Expert captains reveal how they entice more billfish into their spreads by deploying teasers and dredges.
Fishing teams should incorporate teasers and dredges in their trolling spreads when fishing Cabo San Lucas.
Baja striped marlin are caught mostly by sight-casting live bait to feeding or sunning fish. At least that was the case until 2005, when Miami Capt. Ray Rosher won the Rolex IGFA Offshore Championship in Cabo San Lucas by trolling dead baits and dredges. The following year, Rosher and his wife, Charmain, joined by Tom Schramm and Scott Segal, again showed the all-star fleet just how productive dredges are with a tournament-record 24 marlin released for another win.
“Going into a tournament like that, with 60 or 70 teams, you feel like you need some kind of edge,” Rosher says. “I didn’t know what to expect, so I brought everything but the kitchen sink, from Mylar-strip dredges to kite stuff.”
With less than 60 percent hookup averages on lures and realizing kites wouldn’t be effective with the forecast calling for light winds and a tournament maximum of 15 live baits, his team settled on trolling fresh mackerel and ballyhoo, plus a pair of Mylar‑strip dredges to attract fish. “We feel like we’re pretty good off the bow,” says San Diego Capt. Peter Groesbeck. “West Coast boats install livewells on the bow to aid sight-casting. But we looked at Rosher’s two wins and asked, ‘How can we improve what we’re doing off the back of the boat?’”
In 2006, he teamed with fellow West Coast captains Steve Lassley and Andy Horner, and Hawaii captains Randy Parker and O.B. Morton aboard Bad Company to win the largest tournament jackpot anywhere to date—$3.9 million at Bisbee’s Black and Blue Marlin Tournament—by slow-trolling live skipjacks, without dredges. But since then, Groesbeck, Lassley and many other top West Coast tournament fishermen incorporate trolling dredges and teasers into their tactics.
“There are times dredge and teaser combinations outfish everything. Other times the fish won’t eat anything but live bait,” Groesbeck says. “You’ve got to be versatile. The more tools you have, the more you can adapt, then the more productive you’re going to be.”
The bottom line, he says, is more fish are raised to the boat with teasers and dredges.
Teaser and Dredge Basics
Experienced fishing teams trolling for marlin in Cabo often utilize a host of different teasers such as squid daisy chains.
Capt. Barry Kohlus first adapted striped bass and bluefish dredge techniques from Montauk to use in sailfish tournaments in Florida in 1985, where they became a mainstay of Treasure Coast sailfish trolling.
Then Fort Pierce’s Capt. Glenn Cameron trolled dredges and teasers aboard Zeus and released a record 36 billfish to win the five-tournament 2011 Bahamas Billfish Championship; the same year, Double Dog landed the new Bahamas record 1,119-pound blue marlin, also while pulling dredges and teasers— which became essential Bahamas marlin equipment.
“We went from drag-and-snag lures to finesse fishing. We were seeing more fish and getting our hookup percentages in the 90s,” he says.
“Fishing off the riggers, whether pulling lures or bait, we’re maybe 50 or 60 percent. You get one bite, the fish strips drag, and it’s gone. You never see the fish,” says Capt. Jamie Ralph, who fishes billfish tournaments throughout Florida and the Bahamas. On the other hand, he says: “You see the fish come in on the teaser all lit up. It’s a lot more fun, and we’ll catch seven or eight out of 10 by pitching baits.”
Most often he deploys one artificial dredge, usually with 12 Fire Tailz, and one natural dredge with as many as 16 wedged and deboned mullet—on single-tier, 24-inch-diameter dredges—trolled about 80 feet astern.
Ralph’s crew pitches hooked baits sized for fish that come into that presentation—generally select ballyhoo on 50-class reels and mackerel on 80s—plus he runs two outrigger baits and a smoking lure long down the center.
“The goal is to tease a fish right to the transom. The rigger baits are there for a fish that won’t come in,” he says. “I don’t want them way back in no-man’s land, but I don’t want anything to sidetrack fish on the teasers.”
