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October 12, 2001

The Lost Art of Bait Rigging

For blue marlin, stick with three tried-and-true bait rigs.

Talking about bait rigging is as good a way as any to get a bunch of letters from guys who either think they invented fishing or are here to save it from the rest of us. So I will tell you up front that, to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a formal poll taken indicating that the way I rig my baits is the only way or the best way to do it.

That said, the methods I use are derived from a composite of the sport's best natural-bait fishermen, combined with a lifetime spent rigging baits and always looking for ways to improve what I was doing. If you have been rigging baits for awhile and catch plenty of fish, you're not likely to need my help. But if you are just starting out or are trying to pick up bait rigging after 20 years of lure fishing, I would encourage you to read this piece thoroughly.

I have also seen magazine articles depicting "the way" to rig a mackerel or ballyhoo. Some of these were on the money, but some have been laughable, and anyone who followed those instructions was bound to be disappointed in the results. Clearly, watching a mate rig a bait and then writing an article about it does not make one an expert. What I would like to do in this article is to give the angler a baseline from which to rig what I believe are the best baits for blue marlin - ballyhoo, mackerel and mullet. The rigger will then have a blueprint from which to make his own subtle changes or innovations, but he will at least know the basics that are often omitted in today's bait-rigging articles.

For my money, a ballyhoo is the most versatile and effective blue marlin-catching tool that swims. Guys pulling hard plastic lures that weigh 6 pounds and bubble like a Trident submarine will scoff that ballyhoo may be okay for small fish, but for something big, you just gotta use some contraption that blinks, glows and sends Morse code.

But nothing, I say. A ballyhoo rigged to swim with a Hawaiian Eye or Softhead can be pulled as fast as most lures and will have all of the big-fish appeal emitted by the latest plastic fantastic. Furthermore, plain horse ballyhoo can be rigged to swim or skip and are very effective in areas where fish are under a good deal of pressure.

I used to rig my Hawaiian Eyes with #12 or #15 piano wire, but the new monos are hard enough to withstand the rigors of dead-bait fishing. A lot of guys have gone to mono as light as 200 pounds, but I would stick with something in the 400-pound range if you are using 80-pound tackle. For a naked horse ballyhoo, I will usually use a 1-ounce chin weight and #12 wire (.029). I make this change because I want that bait to swim deep and kick hard at a slower speed, either on a flat line or long rigger. My choice of hook has always been the Mustad 7691 in 10/0, but the 7731 has its advocates. I have not used any of the newer hooks in my big baits, but I do like them for light-tackle fishing.

Chin weights are very important for swimming ballyhoo, and I like them heavy. The old saying, "the bigger the weight, the dumber the mate," applies to small ballyhoo, but to pull large ballyhoo at lure speeds requires weights of 1 ounce or more. Ballyhoo may be rigged two ways: with a pin or without one. Here is the deal on that: Rig your high-speed horse ballyhoo with a pin and your slower-speed medium and small baits without. When it comes to pin rigs, the style depicted in the illustrations is preferable to the popular method of slipping the sinker on the loop, as that tends to tear gills and doesn't make a neat presentation on a naked bait.

Spanish Mackerel
For some reason, most who are uninitiated in bait rigging look at a sewn mackerel as if it were produced by some combination of luck and voodoo.

During one summer in the southern Caribbean I happened to spend a lot of time with two characters, Mike "Seqor Azul" Konzelman and "Condado" Bill Hiding. True to their Yankee heritage, they were big-time lure advocates, and I think the only natural bait that they ever put on their boat was butterfish for tuna chunking.

We were walking down the dock one evening at Club Nautico in San Juan and one of the Dominican mates held up a mackerel and gave us a frustrated laugh. He didn't know what to do with it. Not to be bothered by a smelly fish at that time of night, Mike and Bill kept walking. I came to the rescue and, 10 minutes and two butchered mackerel later, the kid was whipping up baits like he had been doing it all of his life. True, it doesn't make much of a story, but it does illustrate that given the proper instruction, rigging mackerel is not as difficult as many believe.

The traditional way to fish a mackerel was at dead-bait speed until St. Thomas crews found that "cooked" mackerel (treated with formaldehyde and brine or some other type of hide toughener) can be pulled on a long rigger at lure speeds. The rigging methods for these two baits are very similar, with the slower-speed bait harnessed to swim. We all used to rig mackerel on either #12 or #15 wire, then switched to the galvanized .040 when it became available. Now many North Carolina boats pull mackerel on mono, and I would bet that 99 percent of the boats pulling mackerel outside of the States are using mono leaders.

While I feel that a mackerel swims much better on a wire leader at slow speeds, I have made the switch to 500-pound mono when rigging swimming baits. If you are pulling mackerel at lure speeds, mono is the only choice, since the bait is going to be spending plenty of time airborne and stands a better-than-average chance of kinking wire. A couple of key points for mackerel rigging: Make the hole in the bait's head dead in the center and keep the mouth sewn up tightly. I have seen mackerel rigged with the mouth left open and a Softhead slid down over the mouth, but the bait always washes out quickly. If the bait's mouth is sewn tight, it will swim true and usually last until something eats it.

In my mind, no other bait conjures up images of big blue marlin like a swimming mullet. While I have significantly more success with horse ballyhoo or mackerel, looking at one of these boys in my bait box makes me think of Johnny Harms, Tommy Gifford and Red Bailey chasing blue marlin on the North Drop and bluefin tuna in the Alley back in the Golden Years.

I rig mullet heavy to swim fast and deep on a flat line, and I still like to rig them on wire - usually .033 galvanized or #12 piano. It has been my experience that wire leaders will make a bait swim deeper and with more action. Chin weights run around 3 to 4 ounces, depending on bait size and desired bait speed and depth. A mullet requires the same center loop placement as a mackerel but is easier to rig because there is very little sewing involved. I sew the bait together behind the hook, but that is about all that is required.

You do want to keep the hook shank loose so that the bait pulls from the loop and not on the hook. In fact, that may be the most important rule for a beginning bait rigger to follow when rigging mackerel or mullet. Baits that spin or flop when they should be swimming are often victims of being rigged with the bait pulling on the hook and not the loop.