Top tips for offshore fishing

By Matt Winter

Published in Tideline magazine, May/June 2014 edition

TLoffshore1Few local offshore anglers can claim the kind of experience Jason Ward has racked up in (and under) the blue water off Charleston.

Now 37 years old, the James Island software engineer has been big-game fishing off the Lowcountry since he was 6. He’s been running his own offshore boat, a 26-foot Glacier Bay, for the past 16 years, specializing not only in trolling but also scuba diving and spearfishing.

He’s caught two 58-pound dolphin off Charleston, plus blue marlin, sailfish, wahoo, tuna (including a 60-pound yellowfin) and a host of other offshore beasties. The well-respected bluewater afficianado recently sat down with Tideline magazine to share some real-world tips for fellow recreational anglers a bit further down the learning curve.

Offshore fishing is a lot like poker, Ward says. “There are no guarantees. It’s luck, but you can do a lot of things to tip the odds in your favor.” Read on to learn how.

Pay for an offshore charter and learn from the pros

Ward has fished on quite a few sportfishers, including during big-money tournaments out of Charleston and the Outer Banks. He’s also fished with professional crews in the Dominican Republic, off Miami, in the Keys and the Bahamas.

He says much of his rigging and tactics have been shaped by these experiences.

“You’re not going to absorb everything they do, because they do a lot of things you can’t see, but that will really fast-track you into doing things the right way.”

Hit it hard in May and June

Ward says that in a typical year, he does must of his trolling from April though the end of June, racking up 15 to 20 trips in that window.

He makes a similar number of runs offshore later in the year, but then mostly to dive and spearfish.

His trolling season starts with blackfin and wahoo in early April, followed by the first wave of dolphin in mid-April to early May.

By mid May, the offshore action usually turns red-hot.

“At that point, the waters inshore of the Gulf Stream are still cool, so it keeps those fish right there at the edge of the Stream. They concentrate, like in a funnel, the same kind of funnel you hear deer hunters talk about.

“It stays that way in May and into June, but then as the inshore waters warm up in late June, the fish are still there, but they’re spreading out and they’re harder to target.

“In May, you’ve got great fishing for pretty much anything you could want. We’ve caught sailfish in May, blue marlin, wahoo, tuna, dolphin — everything.”

The dolphin run fuels the whole bonanza, and crews often can come home with dozens of fish in one trip. If anglers get lucky and land in the right spot at the right time, they could very well hit the 60-dolphin-
per-boat limit. (The limit is 10 per person per day, up to 60 per boat. The relatively new minimum size limit for dolphin is 20-inches, fork length)

Ward says 90 percent of the dolphin he catches are in the 12- to 15 -pound range, but that some years seem to bring a run of bigger fish.

“When we have a long, cold winter that seems to delay things a little bit, the fish are a little bit bigger on average.”

With all these green-and-yellow morsels swimming around, the waters off Charleston also team with much bigger predators in May and June. Some of the biggest blue marlin of the year typically show up in this time period, and anglers usually find massive wahoo in the mix.

“I always tell my friends coming in from out of town: If you only had one week to pick to go out and fish, pick the last week of May or the first week of June. I would say that’s the absolute peak.”

But even at the hottest time, sometimes the bite seems to shut down. Ward has a theory on this:

“It seems like they’ll feed super heavy for a couple days, then it shuts down.

“People get all fired up when they see a few days of hot reports. But let’s say I’m planning to fish on Friday. I hate seeing red-hot fishing on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

“I would way rather see a dead bite for three days before I go out there.”

Do NOT plan a combo trip with trolling and bottom-fishing

Ward is emphatic on this point:

“If you try to do bottom fishing and trolling in the same day, 90 percent of time you’ll have mediocre results in both categories.”

Trying to do both requires two sets of rods and reels, two sets of baits, two time-consuming efforts to find the right spot.

“I’ve found that if you try to do a combo trip, you’ll usually plan to troll until noon and then switch over to bottom fishing.

“Now, some days you get out there and the (trolling) bite is just going off from the time you put lines in until the time you go home, and those are the days everybody loves.

“But more often than not, you spend 60 to 70 percent of your time finding fish, and then when once you get on the fish you hammer them pretty good.

“There have been so many times that we’ve gone trolling and didn’t find fish until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We had two fish going into 2 o’clock, and then we finally find a weedline or get in the right water, and the next thing you know we have 20 dolphin on board.”

By switching over to bottom fishing halfway through a trip, “you can rob yourself” of that late-afternoon trolling bite, he said.

Look for oases, and know when to move

“All fishing is pretty much the same,” Ward says. “ You’re looking for structure of some sort.”

Offshore, the ocean is much like a desert, he says. Anglers must find some kind of structure forming an oasis of life. That structure could be a weed line, water color change, rips and edges, temperature breaks, or a floating log.

“And if you can’t find anything else, there’s always the fail-safe of the ledge, the continental shelf,” he says. “But there are certain pieces of the ledge that always seem to hold more fish than others.”

