By Dale Wills
Let’s be realistic: Loading up a double- or triple-tier dredge full of mullet or ballyhoo and tossing it over the side is something that just about anyone can do. But dredge fishing in the most effective way possible is something altogether different. In this article, we’ll cover the three basic principles of dredge fishing—setup, retrieval and bait—and interview dredge fishing pros. So let’s put ’em out!
Captain Glenn Cameron from the Flo Rider has been dredge fishing for close to 20 years.
Cameron’s typical setup is running mullet dredges and a squid daisy chain on each side.
“I prefer to have all my teaser reels under my command, as this allows me total control of the teasers and lets my crew focus on orchestrating bait and rod duties exclusively. They have enough to worry about in the cockpit,” he says. Each of his teaser reels is loaded with 300-pound Momoi Xtra-Hard mono.
Captain Alan Fields is a veteran skipper who prefers to run his dredge teasers from the cockpit. “At my age, I have my hands full with two electric bridge teasers! I prefer the crew in the cockpit to deal with the dredges,” Fields says.
“The automatic stop when retrieving the dredge allows my deckhands to just push a button and immediately focus on another task,” he adds. “We use the Lindgren Pitman S-1200 reels and they are powerful and well-built. The interchangeable spool is also a great feature when you want to switch your gear over to bottom fishing: it’s quick and easy.”
“It’s also necessary to have two mates when fishing dredges from the cockpit. A lot can go on in a short amount of time,” Fields says. His dredge teasers are loaded with 400-pound Momoi Xtra-Hard mono.
Captain Eddie Wheeler has used several electric reel setups for dredges in his career. He is currently building and outfitting a new Spencer with his choice of reels.
“I previously used the quad bridge teaser reel system but with the new boat I chose to go with just two Super 9s for my bridge teasers,” he reports. “Having the quad electric reels in the bridge worked out alright for slow trolling for sailfish but it can be overwhelming when running all your teasers and marlin fishing. I found it to be challenging in locations like St. Thomas where you have to drive the boat and hand pull teaser chains and lures. With the ’auto stop’ feature on the electric reels, it really is the greatest invention for dredge teasers. On our new boat, the cockpit will be equipped with the LP S-1200 electric reels for our dredges.”
Wheeler also points out that regardless of your electric bridge teasers, it’s important to have access to the teaser line if you plan on pulling chains or teaser lures so you can easily pull on it beneath the hard top.
Regardless of how you troll dredges, you will need to design a basic block and tackle system to leverage the power of your teaser reels and decrease the drag force of retrieval (see diagram for a popular setup).
One of the most overlooked parts of pulling dredges is the outriggers—it’s critical to have a strong back bar. Rupp Vice President Ron Karpanty explains that while Rupp Tournament outriggers come standard with one-inch diameter back bars, they recommend an upgrade to heavy-duty back bars, which measure 1 3/8-inch OD. Rupp Bigg Rigg outriggers come standard with 1 3/8-inch diameter back bars, and they recommend an upgrade to Bigg Rigg heavy back bars that measure 1 3/4 inches for those using large dredges or running at high speeds in rough conditions.
Rupp hydraulic outriggers also require the use of BiggRigg heavy back bars. “We also have a line of teaser/dredge clamps that allow for additional attachment points anywhere on the lower half of the outrigger,” Karpanty explains.
In addition to running a block and tackle, Capt. John Lagrone of the Los Suenos-based Xta-Sea explains, “The pulley placement with your dredge teasers needs to be positioned as low as possible on your outrigger so your angler’s rods will be able to clear the dredge teaser line when the boat is in a turn and you’re going for multiple fish. The angler hooked up first needs to automatically go to the aft inside corner of the cockpit to play the fish and keep the line above the dredge teaser.”
Wheeler also points out that with hands-free cockpit dredges, the auto stop feature allows the mates time to pull down teaser lines so the angler can get a bait close to a teasing fish and also pull down teaser lines so the angler’s line can clear it when hooked up and in a turn.
Ever wonder how far back other captains are pulling their dredges? Plenty of variables, such as rigger size and angle, boat speed, amount of whitewater and dredge weight, all factor into how deep a captain pulls his dredge.
Glenn Cameron explains, “The most important factor for me is the dredge needs to be trolled completely submerged with no skipping or tumbling. I also like to fish it where I can see it and see fish around it. If I had to pick a general spot where I like the dredge, it would be somewhere between the first and second wave.”
