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January 20, 2011

Using Circle Hooks Offshore

Rig and fish ballyhoo and lures right for success

After we'd trolled the edge of the Gulf Stream all morning without a bite, I began to worry about the lures that we were dragging behind the boat. Instead of the traditional spread of ballyhoo and skirts common along the mid-Atlantic, I was watching a half-dozen big lures smoke and spurt across the surface of the water.

Ever since the National Marine Fisheries Service instituted rules requiring the use of non-offset circle hooks with natural baits in all marlin tournaments, mid-Atlantic anglers have been adapting their strategies and tactics. In tournaments, many have abandoned their favored rigs - spreads of dink baits, small ballyhoo and Ilander lures - in favor of the mandated natural baits rigged with a circle hook or artificials armed with a single J hook. Others have simply refined their artificial lure technique.

"For blue marlin," says Capt. Rom Whitaker, "I think lures are the way to go."

So lures work for blue marlin, but what about other species, like whites, sails, dolphin, wahoo and tuna?

That answer became clear when a psycho dolphin rocketed out of the water with one of Whitaker's smaller lures stuck fast in the corner of its mouth. After a short fight and a quick gaff job, the green and gold fish was writhing on the deck of the boat.

Whitaker pulls his two biggest lures on the flat lines. The left-side lure rides just in front of the second boat wake, while the right-side lure is placed on the third wave. He pulls a big lure from each short rigger and a smaller lure from each long rigger. The short riggers are set to ride the face of the fourth wave, and the long-rigger lures go on the fifth wave.  "I'll even add another big lure down the center on the sixth or seventh wave," he says. Whitaker also keeps a big Spanish mackerel rigged with a 12/0 circle hook in its nose to throw at any blue marlin that comes window shopping. 

He rounds out the spread with a pair of big teasers. "I like something that splashes and throws a lot of water," he says. He prefers a Black Bart Extreme Breakfast on one side and a plunger-style lure on the other. The teasers are set on the second wave behind the boat, opposite or slightly ahead of the flat-line lures.

Since he pulls lures fast, he covers more ground, a definite advantage when bites are few and far between.

Dinks and Circles
While white marlin, sails and spears will strike an artificial, anglers targeting these species usually use a circle hook lashed to the nose of a small ballyhoo.

I first began using circle hooks to target white marlin when I started fishing with Dr. Ken Neill, one of Virginia's Master Anglers and a longtime advocate of the technique.


GALLERY: Rigging a Ballyhoo

GALLERY: Skirted Ballyhoo Combo

Neill pulls both small naked ballyhoo and larger skirted ballyhoo in his trolling spread. He places a small ballyhoo on the flat lines and long riggers, while a larger ballyhoo and a Chugger or Ilander on the short rigger run outside and behind the teaser. A pair of artificial dredges are pulled off the stern cleats in the clear water, and a pair of squid chains from a teaser reel on the bridge ride outside and behind the dredge. The flat-line bait runs behind the dredge, next to the squid chain. "I want it to look like the flat-line bait is trying to catch up with the dredge," he says. Finally, a naked ballyhoo on the long rigger follows 10 yards behind each short-rigger bait.

Neill always keeps a naked ballyhoo and a Spanish mackerel rigged as pitch baits. The V pattern of the trolling spread allows him to drop back a flat line or throw a suitable pitch bait to any fish that visits his teasers.