Ballyhoo are one of the most widely used trolling baits in offshore fishing for two basic reasons. First, they are readily available for purchase, typically sold frozen in sealed bags, but you can also catch them off the coast of South Florida. Secondly, rigged ballyhoo are a deadly bait for just about any offshore game fish — especially tuna, billfish and dorado.
There are endless ways to rig ballyhoo, but the first steps to preparing ballyhoo remain the same.
If you have frozen ballyhoo, you can thaw them in a bucket of salt water or leave them on ice overnight. Never let the baits sit in fresh water, as this will soften the bait and they will wash out quickly. Don’t forget to leave the drain open on your bait cooler!
You can add salt to your “salt water” to make a brine if the skin of the ballyhoo is too soft. But don’t overdo it because if there’s too much salt in the brine it will make the ballyhoo too stiff.
The baits need to be completely thawed before you start rigging them, or you will tear the flesh trying to prep a half-frozen bait. To get the most of your baits, you want to prep all of the ballyhoo you thaw out so that they are ready to rig. We try to minimize any rigging on the boat to maximize fishing time, so much of this can be done before you leave the dock.
First, I take a piece of aluminum arrow shaft and remove the eyes of the bait. This helps the rigging in several ways. Often our copper wire passes through this cavity to anchor the head. Second, an eyeball can bulge out while trolling and pull the bait on its side. This step can be done while baits are still thawing since it doesn’t damage the skin of the bait.
Next, I break the back of the ballyhoo by gently squeezing the top of the bait in a massage-like motion to separate the bait’s vertebrae. On good firm baits you will hear and feel a small pop as you work down the back. Try not to rub all of the scales off by dragging your fingers down its back. Work on a section, release and move to the spot below it. You have to judge the quality of the bait and the firmness of the skin and adjust your finger pressure according so as not to tear the skin or flesh.
Next, take a finger and press it gently into the gut cavity to internally deflate the bubbles of the air bladder and also “poop” the baits. I then hold the head and tail and flex the baits to limber them up. The point of this process is to leave the bait flexible so when it’s being pulled from the head, the body will swim like a live fish.
The last part of the process is to break the bill off, leaving about an inch. I may end up trimming the bill a bit more depending on what rigging style I am using.
Then pinch down on the base of the pectoral fin and spin the ballyhoo. This should pluck the fin out of the side of the fish. Often these fins have stiffened in odd positions and can cause issues with the way the bait swims.
No matter how you plan on rigging your ballyhoo, this makes a huge difference in the swimming action of your baits.
One last note, even after the baits are prepped and rigged, the ballyhoo will stiffen on ice. You need to limber up and flex each bait just before you put it in the water so it will swim properly.
Here are more important ballyhoo rigging steps: