Most offshore anglers want to catch tuna and marlin. The species are the backbone of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast offshore fishery and targeted by most boats busting through inlets heading east. Unfortunately, as anglers we have no control over whether those species are going to be in our bailiwick on any given day or feed when baits are trolled right under their noses. If I learned one thing after spending many years with charter clients, it’s that “everyone” wants to feel a bent rod and catch fish. Smiles quickly dissipate into blank stares watching rigged ballyhoo and lures jumping in and out of the wake hour after hour, with nothing to show for the effort.
If you are doggone determined to catch a marlin or tuna, then by all means put in the time and troll all day. On the other hand, if the crew hopes to catch tuna but “wants” to catch fish; catch what’s available.
Typically, our charter day starts off trolling a mixed spread for tuna, marlin, mahi and wahoo. If clients lean towards wanting tuna, the spread contains three spreader bars. If clients are hoping for billfish, spreader bars are switched out for additional rigged ballyhoo. However, targeting a specific species does not mean they will be caught; the angler who stays flexible and prepared has increased his chance of finding success.
Once a weedline or flotsam is located while trolling, chances are good that pelagics are in the vicinity, especially mahi. If trolling brings a knockdown or two from mahi, it is time to make a decision; keep trolling and maybe pick off an occasional mahi with crossed fingers that a tuna or wahoo makes an appearance, or wind in the spread, grab spinning outfits and bail mahi. This is especially true when trolling around the balls or high flyers on the 50- or 100-fathom lines. Normally there are plenty of balls to work and are typically on the same contour line and spaced about a quarter-mile apart. Forty or 50 mahi in the box that was void of slime and scales just a couple hours earlier, looks pretty good.
Already being in the deep puts the boat in the correct location to drop bait down for tilefish. Blueline tilefish are shallower around 50 fathoms, while goldens will be found between 600 and 850 feet. Deep dropping is all about location. Find a colony and bent rods can prevail.
However, cranking in nearly a 1,000 feet of line just to check bait is not for everyone. Since the boat has to run back to shore anyway, you will be passing a lot of inshore wrecks where sea bass, tog and flounder are available. The sea bass and tog are in the structure, summer flounder will be lying on the sandy bottom near the wreck.
Trolling the inshore lumps (10 to 20 fathoms) is another option. Dragging drone spoons, feathers, small rigged ballyhoo and cedar plugs often bend rods with bluefish, false albacore, Atlantic bonito (the ones with teeth, good table fare) and even the occasional bluefin.
To cover all bases for a day offshore, a variety of bait is required. Rigged ballyhoo is the standard for trolling and can be chunked up for bailing mahi. Boxed squid can be rigged for trolling or used for chunking for tuna (Go to YouTube and search Earth Sports: Rigging Squid to see how I rig squid). Of course squid are excellent when bailing mahi; cut it into pieces and throw it in water and it starts the mahi feeding. Pieces are used for bait as well, but don’t overlook using a whole squid to entice a gaffer that’s observed swimming around.
A frozen 5-pound bag of clams is also a good choice to carry onboard and great bait for deep dropping or wreck fishing. If boats recently found success chunking on the lumps, carry a flat of butterfish in the cockpit freezer or pack a flat in ice, just in case the VHF lights up that the chunk bite turned on. Live minnows thrown in the water fire up mahi when bailing and is also great for fluke or sea bass.
You get the point, when running offshore; try to prepare for a variety of possibilities. The crew that is prepared often returns to the slip with a decent looking kill box. Maybe not the intended species, but at least some fish.
John Unkart is author of Offshore Pursuit and Saltwater Tales