Capt. John Oughton absolutely terrorizes the bluefin, yellowfin and bigeye tuna when they migrate anywhere near his home port of Ocean City, Maryland. At the helm of his 50-foot Evans, That's Right, Oughton runs wherever and however long it takes to get on the fish. He's no slacker. And when he's in the action, he and mate Jason Genther strive to be as proficient as possible at catching them.
One key to the team's success is the quick-change ballyhoo rig they use trolling for tuna. Rather than meticulously rigging several dozen baits in advance and layering them on trays in a cooler, Oughton and Genther rely on their quick-change rigs to keep from missing a beat - or a fish. This rig consists of a leader (usually 100- or 130-pound-test fluorocarbon) and a hook (based on the size of the ballyhoo), with a sinker (usually ¼ ounce to 1½ ounces) riding on the leader just in front of the loop to which the hook is attached. They favor weighted skirts ahead of their baits. From there, things become a little different.
Because wahoo are always possible, Oughton uses a few inches of No.10 single-strand wire to form a loop alongside that of the fluorocarbon leader that connects the hook. One strand of the wire, along with the fluorocarbon, goes through the hook eye, and both strands of the wire follow the fluorocarbon through two 1.6 mm sleeves that, when crimped, complete the connection. The goal is for the wire-reinforced loop to prevent wahoo from severing the fluorocarbon leader, providing the fish doesn't hit well above the hook. The other purpose of the wire is to form the pin that rides at a 90-degree angle to the leader, which is run underneath and through both jaws of the ballyhoo to help secure the bait to the rig.
In place of a length of Monel or soft copper wire to secure the bait, Oughton utilizes a No. 32 rubber band affixed to the loop of the leader that holds the hook. This is where the quick-change feature comes into play: Both Oughton and Genther claim they can change out a ballyhoo within seconds by unwrapping the rubber band, removing the damaged bait and, with the same rubber band, rigging a fresh bait to the hook. With practice, this can be accomplished in less time than it takes to get into the cooler, select a ballyhoo, uncoil the leader and change out the damaged rig.
Several of these basic rigs are fabricated in advance with various sizes of hooks and, sometimes, leader strengths. "This gives us the latitude of choosing which size ballyhoo to put in the spread," says Oughton. "We have a tray in a cooler with different sizes of unrigged ballyhoo. We can grab the size we want, secure it to the rig and get it back out behind the boat in no time at all."
Oughton says this particular rig goes into play when the tuna are around and the trolling speed's averaging around 5 or 6 knots. "If we do more conventional trolling at higher speeds," he says, "we'll go with the typical ballyhoo rigs with Monel or soft copper wire, since they handle the trolling stresses much better. But for slower trolling when we are on the fish and not searching for them, this rig is tough to top."
Recipe for Speed
Mate Genther layers the unrigged ballyhoo in a cooler. Some of the baits have the eyes removed (to prevent them from filling with water and bugging) and have been milked of their stomach contents, whereas others remain unprepped. Only after a ballyhoo has been affixed to the rig does Genther crush the backbone, to limber it up, and snap off the beak. The crushing is done with an index finger and thumb by squeezing gently yet firmly along the bait's lateral line. Done correctly, you can hear the slight crunching sound as the backbone compresses.
On the way to the grounds, Genther attaches the prepped baits to their rigs and then dispatches them when the trolling begins. Gunning for bluefins, Genther and Oughton deploy eight baits; for yellowfins, they set 14 baits in the spread. When a bait gets hit and the fish is boated, Genther removes the hook, undoes the rubber band, removes what's left of the bait, puts on a fresh ballyhoo, secures it with the same rubber band and gets that bait back in position within seconds. He'll change out a leader only if it has been chafed or nicked.
The effectiveness of the quick-change rig really comes into play when multiple tunas are hooked or when there's one bite right after another. In system-like fashion, a fish is boated, the hook removed, and the rig rebaited and then redeployed within moments, keeping nearly all the baits fishing during a hot bite. I had the opportunity to spend some time fishing with Oughton and Genther and watched this rig in play. It's fast and effective and keeps bait soak time to a maximum. And best of all, it catches fish!