GAMEFISHING has become more popular in recent years as anglers realize that it’s not just a sport for folks with big boats and fat wallets. A five-metre boat – or even smaller in the right conditions – will get you out to the grounds where you can target billfish, tuna, wahoo, dolphin fish, mackerel and many other gamefish.
One of the more popular ways to target many of these larger offshore gamefish is by trolling skirted lures.
Skirted lures come in many shapes, sizes and colours, with heads that are either resin or weighted. The skirts usually consist of thin strips of coloured plastic that make up the main body of the lure. Most of these lures actually have two skirts – an under skirt and over skirt. Paired skirts are usually made in different colours that compliment each other.
These kinds of lures are only suited to trolling, and you need to add a hook rig before you can use them effectively.
Skirted lures have accounted for more billfish than any other artificial over the years. These lures can vary in size between 10cm and 45cm, and are made in a huge array of colours, head shapes and sizes to tempt any pelagic in the ocean.
The heads on skirted lures come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, all of which produce a variety of actions in the water. Skirted lures stay close to the surface when trolled, and should spend approximately half their time on the top (called ‘breathing’) and the other half under the surface where they leave an enticing bubble trail. These ratios vary slightly with different lure configurations, conditions and troll speeds.
Narrow heads are best trolled further back in your spread or in rougher conditions. When you’re trolling skirted lures in rough conditions, they have to not only work across the surface but drag through the waves. As they do this, pressure on the line increases and the rod often bends as a result. As the lure breaks out the face of the wave, the rod rebounds and the lure is cartwheeled across the surface, which often fouls the hooks. Narrower heads drag through a wave more easily than broader heads, so this scenario is less likely to happen.
Wide heads produce a better bubble trail (often called a ‘smoke trail’) at slower speeds, which is more attractive to many gamefish – especially billfish.
Skirted lure faces are cupped, flat, slanted or pointed. Cupped heads usually produce better bubble trails because they grab more air when they breathe. They usually possess a rapid wobbling action, although this is often hard to see from above the water. Flat faces run straighter and drag through the water more easily, making them great on rougher days. Pointed or bullet shaped heads are straight runners designed for trolling at higher speeds.
Slant faces cause the lure to move around more. The lure will dart left, right, up or down, depending on how the lure turns and how the water hits the slant face. How much it darts around depends on the angle of the slant and whether the leader hole in the lure is in the middle or towards one side. Slant-faced lures are great when the fish are a bit reluctant. The lure’s darting action often excites these fish into striking.
Many skirted lure heads are made of resin and have inset eyes and other features. Some heads are made of heavier materials, such as brass or white metal, and are designed to stay in the water and work better at higher trolling speeds. You can troll many of them at speeds up to 15 knots, which is great for wahoo, Spanish mackerel, tuna and trevally. Some good examples are Hex Heads, Screamers, Christmas trees and jet-heads. They are a good option for the angler just getting into trolling offshore lures because they handle a broad range of speeds, often come pre-rigged and are really effective.
Skirts come in a mind-boggling array of colours to suit the varying tastes of fish and fishermen. Skirts can have bold stripes, oily finishes, inlaid glitter, contrasting colours and luminescent stripes. Many companies such as Seven Strand, Pacific, Williamson and Yo-Zuri make the various skirts and lure makers put them on their own heads to produce the finished product.
Some skirts are of better quality than others, which is evident by how soft and pliable they are even after repeated use. Softer skirts move more easily in the water and also allow the head to produce a better action than a stiffer skirt would.
Unlike many other lures, most skirted offerings don’t come pre-rigged. Rig prices start at less than $10 if they use cheaper hooks and basic materials, and can cost well over $50 with high-grade stainless steel hooks, thimbles, bow shackles and wire. Cheaper hooks aren’t usually as strong and definitely don’t last as long, however, they can often do the same job in the short term on the average gamefish.
