Here’s what you need to do and know to set up your 21 to 27 footer for maximum offshore performance.
I have owned or leased 20 boats since 1980. Two of these were under 20-feet in length. The other 18 ranged in size from 22 to 27 feet. My current charter boat is a 2006 EdgeWater 228 CC, with a dry weight of 3,000-lbs without power. I can honestly say that in the five seasons that I have owned it, this boat has caught and/or released its weight in tuna, dorado and other pelagics. The lesson to be learned here is that small can typically fish VERY BIG and you don’t need to own a 35 to 40 footer to bend the rods when trolling out on the briny. The focus of this article will be on how to set up your 21 to 27 foot fishing boat to compete with the big boys, at a fraction of the cost.
Basic Factory Setups
It’s no secret that most of the factory fishing boat setups follow the usual decades-old, cookie-cutter approach when installing gunwale-mount rodholders – usually two per side and that’s it. It’s a corporate bean-counting thing, plus manufacturers are trying to expand their appeal with family friendly craft, so they are installing cupholders where rodholders used to be (there are interesting combo rodholder/cupholder options now available). Bottom line is that four gunwale-mount rodholders just does not cut it offshore and you’ll need more than that to get it done. As a case in point, my 228 EdgeWater CC is currently geared up with 25 rodholders, but there are those trolling times when I wish that I had even more! My gunwale covering boards feature three pairs of flush-mount rodholders (two pair were standard and I added the third pair), with a trio of horizontal rodholder racks per side down under. My T-Top and leaning post rocket launcher setups add four more vertical racks in each section. Up forward of the console, I added one vertical rodholder clamped onto the aft section of each low profile bow rail, plus my permanent single vertical rodholder installed in the forepeak can accept a portable Taco Trident three-rod rack. Add them all up and that’s a total of 25 rodholders on a 22-1/2 footer that will handle most trolling contingencies. If your vessel is blessed with ladder bars connecting your T-Top or hardtop to the console or cockpit sole, one possibility for adding additional rodholders is via vertical or horizontal clamp-on units. These are manufactured by Lee’s, Taco and others and are a breeze to install. Be advised that they are offered in different clamp sizes and it’s a simple process of measuring the size of your tower leg piping and getting the right model to insure a tight fit. When employing these types of vertical rodholders, it’s always a good idea to add a safety line to insure that you won’t lose an outfit to rough seas.
I usually troll a total of seven outfits when working the near offshore and bluewater areas and the rule of thumb is to have as many vacant overhead/out-of-the-way rodholders as you do active trolling setups. What if you are trolling seven rods and two go off, but you only have a single T-Top, hardtop or leaning post rack with four rodholders to get the others out of the way. Simple math shows that one expensive trolling will not find a safe haven and that is totally no bueno, since bad things can and usually do happen to the rods that are left lying around to get bumped, scraped, stepped-on or worse. I have seen $1,000 outfits go flying over the side during multiple-hit madness, and that is a sure way to totally ruin somebody’s day.
Riggers Or Not?
Some of my 25 to 27 foot outboard powered boats were initially equipped with outriggers, but for the sake of ease, deployment, maintenance and transiting under low bridges, I gravitated towards using a single low-profile center rigger. I use it in conjunction with a pair of Reliable Gaff rodriggers, which I have been incorporating into the mix since they were first introduced by Reliable’s owner Jerry Schnur 30 years ago. Deploying the Rodriggers in a seven-rod setup is a simple task, with the first two rods set in the aft set of flush-mount holders, close up on the second wave with Aftco Roller-Troller clips to keep them down low in the clean lure channel. The second pair of trolling outfits are run directly off the rod tip, set in the second row of gunwale rodholders and attached to either squid daisy chains and/or squid or Green Machine bars positioned in the third wave. The third set of rods are set athwart ships/diagonally to the gunwales via Rodriggers and attached to bird teasers. These are run with either ballyhoo baits or daisy chains, set to slide down the faces of the fourth and fifth waves (one on each). The center rigger comes in handy for getting the long bait up and out of the tight spread in the shorter sections of the wake, positioning a bird/Green Machine combo back 100 to 125 yards behind the transom in the 7th or 8th wave. In lieu of the availability of a center rigger, I insert my long rod/reel directly into one of my T-Top rocket launcher rodholders with a safety line to insure that it doesn’t get “launched” into the ocean on a heavy strike from a large thunnus moving in the opposite direction at a high rate of speed.
