Using Side-Tracking Spreader Bars to Catch Large Tuna

Using Side-Tracking Spreader Bars to Catch Large Tuna
Tuna caught using side-tracking spreader bars
Side-tracking spreader bars not only create fish-attracting commotion while trolling, but they also position the spread in cleaner water outside of the boat’s wake and prop wash, where tuna are more likely to see the lures and launch an attack.
Courtesy Sterling Tackle

I first caught wind of side-tracking spreader bars amid hushed tones, code words, subtle nods and wide-eyed expressions, implying that this was big news, but I needed to keep it on the down-low.

“I probably shouldn’t even be talking about this,” whispered an angling acquaintance, a friend of a friend, who couldn’t help himself. Despite a vow of secrecy on the subject, he had to brag to someone. And so, I listened quietly to his tales of glory. He described a new trolling lure, one that he and buddies were using to consistently catch Pacific bluefins up to 200 pounds in the offshore waters of Southern California. 

“They work so well, we don’t even take live bait anymore,” he said. “We catch multiple bluefins on every trip. My buddies would kill me if they knew I was telling you this.” He finally uttered the secret: “Tracker bars.” 

Northeast Birthplace

Though I did not at first quite grasp the concept, I might have been one of the first to hear the SoCal secret. But since then, word has spread like a feeding frenzy. Today, trolling with side-tracking spreader bars—tracker bars, for short—has grown immensely popular among West Coast anglers. They work with devastating effectiveness. Yet for all the California hoopla, these uniquely designed offshore lure systems—also known as offset spreader bars, wide trackers and tracker birds—were not born on the West Coast, but rather in the Northeast.

Sterling Tackle in Beesley’s Point, New Jersey, is generally credited for developing these systems about seven years ago. Soon after, the lures grew popular for tuna fishing among Northeast tuna anglers—years before SoCal anglers discovered them. Tuna anglers in Florida and the upper Gulf of Mexico have also found success with tracker bars, according to Steve Breunig, founder and owner of Sterling Tackle.

The growing popularity of tracker bars has also spawned a host of other companies offering these lures, including CaliMade, Carlson Offshore Tackle, ChatterLures and Tournament Cable.

Gaffed tuna
Side-tracking spreader bars such as this one from Sterling Tackle can take on a wide array of configurations, but one constant is a trolling bird in front and a hook only in the last lure in the spread.
Courtesy Sterling Tackle

Clean Running

The key to the success of tracker bars—I call them sidewinders—lies in the ability to more effectively present trolling lures outside of the V-shaped wake behind the boat. It is a long-held precept among offshore anglers that lures running in “clean” water—that is, water free of turbulence and aeration from the boat’s propellers—produce the best. This is especially true for bluefin tuna, which can turn boat-shy and develop a habit of avoiding wakes. 

Generally speaking, this is why outriggers have gained such great popularity, giving anglers the ability to place trolling lures and rigged baits in cleaner water outside the commotion and foam of the prop wash. Yet outriggers tend to decrease in effectiveness as the lure’s distance behind the boat increases.

“Late in the season, the bites seem to come from farther back, but the farther back I set the spreader bars, the more they crept into the center, even when using outriggers,” Breunig explains. “That’s why we started to experiment with various ways to force the spreader bars to the outside.” That quest led Breunig to develop one of today’s most effective techniques for tuna.

Multiple tuna caught using side-tracking spreader bars
Trolling with side-tracking spreader bars represents yet ­another of today’s innovative angling techniques.
Courtesy Sterling Tackle

Offset Keel

Many spreader bars use a plastic “bird” in front of the bar, with wings that chatter at the surface to mimic the commotion of a fleeing school of bait under attack by tuna or other fish. Breunig began to experiment with the bird by giving it an offset keel that forces it to run out to the side of the wake. Within a few years, he perfected a system that worked so well, he didn’t even need outriggers to troll the spreads in clean water.

Known as the Sterling Wide Tracker system, the design involves more than just a keel. Creating the proper weight balance for the bird helps ensure stability at trolling speeds. “This causes the spread of lures to track wider and gets them into cleaner water outside the prop wash, where tuna are more likely to bite,” he says. Breunig has caught Atlantic bluefin tuna up to 440 pounds on his side-trackers.

Only the “stinger” lure at the very back of the spread carries a hook, as is customary with conventional spreader bars and daisy chains. On some side-trackers—including those from CaliMade and Sterling—the stinger is interchangeable, allowing anglers to select a lure that best matches the predominant forage at the time or season, be it mackerel, sauries, squid or other species.

