Catch your own great, inexpensive trolling baits.
Challenge: During abundant runs of bonito, salt away handmade baits for sailfish, wahoo and dolphin the rest of the year.
Reward: Save money, time and never be left short by lack of live baits again.\
Natural trolling strips can be cut from the sides and belly portions of virtually any shiny fish, but the Florida species best-suited for this is a little tunny, a.k.a. bonito or false albacore. Let the bonito sit on ice for at least a few hours if not a day so the blood congeals and the flesh becomes more workable.
• Large, level cutting surface
• Sharp knife and sharpening stone
• Salt: iodized, kosher, pickling or regular
• Cooler with ice
• Freezer bags
Begin by cutting around the perimeter of the fish and filleting off an entire side.
If you’ll be keeping strips for the long term or in very large quantities, one option is to slab-out these sides to a thickness of about half an inch. Work with the fillet skin-side down near the edge of the cutting surface, and be sure to keep the blade horizontal at all times. Salt them heavily and then put them as-is in large freezer bags and store for later.
When you’re rigging the finished prod¬uct, the trick is to get as many baits from each side as possible. The shiny belly flesh is perhaps best, but even the darker, mottled dorsal areas work fine. The difference is in the grain of the meat. Much like a piece of wood, bonito flesh lies in a certain direction. Troll it against the grain and it will quickly wash out. Rig it correctly and that same bait could last for days. The rule is, “The tail of the bonito is the head of the bait.” Rig your strips in the reverse direction they came off the fish. I cut the “heads” slightly flat to make it easier to tell (after salting and long-term storage, the grain is harder to discern).
What size strips are you looking for? That’s up to you. In South Florida kingfish and sailfish waters, I’ve found the length of a medium ballyhoo (six to eight inches) ideal.
Let’s Rig One
Take a slabbed-out bonito fillet and cut it to about ¼ of an inch thickness. Next, begin fashioning strips in the form of elongated baitfish. A slight teardrop shape trolls well, the wide portion of which reflects the anterior portion of the bonito fillet, but the forward section of the finished strip. As long as the blade is sharp and enough cutting pressure is applied, things should go well. It is also imperative to finish the edges of the bait at a slight angle. This “bevel,” from the flesh side out to the skin, will greatly reduce the rate at which the bait washes out.
At this point, apply salt to the flesh side and allow some curing on a bed of drained ice. This will remove any residual oils and moisture and greatly toughen the bait. It will also help shrink and toughen any remaining meat.
Does the hook go in the shiny side or the red one? That’s an argument for the ages, but I rig mine through the skin side, so the barbs protrude from the flesh. The weight of the hook shank(s) will cause the bait to run skin-side down in the water, flashing at fish below.
For sailfish and dolphin, a single hook will suffice. In billfish tournaments you’ll be restricted to circle hooks, but for gen¬eral trolling, a 6/0 to 8/0 longshank Mustad 3407 works fine. For kings, wahoo and barracudas, you might add a second hook.
Rigging the bait is simple. Size it up and insert the hook point so that the eye of the hook is right at the head of the bait. Take seven or eight feet of a No. 6 or 7 singlestrand brown wire and run the tip up through the bait and the eye of the hook. Secure the rig with a haywire twist. Crimped mono can also be used as an alternative—though you may need to poke a hole in the bait first with a knife point.
Drop a small, colorful skirted lure on the leader, finish with a haywire loop in the end, and you’re ready to go. Blue-and-white Sea Witches and Billy Baits are popular in many parts of Florida. A red-and-purple Iland Sailure is my own favorite. FS
Florida Sportsman Classics