How to

A Guide To Skirted Lures

Game Fishing

Originally very basic lures made of plant fibres and used by subsistence fishermen in the South Pacific, skirted trolling lures are now highly advanced with a bewildering range of shapes and designs. Experienced gamefisherman DAVID GREEN explains how to use skirts.

SKIRTED trolling lures have a long history. The evolution of modern designs began when subsistence fishermen started to drag lures behind canoes and other craft in the tropical oceans and around the shores of islands chasing pelagic fish such as tuna and marlin. A lot of the early skirt material was made from fibre material available at the time, and used everything from the pith of banana trees to teased rope that was bound to a wooden or metal head. When I was in Tonga a few years ago a lot of the locals used a screwdriver handle bound with hemp or other plant fibre to catch a wide range of fish. A lot of the better skirts originated from Hawaii, where the skippers and anglers chasing blue marlin and yellowfin tuna in the 1950s began making the first “modern” skirted lures. The evolution of the designs has continued at a fast pace since this time to produce what is now a complex and quite bewildering array of designs. The following article is an overview of the more common head shapes and how they work, where to use them and how to rig them for best results.

In simple terms, the head shape, weight and size determines how the lure will troll. The head shape imparts motion to the skirt. If you’ve looked at underwater video of a typical marlin lure, you will soon see how much action these lures actually have. The seductive wriggle is very lifelike when viewed from underwater. Different head shapes work in different positions behind a boat. Some lures work best in short positions where others need a bit of line to get the most action. The lift provided by outriggers also is an important factor in lure selection as the lure has to work by pulling down on the line rather than running in a direct line from the angle of the line. The weight of the head also determines the running depth of the lure. Some species, such as wahoo and yellowfin tuna, prefer weighted straight runners. On the other hand, billfish generally like a lure that leaves a “smoke trail” of bubbles behind it.

Straight Runners
Straight running heads such as bullet heads, Hex Heads, Zukers and Tuna Heads have a rounded front section of the head so the water flows over the face of the lure, creating minimal resistance or turbulence. This lack of resistance means the lure head imparts little movement as it’s dragged through the water. Likewise, these lures impart minimal action into the attached skirt. Straight runners are often weighted, which makes the lure track a bit deeper in the water. These lures work best when trolled a long way back, and work well in the shotgun position. While they don’t have the action of some of the other head shapes, they are very effective tuna and wahoo lures and catch plenty of marlin as well. A straight runner in a lure spread of other more active lure heads is often worth pursuing, as sometimes marlin will be raised on the other lures but drop back to eat the straight running head. We’ve had quite a few decent blue marlin eat straight runners on days where the fish seem to be a bit “doughy” and aren’t aggressively feeding.

Weighted straight runners have the big advantage of tolerating increased troll speeds, and can easily be towed at up to 13 knots in calm conditions. This technique is very popular for wahoo in my local waters in SE Queensland, and they are also a great lure to have out the back when running between grounds and when you want to cover a lot of water. All the bigger tuna species respond well to a full spread of straight running lures.

These lures are round in profile when viewed from the front and feature a cup shaped front end that determines the amount of resistance and turbulence created when dragged through the water. This type of design has the advantage of being very easy to use, easy to rig and has great versatility. The Pakula range of lures is probably the world benchmark in this type of lure. Unlike slant heads, pears or tube designs, the drag through the water is the same if the lure spins on the leader, as the cup shape at the front of the lure maintains the same water pressure regardless of rotation, which makes the lures very easy to rig and the hooks don’t need to be fixed in position or fiddled about with to get optimal performance.

The size of the cup at the front of the lure and the length and weight of the head determines the action of the lure. Large diameter cups generate more water pressure, bigger bubble trails and more action and will hold themselves in position well. These are often very good lures to use in rough conditions as is common off our coastline. A lot of the Hawaiian designs work best in calmer conditions and can take a fair bit of tuning to get right when it gets rough. I like to use pusher style designs as the mainstay of my trolling when targeting black marlin and find lures like Meridians, Pakulas and Black Snaxs very reliable and easy to use. As a general rule the bigger cup faces work on the short and long corners, medium cup faces work well from the outriggers and a smaller cup face is a great shape from the shotgun lure run a long way back.