Like Cameron, Wheeler places his dredges as far back as he can while still just barely being able to see fish following them. This is where a tower guy comes in. To use dredges effectively, it’s helpful to have another set of eyes in the tower if conditions are accommodating.
Fields also makes sure to place a flat line bait just over and a few feet behind the dredge. “You want a bait to be seen if a fish is trailing the dredge. If the fish looks up, you want it to see a bait. You don’t want to have a bait too far behind the dredge where the fish could fade back or away. Give them something easy to see. And eat.”
Once they are hooked up with a small billfish, the best teams in the circuit excel at going after multiples. In a tournament, you can’t compete by just catching singles. These days, it’s mandatory to add doubles, triples and quads. So what’s the best way to do this with the dredges? Surprisingly, many captains differ on how and when to retrieve their dredges.
Glenn Cameron says, “I like to make my turn once we have a fish hooked up and then simultaneously retrieve my outside dredge and inside daisy chain to the boat. I then draw my inside dredge up a little into the clear water and leave my outside daisy chain to troll behind the dredge as I continue to make a turn. My goal is to engage any other fish that may be swimming with the one we are hooked up to.
“Leaving a dredge and daisy chain in position closest to the fish is standard procedure on my boat. Once I get near the first fish or hooked up to multiples I’ll then begin the process of retrieving my dredge and teasers. Another thing we normally do is leave the dredges hanging and only bring them in the boat for maintenance.”
Wheeler advocates leaving his dredges out as long as possible before retrieving them. “When I do retrieve them, I generally will pull the inside dredge in first to get it out the way and then retrieve the inside teaser chain. As long as it’s not getting tangled or interfering with the fish I like to leave them out. That also goes for the baited lines, keep fishing as long as you can but stay organized.”
Depending on your targeted species, your dredge baits may differ from faster trolled artificials to slower trolled natural baits. It’s also not uncommon for crews to pull one side using natural baits and on the other side with artificials. However, most tournament teams will only dredge with natural baits, usually mullet on one side and ballyhoo on the other. Mixtures of baits, such as a mullet dredge with a ballyhoo chain down the center, are also not uncommon.
Regardless of what dredge bait you choose, they need to run true. It’s important to rig each bait properly so that it does not spin. The bait should look like a school of fish swimming in a ball. Poorly rigged, spinning bait places extra drag on the dredge, and the motion of a spinning fish can spook catches. Wheeler also suggests keeping your dredge consistent with similar-sized mullet and leads.
“You don’t want to mix up the bait sizes and leads,” he says. “It just won’t swim right.”
When it comes to checking the baits, Wheeler also likes to check the dredge bait often.
“Hopefully we are pulling it in while catching fish but if not, keeping an eye on the baits almost hourly helps. Fresh mullet will hold up better and I don’t want them washed out with no meat and no smell left on them. If they begin to break up, we’ll change them throughout the day,” he says.
The dredge teaser is one of the most productive fishing teasers, but only if you find your own ideal setup. Years ago, dredge fishing was primarily used just for sailfishing. But as tournaments expand release categories and payouts, dredges are appearing on more decks in the Gulf, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. If you are reluctant or inexperienced with dredge fishing, do not fret. Just keep it simple, experiment on your own and, most importantly, make sure you have the correct gear and setup. The payoff can be tremendous!
- Several retailers sell plenty of dredge accessories, including pre-made pin rigs, which come in several different weights and sizes. With these pin rigs, two experienced mates should be able to rig 100 dredge mullet in an hour. When using double dredges on each side, a boat can quickly use over 150 mullet per day, so plan accordingly.
- Three-ounce leads are the most common size for dredge mullet.
- Always double-check your line-to-dredge teaser connection; you don’t want it to disappear into the deep blue.
- Keep your dredges in the riggers when retrieved. Otherwise, they take up space on deck and crew will step on and/or tangle them.
- If seaweed is present, plan on clearing the dredge frequently, as they are like a rake in the ocean.
- Always have a backup: Murphy’s Law prevails.
- A popular electric dredge reel setup consists of two L-P S-1200s in the cockpit loaded with 400-pound mono and two Super 9 Miya Epochs on the bridge loaded with 250-300-pound mono.