Less experienced offshore anglers often make a similar mistake, Ward says: “Fishing out deep for no reason.”

Fired up to go after oceanic giants, they blow past the ledge, blow past temp breaks and small weed lines out into the Gulf Stream. Sometimes that may work, but more often than not, those anglers have just rolled over the best concentrations of fish.

Knowing when to stay at a spot and keep fishing or leave comes down to situational awareness, Ward says. You’ve got to pay attention, remember what you see on the way out.

“Let’s say my game plan was to run out to 800 feet because I saw something I liked out there. If on the way out, I pass three weed lines, then I know I have other options. So I will be a lot less patient with a spot. If I get out there and am not catching fish within an hour, then I’m running back in to check those weed lines.

“But if I was running out deep and didn’t see anything on the way, then I might stick it out for half a day.”

Listening to radio chatter can also give clues if a move is in order.

“If everybody is catching fish except for you, it’s time to move,” Ward says.

Keep rigs simple and baits fresh

Ward is quick to admit that there’s no one right way to rig ballyhoo or set up a trolling spread.

“Do whatever works best for you,” is his common piece of advice.

What works for Ward? Simplicity and as-you-go rigging.

He usually trolls with a mix of Shimano TLD and Penn International reels, spooled with 50- to 60-pound-test monofilament.

At the end of the mainline, he creates three feet of doubleline shock leader, then ties that to a tiny-but-strong 80-pound-test SPRO swivel. To that he attaches 20 to 30 feet of 80- to 100-pound fluorocarbon leader.

At the end of this leader, he uses a crimp, small egg weight, 8-ought hook and wire pin to create a simple, chin-weighted ballyhoo rig. Sometimes he’ll add a skirt in front, but often the ballyhoo is rigged “naked.”

This type of rigging is known as wind-on, direct rigging. There’s no snap-swivel at the end of the leader to attach pre-rigged ballyhoo rigs.

“You could wind that hook all the way up to the tip of the rod if you wanted to.”

Ward doesn’t use snap swivels because he doesn’t have a cooler full of pre-rigged ballyhoo when he sets out. He learned this rig-as-you-go technique while fishing on charter boats and from his own years of experience.

“When I was younger, I used to hate rigging baits for offshore. The night before, I’d thaw all my baits out, go down to the marina, fight the gnats for an hour and a half to rig up a couple dozen baits.

“I’d wake up the next morning and my cooler would look beautiful and perfect, but the weather would be bad. So I’d have to throw all my stuff out, because I do not use re-frozen bait. Period.

“So I went through that scenario a couple times, and just decided to do something different.

Ward typically leaves his ballyhoo frozen solid on the way out until his boat gets an hour or so from his intended trolling grounds. Then he’ll thaw a pack or two, prepare them (break the backs, squeeze them out, etc) and instruct his crew to rig them on hooks, one-by-one, as they put lines out.

They repeat the process all day.

“If I’m going to spring for $600 in gas, I’m going to have the freshest bait I can get when I get out there. I don’t like thawing my baits out 12 hours before I use them. I don’t want it washing out or spinning and stuff like that.

“But we’ve gotten to the point where we can rig up a ballyhoo quicker than you can get one out of the cooler.”

The secret to Ward’s Johnny-on-the-spot ballyhoo rigging? Rubber bands.

Ward buys special rubber bands, about the size of a nickel, that are made for dental uses. He threads the hook down through the ballyhoo’s gills and into the fish’s belly, then out though its underside, so that the bait is perfectly straight along the hook’s length. Then he snugs the small weight up under the bait’s “chin” and pushes the pin up through both of the tiny jaws.

“Then you hook that rubber band on the pin, wrap it around twice, loop it back over the pin and you’re done,” he says.

Making sure a ballyhoo is rigged perfectly straight, with the hook properly placed and the fish’s head nicely secured, is one of the biggest keys to successful trolling.

If Ward is running smaller ballyhoo, he’ll use copper wire instead of rubber bands to secure the ballyhoo’s head to the rig. The rubber bands can apply too much pressure and crush the ballyhoo’s head.

“The medium ballyhoo is the classic,” Ward says. “It’s easiest to handle, it’s a robust, durable bait that will catch just about anything out in the ocean. For those I like a rubber band.

“I’ll typically carry six packs of ballyhoo with me, and on an average trip, we’ll go through maybe three packs. The remainders will go right in the trash.”

Match your spread to the conditions – don’t be afraid to change on the fly

Managing a trolling spread is one of the most fun, interesting and sometimes frustrating functions of offshore fishing.

Things do go wrong if you stop paying attention, as anyone who’s ever tangled up three lines measuring hundreds of yards apiece can attest.

Experienced offshore anglers such as Ward can easily run nine or more lines at once… but they also recognize the wisdom of scaling back based on wind/wave action and the experience level of those onboard.