Slant faced designs
These lures have a leading edge or face that is slanted at an angle so when dragged through the water at speed it makes the lure head wriggle and kick and impart action into the trailing skirt. The original Joe Yee Apollo from Hawaii is a typical slant faced design that has been copied the world over. Once again, the size of the sloped area at the front of the lure determines how much action the lure will have, and the weight of the head controls the stability of the lure to some extent. Some slant-faced designs incorporate a weight on the underside of the lure to act as a type of keel so the lure tracks straight. There is a lot of complex hydrodynamics when it comes to slant head lure designs, and a lot of the subtlety in this design makes a big difference in how the lure swims.

Slant faced designs can require a bit more finesse in rigging and positioning to get the best results. In general we run most of our marlin lures with two hooks, and on the slant faced lures, pears and tube designs we use the hooks as a keel to stabilize the lure. This is quite easy to do by using a toothpick. Position the hook rig flush up against the back of the lure and when in position (on a 180 degree rig it is usually one hook up, one down) force a tooth pick into the gap between the leader and where it enters the front of the lure. This locks the lure in position and makes it easier to troll. I like to troll slant heads from the outriggers in calm to medium conditions and position them so they travel on the leading face of the wave. See the Fisho website for a short video on how to use the “toothpick rig”.

Pears & Tubes
These Hawaiian designs incorporate quite a lot of subtlety in their features to generate a lot of lure action, and they are famous the world over for producing big blue marlin. The hydrodynamics of these lures use the water flow coming back over the head to create areas of “vacuum” at the back of the head that hold bubbles, and the whole lure sometimes appears to be running in its own little window of air.

There are many variations on this theme, but a typical tube has a slant face with the front of the lure being wider than the back. This “kicks” the lure but holds the back of the head in a vortex of bubbles. It’s a really neat and clever design. Pear shaped heads have a slant leading face and a wider front that narrows down to the skirts. This lets the lure run in a vortex of bubbles. This gives the lure a big smoke trail. When viewed from underwater this trail of turbulence can make it easier for the fish to find the lure, as the bubble trail can be seen well before the lure and this can bring fish in from a long distance. Like most slant head designs, these lures require careful positioning and tooth picking the hooks in position makes the lure more stable and track better. Big pear shaped heads work well from both the outriggers and from the shorter lines. A bit of lift created from pulling down on the line creates maximum action.

Skirt length & colours
There are a myriad of different colours available in marlin lures and many different types of skirts. The more flexible the skirt material is, the more action the head of the lure will impart to the skirt. I’m a big fan of Yo-Zuri skirts. While they may be more expensive than a lot of other brands, the colour range and flexibility of the materials is second to none. 

Selecting which colour lure to use is subject of enormous debate, but there are a few key ideas that always seem to work. The first is that it is generally a good idea to have at least a couple of lures in the spread that give a good imitation of what are the main local bait fish that the marlin in your area are feeding on. Most small tunas have a purple and silver sheen to them, and I always run at least two lures in purple and silver overskirts, or blue and silver. Small dolphin fish are another common baitfish and the “evil” colour of a blue and silver overskirt over a green and gold underskirt is a great colour to run, as is the Pakula “Blue Hawaii” colour of blue and silver with gold, yellow and white.

Lumo white and lumo green skirts are also very effective, especially when it comes to blue marlin fishing. The famous Pakula “Lumo Sprocket” has caught thousands of blue marlin, and in daylight these lures are very bright and the fish find them easily. Plain white is another great colour but just doesn’t seem to attract anglers as it does fish. Every day out on the water is different, and it is the fickle nature of fishing that the lure the fish wanted today and climbed all over may be a dud tomorrow. When things are pretty quiet I usually go back to the lures that have been the most consistent for me, and I have a soft spot for a “purple over pink” somewhere in the lure spread. The take home message as far as colour goes is that in a five-lure spread you have the chance to experiment and match the normal colour schemes of most of your local baitfish.

The above is just a short overview of most of the more common trolling heads as far as head shape and designs go. When marlin are aggressively feeding they’d eat a trolled sand shoe, but more often than not mixing up a number of different head shapes and designs and varying your spread according to the different sea conditions should let you lock onto a bite pattern. The best marlin lure is the one you caught your last fish on, and once you’ve caught a few it is likely you will have your list of favourites that will become your reliable lure spread you have confidence in.

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