Righty or Lefty

Side-tracking birds generally come in right- and left-hand versions, but some brands feature adjustable keels. For example, the directional keel on the ChatterLures side-tracker bird pivots and locks, directing the bar to run to the port or starboard side of the boat. 

CaliMade birds for trolling
The directional keel on the lead trolling bird of a side-tracking spreader bar causes it to swing out to one side or the other of the wake. These CaliMade birds are designed to veer to starboard.
Jim Hendricks

In Southern California, one of the more popular sidewinder systems is made locally by CaliMade Lures, which 3D-prints all of its birds rather than using traditional injection molding, says Andrew Pereira Jr., company principal. “This gives us a bit more precision in creating the birds and directional keels,” Pereira says. 

East vs. West

There are differences between the West Coast and East Coast styles of trolling with side-trackers. Breunig explains that while Sterling Wide Trackers expand a trolling spread by 40 to 60 feet, he doesn’t allow birds to swing too far, as this can thwart multiple hookups. “They need to be out in clean water, but not so far out that a school of yellowfin tuna can’t find other bars or trolled lures and baits elsewhere in the spread, such as down the middle or on opposite sides of the wake,” he explains.

Pereira, who has fished his side-tracker for the last four seasons, has designed the CaliMade birds to swing out as far as 45 degrees from the centerline of the boat. But really, he is not looking for multiple hookups, especially when targeting big Pacific bluefin tuna. “One big fish is about all that we can handle at one time,” he points out. The biggest they have caught so far is a 250-pound Pacific bluefin.

Speed Differential

There are other differences between the West Coast and East Coast styles of trolling with side-trackers. Take trolling speed, for example. While the sea state usually determines trolling speed, Breunig likes to run his Wide Trackers at about 5 to 6 mph for bluefin tuna and 8 mph for yellowfins and bigeye tuna. 

Pereira, on the other hand, likes to troll around 7 to 9 mph most of the time for Pacific bluefin tuna; but in rough seas, he might slow down to 6 mph, or speed up to 11 mph in calmer conditions if he knows there are tuna in the area that are ignoring the slower presentations. 

An exception to this is when bluefins are actively feeding at the surface. “If we see a foamer [a tuna attacking a school of bait], we slow down to about 6 mph and troll wide of the fish to get the side-tracker to run through the foamer,” Pereira explains. “We almost always get bit when we do this.”

Read Next: Side Tracker Spreader Bars for Bluefin Tuna

Large tuna in the boat
Large tuna are just one of the species that side-tracking spreader bars can be used to catch.
Jim Hendricks

Long Game

The amount of trolling line in the boat also varies. In Northeast offshore waters, Breunig tries to keep the side-trackers running with a maximum of 75 yards of line, while Pereira on the West Coast starts with a minimum of 75 but sometimes trolls the lures out 100 to 150 yards or more. 

Both Breunig and Pereira like to add other trolling presentations between side-trackers on each side of the boat, including straight-running spreader bars and daisy chains down the middle of the spread. Pereira prefers a straight-running spreader bar, running 300 yards or more down the center in order to reach some cleaner water. At times, he might also add a lipless trolling lure such as a Nomad Design 220 Madmacs to the trolling spread.

Given the size of the tuna, trolling tackle runs on the heavy side. Pereira fishes with an Okuma Makaira 50-wide two-speed lever-drag reel spooled with 150-pound braided line. He uses a matching rod, such as an Okuma PCH measuring 7 feet, 3 inches in length in 2X or 3X heavy action.  

Multicolored braided line, such as PowerPro DepthHunter Offshore, allows anglers to determine how much line is out, as this braid changes to a new color every 100 feet. Pereira ties the braid using a Palomar knot directly to the heavy-duty swivel ahead of the bird.

Incidental Action

While tuna are the primary focus of anglers trolling side-trackers, a variety of other offshore species will attack these lures, including mahi, marlin and wahoo. If you think there’s a chance you might encounter wahoo, Breunig recommends rigging with wire to prevent the inevitable bite-off from a ’hoo.

Trolling with side-tracking spreader bars represents yet another of today’s innovative angling techniques, adding a valuable weapon to the offshore fishing arsenal. At the same time, these sidewinders help level the playing field for smaller boats that might not have outriggers to enhance the trolling spread. Now they can fish with the big boys and stand an even chance of success in the pursuit of big tuna. 

The post Using Side-Tracking Spreader Bars to Catch Large Tuna appeared first on Salt Water Sportsman.


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