The adjustment was dead-on. Soon we had a shoal of fat yellowtails in our chum slick off the lower Keys, but they totally ignored every offering free-lined on 15-pound fluorocarbon leader. Dropping to 12-pound fooled a few, but with 10-pound we had a fish on every bait. The proverbial light switch had flipped.
Compared to lightly pressured destinations like the outer Bahamas, where one can bail yellowtails all day on 20-pound leader, scaling down terminal tackle is a prerequisite for success at more accessible, harder-fished locations. For yellowtails in the Florida Keys, a 20-pound leader is about as noticeable as an anchor rode.
Scaling leaders and hooks way down beyond one’s comfort zone generates bites. However, the tactic isn’t without some consequences.
Pay the Piper
Quality ’tails can chafe through 12-pound leaders, and certainly 10-pound. Such light leaders also limit the amount of heat one can apply to a fish during the fight. The sizable ones will sometimes bulldog their way back to the bottom, fraying off the line or becoming a meal for a grouper, amberjack or shark. This is reel-them-in-as-fast-as-possible fishing.
Using inline circle hooks—in this case, no larger than 1/0—greatly diminishes these disadvantages, even eliminating them altogether. That’s because the hook eye and leader remain outside the fish’s jaw. The tiny J hooks used extensively for yellowtails commonly get swallowed, subjecting leaders to seesawing across the fish’s teeth.
Range of Species
Scaling down terminal tackle works for more than just snapper. The tactic is key to catching bottomfish, coastal favorites, and even offshore pelagics, especially in areas under pressure from other anglers. That puts the tactic under constant evolution.
Dolphin fishing off heavily populated South Florida is a good example. Whereas 100-pound leaders for trolling (billfish are possible) and 60-pound leaders for pitch-baiting are still common, those dialed in consistently catch big dolphin using 50- to 60-pound trolling leaders and 30- to 40-pound leaders for pitching baits. For live-baiting sailfish, 50-pound leaders are typical, yet 40-pound is now standard among the pros, who will even use 30-pound for pitch-bait outfits, especially during a tough bite. When chunking or live-baiting for blackfin, yellowfin and small bluefin tuna, dropping to 30-pound leaders often leads to success.
The same applies for striped bass, snook, tarpon, redfish, tripletail and other inshore species. If you want to turn a difficult day around, get out of your comfort zone and go way light. The uptick in action will surprise you.
Tampa Bay’s Capt. Mike Goodwine calls tripletail a “stupid fish,” one that readily consumes anything dropped in front of it. But even tripletails refuse to eat when pressured heavily. When that happens, switching to a light leader and a tiny hook might be the only way to earn a strike.
Goodwine can pluck fish off markers and buoys in Tampa Bay using 40-pound leader, but tripletails huddling tight to debris floating offshore in clear Gulf Stream or Loop Current waters tend to be far more discerning. Sometimes even 20-pound fluoro is still too obvious to coax a bite.
To fool offshore tripletails, I forgo the leader and use a 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook tied straight to 12-pound mono line. If that doesn’t work, I pick up an outfit with 8-pound mono and a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. Granted, the size of our offshore tripletails rarely matches the brutes in Goodwine’s home waters, but they sure taste just as good.
“In our area, you’ll get your feelings hurt if you use 20-pound leaders,” Goodwine says. “These fish will take you around a buoy or piling fast, so a light leader won’t cut it.” In his defense, Goodwine’s local waters aren’t as clear, so a heavier leader may not be as visible. Case in point, we caught a 12-pound tripletail on light tackle and 30-pound leader during a recent trip with Goodwine. Of course, there’s no structure to worry about offshore, so one can go as light as the bite requires.
How Low Can You Go
Aggressively scaling down terminal tackle does increase the odds of losing fish. While I’ve caught a number of sails on 30-pound leaders and 4/0 circle hooks when the bite seemed dismal, I recently lost one that wore through the 30-pound leader a few minutes into the fight.
Sometimes those are the breaks, but there are some tricks to minimize the number of fish lost and still increase your hookups with scaled-down leaders and terminal tackle.
Use Circle Hooks: As mentioned earlier, the eye of a circle hook properly set remains outside the fish’s mouth, preventing a light leader from coming in contact with its dentition. Circle hooks enable the use of leaders considerably lighter than J hooks allow. Nevertheless, select small ones that, when combined with a light leader, will pass inspection from keen-eyed gamefish. We’ve taken yellowfin tuna as heavy as 63 pounds on 30-pound leaders and 3/0 circle hooks.
Lighten the Drag: Don’t pressure fish as much as you would with a stouter terminal system. A small, light-wire hook might straighten or rip free. Furthermore, the heavy tension on a lighter leader increases its vulnerability to wear and abrasion. Let the fish run off line under adequate, but not overbearing, drag pressure. Let it set the pace and don’t try to take control early.
Hot Pursuit: Never let a fish strip a lot of line off the reel. Whether it’s a sailfish, tuna, cobia, big mahi, tarpon or striped bass, give chase and stay within 100 feet or so. In close-quarters situations, like around buoys, bridge groins or over a channel ledge, remain closer, sometimes on top if the fish is deep. The boat operator might need to chase it around or off such obstacles. As the fish tires, they might need to assist with the landing or release by motoring right up to it. But, if possible, avoid handling a light leader.
Performance Leaders: The best leader material for scaling way down is fluorocarbon. It has a diameter smaller than monofilament of the same breaking strength, plus a hard, abrasion-resistant outer shell. It’s tough and just what the light-tackle doctor ordered.
Change Out Leaders: Though it might appear in good condition, a light leader, especially fluorocarbon, will be heavily taxed after each quality fish. Fluorocarbon is formulated to be more difficult for fish to discern. When it has been stressed, its breaking strength is weakened and its refractive properties compromised.