Click through the images in the gallery above.
Captain Blake Hayden is a master at catching speckled seatrout around Virginia Beach and in the Elizabeth River. Despite his notoriety as a live-baiter who has scored numerous monsters more than 10 pounds, we soaked very few livies when he and I got together this past December. Instead, we trolled a pair of Rapala X-Rap XR10 lures, and caught the heck out of these fish –– so many that we lost track of how many we released.
As simple as trolling swimming plugs might appear, it requires knowledge to be successful, including the subtle tricks Hayden employs, which we’ll get into later. The bottom line: Trolling swimming plugs is a great way to cover ground and score a wide range of game fish. I’ve taken wahoo, yellowfin and blackfin tunas, king mackerel, snook, tarpon, seatrout, and even groupers and snappers on them. Sometimes they’re better than live bait.
Dial In the Zone
When fish hold near bottom, or deep in the water column, towing a swimming plug near the surface won’t do much good. The inverse holds for fish near the surface, if you’re dragging a diving plug well beneath them.
Identify where your targeted game fish are likely to be and send the plug to them. Many times, the difference between success and failure is a few feet. Case in point: When I trolled CD18s through Haulover Inlet in Miami with snook guru David Justice, he’d let out enough line so the plug bumped bottom. Then he took a couple of turns on the reel handle to keep the plug just off the bottom, where it would get blasted by big snook. If that plug wasn’t swimming within three feet of the bottom, it went unnoticed.
It’s the same general rule trolling alongside bridges for snook, striped bass, groupers, and snappers and, of course, seatrout.
Hayden had us trolling channel edges and over mounds. We marked concentrations of bait and trout on our fish finder. We then dropped the lures back and down until they were in the ambush zone. We kept the rods out of the holders, as the upright positions changed the running attitude of the plugs, and raised them above the ambush zone. In the ambush zone, we pointed our rod tips at the surface. The line’s low angle of entry into the water minimized influence from wind, and kept the plugs parallel to the bottom. Once we approached a mound, we sped up to swim the plugs over them, or lifted the rods overhead and reeled up a few feet. The key to catching fish on the mounds was to keep the plug right above their contours, including the backsides — where several of the fish we caught were stationing — without snagging the bottom.
The Surface Warriors
One of my earlier experiences with trolling swimming plugs offshore dates back to the early 1980s and a Venice, Louisiana, wahoo trip I took with Capt. Mike Frenette. We were set to troll the fabled rip that materializes here, with our four Rapala CD 18s. Talk about an easy and not-so-fancy trolling setup! Frenette dispatched all four lures at staggered distances, and then watched them for a minute or two. He then took one that appeared to be swimming a tad off in one direction and moved the rods around until all the plugs were trolling straight in an attractive formation.
The wahoo blasted these lures, and we scored eight fish weighing up to 65 pounds before lunchtime, plus a few blackfins and even a yellowfin tuna. Trolling speeds were around 6 or 7 mph, and the plugs were set back so they swam within 10 feet of the surface.
At times, I’ll pull these same plugs for kingfish. And to get them even deeper, I use a trolling sinker, attaching the plug to a 10- to 15-foot section of 86-pound-test single-strand wire leader, with a snap swivel at the opposite end. I add an 8-ounce, and sometimes 16-ounce, trolling sinker between the snap swivel on the fishing line and the leader. This gives me depth, and the ability to troll fast and keep the plug in the water.
Many swimming plugs now have elongated and wider diving lips to reach depths approaching 50 feet, models often ideal for grouper trolling. Yet, they do exert excessive drag and require stout tackle. If you wish to use lighter tackle but reach excessive depths, downriggers and high-speed planers get the job done with smaller-lipped plugs. Hayden swears his most productive plugs have orange in them, whether they’re stripes, gills or bellies. While I’m sure color matters, I like to play off nature.