“It was the second day of the Big Rock tournament in North Carolina two years ago, and we were fishing the first Viking 72 demo boat,” Capt. Ryan Higgins recalls. “We decided to make a long run to the east side of the Gulf Stream, and started fishing on the edge at 100 miles with a mixed spread of ballyhoo on 30s and two large lures in the short-rigger positions on 130s.
“With seconds left to fish, a monster blue came up behind one of the teasers, then faded back as we worked it for a strike. By the time it resurfaced and hit one of the lures, it was just past cut-off time. We fought it for a while, but we really didn’t want to see a potential tournament winner that wouldn’t count, so the angler pushed the drag up and broke it off.
“We took a lay day the next day and on the last day of the tournament, we made the run to the east side one more time. The edge had moved farther off, so I kept running until I saw the water temperature starting to drop,” Higgins says. “We put the same mixed spread out again. I trolled east at 8 knots until I hit the hard edge and within 10 minutes, there was a triple of blues in the spread. The smallest one hit the lure on the left rigger, then another about 500 pounds hit the lure on the right, and we dropped back a rigged Spanish mackerel to the biggest of the trio. It ate and took off.
“We made fast work of the small fish, but still had two 500-pound blue marlin on at the same time,” he adds. “About an hour and a half in, we released the smaller of the two, and a little after that we boated the biggest. It scaled out to 564 pounds, good enough for second place. When I started the run back, we were 134 miles from the inlet.”
If you fish tournaments, especially those targeting white marlin or sailfish, you might think fishing a mixed spread was a thing of the past—ancient history, something you read about—but no one really does anymore. You couldn’t be more wrong. There are many top captains that mix it up on the fishing grounds, especially when there’s money to be won by hanging a big blue or tuna. We decided to hunt down a few skippers whose names you might recognize to chime in on the topic and talk about how they do it.
For more than a decade, Higgins has been the captain of the Viking Yachts tournament demo boats, with an enviable track record from the mid-Atlantic to Mexico to the Bahamas. His knowledge, cool demeanor and boat-handling skills are all top-notch and he has always been willing to share hard-earned information with others. And talking about his use of mixed spreads is no different.
“I prefer using mixed spreads when we’re fishing in tournaments that have a blue marlin kill category,” he says. “Otherwise, 100 percent of our fishing revolves around dead bait using 20- or 30-pound-class tackle with a full spread of dredges and bridge teasers.”
The Viking team usually includes company president Pat Healey and the employees who are directly involved in the design and production of their boats. The team feels they get more bites and have a better catch ratio using circle hook-rigged natural baits; they never pull a full spread of plastics.
When they do pull lures as part of a mixed spread, Higgins likes to slide them out in the short-rigger positions, incorporating them into their regular spread of four rigged baits: two on flat lines and two on the long riggers. Because the lures are there to target big blue marlin, they are run on 130s.
“I shorten up my bridge teasers a bit since the lures not only make a good target for blue marlin, but act as additional teasers for whites,” he says. “For that reason, I have a mate or angler on each of the 130s ready to wind the lure away if a white or small blue rises to it, leading the fish to one of the circle hook ballyhoos or a pitch bait. That said, we are always hoping to get that lottery ticket ‘big hole, bent pole’ blue marlin bite, and that’s what happened those two days during the Big Rock.”
Higgins says that if they get into a good white marlin bite, he takes the lures out of the spread because while in a circle, they just don’t look very appealing during that type of maneuvering. They also get in the way of multiple hookups.
Along with the four ballyhoo and two lures, he uses a double or triple natural-mullet dredge with a heavy lead so that he can troll a bit faster—8 knots or better—which is nice when he wants to cover more ground looking for fish. The second dredge is a mullet/mudflap mix. Higgins’ primary bridge teaser is a squid chain with an Ilander-covered mackerel as the chase bait; he mixes up the other bridge teaser, but typically employs a Black Bart Breakfast or Lunch lure in the remaining position. The bridge teasers are set about 20 feet behind the dredges. The lures usually consist of a Beamish Lydonia Lady on one side and any of an assortment of Andy Moyes lures on the other. He sometimes augments the long-rigger ballyhoo with a Moldcraft chugger head for a bigger profile.
The Caribbean Connection
Capt. Juan Carlos Torruella fishes the 57-foot Spencer, Predator, in the waters of the Caribbean, bouncing back and forth between the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, running charters and competing in billfish tournaments throughout the region.
“I really like to mix natural baits and lures when targeting blue marlin,” Torruella says, “and some of my favorite places to put the technique to use are the FADs of the Dominican Republic, the North Drop and Anegada. I will tend to use a couple variations on the theme depending on where I am and the size of the fish that might be there.”
The blues that gather around the FADs in the D.R. are typically small fish, 75 to 150 pounds. For these, Torruella pulls a pair of dredges with mudflaps, preferring the colored ones made by Fathom Offshore. For bridge teasers, he runs two Squidnation squid chains with Ilanders over horse ballyhoo as a trailer. He runs four rods: a pair of rigged ballyhoo on 30s with the flat lines pinned to the transom, usually sporting chugger heads, and two lures off the long-rigger positions on 50-pound-class standup rods. His favorite lures are the Black Bart Mini 1656s.
“I’ve had some remarkable results with this spread in and out of tournaments,” Torruella says. “I won the Club Nautico de San Juan IBT with it—twice!”
Learn to rig a swimming mackerel.
