Right after the ubiquitous "Did you catch anything?" the second most frequently asked question of big-game captains has to be, "What are you pulling?" Although you're liable to get an honest answer to the first, you can never count too much on the information forthcoming to the second. Captains and crew tend to be a secretive lot, especially when it comes to lure fishermen.
Lure guys come back to the dock with clean cockpits and not a trace of either their lures or their teasers showing. They put in huge amounts of time to fine-tune their spread and choose lures that run perfectly in each position so why spill the beans and let everyone in on it?
Luckily for you, we were able to pin down five of the hottest lure fishermen out there and get them to tell us not only what they are pulling, but also what color, what position and how fast. So now the pressure is all on you to get out and try some of these techniques in your home waters. You know it couldn't hurt.
Capt. Clay Hensley
Freed 'em, Madeira; or Harmattan, Ghana
Son of the late big-game pioneer Russ Hensley of Beastmaster fame, Capt. Clay Hensley inherited much of his father's passion for pursuing big blue marlin. After spending several seasons running and crewing big-game boats around the world, he has evolved into a top-notch big-fish captain and has proven his ability to locate and catch big blues everywhere they are found.
Hensley prefers to run a staggered lure pattern with only four lures, starting on the second wave. "Where there's a lot of spearfish or tuna, I'll sometimes pull a shotgun, but my main blue marlin spread consists of just four lures and teaser, usually a big Black Bart Grander Candy or large Skip Smith Hooker run from the bridge on the left side. I'll also run a fender teaser from time to time. Some people don't like the fender, but we had over a million dollars' worth of fish come up on one in 1999."
When the weather's cooperating, Hensley likes to pull lures with an aggressive slant on their faces. "I always try to pull slant-headed lures when I can, but you have to realize that a slant head will pull out of the water in rough seas. Dustin Foo built a couple of slant heads for me featuring weighted inserts that keep them in the water better. One of those made it to my A-team in Ghana, and it was the smallest lure I pulled there," he says.
At present, Hensley seems to favor some of his smaller lures, even in places known as big-fish country. "I like the look of a big lure, but I think they can lower your hookup ratio and pull out later in the fight more often," he says. To reach a compromise, Hensley reaches for his tube lures "because they are small in diameter but look like a big lure in the water."
His spread, however, usually winds up as a mixed bag. "I pull a large lure on the short bait, one or two tubes on the riggers and, if all of the others are pushing water, I'll put out a swimmer as my weak link, the one that's acting different from the rest. But that kind of goes against my own theory that a fish will zero in on one bait from the get-go," he says.
Just as his lure size decreased over the past year, Hensley found himself slowing down a bit as well after missing quite a few aggressive strikes in Ghana. "I normally tend to troll pretty fast, 8 1/2 to 9 knots. But I ended up slowing down a bit in Ghana this year because the fish were just so aggressive that it looked like they were trying to kill the baits instead of eat them. After missing a few, I found out that I could get better results by trolling fast while in search mode, and then slowing down to about 6 1/2 knots when we would see one come up. I first saw this technique used while fishing with Bobby Brown in Madeira, and it worked just fine for me."
While fishing in Ghana, Hensley had the good fortune of having an underwater videographer film all his short bait bites for six weeks straight. "I could see everything hook placements, leader material and snap swivels, but no color at all." Even so, Hensley believes that some colors seem to work better than others. "Black-and-purple and black-and-red are my favorites," he says.
Capt. Peter B. Wright
Top Shot, Cairns, Australia
Splitting his time between big-fish hot spots in both the Atlantic and Pacific, Capt. Peter B. Wright has probably seen more big fish in his spread than just about anyone. He's a student of big-game fishing, and his simple, straightforward techniques underscore his vast knowledge of the habits of his main quarry, grander black and blue marlin.
Of all the captains featured in this article, Wright is the only one who doesn't stagger his lures in the spread. "All these notions about staggering your spread came from 1950s-era Hawaii, when all the outriggers poked straight up in the air," he says. "With the outrigger we have today laying way out, low and wide you're more likely to get screwed up by staggering. The main thing is not to get lures tangled up in the pattern. So I just skip all that and run them in pairs."
