by George Poveromo

If trophy king mackerel are the target, rig a ribbonfish to find the strike zone.

For big king mackerel, not much beats a properly rigged ribbonfish as a subsurface trolling bait. The long and slender, snake-like baits slither enticingly through the water, not unlike a ribbon in a breeze, with a fluttering action that makes them look alive and simultaneously emit fish-attracting vibrations. And if the profile and movement aren't enough to tease otherwise reluctant fish into striking, their vivid silver sides reflect light and make them appear lit up like a frightened or aggressive fish.


Ribbonfish have been so effective for king mackerel that some offshore anglers are now experimenting with them for other species, such as dolphin, wahoo, sailfish and even grouper. But, like any natural trolling bait, ribbonfish must be properly rigged and fished to get the most out of them, and their long bodies require special care and preparation.


Dave Workman, Jr., is a three-time Southern Kingfish Association Angler of the Year and the owner of Strike-Zone Fishing, a tackle center in Jacksonville, Florida. Workman was an early pioneer of the terminal tackle and techniques used today in competitive king mackerel fishing, and he has recently marketed his own line of Pro Series rigs and lures in conjunction with Boone Bait Company. Included in the series are ribbonfish rigging kits to help anglers capitalize on these flashy natural baits.


Workman is a master at rigging and trolling ribbonfish for king mackerel. He pays strict attention to how he selects, rigs and incorporates ribbonfish into his live-bait spread. The big kings he catches on them speak for themselves. Workman uses two size-classes of ribbonfish. When he fishes for kings along the east coast, he prefers 24- to 26-inch-long ribbonfish. He gets these rod-and-reel-caught baits, which are in better condition than net-caught baits, from Port Canaveral and stocks them in his store.


For the generally larger king mackerel found in the Gulf of Mexico, 32- to 36-inch ribbonfish get the nod. Workman gets these ribbonfish from Mexico, where they're caught and processed for food. He makes sure the ribbonfish have been well brined, to draw out moisture and toughen them up, and frozen in vacuum-sealed bags.


Workman also alternates using three different ribbonfish rigs, based on what he's trying to accomplish: a single lead-hook system, a jighead system and a skirted-bait system. The single lead-hook rig produces more fluttering action and reveals less hardware. The jighead rig keeps the bait tracking straighter with less fluttering. This rig also has a more aggressive vertical action when the angler alters the trolling speed, due to its weight - it sinks quickly when the speed is reduced and darts up attractively when the speed is increased. He uses the skirted rig when kings are keying on color and a more brilliant bait is desired.


Although ribbonfish can be fished as surface baits - and often are when live baits are hard to come by - they are primarily downrigger baits. Workman deploys two downriggers, each rigged with 100 feet of 100-pound-test monofilament crimped directly to the downrigger cable. Mono produces less vibration than the downrigger cable. And if a hooked kingfish should charge toward the boat, which is common, the lighter fishing line will actually cut the heavy downrigger line if the lines cross. The fish will not be lost, only the downrigger ball - not a bad tradeoff with a tournament on the line.


When in more than 100 feet of water, Workman uses the cable on the downrigger, which cuts through the water better than monofilament and reduces the "blowback," or planing of the cable.


Ribbonfish Resources

Strike-Zone Fishing, (904) 641-2433;
Boone Bait Company, (407) 975-8755;


Workman prefers a six-pound downrigger ball over the standard ten-pounder, because the motion from the boat moves the lighter weight around and imparts more action to the bait. In waters deeper than 100 feet, he uses the ten-pound ball. Workman strives to create a full surface and subsurface illusion with his six-line spread: four live baits at the surface, and two ribbonfish fished from downriggers (see "Blue-Ribbon Trolling" on the previous pages).


Workman fishes his ribbonfish and live baits on Penn Dave Workman, Jr., kingfish rods matched to 6:1-retrieve, graphite-frame Penn 545 reels. He spools the reels with 15-pound-test Yo-Zuri Hybrid fishing line, which is a combination nylon and fluorocarbon line. Workman uses a blood knot to tie on a 200-yard top shot of 15-pound-test Seaguar Carbon Pro Fluorocarbon fishing line, which he ties directly to the ribbonfish rig.


Try adding a ribbonfish - and a new dimension - to your trolling spread and see if a king mackerel or other game fish comes calling.



Workman (bottom) shows off some rigged ribbonfish at the ready.
Photos: Pat Stinson


Workman uses all the same kind of live baits, usually pogies (menhaden) on the east coast and blue runners in the Gulf, and rigs them with nose hooks and treble-hook stingers. Though he modifies his spread for varying baits and sea conditions, he generally fishes his farthest live bait (1) about 300 feet back from the center T-top rod holder. Another live bait (2) is fished about 150 feet back from the starboard T-top rod holder, while a third one (3) rides approximately 100 feet back from the port T-top rod holder. A fourth live bait (4) is fished from the rocket launcher and positioned several feet behind the prop wash.


