The Northeast Canyons – The Art Of A Mixed Trolling Spread

Many people don’t think of Massachusetts as a hot spot for white marlin, blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and many other warm water species. Our state’s fishery is often thought of as a cold, green-water fishery, home to fish such as cod, haddock, striped bass, and bluefin tuna.

Though it requires excellent logistical skills, safety awareness, dedication, and a capable vessel, Massachusetts, and several other New England states, have access to one of the best blue water fisheries in the world.

The Northeast Canyons are located approximately 70-100+ miles off the New England coast. They are made up of various cracks, ravines, and other structures along the continental shelf and they reach depths of 5,000+ feet. Throughout spring, summer, and fall months, the Gulf Stream produces warm water eddies that make their way into these areas of incredible structure, causing a convergence of warm Gulf Stream water and the colder water of the Labrador Current. The bait fish tend to congregate in and around these temperature breaks and variances in water clarity, but when these conditions move across structure too, it can create world-class fishing.

Aside from the hard work and challenge involved in getting to the canyons, it takes a lot of experience to understand how to make the most of a canyon trip from a fishing perspective. The goal of this article is to describe how my brother Taylor and I change our trolling spread throughout a typical trip offshore to the canyons. Hopefully it will help you capitalize on a multi-species trip to the Northeast canyons or in your own local waters.

A typical trip to the Northeast canyons is an overnighter. There are some crews that make day trips, but typically it is a 2-3 day trip. We troll during the day and chum/chunk/swordfish at night; it really depends on the time of year and the conditions when we are out there. Some crews will troll the morning, daytime swordfish throughout the afternoon, get back on the troll in the evening, and then switch over to chunking at night. For the purposes of this article, we are just going to talk about the trolling component, specifically the spreads we run to raise multiple species throughout the day.

Everyone that fishes the canyons has their own brand of an “everything or mixed spread.”

Here is what our mixed spread looks like and we will explain why.

Trolling Spread Diagram

trolling spreadLong Riggers (100’ to 100yds). Further the better…depending on sea conditions and weeds): Taylor and I typically fish half dead bait (ballyhoo mostly) and half artificial lures in our spread. To start off…EVERYTHING eats ballyhoo. They are an amazing bait if you rig them properly. Any ballyhoo we have in the spread are either rigged naked/split billed with some weight in the chin or they are skirted. We run skirted ballyhoo on the long riggers. Most of our skirted ballyhoo are rigged with a pin rig and a chin weight. When we are running skirted ballyhoo, 90% of the time we are fishing one of our Big Tuna Krak style skirts.

This lure has a lead head and skirt combo that come in a variety of colors and weights. What is nice about them is that they are keel weighted and have a slot for the pin. We use a rubber band to lock the ballyhoo pin into the skirt. So, no matter what, your ballyhoo will swim belly down and true. On left and right long-riggers we like to fish white/crystal, red/white/crystal, or blue/white/crystal. On the center rigger we will fish a Carlson Bird in front of a select or medium skirted ballyhoo, usually in pink/white/crystal. The skirt weight will vary based upon sea condition, but all in all we like to fish a 4-8oz skirt.

Here is a video of the Tuna Krak and how we rig it.

The other 10% of the skirts we run over our ballyhoo are cropped chugger style lures. Moldcraft, Big Tuna Lures, Beamish Munson Mahi, and Islander Sea Stars are all good options. We prefer chugger style lures that have some sort of cup face. We find that when there is an abundance of white marlin around, we will add more chugger ballyhoo to the spread.

Short Riggers (40-70’): 90% of the time we are trolling 24-36” spreader bars on our short riggers. Spreader bars are a staple in the Northeast tuna fishery, but they also make amazing marlin teasers. We typically prefer using 24” bars, especially in rougher conditions, so we aren’t popping outrigger clips all day. The bait sizes on the bars vary from 6” to 13”. We will usually start with a 6” or 9” on one side of the boat and a 11 or 13” on the other side and see how we produce for a few hours. We will also run bars with birds and without birds; again, depending on sea condition and what’s producing more bites. SlickFish, Humbolt Squid, Fuku Squid, Manchas, machine style baits, or regular shell squid are our choices.

They are all durable and emulate various baitfish profiles. Our favorite colors are black/purple, pink/green, green, and any color split with black. A hot color for us last year was what we call “Joker”. It is a black and purple with green fleck…deadly.

Flat Lines (15 – 50’): On the dredge side of the boat we always fish a ballyhoo right behind the dredge. We size the ballyhoo based upon the time of day it is and what we have been hearing for reports. Lots of white marlin around = small/medium ballyhoo. Sun is about to set…it’s bigeye tuna time = horse ballyhoo. Typically it is a split billed/ naked ballyhoo in this position, so we can utilize it as a pitch bait also.

On the other flat we usually run a lure. One of our go-to’s is a Big Tuna Titan 60 or a Titan 45. These are both slightly tapered slant face lures. We like these lures because they simulate a tuna or skipjack already swimming in your spread, which help attracts other tunas, but also attracts marlin…typically big blue marlin. Other lure options for this position are bullet style lures. We usually use a bullet style lure when there are a lot more tuna than marlin around.

Depending on sea conditions we will occasionally swap the spreader bar(s) on the short rigger and the flat line lure. It depends on how everything is running in the spread.

The Dredge (15-30’. In a clean pocket of water): There is no doubt that you will produce better results when you troll a dredge. In our opinion the dredge is the most important component of the spread. In the canyons, our preference is to fish a 36” or 40” single tier artificial dredge.

We keep it simple. With the variety of species out in the canyons if you were to fish a natural (ballyhoo or mullet) dredge you would be going through many, many baits per day. We have fished natural and artificial dredges, noticing no real difference in results. The dredge we run most of the time is a 36” 6-arm Carbon Fishing dredge with SlickFish or Humbolt Squid baits. Color doesn’t really matter too much, but we prefer black/purple, pink, red/white.

On most of the boats we fish on, we pull the dredge off of the corner of the cockpit. Usually on a hand line off of a cleat. If you have the $$ and can rig a pully system on your rigger(s) and utilize and electric reel for retrieval, that is optimal. With the artificial dredge though, it isn’t needed. Even with a 32-ounce dredge weight, they are pretty easy to retrieve.

Tweaks During the Day: Throughout the day and into the evening we make some very important tweaks and changes to this “everything” spread. In the early morning hours, from false light until about 9am, and also in the evening from 7pm until after sunset, is prime time for bigeye tuna. During these times we usually make sure we are pulling larger baits all around. All ballyhoo are select or horse during this time and all spreader bar baits are 11” or 13”.

The middle of the day, 10am – 3pm, can be slower tuna fishing in the canyons. It can be crazy good, but for the most part things slow down. During this time we typically swap a few things in our spread in order to entice marlin and other billfish more. We will run squid teaser chains and swap the short rigger spread bars for single lures or smaller daisy chains with chugger ballyhoo. We may also change one of the long rigger baits to a small/medium sized marlin lure.

Trolling Speeds: Average trolling speed for us is around 7kts. During bigeye time we will slow down to 5-6kts and in the middle of the day we may go to 7.5-8kts.

northeast fishingSummary: This is a very broad brush stroke of how we run a multi-species spread in the Northeast Canyons. There are absolutely more little nuances about these spreads and the fishery in general that we hope to touch upon in future articles!

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The Sears family has grown up on the South Shore of Massachusetts and has been fishing for generations. Lead by Capt. Greg Sears (father) and Wendy Sears (mother), our family are involved in all facets of the business. We run the busiest and largest "6 Pack" fishing charter company in the state, Mas...