Maximize Your Spread

Eight tips to create the perfect trolling spread for offshore fishing.
Jack Sprengel

What is the perfect spread? Ask ten different captains and you'll get ten completely different answers.  The problem is that there are far too many variables, including the vessel's inherent ability to raise fish, the target species, current sea conditions and feeding patterns, and  I've heard about my share of "perfect spreads" from lots of stubborn captains who say things like: "we just have to go over them with this spread and we'll get bit."

But with any experience, you'll quickly realize that the old "just go over 'em" mentality couldn't be further from reality. The newer troll-cams are already providing countless hours of video footage showing schools of tuna and other large game fish rocketing up behind trolled lures and baits only to veer off and turn away last minute without the captain or crew ever being aware of their presence. How many countless fish have given us a check swing without us being wise to them? If you want the best shot at picky customers, use these methods to maximize your spread.

1. The Test Spread

Early in the game you should put out a test spread to determine the right approach. Once you have produced a few consistent strikes on one particular pattern, you can modify the rest of the spread to maximize the number of knockdowns per take, keeping the crew busy and the fish boxes full.

2. Study the Wash

One of the first things my teammate Lou and I do when we fish a boat for the first time is study the wash at trolling speed. While fish do hit right in the wash occasionally, more often they will strike baits offered just outside. And it's not only on the flanks of the wash, but behind it and perhaps my favorite, underneath. When modifying your spread for success, take this one to heart: Get something beneath the bubbles. For the author, it's a 30-foot diving crank bait like those produced by Yo-Zuri and Rapala. Color and distance from the boat will have to be modified to suit the situation, but this one lure has put more fish the deck than any other in my arsenal. Often, when the fish are shy or more reluctant to commit to surface baits, a diving crank gets taken by a fish in front of the school and creates enough commotion to raise the cavalry. Other subsurface presentations that work well are bonito-type runners, weighted jets and live or rigged natural baits deployed on dredges or a planer to get them down.

3. Go Natural

When time and budget allows, properly rigged natural baits fished naked or with a skirted-style head can make the ultimate difference when targeting some of more cunning adversaries like bigeye tuna and marlin. These baits are fished effectively long on the outside or center riggers or, inversely, in tight just outside the wash. Many of my commercial colleagues utilize an entire spread of "all meat" very successfully. Unfortunately, many of us don't have the time or money to maintain a 100-quart cooler packed full of perfectly rigged and brined ballyhoo. While it may be a worthwhile investment for tournaments and commercial use, a combination of natural baits and artificials can still be effective.

4. Lure 'Em In

Possible spread configurations using lures are endless, so I'll focus on the test spread we use at the Northeast canyons. We usually fish our baits within the six wakes behind the vessel.  We deploy the longest lines first and work our way back to the boat, ending with flat lines. Some of these baits are interchangeable depending on lure availability and sea conditions, but if fish are around, one of them will get hit and allow us to dial it in from there:

Wake #6 (Center rigger): This bait sits just behind the wake for those shy fish. A single naked rigged ballyhoo or a bird with a single stinger bait like a green machine take this position.

Wake #5 (Outer riggers): These baits are fished opposite but even with each other on both the port and starboard sides of the wash at its widest point. These lures are usually fished behind birds and are single green machine stingers or daisy chains.

Wake #4 (Inside riggers): This critical position gets a pair of the staples familiar to offshore tuna fisherman: This is where the bars go. The position on the rigger and the closer proximity to the boat keep an upward tension on the bars that reduces drag, creating optimal action. The other advantage to fishing the bars here is that the white wash is more tapered, giving fish a full view of the offering from below. Occasionally, when fish are more skittish, these bars will be swapped out for large straight-running jet/ballyhoo combinations on lighter fluoro leaders, and they are pulled upwards a little more out of the water.

Wake #3 (Stern corners): This is where we like to run our subsurface baits like the X-Rap 30 fished off the rod tips. At this distance the baits are well below the wash and with less line out from the stern than the rigger baits they are less likely to cross during turns and other maneuvers.

Wakes #2 and #1 (Stern or cockpit rod holders): These lines are fished either directly from the rod tip or attached to flat-line clips to keep them out of the white water and free from any entanglement issues. Lures are mixed, with a variety of small colorful clones and jet-type lures for the more aggressive species like longfin albacore and dolphin.

5. Pull It Right

The spread outlined above creates the traditional, easy to maintain "V" or "W" pattern behind the boat while producing just the right amount of disturbance both on and below the surface. The trick is to study the wash of your vessel and adjust accordingly. Typically we fish our pattern at around 6 to 6 1/2 knots but you should adjust the speed of your vessel to get the right action out of your lures. Usually the location of bars and birds in relation to the chop on the surface and direction of the tide dictate our speed.

6. Color Considerations

Here in the Northeast canyons we tend to use five colors more frequently than others (but they can change when you get in tighter to land or in cooler water). They are, in order: greens, rainbows, pinks, blues and green/white/red mixes or green/yellow/orange mixes sometimes called Mexican Flag or Zucchini. Ultimately, the crew that has a full arsenal in each of these colors is likely to have the upper hand. If I had to choose only two, they would be greens and rainbows. I often commit one color to each side of the spread and give it a full tide cycle of six or more hours before I even consider changing it out.

7. Hit the Bars

Hands-down I prefer splasher-style bars. They create a large target for schooling fish to see and a lot of surface commotion they can sense from a distance. However in a tight cross-chop or breaking seas behind the vessel this type of bar can dig in and get caught beneath the surface, making it virtually impossible to keep it in the rigger. When this happens, we switch over to flat-running simple bars that do not use in-line birds. The reduced drag creates less resistance and requires less upward force to maintain a favorable presentation. The other benefit to having a few extra simple bars on hand is that the reduced drag allows them to be fished further back in the spread in the outside riggers without the risk of them popping the clips, so on days where the fish are more keyed-in to larger patterns, a spread of all bars can be deployed in every position to provide ultimate coverage.

8. Size Matters

Usually around moon tides when many smaller prey species reproduce and game fish are able to feed efficiently throughout the night, they go into what we refer to as a micro-feed pattern. During these difficult feeds, reducing lure size, downsizing your fluorocarbon and reducing your speed to shy down the white wash can save the day. Inversely, when fish are dialed-in on a larger food sources like bonito or herring they often snub anything smaller, going directly the high-calorie big baits regardless of leader selection or color.

This healthy yellowfin tuna fell for a deep-diving plug trolled under the prop wash. Photos courtesy of Capt. Jack Sprengel.
A good test spread includes lines run directly off the rod tips in the transom rod holders.
Northeast captains prefer five main color combinations, including greens, rainbows, pinks, blues and green/white/red or green/yellow/orange.
Place a bird in front of the lures you run toward the back of the spread off the outriggers.
Daisy chains can play an important role in your spread when you're trying to zero in on fish.
Diving lures are fished very close to the boat under the prop wash to entice fish that may be reluctant to commit to surface baits.
Spreader bars are placed on the fourth wave off the transom.

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