The Art of Lure Trolling
THE ART OF TROLLING SKIRTED LURES
by Peter Pakula
Trolling skirted lures through the ocean in search of pelagic fish ranging from small tuna to Godzilla sized marlin is easier in essence than just about any other form of fishing. The technology in electronics, rods, reels and harnesses, plus their relatively inexpensive prices has even made small boat, even as small as 12 foot (There is an 8’ game boat in Kona, appropriately named “Brain Damaged”, though I certainly don’t recommend boats that small!!!) viable platforms to hunt these fish on an even footing with the large Game Fishing battle wagons, though indeed the larger boats are certainly more comfortable and handle rougher seas with more comfort and safety.
There are few things on this planet that give as good an adrenaline rush as witnessing a rising dorsal accelerating to intercept a surface run lure. Without exception the take, and the moments following a strike are awe-inspiring and totally addictive.
As with all forms of fishing the starting point is rather technical, learning how the gear works on its own and interacts with the other equipment is essentially a technical exercise. Only when that has been understood and using it becomes second nature can you effectively start enjoying the art of lure trolling.
Somewhere on the planet a season is just ending and another just starting, anglers may have cracked their first successes, or they are just about to. The conditions and currents might have something to do with this, though I suspect that many of the marlin captures are a direct result of anglers having a better understanding of the workings of the ocean and skills of trolling artificial lures.
It is, at long last, accepted that artificial lures are not only an effective weapon for catching large game fish and the most spectacular of all. In many cases it is the most effective, being responsible for many wins against those using other methods. The best news is that trolling lures is very easy to do. Indeed a novice can be very competitive with just a basic knowledge of lure trolling.
Those who consistently miss out on success may do so for a many number of reasons, not the least of which is sheer bad luck. Though I suspect the main reason for failure is because of a misunderstanding of basic lure trolling principles that significantly decreases the chance of reasonable success.
Anglers generally experience some form of trolling before using skirted trolling lures for game fish. It might be trolling for trout along weed beds and drop-offs in a lake, or trolling around the edge of the sandbanks, circling schools of small pelagic fish or trolling for kingfish and small tuna along rocky shores and reefs.
These forms of trolling have many things in common. They all involve relatively low trolling speeds, under five knots, and often at a slow walking pace. Lures are placed a long way behind the boat so the lures will be in the ‘zone of convergence’ that is, the distance behind a moving boat where disturbed fish converge and resume normal behavior and hopefully, resume feeding. In most of these types of trolling it is assumed that the boat scares the fish. (In most cases in all forms of trolling this assumption is incorrect, however the assumption remains ingrained
Unfortunately these types of trolling have nothing whatever to do with trolling for large oceanic game fish. In fact, it’s generally just the opposite. When converting to blue water trolling, you have to abandon the idea that the lures should be as far away from the boat and its wash as possible. When trolling for the big game fish, the boat and it’s wash are actually part of the system and the trick is learning how to use it to your advantage.
THE MOVING F.A.D.
Many anglers, because of their previous experience with other forms of trolling, run their lures way back out past the end of the wash, fearing that the boat noise and wash will scare the fish. In this form of fishing this is not the case. The action is concentrated in the area between the transom and the end of the prop wash and turbulence. This is known as the Strike Zone. This area is where you should run your lures.
Indeed fish do get hooked on lures a long way back, but they were probably on their way to the boat. The chance of getting a solid hookup on a fish are far better on a short line, due to less line stretch and belly.
It is possible that the wash itself may appear to be a shoal of tiny bait fish foaming the surface in a feeding frenzy, or perhaps they have come to know that the motor noise and vibration could mean a trawler dumping trash over the side resulting in an easy meal, perhaps it does attract small predators like striped tuna and frigate mackerel that search the white water for a feed or camouflage, this may in turn attract larger predators. Regardless of what we imagine the wash represents to fish the boat does not in any way scare these predators. The larger, bolder predators have even less fear and will come in so close to the transom they almost ram it as if they were attracted to it.
READING THE WASH
The features of the wash are shown in the adjacent figure. (Fig 1. Reading the Wash) Down the center is the prop wash, a very concentrated boiling confusion of white water, or so it seems. This white water is at its deepest at the transom, with the maximum depth at the props. Perhaps it is not as deep as you might have imagined, and comes very close to the surface within a few feet of the props. Although it looks like solid white water, it is quite translucent, allowing enough light to enable even small tuna to find tiny lures in the midst of it.
Along the side of the prop wash there are alleys of clearer water with little or no white water turbulence; a nice place to run a lure, as it would be very visible. Remember though that predators are used to chasing tiny bait fish that are very well camouflaged. No matter what size or colour your lure is, it will show up very clearly no matter where you run it, as will your leaders and rigging.
