How to

DIY Troll Baits

CATCHING large pelagic fish on trolled baits is a method that seems to see less and less use every season as many boats become more and more reliant on artificial lures. In some ports rigging dead baits is becoming a lost art. However, when you spend time with top skippers such as Bob Jones, Ross McCubbin and Luke Fallon you soon realise that a well-rigged bait is generally preferred as a more effective fish catching tool than any plastic lure.

Rigging baits requires preparation and a degree of practice. Making a bait swim is an art form perfected by the best deckies, and a perfectly rigged bait will swim with a magical action that a lure can never come close to replicating. The best place to watch the bait rigging experts is in North Queensland during the marlin season. These tropical areas are full of mackerel, barracudas and wahoo, and it is not uncommon for a deckie to go through more than 20 carefully rigged baits in a single session when the bities are thick. Some of these baits are quite large and take a bit of work to rig. Big mackerel tuna, queenfish, Spaniards and shark mackerel are all just tasty lollies to the huge black marlin wide of Cairns.

The following article is a simple guide to DIY bait rigging. There are two basic types of baits: swimming baits that travel below the surface, and skip baits that drag along or through it. To rig a swimming bait requires the use of a weight to act as a keel and keep the bait upright as it is trolled, whereas a skip bait needs to be rigged in such a way to minimise drag so the bait stays high in the water column. Rigging live baits effectively also requires attention to detail, especially when using circle hooks. The use of belly strips as part of a hookless teaser system is a fantastically effective method, so good in fact it can be hard to get the bait away from the marlin when they grab it. Regardless of what type of bait you are rigging, it is important to appreciate the hydrodynamics of the fish you are about to rig. Some species such as gar are long and thin and the tow point needs to be well forward to get the best action. Other species such as small tuna are bulky in the mid sections but have prominent fins that act as a keel, and these baits can be rigged to swim brilliantly if you tow them from the eye sockets, a bit the same as how a bibless minnow works.

When rigging baits it’s important that they have been well looked after. They must be fresh, well refrigerated in storage and are best if they haven’t been frozen. Every type of bait will have a different “troll life”. Some species such as queenfish are as tough as old boots and can be trolled all day without falling apart. Other baits such as tailor, slimies and bonito (particularly if they have been frozen) go soft quickly and often need changing in less than an hour. These baits troll better at slow speeds. Garfish are almost a universal troll bait, but look for fresh fish with good silver sides, or better still, catch your own. A good gar is a potent weapon. A worn out frozen one turns into a lifeless white stick after an hour in the water.

1 Rig 1 Trolled Livebait –Braid Loops.
Trolling live baits for billfish is mostly done using circle hook patterns. In my experience these hooks work best when they are rigged in such a way that they are clear of the baitfish so they can turn easily and attain a good hook-up. The use of braid loops works very well in this regard. Some anglers use rubber bands instead of loops (as I did for several seasons.) When trolling livebaits I generally work the bait by slowly trolling in and out of gear. With rubber bands the hook is pulled back to the baitfish when the line is loose, and this can lead to the bait fouling on the hook. Braid loops are a more effective alternative.

To make a braid loop fold about 30 to 40cm of heavy 24 to 40 kilo braid in half. Make an overhand knot in the folded braid every one to two centimetres, until the braid loop is about 15cm long. For smaller livies such as slimies a loop of 10 to 15cm is fine, for larger baits such as striped tuna make longer loops. When the loop is completed connect the loop to the hook by passing it through one of the gaps between the knots. Using a folded loop is more secure. Use a bait needle to pass the other end of the loop through the eye socket of the baitfish, and pass back over the hook, looping it a couple of times. Make sure the hook is a few centimetres in front of the bait.

This rig has proven extremely effective in my local waters in southern Queensland and there are many variations on it. Some baits troll better when hooked through the nose rather than the eye socket, but overall the braid loop system has proven to be a very simple and effective trolling rig.
 
2 Rig 2 Skipping Gar – Quick Rig.
Skipping gar are one of the most versatile baits for small black marlin and sailfish. These baits are generally fished from outriggers with a release clip and a fair bit of drop back. This simple and effective method is great when you need quick re-rigs in a hot bite. Once again, there are many variations on this theme, but it is a fairly simple bait to rig. The key is good, fresh, silver, shiny garfish. We generally use sea gar where I am, but snub-nosed gar and 3×2 gar are also useful. Fresh is better than frozen, but unlike some baits, well looked after snap frozen sea gar are ok to use and often more convenient.

