written by Captain Ricky Wheeler
When you hear the word “billfishing” or “marlin fishing” most people tend to picture big sportfishing boats chasing down marlin and sailfish that are jumping all over the surface behind the boat with the crew up against the transom getting crashed on by the waves coming over the back of the boat. Sportfishing boats do deliver a more stable platform and more beam which opens up more room for the crew to move around and react to a bite or a billfish on the teaser. Yes, they are very effective platforms to troll for billfish from, but why can’t we go target billfish and be competitive from a small boat? Short answer, we can!
“Small Boats” has become a very loose term these days. Growing up, any boat to me over 25 feet was pretty big, and 35 feet plus was a “really big boat”. Nowadays with the yacht-like sport fishing boats being built well beyond 70 feet, a 50 footer, by some, is considered a “small boat”. It is crazy to think how far boat building has come over the past decade alone. With this progression, we have also seen progression in “small boats” as well. Their list of capabilities have become much larger, and taking a 22-35 foot “small boat” offshore these days is something that is becoming more and more common due to these capabilities stemmed from advances in boat building and also fishing/boating equipment.
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While trolling for gamefish is something that is not abnormal on a small boat, what is trickier on a small boat to troll with are the infamous billfish teaser, the DREDGE. If you plan to troll dead bait like ballyhoo for billfish and want to rack up numbers, you really don’t want to fish without a dredge, especially if you want to be competitive! Nearly all top billfishing crews on big sportfishing boats pull dredges with the Lindgren Pitman S-1200 or 2400. The line goes to a pulley on their outrigger and down into the water to the dredge pulley and back up to the outrigger creating the “block and tackle” setup. This outrigger setup simply won’t work on most small boats for two reasons, 1 being the outriggers simply are not strong enough to handle the weight/load of a dredge, and 2, owning a pair of LPs is alone a small fortune in and of itself. There are plenty of ways to get around this problem.
So how can we accomplish trolling an effective billfish spread with dredges on a small boat? Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to to tow a dredge from a small boat.
Downriggers! Electric downriggers or hand crank downriggers work well for this, especially on small boats. Most downriggers come with a 4’ boom with a base that can go straight into any rod holder and also swing out of the way after retrieval of your dredge for when you have a fish on. There are also many Dredge Booms out there on the market now like the 8' Gemlux Dredge Boom that allow you to add an electric reel like the heavy duty Lindgren Pittman LP 1200 or a 2 speed 80 reel like a Tiagra 80W to retrieve your dredge (a 2 speed 80 reel spooled with 400# test in low gear retrieves a heavy dredge very well).
I personally liked using the downriggers with 4’ booms at the stern of the boat on the 27’ Contender Center Console I used to use a lot for white marlin fishing out of New Jersey. There was a spot in the transom in front of the engines I could swing the boom over and settle the dredges into when we were hooked up which kept them completely out of the way at all times. Also having them setup at the stern of the boat allowed me to make hard turns when necessary and not have to worry about sucking up the dredge line in the outboard propellers (something you don’t have to worry about on a sportfishing boat with inboard engines).
I usually use 300-400# test monofilament line on the spool. Sometimes downriggers don’t have enough of a spool to hold enough line in which case I would use 500-600# braided line of some sort to get more line on the spool due to the thinner diameter of the braided line. The line runs off the roller at the end of the boom, down into the water to a smaller pulley with a 400# snap swivel attached to the other end of it which would attach to your dredge weight which then attaches to your dredge. The main line runs through this dredge pulley and back up where it will attach close to the base of the boom creating a triangle in your line. This creates a “block and tackle” system that makes it much easier to retrieve a heavy dredge and cuts down on the load.
I do have a how to video on my YouTube Channel (Captain Ricky Wheeler) “How to Pull a Dredge on a Small Boat” that could prove helpful here:
I am all for keeping it simple, but I will always have at least one dredge in the water no matter what whenever I am billfishing. If you are planning to be fishing in a crowd, you really want to consider putting natural baits on your dredges like mullet or ballyhoo. I have a Dredge Fishing 101 How To Webinar through Saltwater Euphoria Courses. CLICK HERE to check it out and see if you wish to buy the course.
There are countless artificial dredges on the market these days. Some people swear by them, and others want the real thing on their dredges. That is a personal call, and like I said before, go with what you and your crew can manage. Some of the better artificial dredges out there that are effective and easy to tow are:
Strike Point Stripteaser Dredge (very popular amongst the Florida Sailfisherman)
Fish Downsea Mimic Dredge (easy to pull and has a large profile)
Fish Downsea 2.0 Complete Dredge (Fish Downsea shad bodies are so lifelike)
Billfishing is an art in every sense from the rigging and prep to the bait and switch to the drop back and to the turn for multiple bites. Get out there on your small boat and test yourself, test your skills, and learn everything you can everyday you’re on the water. It is pure enjoyment catching any fish, but the adrenaline flow involved with catching big fish like billfish is tough to match, and you don’t have to have a multi million dollar Sportfishing Boat to be able to enjoy the incredible bites, amazing acrobatics, and the power and beauty of billfish. Get out there on your “small boat” and enjoy all the action the ocean can offer you!