Notice the white water coming off the sides of the boat. This Side Wash is very shallow and almost transparent consisting mostly of surface bubbles. A lure that is run in this area is probably more visible than in any other area, as the frothy white surface will highlight the lure’s silhouette.
Every boat has a different wash format at every speed, in every sea condition and in every direction traveled. For example the wash is longer going into a current than it is going with it. To maintain the lures position you may lengthen a lures distance going into the current and shorten it going down current.
On close examination you'll note several things including:
It is important to note that some boats don’t have pressure waves, in which case the positioning of lures is less critical. It is also important to note that the rougher and choppier the sea the harder it is to distinguish where the pressure waves are, though with a little experience you will get to know how properly set lures appear and behave and position them accordingly.
WHAT A LURE IS
WHAT A LURE DOES
All the different shapes and sizes go through these motions with different aggressions and timing. For example, for many sliced headed lures the cycle is repeated every 15 seconds, some as long as 30 between breaths, Pakula lures are at their best when they breathe every 5 seconds. Some lures come to surface and softly breathe before diving, others explode on the surface causing a sonic boom. Some dive as straight as an arrow, others may ‘swim’ off the side or dive in deep consistent arc, others shake their heads or tails as they dive. Smoke trails vary from pencil thin to almost creating their own prop wash. This mainly depends on the shape of the lure head, lure length and trolling speed. How often a lure goes through the working cycle depends on sea conditions, boat speed, lure position, line class and rigging.
Care should be taken if you incorporate individual lure recommendations to form a lure pattern. Think of it as getting advice for car parts, you could end up with an economical 1200cc motor, 4wd diffs, balloon tyres, comfortable LTD body etc, all great as separate items but when they’re put together it’s a bit of a disaster.
When choosing lures we tend to specify them according to the species of fish we most desire to catch, such as Blue Marlin Lures, Sailfish Lures, Tuna Lures, Wahoo Lures etc. Unfortunately this method of classification is not only incorrect, it is often misleading.
A lure pattern should imitate a selection of wounded or fleeing bait species that are likely to be in the area at the time you’re fishing. As most predators will feed on any available food source over any given period, if you get this right and you’ll target whatever predatory species are around from small tuna to monster billfish.
“Matching the hatch” is actually quite easy, as the species of blue water bait are very similar throughout the world’s game fishing areas, though it is very important to note that the food types change as they migrate through an area at certain times of the year. By following this system through you’ll also notice that through any given period there are many available food species. By working out which food is most likely to be in the area you can more accurately select a lure that “matches the hatch” in action, colour and size. There is no doubt that if you get this system right you’ll even catch the fish you’re after out side the period considered to be a normal season.
NB: There may also be an argument for trolling a pattern of identical lures if you think that there is only one dominant bait species that you can imitate it successfully.)
SELECTING LURES FOR THE PATTERN
There are several considerations in choosing lures to form a pattern:
Number of Lures
As discussed earlier the Strike Zone is from the back of the boat to the end of the wash or turbulence. To enhance this we select lures from highly aggressive and large near the back of the boat to more sedate and smaller as we get to the end of the prop wash which is also the end of the strike zone. The greater the range of sizes used the more species of fish you are likely to target. For example a five lure spread would consist of one fourteen inch, one twelve inch, two ten inch and an eight inch lure. There may be times when you may wish to eliminate smaller species such as Skipjack or Bonito, in which case you wouldn’t run lures under eight inches.
To make things more difficult the standard terminology used to describe the lures position i.e. long corner etc is not appropriate, as it does not convey the relevant information. Whether a lure works in a certain position in a pattern relative to the others depends to great extent on the angle at which the lure hits the water. As shown in the figures below they vary considerably. (Fig 3 and 4. Angle of Entry)
Though it is certainly important to totally understand this concept when designing lures it is enough that you should be aware of its importance in positioning lures.
There are certainly many methods of adjusting the angle at which the lure enters the water such as simply raising or lowering the rigger halyards or by putting the rods in straight or angled rod holders and or using rubber band and release clips to the gunnels to lower the angle on flat lines. Other aspects that affect the angle are the line class and size and length of leader, the heavier they are the lower the angle of entry.
(Fig 5. Head Shape) As a guide I’ll use Pakula Lures simply because I know them better than any others. A general guide for Pakula Lures is:
-The longer the head and the smaller the face the longer the position.