Making the Switch
Ballyhoo are becoming much more popular natural baits in Cabo San Lucas.
“When a fish comes up, I turn toward it just enough to minimize [prop] wash and open a clear lane right to the boat. That also slows down the teaser, so it lays in the water a little longer,” Ralph says. “If the fish isn’t keeping up with your retrieve, it hasn’t been teased enough yet. Keep the teaser just out of its reach. You want that fish so mad and hungry that when it finally sees that pitch bait, it wants to take a good bite out of it.” He simultaneously adjusts his course so that the angler’s pitch bait is directly in front of the fish.
For the angler’s part, Ralph says, “Use the length of the rod to move the bait enough to get the fish’s attention.”
Once the fish has the bait, he says, “Keep the reel in free-spool until [waiting] feels uncomfortable. When you think it is time [to engage the drag], be calm and wait a little longer. When you’re coming up on the drag, come up a little slower than your adrenaline is telling you to.
Multi-tiered dredges with natural and artificial baits are prime fish attractors in Cabo San Lucas.
Teasers and dredges also work well without the choreography of pure bait-and-switch fishing.
“When marlin come on the teasers, we feed them a flat line,” says Oregon Inlet Capt. Arch Bracher.
If a small, naked ballyhoo won’t entice a blue marlin, his crew pitches a larger ’hoo rigged with a small Mold Craft Hooker.
“That Softhead is easier for the fish to get its eyes on, and I like bright colors that the angler can see,” he says. “If a blue marlin exceeding 200 [pounds] comes on the teaser, whoever is on the flat line pulls it away, and someone else gets a pitch bait out”—usually horse ballyhoo also rigged with a Hooker in front.
Bracher trolls two-tier dredges 50 feet behind his single-diesel boat, although twin inboards often require dredges farther astern to find clear water. Twenty-five baits on each are mostly mullet, with a few ballyhoo mixed in, with Ilanders adding color to half his dredge baits. He also tows squid chains, with an Ilander and hookless ballyhoo trailer, on both port and starboard.
“The lead squid is over the dredge,” he says. “Flat lines are 6 or 8 feet behind the Ilander on that squid chain.”
Next, Bracher fishes a short center line on 80-class tackle from the bridge, which is rigged with a large armed ballyhoo behind an Ilander and trolled about twice the distance of the flat lines. Two outrigger lines at triple the distance of the flat lines—and a center rigger line even farther back—troll naked ballyhoo.
“If there are a lot of blue marlin around,” he says, “we might put a larger bait in the left rigger and substitute the squid chain on that side with something such as a [Black Bart] Puerto Rican Prowler.”
Hook Up With Trolled Baits
“You have to [see and] beat that fish to the pole. If it pops the pin before you get to the rod, your percentages drop,” Bracher says. “The key to hooking a billfish on a rod and reel is that it doesn’t feel you. That’s a lot easier with the fish attacking while swimming toward you. It’s not like fishing a fly, where you’re trying to get that fish to turn and bite when it’s swimming away from the boat.”
Like Ralph, he turns the boat a bit toward the bite to clear the wake. “Get the dredge in on whichever side the fish is on so you’re not baiting the fish right over the dredge, but leave the other side alone,” Bracher says. “You have a fish, so you know you’re in the right spot. Take advantage of that as long as you can."
West Coast Variation
Off California and Mexico, Groesbeck trolls a pair of two-tier dredges—rigged with squid when striped marlin are in deep water or mullet when they’re feeding close to shore—plus a pair of squid chains tipped with hookless ballyhoo on an Ilander or Chugger. While searching for fish, he trolls a full spread of ballyhoo at around 6.5 knots: two on flat lines behind and inboard of his dredges but ahead of his squid chains; two long rigger baits; and an even longer center-rigger.
“When fish show up on the chains and dredges, you really don’t need the long baits,” he says, “but sometimes they’ll eat only off the riggers.” In full search mode, he forgoes dredges and pulls lures at 9 knots.
