Trolling dead ballyhoo for sailfish can be effective, but traditional rigging presents a few problems. For one, sailfish tend to mouth their food before eating, and many times they shy away from the large O’Shaughnessy hooks, wire leaders and pins used in the standard ballyhoo rig. Rough seas, which sometimes accompany banner sailfish bites, warrant the use of a lead sinker to get the bait to swim properly, and some anglers think fish can use that little extra weight as leverage to wiggle a hook free.
What to do? Use a split-bill ballyhoo and eliminate all those problems. It’s a rig used by some experts up and down the east coast, yet it’s simple enough for even the weekender to rig.
Of particular interest to sailfishers is the fact that this bait is rigged without a pin, and uses a small, shortshank hook with monofilament leader. In this respect, the split-bill is to pin-rigged what filet mignon is to flank steak.
But there’s more.
The bait is rigged so the leader runs at an angle up and away from the beak, causing it to dig like a lipped plug and swim enticingly side to side. It works best for slow-trolling up to about five knots, which is how sails are often fished in winter.
Dolphin and tuna will hammer split bills, too, as will wahoo and kingfish. The latter may cut you off from time to time, but many of us are willing to accept that consequence in exchange for a better shot at sailfish. If you like, you can play with the odds and mix up your spread with some baits rigged with wire leader or longshank hooks.
Length and brand of monofilament leader is up to you, but don’t use anything heavier than 100-pound test; 50 to 80 is preferred. It’s also okay to modify elements to suit you. If a wrap here or a wrap there seems better, try it, but just don’t forget the basic idea: Minimize metal and maximize motion.
After rigging a few, you’ll find that it may be best to have a number of unrigged baits on hand before venturing offshore. If so, obtain fresh baits from the tackle shop, prep them (Step 1, below) and brine for a day or so before freezing in resealable plastic bags (for specifics on brining, see the January 1996 Offshore Seminar by Eden White).
Step 1: Prepping the Bait
Start with a fresh, unfrozen ballyhoo. Holding the bait upside down in one hand, make a small slit in the vent with your rigging knife. Squeeze the belly with the thumb and forefinger of your other hand, working from just behind the head back to the vent. This will remove waste products and stomach contents. Alternate by running your thumb along the underside of the belly. Be firm, but delicate enough not to tear the soft flesh. Also, try not to remove scales–they add flash to the bait.
Pinch the ballyhoo along its back until you feel a slight pop–this dislodges the spine. Flex it in an S pattern to further loosen the backbone. Remove the eyes with a knife. Store in brining solution, or proceed with rigging.
When you’re ready to begin, break off the last third of the beak. With a rigging knife, carefully split the bill down the middle.
Step 2: Building the Leader
Crimp or uni-knot monofilament leader to a 6/0 or 7/0 shortshank livebait hook (Mustad 9174, 7766 or similar). For jumbo ballyhoo, use a larger hook. Affix a strand of monel or copper rigging wire to the hook by poking an inch or two up through the eye and twisting three times around the shank. The long end will point down.
Step 3: Wiring the Bait
Lift a gill cover, thread the hook into the body cavity and poke the point out through the center of the belly just behind the head. Since it’s a shortshank, you won’t need to weasel it very far like you do with the hooks that come on pre-made, wire pin rigs.
Wrap the rigging wire, which is now dangling beneath the bait’s head, once through the eye socket and around the leader. Bring it forward around the leading edge of the crimp or uni-knot and wrap back through the socket again. The wire should prevent the hook from sliding forward when pressure is applied to the leader.
Continue wrapping the rigging wire under the chin and push it up through both bottom and top jaws as if it were a wire pin (it serves the same purpose). If you’re using soft copper wire, you may need to get the hole started with a hookpoint.
Draw the mono leader snug between the splayed halves of the bill, and wrap the rigging wire once or twice behind the leader, then in front of it and forward along the bill, drawing the halves back together. Wrap the remaining wire back toward the head.
This should form what resembles (and works exactly like) the lip of a trolling plug. The halves of the bill pinch the mono leader, which now runs up and away from the bait.
Step 4: Trouble-shooting
If it’s really rough and the ballyhoo still doesn’t dig properly, you can use a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce egg sinker in front of the hook to act as a keel. Just slide a crimp onto the leader, followed by the sinker, before attaching your hook.
Spinning is usually the result of a misaligned hook. Simply enlarge the hole where the hookpoint emerges with a knife, or re-rig with a fresh bait, making sure to center the hook in the belly. Also, as an alternative to Step 3, you can push monel rigging wire up between the gillplates and into the eye socket before beginning your wraps, which helps keep the hook lined up. Whatever you do, don’t drag an unnatural-looking bait–it wastes more time than re-rigging.
Because the shortshank hook rides pretty far forward on the bait, short strikes can happen, but they aren’t as problematic as you may think. Watch your lines vigilantly. If the first strike doesn’t connect, hit freespool and drop back, maintaining slight pressure with your thumb. Sailfish often swat their food around like a clumsy cat before eating, and you’d be surprised how many times dolphin and wahoo will chop off a ballyhoo behind the head, only to swing back and inhale the remainder. When the line comes tight, engage the drag.
But, you know the rest of the story.