As mentioned previously it is important to place the more aggressive and active lures closer to the boat. If this simple rule is not followed and you put the larger or more aggressive lures at the tail of the pattern you can set up a “Blocking Pattern”. Many fish will not go past a larger lure to attack a smaller one. Unlike many land predators many predatory fish have very delicate skins evidenced by how easily the skin and fins are damaged when handling them and the line marks inflicted on their bodies even though minimal drag is used. Without the protection of armour such as heavy scales it is unlikely that they would risk damage or injury by challenging another predator for food, regardless of size.
Though all this sounds complicated it is quite easy to put it into practice with a little planning and observation. Until you are confident it is worthwhile having a couple of jet heads to run in positions that you can’t work effectively. As jets run under the surface they can run in any position at any speed.
With the amount of information in the form of anecdotal evidence and individual catch rates of specific lures and lure colours with reference to the proportion of that colour produced I firmly believe that colour is a vital aspect of lure choice. Not only do I believe that predators see relevant colours, it would seem that they also have a wider range of colour recognition into ultra violet, luminescence and possibly infra red, and we have included many additives to our lure heads and skirts based on this premise.
For a novice selecting lure colours can be quite daunting. Luckily most blue water bait species are similar throughout the world’s oceans. To make things easier still their colours are to a great extent proportionate to their size, which can be reflected in the lure selection.
Over the years four colour groups have accounted for the highest catch statistics and even more than that these colours would appear to have certain best positions in the spread, these factors add up to make up a central backbone applicable to any blue water lure pattern. I’ve noted the colour groups in specific positions in the pattern.
The normal terminology for placement is on which pressure wave the lure is run. For example a pattern may be described as waves 2,3,5,6 and 8. Once again this standard terminology can be misleading. For example a large displacement boat may only have a very short wash and only four or five waves to work with. A fourteen foot boat with a 40hp motor would have a very long wash and up to ten waves to work with. In reality the positions are not that important as long as the lures are within the Strike Zone.
The above colour groups in their specific positions have more than proven their effectiveness over many years successfully replacing many game fishing areas traditional hot colours. This set of colours matches the most common baitfish colours found in all game fishing areas around the world. You will also see that these colours range from very bright to very dark, giving maximum variation in their silhouettes.
The fifth lure on the shotgun and any supplementary lures in various other positions are the “try out” lures. This is also where you should run an area’s own particular ‘hot colour’ for example black and red or yellow around tropical reefs, pink in the light tackle fishery in Australia. Any lures you wish to try out in new colours or shapes should be run in these positions.
SETTING UP YOUR LURES
As the lures are readied or put in the water the hooks should be checked and adjusted relative to the lure head within the lure skirt. With lures that have a symmetrical head shape such as all Pakula Lures, the positioning of the hooks control which way up the lure runs in the water. If you run a two hook rig at the recommended 60 degrees angle by placing two points of the hook in the dark side of the skirt will ensure that the dark side rides upwards. (Fig 6. Hooks Set at 60 Degrees) The hooks will not spin within the skirt and they will maintain this position. Other types of lures may require a toothpick placed in the back of the lure head to fix the leader and hooks in position.
SETTING THE PATTERN
The actual number of lures you run does not matter and apart from multiple hook ups there does not seem to be any evidence that shows that the more lures you run the more fish you catch. Remember that you are on a moving F.A.D. that attracts fish looking for something to eat in the wash. The most important factors in determining the number of lures to run are the sea conditions and the number of hands on deck. Until you are confident you can handle most situations allow one rod for each angler, visitor and crew. Don’t expect the skipper to wind the other lines in. Things happen quickly and there often isn’t time to stuff around getting more lines in. The rougher and windier the conditions, the less the number of lures you can run without continually tangling lines.
Another simple method is adjusting the angle or height of the line by either raising or lowering the halyard on outriggers or incorporating a mini tag line off the transom to adjust flat lines. There are lots of ways of adjusting the height of lines from the water line to the tip of the riggers, but it is important to keep any system as simple and straightforward as possible. (Fig 8. Adjust height of line)
WHEN TO CHANGE LURES
As it is unlikely that you’ll know specifically when this period of action is going to happen it is important to develop a central core pattern of lures that are never replaced so they are available to the fish during the “hot period”. Personally the core pattern I use has not changed in over 10 years and has given results wherever I’ve used them. It is based on 4 lures in quite specific colours and has been referred to earlier on in the article and shown hereabouts. (Fig 9. Standard Pakula Pattern) Only the size of the lure is changed according to the area and line class, never the colour or head shape. The only lure I change is the middle or shotgun lure which is set up so that it can be run from a high central rigger all the way down to a snap off the transom so that any shaped or sized lure can be run off it. As it is the central lure it has a clear position anywhere from the back of the boat to as far back as required.