"Lure fishing is really a no-brainer," Wright says. "If you want to turn a guy who's never fished before into a hero, get him to run two or three Wide Range Softheads one big one, two little ones and a little jet head, and it doesn't matter where he puts them. Throw them out, put it in the outrigger, put the clicker on and when the reel makes a terrible noise, pick the rod up. Marlin are big, strong, magnificent fish, but they are stupid. So the spread is pretty much inconsequential. What I find is that there are a couple of more productive spots behind the boat somewhere around the third or fourth wave that mark just the right distance behind the boat for a fish to pop up and check out the vessel. You have to keep in mind that you're riding on the best teaser you've got."
Wright firmly believes that using teasers for big marlin is a no-no. "You are always hearing stories about fish coming up and taking off with fender teasers. Well, what good does that do you? If you are going to pull something big, put some hooks in it because there's always going to be a percentage of fish that come up and pounce on a lure and then go away."
When it comes to lure selection, Wright feels that the sea state should play the biggest role in what type of lure you are using. "The two most consistent lures you can possibly use are the cup-faced chugger-type heads and cylindrical tapered heads like plungers and pushers. I personally think that the Wide Range Softhead is the most consistent lure ever built. You can tune it to do different things or just throw it out the back, and it runs underwater like a jet and still catches tuna, wahoo and marlin."
One important point Wright likes to stress is the use of light drag settings when fishing with lures. "I use as light a drag as I possibly can and still pull the lure. As soon as I feel the fish has turned away from me, I'll push the drag up to strike."
Capt. Alan Card
Capt. Alan Card has spent the past 40-plus years fishing in big-fish country. During that time he has weighed five Atlantic blue marlin that topped the 1,000-pound mark, a unique accomplishment in the sport of big-game fishing.
Card fishes all his lures from the outriggers in a staggered 2,3,4,5 pattern. Like Kevin Nakamaru (below), he also uses tag lines. His main concern about selecting a lure is that it spends more time underwater than above it. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a straight runner or tube. I actually prefer a little taper so it zigzags a bit," he says. "The Wide Range is probably the best it's virtually idiotproof. It's readily available, inexpensive and runs great no matter where you put it."
Card likes to keep his colors natural, matching the bait in his area. "Stick with the basics the blues, blacks, purples and blue-and-pink to imitate squid. But you should also have one lure in a spread of four or five that is totally different from the rest," he says.
Most lures are designed to catch anglers, not fish, says Card. "With the right speed and the right sea conditions, you can make a lure do just about anything you want. We have variable weather conditions in Bermuda, so we never have the same thing out. We are constantly changing positions. Just watch the lures if the spread is pleasing to you, then it's going to be pleasing to the fish."
He also believes in going deep with downriggers. Card gets a great deal of bites on lures over 20 feet down.
When targeting big fish, he believes in pulling big lures. "I'm aware that elephants eat peanuts, but the smallest of the lures I tow on a regular basis is a big one," says Card. Lures made by Big T lures in South Africa and any lure by Marlin Parker, Joe Yee or Black Bart are his favorites.
Capt. Kevin Nakamaru
Northern Lights, Kona, Hawaii
Growing up in Hawaii, the birthplace of lure fishing, Capt. Kevin Nakamaru learned his craft from the masters of the sport. He usually freelances during the summer months in Madeira, chasing big fish wherever he can find them. And it works well for him: He's the only captain we know who has caught a grander black and a grander blue in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Nakamaru prefers to run a staggered pattern usually with just five lures, even if he's fishing in calm water. "When I'm in Kona, where we have calm seas and a lot of tuna, I'll run a stinger (some people call it a shotgun) way back on the 10th wave off the left side. Most people like to run their stinger on the center rigger, but since I'm using 130s all the time, I run mine on the left. If I ran the 130-pound on the center rigger, the weight of the 130 would cause the line to sag down and catch one of my large straight-runners during a turn," he says.
