• Published:March 17, 2021
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What is the perfect offshore trolling spread? Ask 10 different captains and you'll get 10 different answers. There are far too many variables, including the vessel's inherent ability to raise fish, the target species, current sea conditions and the feeding patterns of fish. I've heard about my share of perfect spreads from lots of stubborn captains who will say "we just have to go over them with this spread and we'll get bit."

But with any experience, you'll quickly realize that the old "just go over 'em" mentality couldn't be further from reality. The newer trolling cameras are already providing countless hours of video footage showing schools of tuna and other large game fish rocketing up behind trolled lures and baits only to veer off and turn away at the last minute without the captain or crew knowing of their presence. How many fish have given us a check swing without us being wise to them? If you want the best shot at picky customers, use these methods to maximize your trolling spread.

1. The Test Spread

Early in the game you should put out a test spread to determine the right approach. Once you logged a few consistent strikes on one particular pattern, you can modify the rest of the spread to maximize the number of knockdowns, keeping the crew busy and the fish boxes full.

2. Study the Wash

One of the first things my teammate Lou and I do when we fish a boat for the first time is study the prop wash behind the boat at trolling speed. While fish do hit right in the wash occasionally, they will strike baits offered just outside more frequently. And it's not only on the flanks of the wash, but behind it and perhaps my favorite, underneath as well. When modifying your spread for success, take this one to heart: Get something beneath the bubbles. I like a 30-foot diving swim bait like those produced by Yo-Zuri and Rapala. Color and distance from the boat will have to be modified to suit the situation, but this one type of lure has put more fish on the deck than any other in my arsenal. When the fish are shy or more reluctant to commit to surface baits, a diving lure gets taken by a fish in front of the school and creates enough commotion to raise the cavalry. Other subsurface presentations that work well are bonito-type runners, weighted jets and live or rigged natural baits deployed on down riggers or a planer to get them down.

3. Go Natural

When time and budget allows, properly rigged natural baits fished naked or with a skirted head can make the ultimate difference when targeting some of more cunning adversaries like bigeye tuna and marlin. Fish these baits out long on the outriggers or center rigger. You can also fish them in tight just outside the wash. Many of my commercial buddies use an entire spread of natural bait very successfully. Unfortunately, many of us don't have the time or money to maintain a 100-quart cooler packed full of perfectly rigged and brined ballyhoo. While it may be a worthwhile investment for tournaments and commercial use, a combination of natural baits and artificials is still effective.

4. Lure 'Em In

Possible spread configurations using lures are endless, so I'll focus on the test spread we use at the Northeast canyons. We usually fish our baits within the six waves behind the vessel.  We deploy the longest lines first and work our way back to the boat, ending with the flat lines. Some of these baits are interchangeable depending on lure availability and sea conditions, but if fish are around, one of them will get hit and allow us to dial it in from there: Wave #6 (Center rigger): This bait sits just behind the wave for those shy fish. A single naked rigged ballyhoo or behind a bird with a single stinger bait like a Green Machine. Wave #5 (Outer riggers): Fish these baits on both the port and starboard sides of the wash at its widest point. We place these single Green Machine stingers or daisy chains behind birds. Wave #4 (Inside riggers): This is where the spreader bars go. The position on the rigger and the closer proximity to the boat keep an upward tension on the bars that reduces drag, creating optimal action. The other advantage to fishing the bars here is that the white wash is more tapered, giving fish a full view of the offering from below. Occasionally, when fish are more skittish, these bars will be swapped out for large straight-running jet/ballyhoo combinations on lighter fluoro leaders, and they are pulled upwards a little more out of the water. Wave #3 (Stern corners): This is where we like to run our subsurface baits like the X-Rap 30 fished off the rod tips. At this distance the baits are well below the wash and with less line out from the stern than the rigger baits they are less likely to cross during turns and other maneuvers. Waves #2 and #1 (Stern or cockpit rod holders): These lines are fished either directly from the rod tip or attached to flat-line clips to keep them out of the white water and free from any tangles. We fish a variety of small colorful clones and jet-type lures here for the more aggressive species like albacore and dolphin.
"Once you logged a few consistent strikes on one particular pattern, you can modify the rest of the spread to maximize the number of knockdowns, keeping the crew busy and the fish boxes full."
-- Capt. Jack Sprengel

5. Pull It Right

The spread outlined above creates the traditional, easy to maintain "V" or "W" pattern behind the boat while producing just the right amount of disturbance both on and below the surface. Study your vessel's prop wash and adjust accordingly. Typically we fish our pattern at around 6 to 6.5 knots but you should alter the speed of your vessel to get the right action out of your lures. Chop on the surface and direction of the tide dictates our speed.

6. Color Considerations

Here in the Northeast canyons we tend to use five colors more frequently than others but they can change when you get in tighter to land or fish cooler water. The five main colors include greens, rainbows, pinks, blues and green/white/red mixes or green/yellow/orange mixes sometimes called Mexican Flag or Zucchini. Ultimately, the crew that has a full arsenal in each of these colors is likely to have the upper hand. If I had to choose only two colors, they would be greens and rainbows. I often put out one color on each side of the spread and give it a full tide cycle of six or more hours before I even consider changing it out.

7. Hit the Bars

Hands-down I prefer splasher-style spreader bars. They create a large target for schooling fish to see and a lot of surface commotion that fish sense from a distance. However, in a tight cross-chop this type of bar can dig in and get caught beneath the surface, making it virtually impossible to keep it in the out rigger. When this happens, we switch over to flat-running bars that do not use inline birds. The reduced drag creates less resistance and requires less upward force to maintain a favorable presentation. You can fish simple bars further back in the spread off the outside riggers without the risk of them popping the clips. On days where the fish are more keyed-in to larger patterns, deploy a spread of bars in every position to provide ultimate coverage.

8. Size Matters

Baitfish will reproduce around moon tides and game fish will go into what we refer to as a "micro-feed pattern." During these difficult feeds, reducing lure size, downsizing your fluorocarbon leaders and reducing your trolling speed to reduce the white wash can save the day. On the flip side, when fish are dialed-in on larger food sources like bonito or herring, they often snub anything small and go directly for the high-calorie big baits regardless of leader selection or color. That's when you want to go big.