There’s a lot of debate regarding the best type of hook rig. Are single or double hooks better, stiff or flexible rigs, hooks at 30, 60, 90 or 180 degrees to each other? There’s a whole article’s worth of information in the whys and wherefores of rigging, and I’ll cover this in a later issue. The most popular rig is the flexible shackle rig with hooks at around 45 to 60 degrees to each other.
The lures are just a part of the entire scenario when trolling offshore. The boat and lure positioning (spread) have a large part to play also. The boat is the biggest fish attractor you have. It makes noise and the prop produces plenty of churning white water. To a predatory fish below, this looks and sounds like a school of baitfish. The predators are attracted to the surface by the possibility of a free feed, but the only things they can find around all the turbulent water are your lures, which will hopefully look enticing enough to eat!
Many novices put their lures a long way back because they think that the motor noise will scare the fish. Not so. I have seen quite large fish snatch a lure less than two metres from the transom, even when travelling at over eight knots. The lures must be in and on the edges of the white water, because this is where the pelagics are expecting to find baitfish.
Sometimes a lure may be run a long way back (called a ‘shotgun’). This is done to attract any gamefish from deeper down that come to the surface late, after the boat has moved from the spot where they first sighted the churning water. It also gives you a second chance on any fish raised that wasn’t enticed by the lures closer to the boat.
Larger boats, especially those with inboard and shaft-driven motors, produce a deeper, thumping noise than the smaller, high-pitched outboards do. Larger motors also produce more white, churning water – especially in twin-screw motors – which looks (to the fish) like a bigger bait school and can be seen from further away.
But smaller craft can be very successful also, and you can increase your chances by running teasers.
Teasers help to produce the illusion and noise of a baitfish school to the predators below. You can run these lures behind any type of boat.
Mirrored teasers are one of the more popular types. They are trolled a few metres behind the boat, giving off flashes of light as the sun is reflected off their mirrored sides as they wobble along.
Birds, such as those made by Boone, are another good teaser and they splash along the surface, making similar noises to that of a bird as it splashes on the surface eating baitfish. This is another factor that makes predators think there’s a bait school above.
Teasers are often run in strings of four and five and may even have a string of squids splashing along behind. Anything that splashes, makes noise or reflects light can be used as a teaser. Even a string on empty beer cans is a good option.
The number of lures you can fish depends on how big the boat is and, to a lesser extent, how many anglers are on board. Having the lures too close together can cause tangles when you’re turning if they’re not set just right. They need to be at different lengths so they will cross over while turning without fouling. Larger boats can run more lures, not just because they have a wider area, but because there’s more white water to set them in.
Larger boats often run outriggers to increase the number and spread on the rods, and smaller boats can also use outriggers. These rigs are particularly handy when trolling dead skipping baits because they give elevation to get them skipping well. Outriggers also give a bit of slack as the line is ripped from the clip when the fish hits the bait, allowing the fish time to swallow it. However, lures usually produce a better hookup rate when they are direct to the rod and don’t have the drop back that outriggers produce.
Trolling skirted lures is just one aspect of being a successful gamefisher. Like all lures, some styles and colours work better on some days and others on different days.
Prices for skirted lures vary, but the better quality lures generally start at around $25 for the small ones and may be over a $100 for large ones – and this is without a hook rig. Good quality skirted lures are much more likely to swim well and consequently catch more fish. I prefer Hollowpoint, Meridian and Pakula lures, but there are plenty of other quality brands on the market.
If you decide to purchase cheaper skirted lures, make sure that the leader hole is dead in the middle of the head. If it’s off-centre, the lure will spin and you’ll end up with a hell of a lot of line twist.
Understanding where, when and how to use skirted lures will give you a better chance of running them correctly and successfully. But there’s definitely no substitute for hands-on experience, so get out and give it a go!
1) A selection of skirted lures that work well in most high-speed trolling situations.
2) Skirted lures catch more billfish than any other artificial.
3) This dolphin fish found the Lumo Pakula Mosquito irresistible.
4) Many species of tuna are caught on skirted lures.Reads: 1814