Gar are one of the easiest baits to rig because they are long and thin with little drag when trolled. Skipping gar can be trolled up to around 8 knots in calm water. The rig is simple and relies on a length of copper wire and a nice flush fit of the plastic squid over the bait’s head. I like to use Gamakatsu SL12 hooks for this rig, and the size depends on the size of the gar. Generally we use 8/0 to 10/0 models for sea gars.

To rig, work out the exit point of the hook on the gar’s belly and fold the gar around the hook so the point exits through this point. Cut of the bill of the gar flush to the front of the head. Pass the copper wire through the lower part of the mouth and up through the upper part. Bind the copper wire around the head of the bait and slide the squid down flush onto the head. Simple, no sewing, and quick and easy.
 
3 Swim Baits
Getting a bait to swim well is an art form that is best observed by watching professional marlin deckies ply their trade. The key to these rigs is that the bait must be rigged in such a way it remains upright, and in most swim baits this relies on using a lead weight as a keel, and also by reducing drag and water pressure by sewing the bait and gills of the bait shut. In some baits, such as mullet, you need to remove the eyes.

With practice you can get most baits to swim well. In this rig, you will need to purchase bait needles and some waxed thread for rigging. Wellsys Tackle is worth a look on the ’net if your local shop doesn’t carry the gear. In this rig, match your hook size appropriately to the bait. I’ve seen tiny mullet rigged to swim as well as 20 kilo wahoo, so there is obviously a lot of variation. Once you’ve worked out hook size, get an appropriate sized bean or ball sinker. Follow the illustrations, but the key to getting it right is to make sure your tow point is dead central in the bait and the weight sits in exactly the right spot under the chin of the bait. The loop to the hook works best if it is a bit larger. Once you’ve sewn up the gills and mouth and removed the eyes (if needed), give the bait a swim. Sometimes you’ll have to knead the bait a bit, but a good swim bait will kick just like the real thing. Swim baits can be tricky and take a bit of time, and don’t expect your first attempts to be a thing of beauty. But if you pay attention to detail and follow the general principles you will soon get a reasonable bait that will generally out fish a lure. There are many, many variations on the swim bait theme, including deadly baits such as the split-tailed mullet. Different bait species require modifications as to where they are best towed from. Some baits such as slimies are soft and don’t do well as swim baits. Tough baits such as small queenfish will last many hours.

4 Belly Strips
A well-rigged belly strip trolled under a hookless skirted lure is one of the very deadliest teasers around. I’ve been amazed how aggressive marlin are as soon as you put a bit of meat and smell into the lure. Sometimes they are hard to get back as the marlin will chew them to the point you’ll lose all your precious skirts.

To rig a belly strip you need a bonito, mack tuna, tuna or mackerel. Striped tuna are ideal. Cut the belly strip out keeping the ventral fins in place and the tough bony section around the breastplate of the fish. The illustrations show how to sew the strips up, but what you need is a tough, tapered piece of fish flesh that fits under the skirt and is strongly bound on. It is important the fish can’t rip off the bait, as the aim is to tease the fish close to the boat so it can be presented a hooked bait or fly. This is known as “troll and switch” or “bait and switch” and is probably the best way to cover water and have a better hook up rate than you get on lures. Once again, there are many variations on this rig. It pays to keep all the belly strips you can when you catch suitable fish, and salt them down prior to freezing to toughen them up.

5 Mackerel Rigs
This is one of the deadliest rigs for Spanish mackerel that I know of. You will need a variety of different gangs depending on bait size, and don’t be afraid to tow big baits over a kilo. I have some gangs of 8 x 10/0 hooks for longer baits.

The key to the rig is that the bait is towed from the eye socket on a loose loop that the clip connects to, and the loose wire coming from the front hook fits loosely on the clip. With all the weight of the bait hanging off the loop, it is an easy bait to slow troll. The front hook of the gang is weighted with a net lead or sheet lead. Follow the drawings from Chris Pala, and try it the next time you want a big Spaniard. It works well with tailor, bonito, mackerel tuna, pike, wolf herrings and big slimies.
 
Bait rigging, in an era of towed plastic lures, has become a bit of a lost art. But the effort is well worth it and I’d back the above rigs to out fish lures most of the time. A lot more game tournaments are won in Queensland on baits than lures, and the best skippers realise how important a well-rigged bait is to their success.

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