Just about every offshore angler in South Florida prefers to fish with live bait for everything from sailfish and dolphin to kingfish and tuna.
But there are times when using dead bait can be just as effective. In fact, trolling rigged ballyhoo, mullet and bonito, as well as strips and chunks of those baitfish, can sometimes be more effective than live bait.
One reason is a dead bait can be fished exactly where and how it needs to be fished, whereas a live bait can swim out of the target zone or get tangled with another line.
In addition, the scent of a fresh dead bait is often more attractive to predators than the nervousness of a live bait. Some predators also prefer an easy meal as opposed to chasing a baitfish that’s trying to get away.
Capt. Abie Raymond (Instagram @abie_raymond) trolls bonito strips for bonito, kingfish, sailfish, tuna, wahoo and dolphin when fishing out of Miami Beach Marina on Bouncer’s Dusky 33 with Capt. Bouncer Smith.
He fillets a bonito and removes most of the meat with the blade of his knife until the fillet is an eighth of an inch thick, which allows a hook to penetrate a fish’s mouth more efficiently. Raymond then cuts the fillet with the blade angled to produce a beveled edge, which is hydrodynamic and yields a strip that resembles a thin baitfish.
He squares off one end of the strip and pokes a hole in that end with the knife. Then he sprinkles kosher salt over the strips to remove water from them and toughen them up, and places them in a zip-closure plastic bag.
Raymond rigs a bonito strip on a 4- to 6-foot, 50-pound fluorocarbon leader with a perfection loop at one end that is attached to a snap swivel. The other end has a flashy, reverse-feather Mylar Sea Witch — his favorite colors are pink-and-blue and blue-and-white — above a Mustad 3412 7/0 J hook tied to the leader with a six-turn improved clinch knot. Raymond puts a 4-inch piece of Monel wire through the hook eye, wraps it three times below the eye, then places it back through the eye.
The Monel goes through the hole in the strip, with the meat side of the strip touching the shank of the hook. The wire is then wrapped below the tag end of the clinch knot to secure the strip, and the hook point is poked through the center of the strip. Raymond fishes bonito strips on a Penn International 16 reel spooled with 20-pound line.
“We’ll put out two of those strip baits on our outriggers 80 to 120 feet behind the boat, along with a lure like a Billy Bait or Dolphin Jr. We stagger them, so a 20-foot feather, a 40-foot feather, an 80-foot strip and a 100-foot strip would be our typical four-bait spread,” said Raymond, adding that anglers need to determine the most effective distances for their baits based on their type of boat and its engines. As Smith explained, strip baits might raise more fish closer to a boat with one brand of outboard motors than the same boat with a different brand of outboards.
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Raymond favors bonito strips over ballyhoo because strips last longer and they can be cut to size to resemble a 4-, 6- or 8-inch flying fish with wings imitated by a Sea Witch.
“Another huge advantage of a strip over a ballyhoo is if a sailfish grabs a ballyhoo and rips the tail off, you’re done,” Raymond said. “A bonito strip, he’ll just grab it and grab it. It might stretch and get longer and the meat might come off, but the skin’s still there swimming and looking beautiful.”
Still, a dead ballyhoo is a popular trolling bait, especially for dolphin. Raymond rigs skirted ballyhoo on a Mustad 3417 7/0 J hook tied to a 15-foot, 50-pound monofilament wind-on leader on a 20-pound spinning outfit.
“You fish it like a strip, 80 to 120 feet behind an outboard boat, 60 to 100 feet behind an inboard boat,” Raymond says. “You want to troll at 6 to 6 1/2 knots.”
Inshore anglers also catch fish using dead bait. I’ll never forget a tarpon trip in Biscayne Bay when we cast out lines with slabs of kingfish bellies and let them sit on the bottom. One of those easy meals was quickly devoured by a tarpon, and we watched in delight as the fish known as the silver king immediately went airborne.
As a captain I know likes to say, a tarpon might be considered royalty, “but he’s still a scavenger,” which is why dead bait should always be part of an angler’s arsenal.