His crew also pitches rigged ballyhoo or live greenback mackerel or bigeye scad to fish in the trolled spread.
“With striped marlin, we’ll raise one, but there still might be four or five fish that you don’t see,” Groesbeck says. “We’ll pull in the chain and slide back a ballyhoo or a live bait. When we hook up, we might slide out another live bait”—essentially prospecting off the dredges. “Sometimes I go in a circle and free-spool the dredge, and I’ll bring up a whole school.”
While some fight fish off the stern, other anglers are scanning from the bow, where another live-bait well keeps bait at the ready.
Small Boat Tactics
Fishing boats of all sizes can pull marlin from the depths with help from a spread of lures, teasers and natural baits beyond the stern.
Capt. Barry Brightenburg, who runs a 92-foot Viking out of San Diego, first developed teaser methods for outboard-powered boats off San Diego. “We could beat the big boats when the fish are up on top feeding, but otherwise, big boats dominated lure fishing,” he says.
Brightenburg compensated for a center console’s smaller footprint and diminutive spread by adding bowling-pin-type teasers towed from stern cleats: “That adds a second-tier predator—something that looks like a bonito or small tuna in our spread. It added noticeably to the fish we raised.”
To overcome the difficulties of towing teasers from stern cleats, he has since switched to putting squid chains on the same line as his marlin lures, which he trolls from his outriggers, plus a pair of flat lines with rigged ballyhoo. While those squid-chain lures typically have hooks, his crew often switches marlin onto pitched live bait or ballyhoo, which gains a much better hookup ratio than lures.
In good weather, he pulls that spread at 6 to 7 knots, or as fast as 8½ knots with just four squid chains with lures.
“That added the dimension we needed to raise fish [in the same numbers as] the rest of the fleet,” Brightenburg says. “With the speed of the center console, now we’re deadly.”
Meanwhile in Texas, Capt. Scott McCune’s 31 Bertram has been repowered with twin 350 Yamaha outboards on a transom bracket, which complicates dredge presentations.
“There is no doubt that meat dredges with 30 mullet are better,” he says, “but holographic-strip dredges are successful, they don’t tangle, and the strips are easy to replace.”
He tows small dredges from pancake-style teaser reels over his helm through pulleys on conventional double-spreader outriggers. That wide spread helps avoid outboard props, but for T-top outriggers, he suggests pulling just one dredge, always positioned so that a slight turn away from a weed line pushes the dredge away from propellers.
He often runs Big Kahuna, Dancing Dolphin or Black Bart Extreme Breakfast teasers right from his transom cleats. “When the bait won’t come off a weed line, all kinds of predators, not just billfish, see those plastic chicken dolphins feeding on something, and it gets them fired up,” McCune says.
Fifteen feet of thin, braided nylon line, which is easy to pull by hand, ends at a snap swivel where 6 feet of mono continues to the teaser. “That line stays halfway up the cowlings,” he says. “As soon as a person standing in the cockpit pulls on it, the teaser pops right to the surface, away from the propellers.”
In Rosher’s IGFA win, in which the team fished from a different charter boat each day, he similarly pulled dredges from transom cleats with Mann’s Stretch 50s to hold them deep.
“You’ll invariably find one that swims left and one to the right,” he says, which pulls dredges away from the boat."
Rosher runs 50 feet of ¼-inch nylon rope to 40 feet of 400-pound mono. From there, a three-way swivel leads down to the Stretch 50 on 2 feet of 400 mono, while another 4 feet of 400 mono leads back to a Stripteasers 105-bait holographic strip dredge.
Marlin are not the only species susceptible to teasers. Don't forget the dredge and teasers to your next tuna trip.
Dredges also work for species besides billfish.
“Tuna—bluefin, yellowfin and bigeye—might eat 15 feet behind the boat. A dredge 30 feet behind the boat is in the danger zone of getting tangled or eaten,” warns Capt. Bryce Poyer, of Shinnecock, New York. His compromise runs dredges no more than 20 feet astern with flat lines 10 feet farther aft.
