Miami, FL Late Summer Trolling Tips

Big Bull for the Marauder - Mahi Mahi Fishing Miami

Anyone who’s fished with me knows I avoid trolling whenever possible. I’m the first to admit that live baiting is more effective than trolling in Miami waters, but when bait is impossible to catch, putting in the time with effective trolling tactics can save the day.

As a live bait fisherman, I fervently believe that to consistently produce awesome days of fishing for friends and clients, you need to use the friskiest bait possible – but anyone on the offshore scene this time of year will tell you how difficult it’s been to catch bait. During our last few trips, our bait catching efforts have been mostly fruitless.  The pilchards have basically vanished from the bug light grounds, the cigar minnows are being jerks (even when chummed into a frenzy), and the threadfin herring are few and far between. When all you can manage is a dozen live baits at best (blue runners included), trolling during the course of your day offshore is inevitable.  So if you’re forced to troll lures or dead baits to turn that doldrum day into a success, consider these tips for the late summer season.

Tips for Trolling Dead Baits

Basic Trolling Spread

Basic Trolling Spread

There are three basic elements of trolling dead baits for Mahi Mahi, Tuna, Kingfish, and Wahoo in Miami, FL: Bait rigging, trolling speed, and tackle /spread configuration. Remarkably, trolling is not as simple as just tossing baits overboard and driving around. Many variables must be factored in order to get a strike, and more importantly, land a fish that bites on the troll. If you fail to plan accordingly when it comes to managing how your bait is rigged, the speed at which you’re dragging the bait, and the tackle/spread you’re using for the conditions – plan to fail.  Miserably.

When it comes to rigging baits for trolling, it’s important that your bait does not spin in the water. For example, an improperly rigged ballyhoo will helicopter its way through the water creating a massive twist in your leader or line that cannot be undone. Rigging baits properly makes a tremendous difference in the presentation of the bait at speed – and while there’s nothing natural about a dead bait flailing along at 6knots, if the presentation isn’t just right, the fish won’t bite. There are dozens of methods for rigging ballyhoo (a topic for another day), but whatever configuration you choose – make sure the bait does not spin.  Aside form ballyhoo, trolling mullet is also an excellent tactic – mullet and strip baits can be “butterflied” so it appears the bait is flapping along behind the boat.

A butterflied mullet for trolling

A butterflied mullet for trolling

In order to make your life much much easier, if you’re new to trolling offshore or don’t troll regularly with dead baits – invest in pre-rigged trolling baits from Baitmasters.  Seriously, every pack of their baits are rigged flawlessly and will help you get more bites. You’d be hard pressed to rig baits this well yourself, not to mention that when you buy their pre-rigged baits – you’re taking the guess work out of everything.  You’re buying a guarantee that your bait is rigged with knots/crimps that will not break when the time comes.  These are the trolling baits we use aboard the Marauder with tremendous success:

Baitmasters Mono Rigged Single Hook Ballyhoo

Baitmasters Mono Rigged Single Hook Ballyhoo

Select Ballyhoo Single Hook with Weight

Select Ballyhoo Single Hook with Weight

Wire Rigged Double Hook Ballyhoo

Wire Rigged Double Hook Ballyhoo

Now the debate is open when it comes to trolling rigged ballyhoo naked or with a skirt, but i’ll be open and honest that every dead bait we troll goes overboard with a blue on white sea witch skirt or a black and red sea witch skirt.  This is a sure fire way to streamline the bait in the water and give it an extra bit of action which can go along way. While i’ll never be able to prove by any scientific means that using a sea witch skirt increases the quantity of bites we get while trolling – I can tell you it makes a difference.

Typically, we troll our ballyhoo or mullet at a speed of 5.5 to 7 knots.  Rarely slower and rarely faster.  That range seems to really be the sweet spot for targeting large bull dolphin.  If you’re dragging baits rigged with a weight under their nose, try going up to 7.5 knots, and then back down to 5 knots.  As long as the baits are free of grass or debris and aren’t tangling, you’ll be in good shape.

When we troll current rips in 110′ to 140′ of water for kingfish and other species feeding close to shore, we tend to troll more slowly as the current pulls on the baits and can occasionally wash them out (we rarely have that issue with baitmaster products). Strip baits are excellent for trolling “the edge” for kingfish and various toothy predators. You can rig strip baits easily yourself and they are very effective for kingfish.

A Professionally rigged strip bait

A Professionally rigged strip bait

Now, most die-hard trolling enthusiasts will tell you there’s way more science and technique involved here.  For the most part that’s true.  But trolling dead baits is not rocket science.  This is one of the oldest known fishing tactics in the world. It’s still a dead bait being presented at speed so it looks alive – so think about what a fish is seeing in the water as your bait plops along.  The trick is to keep the presentation as natural as possible.  If rigged ballyhoo and mullet isn’t your preferred bait of choice, consider trolling a rigged bonita strip behind a small islander or black/red skirt. Bonita strips put out alot of scent and wiggle in the water like a bait fish if rigged correctly.  Up north in areas like Boca Raton, Stuart, WPB, and Jupiter – most pro Captains ONLY troll bonita strips for kings and wahoo – with great success. There’s plenty of reading material on that subject should you care to indulge.

