Gulf Stream Charter Trip
Want to go for dolphin, sailfish, wahoo, tuna or a blue marlin? Capt. Ryan Howard with Miss Judy Charters knows his stuff.
At 3 a.m. I was receiving my boat instructions to ensure a safe journey 65 miles east to the blue waters of the Gulf Stream.
“Get comfortable. We have a four-hour ride,” said Capt. Ryan Howard.
Ryan would be our captain aboard the 31-foot Crap Shoot, a Custom Carolina boat made by Clem Willis that he uses to charter all the Gulf Stream trips for Miss Judy Charters out of Savannah.
As is often the case when you head offshore, things didn’t pan out exactly as planned. We had hoped to begin deploying a trolling spread of eight lines by daylight as we looked for what was a red-hot dolphin, or Mahi-mahi, bite. However, we didn’t arrive at the fishing grounds until 8:30.
An early squall popped up in the Atlantic, making seas rough and causing Ryan to back the big diesels way down as he maneuvered through some 6-foot, with the occasional 8-foot, seas for a number of miles.
I would later learn these were some of the worst sea conditions Ryan had ever experienced. That statement comes from a guy who’s been on the water for 20 years at a rate of 200 days a year. However, I never once felt in danger. Ryan is an excellent captain with the kind of boat handling skills I want when taking a deep-sea adventure like this one. While Ryan loves chasing blue-water fish species, he also enjoys bottom fishing for red snapper and grouper for Miss Judy Charters.
“I started with Miss Judy when I was 17 years old, and I knew nothing. That was almost 20 years ago,” said Ryan. “I liked to bass fish, but that was about it. Miss Judy and a man named Zack Bowen taught me everything I know about saltwater fishing.”
From deckhand to a full-time charter captain to a guy who has taken valuable trade knowledge and tweaked it to form his own unique style of saltwater fishing, Ryan is very good at what he does.
Our deckhand for the day was John Fanning, of Sunbury, a fellow that Ryan went to high school with. John is very energetic about saltwater fishing and enjoys helping folks catch fish.
Also on board was my buddy Shannon Chastain, of Eatonton. We were joined by three fellows with the Atlanta Saltwater Sportsman’s Club: Scott Rowe, of Milton, Pat Thai, of Kennesaw, and John Roche, of Marietta.
Ryan slowed the boat down 2 miles away from an area called Triple Ledges. If you ever get to the Triple Ledges and continue heading east into the Gulf Stream, the bottom drops at a rate of about 100 feet per mile.
“This time of year I am generally looking for a water temperature change,” said Ryan. “Right now the water temperature is 70 degrees. I’d like to see a jump up to about 74 degrees. That’s where you’ll generally see good concentrations of these fish.”
Most years Ryan will see a defined temperature break until the first few weeks of June. However, once July arrives and water temperatures are all pretty much the same, the blue-water fish get more scattered.
“Today we’re running medium-sized ballyhoo,” said Ryan. “We typically troll 5 to 6 knots with what I call an all-purpose spread. We don’t generally target one species. We try to troll baits that offer something for every species the Gulf Stream has to offer.”
We spent the day trolling Ryan’s ballyhoo pin rig setup, which is detailed below.
“Generally these type rigs will get you everything the Gulf Stream has to offer: wahoo, blue marlin, tuna, dolphin, sailfish, king mackerel,” he said.
Ryan added that as the hotter weather arrives, he begins going to a little bigger bait and speeds his troll up a little bit. In July, the dolphin bite slows some, but the fish, on average, will be bigger. Also, if Ryan has clients who want to target a specific blue-water species, he’ll adjust accordingly. However, most of the charter trip folks want to return to Miss Judy’s dock with something that can be filleted, taken home and blackened.
At 9 a.m., the first rod of the day slammed downward, and we reeled in a barracuda. This wasn’t a target species, so it was quickly released. A few minutes later, Scott did put a target fish in the boat, a nice-sized blackfin tuna that smacked a blue/white Jr. ilander. On both catches, I noticed Ryan kept trolling the seven other rods, versus reeling in all the lines to avoid a tangled mess.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make out here is reeling in all their lines when they get a fish on,” said Ryan. “You could be trolling through a school of fish, and you end up taking the baits away from them.”
Every time we hooked up, I watched Ryan maneuver the boat to keep lines from crossing, while John stayed busy coordinating any rods that needed to be moved as an angler moved around the back of the boat battling a fish. It takes an experienced captain and a good deckhand to run a smooth operation like that.
The first dolphin of the day smacked a hot pink angel wing colored Fathom lure, one of a number that would bite that lure/color on our trip.
The fishing continued.
Bam, another dolphin, this one ate a black/red Hatteras Outlaw rig and made its way into a big ice box. The Crap Shoot continued trolling east during both catches, still not at the Stream.
“You want your lures running at different distances from the boat so it looks like a large school of baitfish,” said Ryan.
The No. 1 baitfish at the Gulf Stream is a flying fish. I got to observe one up close after if flew inside the Crap Shoot on the ride to the Stream. These ballyhoo rigs are very authentic.
Ryan trolls four lines on outriggers, which pretty much troll the greatest distances from the boat. A “shotgun rod” runs up top and in the center of the boat. It’s trolled 75 yards behind the boat, the farthest of the eight lines.
“Wahoo like a bait by itself sometimes, and they like a bigger bait,” said Ryan.
The shotgun bait is Ryan’s signature bait, an all-black iLander lure.
