Trolling a spread of circle-hooked ballyhoo ranks as one of the most popular methods for chasing billfish all over the world, and while most of the techniques originated in the sailfish-rich waters of Costa Rica and Guatemala, this style of fishing has spread to Mexico, the East Coast of the United States, and well into the far corners of the sport-fishing community. This highly effective tactic works for a wide variety of species, and it’s also a lot of fun for the angler, who takes an active, hands-on role in the hookup process. The captains consulted for this feature have more than 30,000 combined lifetime billfish releases and are acknowledged pros on some of the more-advanced dead-bait techniques that will help you fly a few more flags at the end of the day.
First, you should have a good foundation. For the most part, we’ll target sailfish using 20- and 30-pound-class tackle and ballyhoo rigged with circle hooks, but these same angling principles also apply to a wide variety of other species, including any species of small marlin, tuna, mahi and others. When you have a bite, or a fish is approaching a bait in the spread, you should be able to grab the correct rod, go into free-spool, and execute a good drop-back. Watch the line: If it leaves the rod tip in loose waves, you’re fine, but if it comes off the tip in a straight line to the bait, apply less pressure to the line. Start with a four- or five-count drop-back, but pay attention, and soon you’ll know when to lock up a little sooner on an aggressive fish or a little later with a lazy bite. Then slide the drag lever up smoothly rather than slamming it forward, as this will help the circle hook settle in the corner of the fish’s mouth as it swims away.
Swing and a Miss
So what happens when you execute a good drop-back, push up the drag, and nobody’s home? There are two possibilities. First, the fish either missed the bait or it popped out of its mouth. Second, the fish stripped you clean, leaving just a head bridled to the hook, the dreaded “sancocho” — don’t worry, this happens to even the best anglers in the world, just not as often as to the rest of us. If you don’t come tight when you slide the drag up, you should see if you still have a bait, and get ready for a follow-up bite.
Capt. Bubba Carter has played the dead-bait game all over the world for the past four decades at the helm of famed charter boat Tijereta and teaches the sport as well as anyone. “If you don’t hook up, then I need to see if you still have a bait left,” he says. “Hold the rod tip high so the bait comes back to the surface and skips a little. At the same time, you should go back to free-spool with your thumb on the spool so you’re ready for a second shot. If you have a bait, I’ll tell you to hold it right there or maybe wind it up a little. If not, I’ll have a mate put another bait in the water for you right away.”
More times than not, though, you’ll have a second or third shot at the fish, so stay with it and don’t give up. Even when clearing the bait back to the boat, you should swim it back through the spread and be ready for a surprise bite from an unseen fish.