Dredging for Success

When it comes to dredges, which is better, artificial lures or rigged natural baits?
Lenny Rudow

Dredges attract fish to your spread... period, end of story.

Whether you're talking to a professional captain specializing in billfish or a weekend warrior who has extensive sea time under his (or her) belt, there will always be agreement to this fact. And the value of pulling a dredge is not limited to billfish. Tuna, wahoo, and other predators have shocked many a dredge-cam viewer, appearing behind the monstrous teaser.

If you pass through the inlet without a dredge aboard, you're making a horrible decision. Figuring out which dredge is the best choice for you, however, is a difficult choice.


Dredges can be broken down into two basic categories: natural, and artificial. Some pros believe that natural dredges made with dozens of ballyhoo and/or mullet pin rigs are impossible to beat with plastic squids or skirted lures, but some other full-timers have come to feel that the artificial dredges offered now are just as good as natural baits.

The reality of the matter for most sport anglers, however, is that they have neither the time nor the budget to purchase an entire school's worth of dead baits and rig them up to swim beautifully on a dredge each and every time they go fishing. As a result, the majority of the boats out there today will be found towing an artificial dredge.

Artificials can be further broken down into three main categories: plastic, holographics, and skirt dredges. Plastics are the most realistic, at least to the human eye, and can be found with anywhere between a couple dozen and a couple hundred squid or mullet-shaped soft-plastic teasers. Naturally, the artificials also come in countless colors. The down-side to these dredges is that they're bulky and can be difficult to both stow and deploy, especially on small boats that don't have electric dredge reels.

Holographic "strip" dredges, pull plastic film embedded with Mylar fish or squid. These teasers don't look like much out of the water but once deployed, the wiggling, waving, flashing strips catch and reflect gobs of light. Spotted from atop a flybridge, they certainly look like a school of bait. Strip dredges don't take up much room and are incredibly easy to stow. They'll fit into a regular mesh lure bag as long as it can accommodate the dredge arms, which are usually 36-inches or less, and since they're lighter, are also among the easier dredges to deploy.  

Skirt dredges, which depend on colored skirts to create the profile of baits underwater and often incorporate tinsel to add some flash are similarly fake-looking when they're sitting on the deck but take on a very realistic look once they're towed through the water. These teasers are also easy to stow and deploy.

So which one of these options is best for you? That depends entirely upon whom you ask, and no, there is not much agreement. That said, we need to draw a line between dredges with plastic teasers and the other types, because there's a very real difference between them in ease of use.


As a dredge runs through the water, it creates a huge amount of resistance. This can make deploying and retrieving a dredge not only difficult, but even a bit dangerous. If you're running a boat with electric dredge reels you can pull the dredge in with the push of a button, a huge advantage over guys hand-cranking an 80 or 130 to operate their dredge lines. And if you're hand-cranking an 80 or 130, you have an advantage over the small boat angler who may be running the dredge in and out by hand and cleating the line off to the stern.

Manually deploying a dredge is a two-man operation, and it requires slowing the boat. Bringing the dredge back in requires slowing the boat to an absolute crawl, and it will still be a workout for anyone doing it by hand. Since you'll usually be bringing the dredge in to clear the way while fighting a hot fish, this can obviously cause problems. You'll need to get that dredge out of the water as quickly as possible, so the captain can get back to maneuvering the boat and paying full attention to the fish on the end of the line.

Mylar strips and tinsel skirts are far easier to deal with by hand than plastic squid and natural baits rigged with chin weights. Because the strips and lures create less water resistance you can yank them up faster, and they weigh a lot less so you can easily pitch them into the bow or drop them into the motor well. So if your boat isn't rigged with electric dredge reels and especially if you're running the dredge by hand, strips and skirts are usually the way to go.


You've picked out a dredge. Now what? Two key factors contribute to effectively running a dredge: getting the teaser into clean water, and keeping it down below the surface.

Running the dredge line through an eye on your outrigger is a good way of getting it out of the wash and into clean water. But make sure your riggers are up to the task. If not, an outrigger can bend or break under the strain of a dredge. A boom rod, which angles out to the side, can also be used. If you're running on a low budget and you plan to cleat off the dredge line, there's not much you can do other than adjust the line's length to try and get it into cleaner water or add more weight to keep it down deep.

Getting the dredge down two to six feet, most pros believe deeper is better, requires six to 10 pounds of lead. But there's a caveat here, you should always be able to see your dredge, so you can watch for fish that tease up to it. Quite often you'll see a billfish come in hot and bat at the dredge, giving you the opportunity to present a pitch bait.  If the dredge is too deep to see you will miss fish.

On a big sportfisher with a flying bridge, the captain can see a dredge running six feet deep without a problem. On a small boat with an upper-station or a crow's nest, you may need that dredge running at four feet to keep an eye on it. And from the deck of a small center console, it's better to keep the dredge close to the surface or you may never lay an eyeball on it. You absolutely must make sure the dredge runs deep enough that the dredge arms stay submerged whenever the boat surfs down a wave. Otherwise they're guaranteed to grab a flat line, and create one heck of a tangle.

Between all this talk deployment and retrieval issues, and storage as well as cost, you might be wondering if running a dredge is really worth the hassle. Dredges absolutely, positively attract fish to your spread. So yes, fishing with a dredge is 100 percent worth the hassle.

Dredges can pull hundreds of rigged natural baits, artificial squids or lures. Each type of dredge has its pluses and minuses. Photo by Charlie Levine.
Running a dredge full of split-tail mullet or swimming ballyhoo is expensive and takes hours of rigging time. The baits will also wash out over time, but many captains feel nothing beats the presentation of natural bait.
When deploying your dredge, you want to make sure it's running in clean water outside of the prop wash. You also want to keep the dredge two to six feet under the surface. Photo by Lenny Rudow.
Dredges create a lot of resistance in the water and pulling in a six-arm dredge rigged with baits is no easy task, unless of course you have an electric reel. Photo by Lenny Rudow.
Smaller dredges with lightweight artificial lures look incredibly lifelike in the water and are much easier to deploy and store. Photo by Lenny Rudow.
There is no question that pulling a dredge off each side of the boat will draw pelagic fish to the spread. White marlin, sails, blues and even tuna will come take a closer look at the ball of bait behind the boat. Photo by Charlie Levine.

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