The remaining three rods (see more details below) consisted of one bait on a planer board, one on a daisy chain and another regular one, all three positioned on the back of the boat. These three trolled the shortest distances from the boat.
“Fish on,” screamed John.
The action continued, although this time two additional rods got popped, and a triple was headed to the boat as we continued trolling in 175 feet of 70-degree water. We still hadn’t made it far enough east to see a temperature swing upward, but it was becoming clear that we were where we needed to be, and Ryan would spend the remainder of the day fishing the area without ever making it to the big drop of the actual Stream. We were probably less than a mile from it, though, and the water was a beautiful bright blue.
As Ryan steered and John picked up and moved still-deployed rods when needed, three “gaffer” dolphins—meaning they were big enough to need a gaff—were placed inside the ice chest. Quickly we re-rigged three ballyhoo and got them back in the water.
“I take 6- or 7-dozen ballyhoo with me on a trip like this,” said Ryan. “I’ve run out only once.”
Several times during our trip, a dolphin would bite a rig but spit it out. When that happened, Ryan said it’s a good idea to free spool the bait as the boat continues to troll.
“A lot of times when you free spool in that situation, he’ll think he hit and killed the bait, and he’ll come back and get it. You can fool a dolphin,” said Ryan.
Several of the Mahi we boated were caught exactly like this.
“Another thing is that you don’t want to pull the rod out of the rodholder too quickly when a fish strikes,” said Ryan.
Our eight baitcasting-style reels were set with a medium drag. When a fish bit, the correct course of action was not to grab the rod from the holder but to tighten up the drag on the reel. This would bury the Mustad hook into the fish, and after that, it was time to pick up the rod and begin to reel.
“If a bait gets popped and the fish doesn’t come back and take it, you need to reel it in and check the bait,” said Ryan.
As it got late into our blue-water adventure, Ryan had really dialed into an area with some fish. To end our trip, I got to partake in something pretty fantastic. We were successfully hooked up and battling four Mahi at one time. There was plenty of rod shuffling and some impressive boat maneuvering to keep that from becoming a disaster of tangled mono, but we successfully put all four of those colorful fish in the box.
For me, the day was a bucket-list check-off. By mid afternoon, we began our ride back to the dock with 17 dolphin and one tuna on ice. After getting home, I did my research and verified that Mahi-mahi tacos are delicious!
Give Miss Judy Charters a call and let her know that you want Capt. Ryan to take you on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that you won’t forget. Miss Judy offers 16-hour Gulf Stream trips, four-hour inshore trips and everything in between.
Gulf Stream Tackle For Capt. Ryan’s All-Purpose Spread
Rods: Ryan is not picky about his rod selection for blue-water trolling. He just looks for a light-action, offshore trolling rod in the 5 1/2- to 6-foot range.
Reels: Penn International II 30 TW, Shimano TLD 30 and a Shimano Tiagra 50.
Line: 40-lb. test Berkley ProSpeck monofilament on the Penn and Shimano TLD reels. We trolled one ballyhoo pin rig 15 feet deep using a planer board with the Shimano Tiagra 50 on a bent-butt trolling rod using 80-lb. Berkley ProSpeck monofilament. When trolling, Ryan likes orange line. It shows up very well when trolling eight different baits.
Knots & The Snap Swivel: At the end of the monofilament line, tie a Bimini Twist knot, which creates a loop, for adding a snap swivel. You can then use an offshore swivel knot to attach a heavy-duty offshore snap swivel.
Leader: For Ryan’s all-purpose trolling spread, he likes a 6- to 8-foot leader of 150- to 200-lb. monofilament.
Lures: Some of Ryan’s favorite trolling lures are made by ilander, Fathom and Eye Catcher Lures. His all-time No. 1 lure is a blue/white Jr. ilander. When we fished, we did very well with a bait from Fathom Lures called the “Same Ole Roll.” It’s labeled as a small size (7 inches), and the best color of the trip was “hot pink angel wing.”
Some days, particular colors will be hot, and the next day fish won’t touch them. Take a variety of colors with you. Ryan also gets creative with his lures. He trolled one rod with a “daisy chain.” It started with a bird teaser that reflected light and caused a commotion on the water’s surface. Behind the bird and along the leader were a half-dozen artificial squid positioned and held in place by crimps before getting to the skirt and the ballyhoo. That rig was fished just 75 feet behind the boat and did produce at least one dolphin for us.
Spring, Wire, Weight, Hook: There are a number of ways to prepare the business end of this rig for a ballyhoo, but here’s how we fished.
Directly below the lure was a “ballyhoo bait rigging spring” that “screws on” to the nose of the ballyhoo. Below the spring was a piece of wire used to run through the lower and upper jaws of the ballyhoo. That piece of wire was crimped inside a crimp that creates a loop and holds a 1/4- to 3/8-oz. chin weight. That chin weight is only needed on lighter lures. Heavier lures won’t need the weight because they’ll troll below the surface on their own. On that loop sits a No. 9 Mustad 2X Strong O’Shaugnessy hook.
If you’re wanting to just tinker with trolling a few of these rigs, Google “Ballyhoo Pin Rig.” If you’re planning to be at this a while, building your own rigs will be the cheaper route in the long run.
Ryan added that you don’t have to purchase skirts. You can troll ballyhoo naked.
Ballyhoo: Turn the bait over and put the hook into the gill slits and thread the bait until the hook comes out not quite halfway down the bait’s gut. You want the bait to appear straight on the hook and in the water. Break the nose off the ballyhoo so it swims properly.
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