Rigging offshore trolling baits

By Willie Howard
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005
Willie McDow and the staff at Willie's Trolling Baits and Offshore Tackle in Lake Park offered the following tips for rigging three classic trolling baits — the swimming mullet, the mullet strip and the single-hook horse ballyhoo — commonly used to target kingfish, dolphin and wahoo in South Florida ocean fishing tournaments. There are many ways to rig these baits. The methods described below are simply suggestions for anglers who want to brush up their bait-rigging skills.

Photos by Willie Howard
BALLYHOO: Willlie McDow peels a layer of skin off the beak of a ballyhoo and runs the leader wire along a groove in the fish's beak. when rigging ballyhoo for trolling. McDow prefers single-hook ballyhoo because they last longer in the water.

BALLYHOO: Roy Best bends a ballyhoo while inserting the 9/0 Mustad 3407 hook used in making an offshore trolling bait from a large ballyhoo.

MULLET STRIP: Willie McDow carves a tapered strip from a mullet fillet to create a mullet strip bait. The strip meat must be brined in salt for a day before it's ready to rig. McDow leaves the tail on the mullet strip for extra action in the water.

Trolling baits help anglers

Swimming mullet:

1. Start with a 9- to 10-inch silver mullet, gutted and brined, with the tail split, backbone removed and a wedge carved in the head. Essentially, the mullet is skinned from the inside, leaving nothing but the shell of a mullet to rig. Ready the hardware: A pair of 8/0 Mustad 3407 hooks rigged in tandem, a 1.5-ounce egg sinker and No. 8 single-strand fishing wire. Don't want to wait 12 hours for a brined mullet? Try a quick brine. Roll the mullet in salt and let them sit in a cool place for an hour.

2. Make a small incision with a knife on the belly of the mullet between the pectoral fins. Insert the double hooks and arrange them inside the mullet so that the forward hook eye is just inside the gills. The trailing hook should come out between the flaps of skin at the back of the mullet.

3. Thread the egg sinker onto the wire, run wire through forward hook eye and out the pre-cut wedge in the top of the mullet's head. Loop the wire over the head to form an X in front of the mouth. Finish with a haywire twist followed by a series of barrel wraps. Break off excess wire so that a finger can run smoothly across the wraps without snagging. The egg sinker should sit under the mullet's chin. Leave about 6 feet of wire for a leader, then make a loop at the end for connection to the fishing rod.

4. Finish the bait by tying waxed floss (dental tape will work) and tie it around the head behind the eye to close the wedge in the head. For storage, vacuum seal the rigged mullet or simply freeze them in a plastic bag.


1. Ready large (select) ballyhoo, 9/0 Mustad 3407 hooks, No. 9 single-strand wire and 13-inch pieces of copper rigging wire. Break the ballyhoo's beak and peel away the membrane to expose the ridge under the lower jaw. Wrap the wire on the hook eye, leaving a "pin" or short length of wire exposed after the final barrel wrap.

2. Measure the hook against the ballyhoo so that the pin sticks out the center of the upper jaw just behind the mouth and forward of the eyes. Poke a small hole in the belly where the hook should emerge. Open a gill plate, insert the hook point and bend the ballyhoo while working the curved part of the hook into the ballyhoo and work the hook point out through the pre-punched belly hole. Push the pin out the middle of the top of the upper jaw. Center the pin as much as possible.

3. Position the leader wire so that it sits in the groove under the ballyhoo's lower jaw. Using the copper rigging wire, make one wrap in front and one behind the pin. Keeping tension on the copper wire, wrap back around one gill plate to lock the rig onto the bait. Finish by wrapping the wire tightly around the beak and wrapping the excess wire around the beak.

4. Check the rigged ballyhoo to make sure the hook is not binding inside the fish. The hook should not be pulling on tissue in the belly. Work the ballyhoo back and forth gently to limber it. Don't squeeze it.

Mullet strip:

1. Remove a fillet of a silver mullet about 10 inches in length, splitting the tail to leave parts of the tail on both fillets for extra action in the water. Use a knife to thin the fillets so they're about 1/4 -inch thick. Cover the fillets with salt (the finer the salt grain, the better) and let them brine for at least 12 hours in a refrigerator. Salt toughens the meat.

2. Ready an 8/0 Mustad 3407 hook (hook size can vary) and No. 8 rigging wire. Place the brined mullet fillet, meaty side up, on cutting board and carve out the strip so that it tapers to a point in the front. Use a knife point to cut a small hole for rigging wire near the tip of the strip. Measure hook so that the hook eye meets the top of the strip.

3. Insert the hook 3/8 -inch behind the point where the hook would normally enter. This makes a slight bow in the strip that gives it a better swimming action. Insert the hook on the silver side of the strip. (The mullet's silver skin blends with the color of the hook to help camouflage it.) The hook point should emerge on the meaty side.

4. Finish by inserting the rigging wire through the hook eye and the pre-cut hole in the strip. Tie off the rig with haywire twists and barrel wraps. If desired, add a jet-head lure or other attention-getting feathers in front of the strip before measuring out 6 feet of leader and finishing with the loop that will be used connect the rig to the fishing line.

Transportation tips: Designate a cooler for bait and line the bottom with ice. Put a towel or a bait tray over the ice. Lay rigged baits on the towel or tray and sprinkle them lightly with salt. Remove the drain plug on the cooler so that water from the ice drains away. Baits should not make contact with fresh water.