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How Tournament Captains Troll for Billfish

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Billfish dredge

A dredge puts a lot of enticing baitfish in the water to draw the eye of hungry game fish.

School’s in Session

Get educated on the dredge and learn how tournament captains troll for billfish.

I think Ryan Higgins has one of the most enviable jobs in sportfishing and therefore in the world: He’s the factory tournament captain for Viking Yachts as well as the sales manager for the company’s southeast dealer network. He gets a new tournament-rigged Viking to use every year and fishes between ten and 15 tournaments from the Mid-Atlantic to Mexico and the Bahamas. So far this year he has taken second in the Gold Cup, first in the Florida Fish for Life, second in the Buccaneer Cup, second in the Viking-Ocean Shootout, and second overall in the Ocean City Overnight (plus largest tuna). I caught up with him in Ocean City, Maryland, during the White Marlin Open and he was in second place in release points on the last day of the event. What’s Higgins’s advice for someone looking to tangle with bluewater game fish?

“The single biggest advance in trolling for white marlin and sailfish is the dredge,” Higgins says. “Before them we fished daisy-chain teasers from outriggers. Dredges add a new dimension to the way we fish because it’s a tool that can raise marlin from 200 feet down!”

A dredge is a rigging system using a series of crossed spreader bars to position a group of hookless teasers to emulate a three-dimensional school of fleeing baitfish. Higgins has been fishing dredges since he started his offshore fishing career on a tournament boat out of Charleston, South Carolina, at the tender age of 21.

“I traveled all over with that boat and learned a lot about using dredges,” he says. “Today, we troll with rigged baits and dredges exclusively—even in tournaments where most boats are using live bait—because it is just so effective.”

Video icon

Be the Baitfish: See video of what it’s like to be riding a dredge when the game fish come calling

Team Viking trolls double and triple dredges from heavy-duty electric teaser reels that Higgins controls from the bridge. In tournaments the dredges are armed exclusively with rigged natural baits—mullet or ballyhoo. There’s an exception to every rule, and when Higgins is fishing for blue marlin and trolling speeds are increased to 8 knots, those baits can wash out quickly. That’s when the inside positions on the dredge arms get plastic baits. So with many competing boats fishing dredges why is Higgins so consistently in the hunt for tournament wins?

“We use a variety of dredge techniques to draw fish up to our hook baits,” he says. “When I mark fish holding 100 to 200 feet down I can put the boat into a tight turn so the inside dredge sinks fast. My dredges are heavily weighted to make them drop like a stone when I want them to. When I straighten the boat out the dredge slowly starts to rise with the marlin or sails following right along.”

Higgins also uses a stop-and-go technique to sink the dredges even deeper, but it’s critical to be able to see the dredge when using either technique. “I can’t see the dredges from the bridge when I drop them, so I have eyes stationed in the tower to let me know if fish are following or attacking them,” he says. “If you get a lazy fish picking baits off the dredge it won’t come up and hit one of the hook baits.”

Fishing with dredges means most strikes are going to come on the flat lines set just above and behind the dredges or on baits fished actively from the cockpit—whether by dropping back to visible fish or using a technique called prospecting. Prospecting consists of dropping a rigged bait off the transom with the reel in free spool and letting it wash back under and away from the dredge so it looks like a wounded fish falling away from the school.

“Prospecting is deadly,” Higgins says. “One last thing, dredges crush tuna, too. We just won the tuna division of the Ocean City Overnight with a 232-pound bigeye that followed a dredge to the hook bait.”

Higgins even mounts a video camera in his dredge to help him understand how game fish attack. “We’ve got footage from the dredge cam that shows tuna schooled up right behind the dredge,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.