Slow-troll live baits for hot June action

Capt. Robert Olsen of Knot@Work charters,angler Melissa Langston and Josh Buckhannon with Langston's 34.16-pound king mackerel that won the 2009 Charleston Coastal Anglers Tournament king mackerel division.

Editor's Note: This month's "Captain's Choice" article comes courtesy of Capt. Robert Olsen, a former competitive king mackerel fisherman and one of Charleston's most well-known charter captains. Olsen, shown at left gaffing a king, runs inshore, nearshore and offshore charters trips with Knot@Work Fishing. For more information, call Olsen at 843-442-7724 or visit knotatworkfishing.com.Charter captains interested in sharing their own "Captain's Choice" can contact Tideline Senior Editor Matt Winter at 843-937-5568 or matt@tidelinemagazine.com.

Want to catch a ton of different game fish in June?

Go kingfishing.

That may not be exactly what most anglers want to hear - kingfishing that is - but it's true. I'm not suggesting anglers run all over the ocean in a big center console boat to catch a king mackerel, just that they copy a few of the tactics used by tournament king mackerel fishermen.

Every year about this time I get questions about which is the best method for catching specific fish. Each time I give the same answer: Catch live bait and slow-troll over artificial reefs and live bottom in water 50 to 180 feet deep.

To understand why this is such a good idea, consider one of my charters from last June, a trip that turned out to be quite a special day for a couple of anglers onboard.

The full-day trip started out off Morris Island as I looked for pelicans to show me where to find bait. We followed the diving birds to large schools of menhaden flipping on the surface, and in two throws of a cast net had the livewells filled with about 150 large menhaden (6-8 inches long).

The seas were flat-calm that day, and I talked the charter into heading out a little farther offshore. I got the usual question of what we might catch, and I gave them the answer that usually prompts looks of disbelief and uncertainty: "Anything that eats and swims."

After an hour run, we arrived at some live bottom near the Comanche Reef in 110 feet of water. I knew the conditions were perfect and expected to get a bite within a few minutes. I deployed the downrigger line first, stopping it at 40 feet. Before I had a chance to get the next bait in the propwash, the downrigger line started screaming. Fish on.

In short order, we released a small king mackerel.

Over the next several hours, I never got three lines out at once. We caught a few more kings (one pushing 25 pounds), a couple of amberjacks (what most charter captains call "charter savers" due to the long, hard fight), and a couple of slinger dolphin that went into the fish box. Add in several barracudas and it was about lunchtime.

We had more than 25 bites that morning, including one from a 30-plus-pound wahoo that rocketed 6 feet out of the water while trying to eat the menhaden swimming nervously just 30 feet behind the motors. We didn't get the wahoo that day, but everyone onboard will never forget the image of that fish hanging in midair nearly level with the T-top on my center console.

After lunch, we had a few minutes of no action. We found out why when a huge fin appeared behind the long-line bait.

After a huge cannonball-like splash, we were hooked up with a 200-pound hammerhead shark.

Knowing we were using very light tackle for a fish of this size, I asked my one of my anglers if he wanted to fight the shark until the line broke or the light-wire live-bait rig failed. My angler agreed to make an attempt, and I cleared all of the lines except the one on the downrigger, since the hammerhead was swimming on the surface about 250 yards from the boat.

Still slow-trolling, I turned the boat toward the shark so my angler could start recovering line. During the next hour of the shark battle, we caught four more fish off the downrigger line: a king mackerel, an amberjack, a small shark and a "day-maker" catch I didn't expect. A 22-pound American red snapper came up from the depths to eat a live menhaden trolled on the downrigger line.

We were lucky enough to battle the hammerhead into photo range, after which we decided to pull the hooks, since we had no intention of bringing that beast home.

When we finally pulled in the lines at 2 p.m. and headed back to the dock, my anglers were happily complaining about sore forearms and debating who caught the biggest and best fish. I knew most of the accounts of that trip would eventually become bigger and better as they were retold over time.

The chance for this type of day is why I look forward to my June charters and why June is probably the busiest month for every captain in town. The spring wind has finally quit blowing 15 to 20 knots. The water temperature has leveled off, and all our game fish have settled into their summer patterns nearshore and offshore.