Workman deploys his "long and deep" downrigger ribbonfish bait (5) 40 feet below the surface in waters from 60 to 100 feet deep. In waters less than 60 feet deep, he places it about 20 feet above the bottom. He positions the ribbonfish to swim below and behind the starboard T-top surface bait, reasoning that the live bait spots the ribbonfish below, a natural predator, and swims harder to escape, creating more kingfish-attracting commotion. Workman fishes his second downrigger-based ribbonfish (6) roughly 15 feet deep and 15 feet back, where it is occasionally influenced by the thrust from the prop. In waters less than 100 feet deep, he uses a six-pound downrigger ball (7) on a 100-foot top shot of 100-pound monofilament crimped to the end of the downrigger cable.


In waters more than 100 feet deep, Workman rigs the standard ten-pound downrigger ball directly to the downrigger cable.




Rigging Ribbons
To rig a ribbonfish with the jighead system, use the following components: a 100-pound-test SPRO Power swivel, 22 inches of No. 4 stainless leader wire (use No. 5 wire for dirty water), six-inch sections of No. 6 silver stinger wire, No. 4 VMC Perma-Steel treble hooks, model No. 9626 (use No. 6 hooks in clear water, No. 2 hooks in the Gulf), and a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce Boone King Jig. After determining the length of the ribbonfish and the desired number of treble-hook stingers, attach one end of a length of silver stinger wire to the eye of the Boone King Jig, and its opposite end to a treble hook. Join each subsequent length of silver stinger wire to the eye of the treble hook. The main leader wire should also be secured to the eye of the jighead, above the loop of the stinger wire. Then secure the swivel to the end of the main leader. All wire connections are made with a haywire twist followed by a barrel wrap.


Step One
Take the thawed, yet still cool ribbonfish and gently flex its entire body, thoroughly limbering it up to get the most action from the bait. Be careful not to bend the fish too sharply or apply too much pressure during this procedure, which can tear the skin and render the bait useless. To make the bait less prone to spinning, clip off both pectoral fins close to their base.
Step Two
Run the point of the Boone King Jig under the center of the lower jaw of the ribbonfish, and out through the center of the upper jaw.
Step Three
Attach the first treble hook to the bait. Leave a little slack in the stinger wire to prevent binding, prior to impaling one point and barb of the treble deep into the middle of the side of the bait, just slightly above its lateral line.
Step Four
Attach the second and, if desired, a third treble hook to the bait by following the procedure outlined in step three.
The Rigged Ribbonfish
Workman usually prefers just two treble stingers for east-coast kings, leaving as much as one-third of the tail section of the ribbonfish "hardware free" for a more natural swimming action. He'll add a third treble for Gulf kings.
Other Ribbonfish Rigging Options
To use the single lead-hook system, substitute a 1/0 hook, or a 4/0 hook in Gulf, for the jighead. Unlike on the jighead rig, interlock the loops of the leader wire and stinger wire. This will prevent the remote possibility of the wire wedging in and ultimately sliding through the gap in the eye of the lead hook.

The skirted system is similar to the single lead-hook system, different only in that it places a seven-inch long Pearl Duster skirt in front of the bait. Workman prefers this long skirt because it lends an iridescent appearance to the bait and makes it look alive. He likes to fish this bait far back and from the center rod holder on the T-top where it maintains an upward swimming motion right beneath the surface.

Photos: Bryon Thompson


  • To keep ribbonfish rigid and durable, Workman keeps them frozen until it's time to fish them. He then thaws a couple of packs in his live well and rigs them on the spot.
  • Each treble hook should be attached to the bait - no free-swinging hooks.
  • Keep a little slack in each stinger wire to prevent them from binding.
  • Before deploying rigged baits, hold the leader in one hand and the ribbonfish in the other and lightly tug on them. The pressure or "pull" should be absorbed by the jig. Any pressure on the trebles will cause the bait to spin. Before setting the bait out on the downrigger, put it in the water alongside to the boat at trolling speed to see how it swims.
  • When trolling, use just enough forward momentum to keep all the baits, including the surface "livies," swimming in a straight line. Let the live baits have enough freedom to swim and do their thing, while keeping the lines fairly taut.
  • Workman shuts off one of his outboards and trolls with the other just in gear. To maintain a slow headway, he shifts the outboard that is turned off into gear to stop the prop from spinning and create a little more drag. He also uses trim tabs to push the bow down and create even more drag.
  • When using both downriggers, take wide turns to keep the lines apart. Avoid hang-ups by keeping baits well off the bottom.