And how far back do you run them? Which lure or bait goes where?

“I fish a lot of swimming or skipping ballyhoo. I don’t run a lot of lures, per se. We use a lot of sea witches, something that’s low profile and easy to manage.

“But again, it really comes down to situational awareness. You have to adapt. If the way-back’s getting hit, drop your whole spread back a bit. If fish are fired up, keep it tight to the boat.

“If there are lots of boats, run them shorter so someone doesn’t cut you off.”

Ward also doesn’t troll at just one speed — it depends on whether he’s running with or against a current, what the wind and waves are doing, and how the baits look.

“Basically, I try to troll as fast as I can without my baits flailing around out of the water. Typically that’s going to be in that 5- to 7-knot range.”

Ward doesn’t hesitate to add or subtract to his spread if the situation warrants.

He might deploy a big Black Bart or some other large-profile, flashy lure, in the whitewash of his engines. He might dangle chuggers from the shortriggers. He’s also a fan of using planers to work the water column.

“There are certain days where a planer will out-fish all the top-water lines,” he says. “You can catch anything on a planer — big dolphin, tuna, big wahoo.”

And if he does find a wahoo bite, Ward will modify his rigs, on the fly, with wire.

“That day we caught 11 wahoo, we probably had 30 more wahoo bites,” he says. “We were fishing fluorocarbon leaders, and you’d have one fish grab the bait and start running, and that skirt would ride down the leader and stop at the swivel. Another wahoo would come and bite that. We lost several like that.

“If they’re schooling like that, your catch ratio will go down unless you’re running wire.”

Keep trolling while fighting a fish

So what happens when a fish hits, when there’s a “knock down” from the riggers and a reel starts screaming?

“Nothing changes the first 30 seconds,” Ward says. “If I don’t have to slow the boat down, I will not slow the boat down. As long as an angler is making progress on that fish, then we’re still doing 6 knots.

“If it gets to the point where they’re not making progress, I’ll slow it down a bit. But the object of the game is to keep moving.”

Multiple hookups are often the key between a good day and a great day offshore, so savvy captains strive to keep the baits skipping no matter what — after all that’s why there are hundreds of yards of line on most offshore reels.

But sometimes, a captain must slow down to quickly get a fish onboard.

“You might get a wily dolphin who’s jumping this way and back that way,” Ward says. “In certain scenarios, if you can’t control the fish, you’ll have to clear some lines or turn the boat to get the fish outside your spread.

“Otherwise, you’ll kick yourself for tangling up six lines for a 10-pound dolphin.”

And what happens when a fish hits a bait but doesn’t get hooked? “Drop it back, immediately,” Ward says. Fish often will circle back around to eat a bait they’ve “wounded.”

If you are bottom fishing for grouper, look for the little spots

Many years of diving and spearfishing have given Ward a unique knowledge of bottom-fish habitat and behavior off the Lowcountry. And though he’ll likely be trolling this time of year, he knows many anglers will be chasing scamps and gags once the shallow-water grouper season restarts May 1.

“In May and June, that 80- to 120-foot range is really good stuff,” he says. “You can catch grouper on the ledge pretty much year round, minus the closures or whatever, but it seems like in the early summer, you see a lot more fish when that (inshore) water is in that 68-70 degree range.”

Ward also recommends that grouper-hunters stay away from the well-known artificial reefs and wrecks.

“We’ll dive the wrecks sometimes, and you’ll notice the grouper are very skittish. They hang real tight the structure. … There’s so much fishing pressure, they keep them thinned out pretty good.”

The big ships and wrecks also don’t provide grouper with the best level of protection, Ward says.

“Grouper seem to prefer openings that are just bigger than their body size. So if you get these big structures like ships, they have these huge holes where predators can still get up in there and get the fish.

“The better habitat is like a low shelf, like a foot-and-a-half tall, where a grouper can just slide up in there and hide from sharks.”

Ward recommends anglers use their sonar to search hard-bottom areas featuring ledges and small rock outcrops (often shown as thick layers of red on sonar screens). You might not see blue fish marks on the screen, but that doesn’t mean grouper aren’t nestled under those ledges.

“That’s one of the things I’ve learned from diving. You really can’t tell (from sonar) what’s down there until you either look down there (by diving) or drop a line.”

Use solid, dependable weather resources

When deciding whether to head out, Ward relies on a few websites for data, namely sailflow.com, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine forecasting site, and a sea-surface site run by Rutgers University.

Wave height and wind speeds alone are not necessarily the deciding factors — most large center consoles can easily handle 3-foot waves, as long as they’re spread out. Wave period, stability and direction are just as important.

Change out your lines and leaders

Ward advises anglers to splurge often on new line.

“I’ll change my line probably four times in a season. I’ve lost enough fish in my life — you know when have the big one on — that now I just make it a habit.”

With so much invested in a trip, why take a chance at losing a daymaker catch over a silly little nick in the line, right? Err on the safe side.

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