Many local skippers add hook-rigged teasers into their 9- to 13-rod spreads.
“We get Squid Nation Flippy Floppys unrigged,” Poyer says. “Rig three or four in a chain, followed with an Ilander or Junior with a [hook-rigged] ballyhoo. Run that off the short rigger right where a squid-chain teaser would be.”
Adaptability is one of the keys to success, no matter what the catch is.
“Techniques that work in one place can be used successfully in a lot of places,” Rosher says. His Rolex Offshore World Championship wins and the rapid spread of teaser-and-dredge combinations clearly show that.
Groesbeck agrees. “Dredges and teaser chains are just another tool we use to try not to be one-dimensional,” he says.
A version of this article first ran in Sport Fishing magazine.
Ballyhoo Take Over Baja
Capt. Barry Brightenburg, of San Diego, fishes the West Coast of North America, from Southern California to Baja Mexico. “Cabo used to really be mainly a live-bait fishery,” he says. “But then some fishing teams started using ballyhoo and were very successful. Now most pro teams keep fresh frozen ballyhoo onboard.”
Common local bait species such as half-beaks and needlefish resemble ballyhoo, so it’s no surprise marlin readily take a ballyhoo presented naturally behind the boat.
While ballyhoo are available locally for anglers in Cabo, it tends not to be the best quality. Brightenburg cures his own ballyhoo in the summer to have it ready for tournament season in Cabo San Lucas. Other teams order ballyhoo through a service such as BaitMasters of South Florida, located in Miami, and have it shipped to Cabo San Lucas.
Brightenburg’s spread often includes dredges closest to the boat, followed by naked ballyhoo and finally, squid chains.
“We use two-tier dredges, with a mix of ballyhoo for scent and mylar strips. When covering water to find fish, we deploy two dredges, but once we find the fish, we’ll switch to a single dredge and two squid chains,” he says.
For pitch baits, Brightenburg has no problem with using ballyhoo. Sometimes it excels over other pitch baits, he says, although ballyhoo, mackerel, sardines and caballito (big-eye scad) are all pitch-bait options he uses—especially when he’s fishing for striped marlin.
Teaser Tips from the Pros
Dredges increase the number of billfish you raise in your spread.
CAPT. JAMIE RALPH
Dredges run off short, stiff rods with electric reels in the front corners of the cockpit, where 300-pound monofilament runs through a pulley on the outrigger, down to another pulley on the dredge, and then back to the outrigger in a V-pattern that offers 2-to-1 mechanical advantage but minimizes tangles. A third pulley rides loosely on the outermost dredge line to haul it toward the cockpit when retrieved. His squid-chain and teaser lures each run from electric reels mounted above his helm station.
CAPT. ARCH BRACHER
His dredge rig couldn’t be much simpler—a pair of long-poled Penn downriggers mounted in rod holders turned directly outboard, with a safety line running from downrigger tip to his outrigger base. Then 300-pound mono runs out to a pulley one-third of the arm length in from the tip, then aft to a pulley on the dredge, then back up to the tip of the downrigger arm. “We replaced one of the aluminum poles with a stout fiberglass blank,” he says. “The give in the rod takes the strain of the dredge a little better than the aluminum.” A 6-pound lead shackles directly to each dredge, then 3 feet of mono shackles to the pulley on the downrigger line. Bracher runs squid chains, with an Ilander and hookless ballyhoo trailer, on both port and starboard from 300-pound mono on Penn 6/0 Senators mounted on the bridge rail. He pulls those teasers by hand. Dacron loops on the mono hang on teaser-reel handles when fully retrieved.
CAPT. PETE GROESBECK
Off California and Mexico, Groesbeck uses a standard East Coast two-tier dredge, Lindgren Pitman reels on short rods, and a typical outrigger and dredge two-pulley setup. He also runs a pair of squid chains—tipped with hookless ballyhoo on an Ilander or Chugger—off bridge teaser reels aft and outboard of the dredges