Offshore trolling is often described as "hours of boredom followed by minutes of mayhem." It's a technique that works best when the fish are spread out as it allows you to cover a lot of ground effectively and quickly.
Despite the effectiveness of trolling lures, the technique is not easily mastered, especially when compared to the relative ease of fishing natural baits. Unlike live baiting, where the bait does all the work, lures must be selected, rigged and trolled correctly for success.
Crews that specialize in towing artificials treat it as a science. There is no such thing as the perfect spread because different species prefer different lures in different positions.
I have found that lures with minimal action work best for tuna, especially when set well back from the boat. Alternately, marlin prefer active lures that smoke and splash, often up close to the transom.
There is certainly a trend among some anglers to troll as many lures as they can, but I have found that less is more. I stick to four or five lures in a spread: two from the outriggers, two from flat lines, and often one in the shotgun.
When chasing blue marlin we keep the number lures to a minimum. When a blue hooks up and powers off towards the horizon, the last thing you time for is retrieving half a dozen lures. Alternately, when chasing tuna, multiple hook ups are no problem so we'll run more outfits.
The usual four-lure pattern forms a V-shape, with the outriggers at the back and the corners inside. Fishing from an outboard boat changes things, since the motor exhaust creates a different type of wash. For this, I have modified my pattern to resemble a rather warped 'W' pattern that works behind all types of craft.
Large 12- to 14-inch skirted lures run short on the port outrigger. A heavy lure that digs in and creates an enticing splash works very well in this position. These lures should make a lot of commotion since they has to compete with the prop wash for the fish's attention. This is a very productive position for blue and striped marlin but rarely produces tuna.
On the long corner a smaller 10- to 12-inch lure performs best. Sitting behind the 'rigger lure in clean water makes this position ideal for a lure that creates a long smoke trail. It is deadly on tuna, wahoo and marlin. If marlin aren't your primarily target, a diving lure like the Halco Laser Pro 190 can provide a deadly substitute on the long corner.
You should run your biggest lure off the short corner. Select something that features a lot of action and splashes continuously since it's close to the boat. Dark colors that stand out against the wash, like purple and dark blue, will increase the number of bites here. This is the favorite position for blue marlin.
The long rigger sits only slightly further back than the other outrigger. Skirted lures that dive deep and create little surface commotion make this a favorite for striped marlin, yellowfin and sailfish. It is consistently the most productive spot in the whole spread on my boat.
Finally, sometimes you need a wildcard - the shotgun. Marlin may strike at a couple of lures in the spread then vanish only to fall for the shotgun. Smaller skirted lures with less action like jetheads perform well, but I've also used a deep-diving Laser Pro to entice big tuna on the shotgun.
You should ensure that all lures run in clear water and not in the prop wash. The wake can conceal your offerings, making it difficult for a predator to spot them. A decent set of outriggers will usually run the lures in clear water by default, but on certain boats the flat lines will need to be set further back or halfway up the outriggers to avoid whitewater. Every boat is different, so it pays to experiment.
Effective blue-water trolling employs a deliberate search pattern to locate fish. Currents, structure and sea-surface temperatures must also be taken into account.
Currents govern all pelagic species -- both bait and predator. Bottom structures disrupt the current creating upwellings, pushing cooler water up where it collides with the warmer surface layer. Baitfish congregate along these breaks to feast on plankton and other microscopic organisms. Apex predators like marlin and tuna are drawn to the concentration of food, and finding these breaks is critical. Modern satellite charts have made finding these hot spots very easy.
Reefs, canyons and even the continental shelf are prime examples of structures that cause upwellings. And while studying structure will help you locate temperature breaks, you shouldn't stop there. Eddies of warm water regularly break free from main currents and travel independently. At the front of these eddies the temperature can vary dramatically. Rich in plankton, these waters draw baitfish and predators alike. Carefully researching the water conditions in your area before you head offshore is a key to success.
CLOSING THE DEAL
Once you map out promising areas to find fish and dial in your spread, it's time to close the deal. The speed you troll is dictated by the conditions but will almost always be between 6 and 10 knots. In rough seas it is best to slow down a little and avoid punching straight into the sea. Instead, I like to plan my day so I run parallel to the waves -- not only does this allow the lures to run at their optimum, but it also makes the ride more comfortable for the crew. A following sea will offer a gentle ride but surfing down the waves will invariable cause the lures to blow out as the boat speeds up. To avoid trolling into the weather, check the marine forecast for your area carefully as you plan your trip.
Many crews work over a canyon once and then head off to the next one, and instead of concentrating on a proven productive area spend most of the day running around. Pick your spot carefully and work it thoroughly. When the peak bite hits, be it a tide change or change of light, you don't want to be in transit.
When you see birds circling instead of charging right through the center of them work the edges. This technique will keep you from spooking any tuna in the area, alternately if there is a marlin, shadowing the school like this will quickly get their attention. Hang around even if you don't get a bite immediately, because sooner or later the predators will appear.
Successful offshore trolling is a complex mix of planning and execution. But today's modern tools combined with professional expertise from captains that have logged years perfecting the spread will help you bring fish to the boat