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size matters: why big baits aren't always best

Spagnuola Leadin

    “Size Matters.” That ever-so-popular phrase that can lead one to imagine or in some cases exaggerate. How in the heck does it apply to fishing? Back to basics and the age-old fisherman’s creed “match the hatch.” In this case, our hatch would be trolling baits and lures. Lure and bait size are crucial and equally important, if not at times more important than lure color and design. Yet far too many offshore fishermen overlook this.
    Here is a dirty fact: We all know lures catch more fishermen than fish. This is not due to a lack of fish or the fault of the lure manufacturers; many of us have simply have forgotten the basics. A basic offshore spread can be twice as deadly in any canyon by using the right-size lure at the right time and your catch rates most likely will double or triple. Many of us have the right-size lures but have overlooked fishing them offshore and have only used them for the inshore troll game fishing for mahi, small bluefin and yellowfin.
    Getting stuck in the “go big or go home” mentality when fishing the canyons has its time and place, but lack of adapting to what nature dictates will cost you success in the long run. We have all heard it on the radio as well as trolled side-by-side to a boat going the same speed, pulling the same spread, same general colors more or less, and they outfish you 5 to 1. It isn’t until you go into the tackle shop the next morning and see other guys lined up with a bunch of lures of the same size and then bingo, instead of scratching your head, you could just about smack your head.
    So just when are the best times to troll smaller lures and smaller ballyhoo? First there’s the spring, when some of the first offshore eddys occur in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic canyons, creating hard temperature breaks. This is when the surface troll bite is often epic, with double-digit catches the norm, not the exception. The canyons and the 100 and 500 line are teeming with life: whales, dolphin, bird life, the sounder red with bait everywhere and that smell that only a fisherman knows so well. The most common bait is Illex squid, which have a very short life span of two years or less and play the most important role along with chub mackerel for supporting a healthy pelagic ecosystem.
    Every pelagic fish that we as fishermen target eats squid, and in the early season squid are at their smallest. It’s not uncommon for most of the squid that the fish are feeding on to be 4 to 6 inches on average. Your lure size should always be as close to the size of the bait as possible; trolling a spread of 9- to 14-inch lures with select or horse ballyhoo when the squid are 6 inches long tops is extremely counterproductive. Having both large and small lures in your spread together makes absolutely no sense and looks unnatural. The first thing my crew and I do is to cut open the belly of the first fish we troll up, whether it’s a mahi, tuna, or wahoo, then we match up the lure size accordingly throughout our entire trolling spread. This means our daisy chains, dropper chains, spreader bars, splash bars and single lures, whether rigged with ballyhoo or fished without, are all the same scale as the natural bait in the ocean at that time.
    Most lures imitate the shape and contour of a squid although its swimming action can imitate different types of bait fish or small pelagic species. A little inside information goes a long way and if you know any commercial squid fishermen they can tell you the size of the squid they are catching offshore. Typically Illex squid that are 4 inches long in May will grow to 6 to 8 inches by the end of July and 9 to 12 inches by the end of September. The squid’s size is mainly measured by the squid’s body, called the “tube.”
    This is why larger lures are more productive offshore in July and August off the East Coast.
    Flying fish are another baitfish that many gamefish feed on. Their growth pattern is slower than Illex squid and it’s not uncommon to have large flying fish some years and smaller flying fish other seasons. Flying fish are most prevalent in the summer to early fall along with the squid; my advice again is if you see flying fish, match your lure to their size. I have found over the last few seasons that in the late summer or early fall when the flying fish are 5 to 7 inches, small lures rigged with or without a small or medium ballyhoo outfish the larger 9- to 12-inch lures, especially when targeting longfin tuna, yellowfin tuna, mahi and yes the occasional blue marlin. Remember, “elephants eat peanuts.”




Learn what you need to keep baits lively from the time you catch them until you reach your fishing grounds.



In the South they call it “poor-man's fishing.” You have to have patience. But sometimes, patience is rewarded.