers or behind dredges. And while Offshore Trolling 101 dictates positioning a bait near any teaser or dredge, there are instances when game fish will ignore these offerings. Unless you have a pitch bait ready to go, you could miss what might be your golden opportunity to catch that fish.

Too often this tactic is reserved for large sport-fishing vessels with cockpit space for extra rods and well-honed teams to play out the pitch-baiting game. But small-boat anglers can also incorporate pitch-baiting into their arsenal and run up their scores.

Successful Strategies
I've fished with numerous big-boat offshore pros, and many design their spreads and pitch baits around both large and small- to medium-size game fish. That is, they tend to fish large baits and teasers off one side of their vessel and small to medium baits and teasers off the other side. And they have at least two pitch-bait outfits rigged for each situation.

For example, take one friend who spends spring and early summer marlin fishing in the Bahamas: He'll drag a large hookless teaser, with a rigged splashing mackerel positioned some 10 feet behind that teaser, from the short outrigger. The long outrigger on that side is often a horse ballyhoo. The pitch-bait rods for that side include a Penn International 70 filled with 80-pound-test monofilament paired to a stand-up rod and small, fresh school dolphin. There's also a 50-pound-class outfit that carries a splashing mackerel. In theory, that's the side where a blue marlin will likely rise, so these pitch baits stand ready for deployment here.

The opposite side often consists of a squid or cedar-plug daisy chain and a mix of small, medium and large ballyhoo. Since this side should raise sailfish, white marlin and small blue marlin - along with dolphin - the designated pitch baits include a 50-pound-class outfit with a medium to large ballyhoo and a small to medium ballyhoo paired with a small conventional outfit filled with 30-pound-test monofilament.