Spreader Bar Tuna Tactics

How to use spreader bars to catch more tuna on the troll.
Nick Honachefsky

Northeast tuna gurus are notorious for deploying spreader bars to raise all species of the Thunnus subgenera, including yellowfin, bluefin and bigeye.

Capt. Craig Angelini who operates the Canyon Runner, out of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, is a familiar name in the offshore community because his boat always seems to find its way onto the winner boards at major offshore tournaments. While Angelini uses a number of different techniques to put some big tuna on deck, one of his standy tactics involves pulling a long bar with a whole bunch of plastic squid baits. To effectively employ a spreader bar, however, anglers have to start out by knowing which bars to utilize and why.

"It's obvious to say match the hatch when selecting a spreader bar, and generally our bait to mimic revolves around squid," says Angelini. "The key is to pay attention to the size and color of the squid. If we are seeing large, orangish squid at night, we'll throw out the 9-inch pink/brown combo or red squids. If it's a general pink size, then the 6-inch squids go out, usually in Bloomin' Silver or Mini Mamba color patterns. The smaller squid work better during the earlier part of the season in June and July."

If mackerel are the predominant bait, which may also happen during the early part of the season, then Angelini will opt to troll larger 9-inch squids out on the bar. The tuna season generally runs from June through October in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Canyons, spanning the deep water from Hudson Canyon down through Washington Canyon.

Water clarity also plays a big part in determining spreader selection. "When we get that clean-and-clear cobalt blue water, I'll go with brighter colors. I like to use the rainbow and yellow patterns in those crisp clean waters,", says Angelini, "but when the waters are a darker green, or bluish green, we dial down to deep-hued colors like electric-green and deep-blue or purple."


Setting the spread, Angelini usually fishes no less than four spreader bars, one off each short rigger and one off each long rigger on both port and starboard sides. To fill out the spread he will pull single lures such as a Joe Shutes with a  ballyhoo or a streaker style lure in the blanks between bars so as to appear as straggler baitfish that are easy pickins for tuna. He also drags two single lures off the flat lines, usually a cedar plug or streaker style trolling lure. As a general rule, Angelini will always start out by dropping back a tried-and-true Green Machine bar down the middle of the spread. "Green machines seem to cut through the ocean better and won't drift across the lines like squids tend to do after awhile," he says.

Generally, a 6.5-knot trolling speed is ideal for pulling spreader bars, but if seas are glassy flat, you may want to bump it up to 7.5 or 8 knots. "When conditions are ultra clear and calm, you want to move the bars a lot faster to be able to trick tuna," Angelini says. "If you troll at a 6.5-knot pace in clear conditions, the tuna won't commit because they have that extra split second to see it and realize something's not quite right. You can get away with moving slower in dirtier waters."

But trolling pace isn't as important as to what your bars are actually doing in the water, according to Angelini. "Do not plow the spreader bars through the water. You want them hovering and slapping above, so whatever conditions dictate, adjust your pull accordingly to achieve that end result," he says.

Angelini likes to implement Green Machines with "average" conditions with a little chop and a little swell, but will switch up to squid spreaders when conditions are too flat as they "dig in nice to really create a commotion."
And if commotion is what its all about, Angelini also offers up some advice for Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Canyon anglers. "I notice that in the Hudson and Toms, we can pretty much keep all this advice status quo, but for some reason when we get around the southern canyons like the Washington and Baltimore, the tuna bites start to become unorthodox. Tuna down there want to see the bars hopping out of the water, so to adjust, we pull the spreader bars on the outriggers tight to the boat with little slack so the bars are literally hopping in and out of the water. The outriggers are almost literally jigging the spreaders as they hop."


There are many different bars available but one thing you really need to look for is quality. Most spreader bars range from 24 to 42 inches long and pull three to five chains of baits, which can equate to a dozen or more squids and a lot of pressure. Some crews will also attach a bird to swim in front of the bar for even more splash. When a tuna takes hold of the stinger bait, reeling in all of that gear with a nice fish on top of it puts a serious amount of pressure on the bar. For that reason most manufactureres use stainless steel or titanium for the their spreader bars. Hogy Lures makes what it calls the Ultra Pulse Flexi Bar, which is made with steel for strength but has flex so the bar pulses in the water. Other manufacturers such as Tournament Cable prefer to offer titanium which is very strong and also lightweight. After catching a tuna, it's not uncommon to have a big tangled mess in the spreader bar, but that's the price you have to pay for hooking up. And we're more than happy to pay it. The trick to success is using the right spreader bar and bait color for the conditions and you'll see your tuna tallies going off the charts.

Many of the most successful offshore boats trolling for tuna in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic canyons pull four or more spreader bars such as the one pictured above from <a href=" http://shop.hogylures.com/" target="_blank">Hogy Lures</a>. The bars create a lot of commotion on the water's surface, but subtle tricks will help you score more bites.
Spreader bars range from 24 to 42 inches and can pull three to five chains of baits. Generally, a 6.5-knot trolling speed is ideal for pulling spreader bars, but if seas are glassy flat, you may want to bump it up to 7.5 or 8 knots. Photo courtesy of <a href=" http://www.canyonrunner.com/" target="_blank">Craig Angelini / Canyon Runner</a>
Choosing the right baits to put on a spreader bar is key. Early in the season, smaller 6-inch squids seem to work better. Photo courtesy of <a href=" http://www.canyonrunner.com/" target="_blank">Craig Angelini / Canyon Runner</a>
Water clarity and color are key factors when choosing what color baits to run. Bright colors work well in clear conditions and darker blues and purples get more bites in darker water. Photo courtesy of <a href=" http://www.canyonrunner.com/" target="_blank">Craig Angelini / Canyon Runner</a>


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