When fishing the North Drop or Anegada in the BVIs, he uses a different mixed spread, because the fish tend to run larger and he is targeting blue marlin exclusively. What makes it different is there is only one hook bait in the entire spread—the rest are hookless teasers. He runs the same dredges but replaces the chains with extra-large lures as bridge teasers, usually a Black Bart Braziliano and a Bost Baby Yellowfin.
“If there are smaller blues around, I will put a squid chain out, but just on one side,” Torruella says. Then he adds two additional hookless lures on teaser rods from the cockpit, usually a Top Gun lure on one side and a Marlin Magic slant head on the other. “I run a Spanish mackerel with a circle hook as a shotgun bait off the center rigger on a 50-pound-class bent butt and have two pitch baits ready in the cockpit, one for big fish and one for smaller blues. The teasers are super important as 80 percent of the marlin raised on them are then switched, while the other 20 percent come up on the shotgun Spanish and just eat it. We had a third-place fish on the last day of the inaugural Scrub Island Blue Marlin Invitational using this spread, and it has worked extremely well for us.”
Ready for Anything
Capt. Randy Yates, perennial tournament competitor and successful charter skipper, runs the 55-foot Viking Miss Annie from Ocean City, Maryland, to the Palm Beaches of Florida and across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. When I asked about mixing up plastics and natural baits, he was all over it like a marlin on a pitch bait.
“I like to fish a mixed spread when trolling where we might encounter both marlin and tuna or whites and blues,” he says. “Depending on sea conditions, it is possible to fish lures and baits effectively in the same pattern. Squid chains and spreader bar teasers are a mainstay, as are large plastic lures on one or more of the bridge teasers, but an armed lure in the short rigger position is also an effective teaser and a great addition to the spread should a blue marlin crash the party.”
Yates tells us that he prefers a mixed spread—especially when fishing tournaments in the mid-Atlantic states—and he always runs the lures from the short-rigger position, so the leader is well out of the water to keep the lure working at bait speeds. Because it is playing double duty as a teaser for whites and a large snack for a blue, he fishes it through a Roller-Troller release clip. This way, the mate or angler assigned to that rod can tease a smaller marlin, so it can be switched to a natural bait for a better hookup on lighter tackle.
“The idea behind fishing a mixed spread is to maximize your opportunities,” he says. “In white marlin tournaments where there are frequently large calcuttas for blue marlin and tuna, it only makes sense. We see it all the time when we’re charter fishing for tuna, but a white marlin will bite the spreader bars or larger lures meant for bigeye and the hookup ratio is just terrible. Fishing a mixed spread makes it possible to switch a small blue or white marlin that comes into the spread on a big lure over to an appropriate bait or in the case of a big blue, we hope it takes the large short-rigger lures.”
Coming at the mixed spread debate over lure- or bait-heavy spreads is Capt. Rom Whitaker of Release, a 53-foot Bobby Sullivan custom Carolina boat. He is a full-time charter skipper with more than 30 years of experience in the waters off Hatteras, North Carolina. He also fishes a full slate of billfish tournaments in Virginia and North Carolina each year, with an enviable record of finishing in the money.
“Over the years I have been through changes in patterns and techniques that varied from running large spreads of rigged baits under Ilanders, to running lures almost exclusively,” Whitaker explains. “Naturally it varies with time of year, but combo spreads have always been part of the program to one degree or another. I love fishing blue marlin tournaments; in those, I’m focused on catching that one big fish. I’m not worried about a white or sail, and my spread is structured accordingly.”
For blue marlin tournaments, he mixes up the illusion by running lures long, large ballyhoo short, and rigged Spanish mackerel as pitch baits. The cockpit is armed with 130s for both long riggers and the shotgun position. Whitaker told me he likes Bonze Lures from New Zealand; and the Trojan, Here for the Party and Violator models are among his favorites. He runs them along with bridge teasers and sometimes additional teasers off the short-rigger position.
“I put horse ballyhoos rigged to swim on the flatlines with a little skirt just to add some color and a lot of weight to keep it in the water, because I’m pulling this spread at 8½ to 9 knots,” he adds. “We keep an eye on the ballyhoo and change them out a lot because they can wash out pretty quick at that speed, but they do get bit.”
With so many lures in the water, Whitaker still likes to revert to Spanish mackerel on pitch-bait rods, which he keeps at the ready.
He explains that whenever possible, he will try to switch a big fish that comes in on one of the lures or teasers to the pitch baits because he gets a better hookup that way. And a better hookup equates to fewer lost fish—and when it’s a potential tournament winner, that’s what it’s all about.
For all the tournament captains who mix up their trolling patterns with lures and dead bait, there are many more private boats that run mixed spreads religiously on the offshore grounds. The technique is particularly prevalent in the Mid-Atlantic region, where a trip to the canyons can include encounters with bigeye and yellowfin tuna plus white and blue marlin.
Three lure makers rig their own designs.
For example, armed spreader bars targeting tuna also do a great job of acting as teasers for marlin. Placing a few rigged ballyhoo around them in the spread increases your ability to tease a hungry white to a bait on a lighter rod—providing a better chance at a solid hookup and more fun fighting it. You must have good eyes on the spread to see the fish coming in, and for anglers who can get the bars out of the way and quickly drop back one of the ballyhoo baits, it’s technique that catches lots of billfish every year. Adding a large marlin lure to the shotgun in a mixed pattern with baits accounts for many stray blue marlin bites every year, too.
If you’re stuck on just baits or plastics, maybe it’s time to add a little mix into your fishing repertoire. You’ll be in good company.