Most of my June charter fishing follows this same formula: Catch live menhaden, mullet and even cigar minnows at the beginning of a trip, then head out to 75 to 125 feet of water. Using relatively light trolling outfits and spinning gear spooled with 15- to 20-pound test line, my clients have been able to feel the power of many different game fish and land them successfully. Some have been fish of a lifetime in any tackle class: More than a dozen sailfish, cobia (72 pounds), wahoo (79 pounds), gag grouper, red snapper, bluefish (12 pounds), king mackerel (39 pounds), barracudas, sharks (6- to 10-foot hammerheads and tigers), dolphin (44 pounds), yellowfin and blackfin tunas, amberjacks, African pompanos (20 to 30 pounds), redfish (40 to 50 pounds), black sea bass (5 pounds), and even a 6-pound queen trigger on the downrigger.

I have never caught or hooked a blue marlin live-baiting, but a friend caught a small one (150 pounds) next to me during a king mackerel tournament a few years ago.

What you'll need

Slow-trolling live bait is not rocket science, and it's very easy to learn. I have done many seminars on the topic and always tell everyone to make it simple and try not to do too much at one time.

First of all, here are some of the basic requirements:

• I recommend anglers use a boat at least 18 feet long that has a livewell. It doesn't have to be a large livewell - 15 to 30 gallons is enough. Use the two-baits-per-gallon formula to ensure that your bait will stay lively for most of the day.

• A 6- to 8-foot cast net with one-half-inch to three-quarter-inch mesh. Some people use a 10-foot net, but I recommend anglers use what is easiest for them to throw. Make sure you are able to open the net well before attempting to catch bait.

• One or two downriggers. If you don't have a mounted downrigger or can't use a rod-holder version, you could use planers to run your baits deep. The planers won't get your baits down much deeper than 30 feet, however.

• Three to six light-action rod and reel combinations. The lighter action rods allow the bait to swim more freely while being trolled.

I use conventional reels, but spinning reels and levelwind reels also work well. All reels need to hold a minimum of 250 yards of 15-pound test line. Most of my outfits have 400 yards of 15- to 20-pound test.

• An ample supply of live-bait rigs. The common live-bait rig consists of a nose hook (1/0 live bait hook) and one treble hook (usually a No. 2 or No. 4 treble hook) rigged on 40- to 60-pound-test single strand wire. Most tackle shops sell pre-made rigs, and some can be bought in bulk (10 to 30 rigs with some skirts and extra hooks for larger or double-bait rigs).

Of course, you can also make the rigs yourself. All the supplies needed can be found at our local tackle shops. But I don't recommend this unless an angler plans to do a lot of fishing.

Slow-trolling techniques

When slow-trolling, I'll typically deploy only three or four lines at one time. My normal setup is one flatline 50 to 75 yards behind the boat, one propwash bait about 20 to 40 feet behind the motors, and one bait on each downrigger. I usually put one downrigger at the middle of the depth I am trolling and one 5 to 10 feet from the bottom. I adjust the depth frequently if I am not getting many strikes.

Slow-trolling at 1 to 2 mph is normal, unless weather is a factor.

A reel's drag setting is critical to landing fish. Since I'm using such light tackle, I only use 1 to 3 pounds of drag. You might have to adjust the drag depending on the type of fish you're targeting, but a light drag is needed because of the small hooks used on the rigs. If the drag is too heavy, the hooks will pull out or the wire leader will break.

Properly hooking baits is also important. Hook menhaden through the nose, then push one of the barbs of the treble hook into the tail, making sure there's enough slack in the wire so the fish can swim freely. (Some store-bought rigs have directions on how to hook different types of live bait.)

When it comes to actually fighting a fish, I recommend clearing some of the lines and slowly turning the boat in the direction of the fish. Most fish make one or two runs, and afterward you can just drive the boat right up to them and either gaff or release the fish.

With a little practice, practically any angler can get the hang of slow-trolling live baits. If you're interested in seeing it firsthand and have a great time on the water, give me a call. Tight lines!