One significant way that Nakamaru's lure spread differs from that of some other captains mentioned here is his use of tag lines long sections of line attached to your halyards which provide a pulling point that extends past the transom to help eliminate drop-back. "When using tag lines, there's no drop-back to the fish. It's just a direct, steady take," says Nakamaru.
But eliminating drop-back isn't the only reason Nakamaru prefers tag lines. "Since you don't have to mess around pulling clips up and down your outriggers, we can get four or five lures out real quick with tag lines. That speed means you are going to get more shots at a cautious fish after a knockdown with no hookup. Also, come tournament time you don't want a fish to strike while your mate is hauling a lure up your outrigger, which would probably result in a disqualified fish."
Nakamaru feels a lure's action is more important than color. "The best ones track real straight and run with a consistent swim-and-pop action. I've proven over and over again that all lures are not created equal at 8 knots. Some lures just get bitten more consistently than others, like the purple/black Mold Craft Wide Range. There are times when that lure is just wide open here in Kona, and some guys will start to run two of them. My special lure is a Henry Chee straight runner, made by Marlin Magic, that took a 1,170 in Madeira and a 1,115 here in Kona. To me that's a special lure, and it's become my go-to lure day in and day out."
On the subject of hard versus soft lures, Nakamaru doesn't find too much difference between the two. "I was raised running hard-head lures, but I like soft heads too. I see no difference. Even when we are fishing the bait-and-switch, my hard heads keep the fish coming just as hard. I really don't care if a lure is hard or soft, as long as it looks big in the water. Bart Miller's Braziliano and the Mold Craft Wide Range are both soft-head lures that get the attention of big fish," he says.
Nakamaru rarely pulls teasers. He points out that his big, short lures act as perfect teasers only with hooks. "I prefer to have my fish eating while they are moving toward the boat. When you have teasers out, you get most of your bites going away, and we miss a few that way. By using my short lures as armed teasers, I might miss a few small fish, but we stick the big ones."
Chupacabra, Dallas, Texas
Capt. John Uhr fishes by the motto "I'm not fishing for the biggest one, just the right one." Two years ago, team Chupacabra with Capt. Uhr racked up a string of victories on the tournament circuit, including wins in the Bertram/Hatteras Shootout, the Poco Bueno in Texas and second place in the Bisbee Black & Blue an impressive $1.4 million in winnings in 1999. Last year this dedicated tournament captain and his team managed another $700,000 (not too shabby).
But after a slow season in the Bahamas this spring, Uhr says he's going through a bit of a change right now. "I'm pulling four lures and two fender teasers, pulling them in close and slow because that's just the way the boat pulls them best. I pull all my lures from the fourth wave in. Where most guys are pulling their bridge teasers, I'm pulling lures with hooks in them."
Uhr tries to keep everything, including his lures, as simple as possible. "Our selection is pretty basic, depending on the sea and what we can run. When it's calm we run a lot of slant heads, but other than that we use a couple of Pakulas [Mouse] and some Softheads," he says. "As far as size goes, I try to use lures that match the food source in a particular area. You definitely want your lures to track pretty straight, so pay close attention to the whole placement in your lures. If the hole is off center just a bit, then you'll get one that spins around all over the place."
Uhr is a big fan of the fender teaser and likes to run a pair of them, both the same color, right in the wash. "Where I run the fenders you can't even see them, but you can see the fish in the clear alleyway when they come up on them. The only disadvantages to using fender teasers are that they can be real hard to get a fish off of, and they aren't real easy to clear. Also, if a fish misses the first bait after leaving the teaser, they usually fade off without hitting the long either. Their upside, and it's a huge one, is that they usually raise good-quality fish."
The one thing that stays the same on the Chupacabra is change. "My lure selections change all the time," says Uhr. "Some of the lures I've mentioned except the Softheads might have to be put in the drawer when it gets too rough. The key is to keep everything as simple as possible, especially if you are pulling the fenders. When a big fish comes up, you don't have a lot of time to be clearing lines and teasers. You want as little in the water as possible. That means Dacron slides straight to the riggers, and no tag lines."