High Speed Trolling Tips

Capt Charlie Ellis with a big Miami Wahoo

This wahoo ate a jig…but that’s a rare occasion

Again, high speed trolling is a science in and of itself.  There is alot of technical know-how which goes into doing it right.  The speed of the boat, the weight of the lure, the weight of the in-line sinker, the sea conditions/current – all of these variables impact your ability to connect with a wahoo on the high speed troll. I’m not a huge fan of this tactic because it burns a ridiculous amount of fuel, but it is tried and true if wahoo is your target.  It’s by far the most effective method to connect with a massive sea wolf and the bite is sizzling! If you want to take a technical view on the subject, check out this outrageously informative article from sportfishing magazine – 12 Wahoo Fishing Techniques.  It’s one of the best on the web.

Understanding your spread is the key to high speed trolling effectively. It takes alot of high quality gear to get this job done right.  For the most part, you need to be trolling at a speed of 14 to 15 knots.  That’s quick! In order to keep your baits below the surface, you need to use an in-line sinker between 24 oz and 32 oz to stay down deep.

Standard Issue Wahoo Trolling Weights

Standard Issue Wahoo Trolling Weights

Odds are you won’t be a high speed wahoo trolling pro anytime soon, but you don’t have to be in order to fish a spread effectively.  Think about it logically, heavier rigs fished closer to the boat will stay deeper.  The more line you let out, the high up in the water column the bait will plane. When we go high speed trolling for wahoo, we typically fish three baits at three different depths. For the most part, we let one lure out 200ft, a second at 300ft, and a third at 400ft.  The bait closest to the boat gets the heaviest weight (32oz), the second gets a 24oz, and the third gets nothing (fished just below the surface).  Pro teams will fish up to 6 baits with staggered depths on the port and starboard side of the vessel – that’s alot of lead in the water and I personally don’t enjoy trolling that much to practice it often.  🙂

high speed wahoo trolling diagram

Standard high speed wahoo trolling Rig

When it comes to high speed trolling lures for wahoo, you have to go with a bullet head of some sort.  I’m a huge fan of Capt. Ray’s Wahoo Magnets, but i’m also partial to oversized wahoo lures in bonita colors. I’m a firm believer that big wahoo slam bonitas all day long – why wouldn’t they? Consider investing in a few C&H trolling lures as well.

There’s ALOT of information on high speed wahoo trolling online, but one of my favorite articles (actually the article that got me on track) is by Capt. Ron Schatman – the “Wahoo King”. Definitely worth a read. 

Trolling Lures that Work

I grew up trolling on the Chesapeake Bay for striped bass – and I believe this is where my disdain for trolling began. We would spend endless hours dragging crippled alewives, stretch 20’s, umbrella rigs, and BIG parachute jigs rigged with 10″ sassy shads all over the place in an effort to catch rockfish.  Our efforts were mostly in vain (it wasn’t until we started using massive planning boards and fishing up to fourteen lines that we started catching fish consistently), but I did learn a few important lessons when it comes to trolling lures – i’ll share those in this segment about trolling lures that work.

First of all, there are so many damn trolling lures on the market today that it’s dizzying when you have to make a purchase decision. If you’re fishing out of Miami, FL – you don’t need giant marlin lures (as awesome as they are). You have to buy trolling lures for the fish that are in the area.  If trolling for mahi mahi, wahoo, tuna, and the occasional kingfish is your goal – don’t buy lures designed to attract black marlin.  You don’t need big trolling lures to catch big fish. Focus on building a collection of feather jigs, small bullet head skirts, Rapala diving plugs, stretch 20’s, and some jet lures.

When it comes to feather jigs, it’s hard to go wrong with a blue on white, red on black, or a yellow feather jig. Grab a few small yellow and small white feather jigs and be fearless in deploying them. The feathers give a nice wiggle when trolled at 6knots and are reliable enough to get a bite. The dolphin delight is a local favorite, but I prefer straight feather jigs on the troll.

Rapalas are a goto shallow water trolling bait for grouper along reef lines.  It’s important to use the larger version of the rapala diving plugs and bounce it along the bottom.  Be careful when you’re doing this as it’s likely you will snag a rock or piece of coral.  Make sure you’re dragging along the sandy edge near the rocks, or you’ll be losing $20 lures all day long!

Your best bet is to purchase a lure kite for dolphin, a lure kit for wahoo, and a lure kit for tuna.  Smaller lures work better than larger versions. The trick is to keep the spread looking as even and natural as possible while it moves through the waters.  If you don’t have outriggers, realistically, you can troll one bait deep and two up top – anymore than that will create a massive tangle.

Planers Catch More Fish

Aluminum planers are key to catching fish when the bite is slow and there isn’t much live bait. Trolling planers along the edge can produce kingfish, bonitas, and the occasional wahoo.  The trick here is in the deployment of the rig – it’s simple, but takes a bit of practice to get it right.

The real trick with planers is to make sure  the rig will “break away” from the main line once you get a bite.  You can effectively troll small bullet head skirts with a bonita strip down deep where the kingfish and wahoo hunt if you’re using this technique properly.  When the bite is slow at the surface, this is a critical technique to get a bite when trolling the edge off Miami, FL.  A Sea Striker #5 is the go to planer you need in order to make this technique work effectively. If you’re trolling with outboards, be particularly careful while maneuvering the boat – the mono leader line connecting the planer to your stern will be dangerously close to your propellers at all times – so make sure to stay alert and don’t make any sudden changes in course.

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Captain at Miami Fishing Charters LLC
Capt. Charlie Ellis of Miami, FL has 25 years experience fishing for big game species like Bluefin Tuna, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Sharks. Capt. Charlie is also an avid scuba diver, world traveler, writer, and entrepreneur.
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