Other lures may be run in and around the rest of the pattern, but the central core remains not only because they have proven the most consistent but they are also a good indication of how good the other lures you are trying stack up against them. Indeed should you have consistent results on one of the fringe lures then by all means move it into the core pattern.
|As mentioned previously the species of bait fish in any area vary through the fishing season. By using the four main colours green, blue, purple and black in lures of varying sizes you’ve got most species covered. However there are times and circumstances that may require an expansion of the pattern. For example in many areas Squid may at times be the most abundant bait species so introducing colours such as pink, brown orange and white may be appropriate. In areas where the current is raging, especially near reefs and undersea mountains, deep-water species may be pushed to the surface in the up welling. As most of these are red in colour it may then be time to add this colour say red and black to the spread.
There are always alternatives to everything. However establishing a core pattern of lures and getting to know how to run them is certainly preferable to never knowing if you have the right lure at the right time doing the right thing.
ASPECTS OF FISH DESIGN AND PRESSURE WAVES
Understanding the use and capabilities of the gear used to catch large game fish, particularly marlin seem to take up the considerable bulk of technical discussion. Part of the story though involves understanding the capabilities of the fish you are after and then relating this to the methods we use to chase them.
When trolling, the gear we use is not only artificial, so is the environment we create. The wash, turbulence and pressure waves in which we run the gear is also foreign to the fish. The fish are not the slightest bit deterred from hunting, feeding and displaying their aggression in this zone of froth and turbulence. We can certainly increase our success by understanding the how the fish and the components interact.
The average marlin and sailfish caught off the East Coast of Australia and in many parts of the world are between six to eight feet long. Marlin can only flex laterally, side to side, the bill, mouth and tail stay in line with each other. They cannot bend their bodies and tails vertically, up and down, although they are often portrayed with this ability in drawings and even cast in this position.
Due to the size of pressure waves being the water length of the boat wide there are many times, especially in smaller boats where we expect a fish to grab a trolled lure or bait with it’s tail and dorsal out literally of the water. Though the fish’s body also creates thrust, the tail is obviously the main propulsion unit and the dorsal the main stabiliser. The smaller the boat the more important it is to understand this chapter as many of the fish you are trying to catch just don’t fit in the pressure waves and an awareness of this and the tactics available will certainly improve results.
The illustrations from 1 to 5 (Fig 10. Marlin Attack) show that the higher the lure is in the pressure wave the more of the fish is literally out of the water to try and grab the lure, in fig 1 the fish literally has to stand on its tail and literally has to lunge at it, often missing it though it does look pretty spectacular. The further towards the trough we run the lure, illustrations 2 to 4 the more fish is under the water and the more effectively the fish can control its movements and attack, and the greater the chance of a successful hook up.
Other factors in making it easier for the fish to grab the lure and hook up is using lures that dive deeper, as shown in illustration 5. Apart from actual lure design the larger the lure the deeper it will dive. The closer the pressure wave is to the boat the steeper it is the more appropriate it is to run the largest lures in the spread in this area.
The slower the boat goes the smaller the height of the pressure waves. The height increases the faster the boat approaches plaining speed. Interestingly as the boat increases speed it pushes the crest of the pressure waves away from the transom.
With these points in mind there are several tactical responses to a “missed strike”. Rather than drop the lure back to a fish where it is more difficult to attack it is better to pull the lure towards the boat into the trough where it is easiest for the fish to attack it, in fact they may even surf down the wave to grab it. This can also be achieved by slightly increasing speed, which pushes the wave back leaving the lure closer to the trough.
An obvious solution is to run the lures in the trough if that’s the best position to hook a fish. There are a number of points: Lures are very sluggish in this position. The full leader is in the water that does spook fish. Experience has also shown that with employing a couple of tactics that become automatic running lures in the lower third of the pressure wave results in the highest success rates.
Though we’ve been referring to fish striking from behind the theory applies to fish striking from any other direction as well. The more water the fish has to swim in the more likely you are to get a clean hook up.
Even if you understand and introduce every point in this article it is important to realise that this whole sport becomes that much more enjoyable and exciting once the technical aspects of it becomes second nature. For example selecting and setting a pattern of lures and tuning them should take a lot less time than reading about it. There are also a great many other things to get right in your trolling system such as drag setting, rigging, use of teasers, outriggers etc which we have or will deal with, but no matter how much of a perfectionist you are with you gear and lures, even if you become the supreme artist of lure trolling the single most important thing is go to where the fish are and stay with them through the bite period.