Dredge for Success
Trolling your own school of fish can pay big dividends when targeting marlin.
For many years, top billfish crews had a white marlin-raising, tournament-success secret: They used dredges. As many of you know, a dredge involves hanging dozens of hookless baits off multi-arm umbrella-shape rigs and trolling them. The secret’s out now, but, even so, many offshore fishermen still haven’t made this technique a staple in their angling arsenal.
At first, dredge fishing may seem complicated and overly burdensome—the idea of trolling about 60-plus baits behind your boat at one time can be a bit intimidating—but it just takes a little bit of practice to make it work. While it can also get pricey—a triple dredge with 40-plus mullet can cost close to $500 when fully rigged—anglers shouldn’t be scared away. These setups, when swimming properly, are deadly. There is nothing that mimics a large school of bait better.
During tournaments, teams will almost always use natural-bait-rigged dredges. However, there are some great plastic-bait-rigged ones that can raise fish, too. These also take less time and effort to prepare and cost less than making a natural-bait dredge. When fun fishing, these plastic offerings should serve you well. Onboard my charter boat, Canyon Runner, the best one I’ve found to date is the Holografish dredge from Offshore Innovations. In fact, there are some crews, like mine, that will often deploy a mix of natural baits and plastics on their dredges.
When it’s competition time, however, most teams will go all natural. Many crews pull their baits off double tandem dredges when fishing for white marlin, and some will even deploy a triple dredge. A tandem setup usually consists of two 36-inch, six-arm dredges with a total of 24 baits on the arms and one more trailing down the middle. A triple dredge will have the same setup, plus another 24-inch, six-arm dredge, which holds another dozen baits. There are plenty of different multi-arm dredges out there, but I’ve found collapsible ones are easy to use right out of the box and pull well without rolling. They also hold-up under harsh conditions and stow better than stiff-arm versions.
My team likes using natural baits, but we will rig our dredges with Holografish on the inside of each arm as well, so that the rig is easily visible. However, it is essential that the outside baits are natural. Why? Because when a hot marlin crashes the dredge it sees the most natural presentation possible, and when it takes a swing at the natural bait, the scales start flying off. This action will often light up a marlin like a Christmas tree and entice him to strike.
Nine times out of ten, dredges are fitted out with split-tail mullet and three to four-ounce chin weights. The fish is attached to the dredge by a haywire-twisted and looped 12-inch length of No. 7 or No. 9 single-strand wire. Occasionally, crews will substitute ballyhoo for mullet, but I find the mullet hold up better when pulled through the water all day long. In fact, our team has had many caught marlin spit up our dredge mullet during a release, so we know they’re working. This happened to us when our 80.5-pound white marlin—that missed first place and $1,000,000 in the 2008 White Marlin Open by eight ounces—spit up two of our mullet when it hit the deck. (Those were costly baits!)
Deploying the dredge is where some anglers get cold feet. A fully rigged tandem dredge with four-ounce chin-weighted mullet and 60 mullet per tandem dredge weighs 17-plus pounds and can be quite daunting to handle. But this is still not enough weight to keep it in the water, so a three- to four-pound torpedo weight needs to be added in front of the rig. Be sure to cover the torpedo weight with a large shell squid, which will camouflage the weight, while enhancing its visibility. (Twenty pounds of lead, plus titanium rods wrapped up in your running gear is not a pleasant thought and it’s why many crews shy away from this rig.)
There are myriad ways to get your dredges in the water. Our crew uses dedicated dredge rods to deploy them, either right out of the rod holder or via a pulley system off each outrigger. Some captains use a downrigger to set out the dredge, but without the addition of a downrigger ball or planer. The heft of the rig, plus the torpedo weight, is enough to keep the whole thing below the surface when trolled at the typical 4.5 to 5.5 knots that most crews find effective. Swinging the downrigger arm out at a 90-degree angle from the boat is sometimes enough to get the dredge in just the right spot for trolling. The idea is to place the baits in clean water outboard of the prop wash where both a marlin (and the crew) can clearly see it.
Dredges are fantastic tools, but will prove useless if you don’t master the art of switching billfish off of them and onto your dropback bait. It is well known that a white marlin is one of the hardest fish in the ocean to hook. The biggest trick in properly hooking a white is beating it to the bait. If you can do that, you can double or even triple your odds of coming tight on it. When you see a white slashing on your dredge, pick up the closest flat-line rod and then reel the bait ahead of it. Next, throw your reel into freespool and let the bait drift behind the dredge. Keep doing this until the white marlin picks up the bait. To the white, it will look like a stunned fish that was slashed with its bill. Eventually, the fish’s instincts will kick in and it should pile on the bait. Point the rod at the fish and reel, steadily lifting the rod as the circle hook, which is mandatory to use in all billfish tournaments, finds its mark in the marlin’s lower jaw. Do not get discouraged if you miss; enjoy the bite and keep practicing.
Even with the extra work required to run it right, a dredge is effective and a must-have if you want to compete. Start using it when money isn’t on the line so you’re ready come tournament time.
Now that you have the basics, it’s time to get out some mullet and make yourself a dredge. Once you see those flying scales and electric-blue pectorals lit up under your rig, you’ll be glad you did.
Adam LaRosa co-owns Canyon Runner Sport Fishing, specializing in offshore fishing, tackle, and seminars. Learn more at www.canyonrunner.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.