Once you have your rodholder layout solidified, you’ll need to add some accessories that will help you put all of the pieces together. One of these is the Taco Trident 1-into-3 portable rodholders that I mentioned earlier. I have two of these and they are an indispensable piece of equipment that travel with me everywhere, whether running offshore on my center console or on away trips on other boats. If you are having trouble stowing or deploying rods due to the limitations of your vessel’s layout, two of these 3-in-1s will help solve multiple problems. They are light, fairly inexpensive, portable, stowable and heavy duty enough to handle your beefy gold reel outfits with ease. Don’t forget the gaffs, tagging sticks, gloves, mono shears, extra leader material and other tackle like snap-swivels, rigging wire/needles, etc. You will also have to figure out a safe place to stow all of this gear, along with the numerous trolling lures and/or baits that will certainly accompany you on your offshore forays. I have solved the logistics problem by stuffing all of my trolling lures and birds into one standard sized milk crate, which stows easily in the head compartment of my center console and travels effortlessly with me on my away charters. The squid bars are carried in individual carry bags that also travel well and store easily aboard my boat in the enclosed head area when traveling to and from the fishing grounds.
Tools Of The Trade
Once you tweak your ride with the right trolling accessories, you’ll need to load up with the right ammo to get max performance when trolling near-offshore and deep blue waters. One of the most interesting trolling rigs to come along in recent years, especially for the small boat angler whose boat might not be equipped with either outriggers or center riggers, is Sterling Tackle’s series of Wide Tracker bird/squid bars. The secret sauce built into each one of these very effective bars is a stationary bird at the center of the bar, which is equipped with a heavy duty keel that steers the bar approximately 35 to 45 degrees outboard of your vessel’s wake, where it sits in front of the agitated water, not behind it. Offered in both port and starboard models, this is a huge game-changer and for good reason. It’s been proven that pelagics of all varieties, like tuna, billfish, sharks, wahoo and dorado, are attracted to the white water generated by a moving boat, mainly due to looking for baitfish trying to hide in the suds in open water. Traditional zig-zag trolling methods employ lures that are dragged behind the prop wash and chine noise generated in a boat’s wake, slipping in and out of the lure channels to and from the safety of the turbulent wash, where they are temporarily invisible. The beauty of the Sterling Wide-Trackers is that they are positioned forward of the wake’s agitated wash and are in the clear 95 percent of the time. The boat’s wake attracts the predator fish and they become zoned into the trolled baits that they can easily see, specifically the Wide Tracker bars. I have been on enough offshore trips where I was trolling practically identical size/color squid bars, both in the wake and in Wide Tracker mode and the Wide Trackers caught more fish. This is not an absolute guarantee, but you would be remiss not to have a few of these Wide Trackers onboard for your next trip out on the briny. You will have to learn how to use them, which requires different length drop backs at times, depending on wind and sea conditions.
Other proven lures to have onboard during your trolling sorties are the traditional squid bars, bird bars, daisy chains, jet heads and rigged ballyhoo. When trolling out on the big blue ocean, the concept is to look for signs of life like birds, whales, porpoises, bait schools on the surface, predator surface commotion, and/or bait balls or submarine activity at different depths on your echo sounder. You are trying to create as much surface noise as possible with your trolling spread to bring feeding or cruising predators up from the thermocline or the bottom. It makes sense that clusters of lures create more commotion than single offerings. One trick to consider is to place a single lure, like a jet head or rigged ballyhoo in between a pair of squid bars, which can fool some of the wariest fish. Once you establish some sort of feeding activity, or are near a wreck, reef, fathom curve depression, or whatever, you should mark the spot on your chart plotter and then conduct a trolling pattern ½-mile in each direction (N/S/E/W) of that location. When you are lucky enough to get a hit, mark that spot on your machine and take note of the speed and direction of travel. Occasionally, pelagics will only hit your lures or baits when moving in a specific direction, due to unique presentation factors. All other efforts from other points of the compass are likely to be a waste of time, so take this into consideration if you get strikes moving one way, but not another.
You can definitely catch bluewater gamefish from smaller boats and when you do, the victory tastes even sweeter. I’ve been doing it almost exclusively since the early 1980s and it’s a total blast. Be sure to watch your weather windows when heading offshore and be safe out there.