A ribbonfish by any other name would still catch big king mackerel. This is borrowed and heavily tweaked from the famous Shakespearian quote, but it says a lot about the thin, silver, eel-like fish king mackerel fishermen like to troll for bait. Ribbonfish, more properly called cutlass fish, are one of 45 species in the Trichiuridae family. In addition to being ribbon thin and shaped like a cutlass, these fish have reduced or absent pelvic and caudal fins and large fang-like teeth that create a wicked appearance and give them the third popular moniker of silver eel. But, by any name, they are preferred baits for targeting large king mackerel.
Ribbonfish have a pretty whiten meat and are edible. The white flesh is seen often when a king takes a big chunk of one and magically misses multiple hooks. A Google search will return multiple recipes for preparing them, but, like several other species, their appearance and name may be working against their becoming popular on the dinner table. Throughout the Carolinas they may be kept in the back of regular seafood markets and sold for bait, but they rarely get any space in the main display cabinet. However, they definitely have a following with Oriental diners and in the Wilmington Korean Market they are front and center in the seafood section.
For the purpose of this article, ribbonfish are intended to be the last meal for king mackerel – specifically large king mackerel. Ribbonfish are used dead, but mixed in a spread of live baits and slow trolled at live bait speeds. Many dedicated king mackerel fishermen catch and brine their own to be sure they have the best. Other fishermen purchase them fresh, or brined and frozen, from their favorite tackle shop. Ribbonfish really do produce big king mackerel and many winning and high placing tournament kings are caught when they come to take a bite of a ribbonfish.
There are several ribbonfish rigs that are popular and productive. The simplest is a nose hook trailed by a series of 3 or 4 treble hooks. The next step up from this is very similar, but uses a jig for the nose hook. The weight of the jig helps keep the ribbonfish upright or laying on one side and prevents it from spinning. They don’t look natural and don’t produce as many strikes well when they spin.
The ribbonfish rig that uses a jig for the nose hook appears to be the most popular with tournament king fishermen. A ribbonfish can be rigged on it and placed in the spread in a minute or two. I remember one year at the SKA National Championship in Biloxi, MS, we used this rig and went through four cases of ribbonfish. We caught a king mackerel on every one and even two kings on several that somehow weren’t cut in two on the strike.
This will touch on those rigs and techniques, but features a third way to fish ribbonfish. This uses a rig often called a Zombie Rig. When you Google zombie, the Wikipedia definition is pretty simple. It is described as a fictional undead being created through the reanimation of a human corpse. Making it appear alive is what fishermen are trying to accomplish with ribbonfish using the zombie rig. There may be different local names and slightly different rig configurations, but all are intended to make a ribbonfish swim like it is still alive.
A zombie rig is a tandem rig that positions a live bait a foot or so ahead of a dead ribbonfish. The presence of the ribbonfish that close to the live bait scares the live bait and it swims faster, plus darts and struggles to get away from the ribbonfish. The more it struggles, the more the dead ribbonfish swims, hence the moniker of zombie rig.
The zombie rig focuses on several characteristics of larger predator fish to create its success. Most fishery biologists agree that upper level predator fish prefer catching and eating fresh meat. Certainly, they will also hit dead natural baits and a variety of lures, but when they are made to resemble live fish. Tournament kingfish anglers obviously concur with this as they sometimes spend hours and hundreds of dollars in fuel searching for live baits rather than fishing with lures or dead baits.
The zombie rig is successful because it exploits larger predator’s preference for fresh live meat in several ways. The first is placing the live bait barely ahead of the ribbonfish. The live bait stays spooked and the more it struggles the more the ribbonfish moves, appearing to be chasing it. This movement is a bit irregular, which makes the ribbonfish appear to be struggling and therefore easy prey.
The live bait is struggling too and it puts out alarmed and frantic vibrations that heighten the natural strike response in kings. One would think a king would occasionally home in on this and hit the struggling live bait, but I’ve never had that happen. I believe the struggling vibrations are a large part of what brings them in, as they travel farther through cloudier or dirtier water than the action is visible.
I prefer to use really large ribbonfish on my zombie rigs. If the live baits are smaller, they will have to be changed more often when the action is slow, but it works out. There are two reasons for this. First, ribbonfish are silver if dropped in the brine mixture while still alive and still a brighter gray if not brined until after they die. Larger ribbonfish can be seen better and from farther away, especially in water that isn’t clear.
The second reason is that ribbonfish are at the same level in the food chain as king mackerel. They feed on just about any fish smaller than themselves. I have caught large ribbonfish while trolling for kings and believe kings see larger ribbonfish as competition in the food chain and charge in to attack them.
Pay attention as you use ribbonfish. Kings typically hit the smaller ones from behind and grab a lot of the body to eat them. In contrast, they usually hit larger ribbonfish farther up the body, typically just behind the gill covers. They are being sure the initial attack kills the larger ribbonfish. The zombie rig presents a king with a situation where he can take out a competitor, plus get an easy meal.
Some fishermen call the zombie rig the scared pogy rig, but they are virtually the same and are certainly used for the same reason – to catch big king mackerel. Even as the rig has different names, there are some small differences in making it. The primary differences are in hook, wire and swivel brands and sizes. Some fishermen use different brand and weight jigs also and everyone believes theirs is best. That’s why they use them. If they thought something else was better, they would switch.
I’ll describe my ribbonfish rig and then my zombie rig, which I think have one feature that makes ribbonfish appear more lifelike. Diagrams are attached. My ribbonfish rig begins with a 70 pound Krok swivel that ties to the fishing line on one eye and to a 5 foot piece of size 5 (44 pound) coffee brown, single strand wire on the other. My big difference on this rig is next, where I use a 1 ounce butterbean bucktail jig on the end of the size 5 wire for the nose hook to hold the ribbonfish. I believe the flat sides of this jig cause it to veer in the water and this helps the ribbonfish “swim” better.
Behind the jig, I switch to size 6 (58 pound) wire. Big kings attack ribbonfish hard, so I use one size heavier wire. If I can find silver wire, I switch to it for the size 6 wire. This also works using the coffee colored wire, but spraying it gray to better blend with the side of the ribbonfish. It is 9 inches back to the first size 4 Eagle Claw 775 or 777 treble hook to position it just behind the gill plate and then 5 1/2 inches between two or three more treble hooks (depending on the length of the ribbonfish).
Basically making a zombie rig simply involves adding a hook to attach a live bait in front of the ribbonfish. I use the largest ribbonfish I can find for zombie rigs as it is supposed to be chasing the bait. This rig doesn’t get hit by small kings. Also, you will have to switch out the live bait occasionally if the rig isn’t getting hit because it gets tired pulling the ribbonfish around. I use a lighter (1/2 or 5/8 ounce) butterbean bucktail on this rig to make it easier for the live bait to swim.
My zombie rig uses the same size 5 (44 pound) coffee colored single strand wire leader and size 6 (58 pound) silver (or painted gray) single strand wire leader, size 4 775 or 777 Eagle Claw Treble Hooks, 70 pound Krok swivels, and haywire/barrel twist connections as my ribbonfish rig. This rig begins with a swivel that is followed by a 4 foot piece of size 5 brown wire that has a treble hook and swivel attached to it. This treble hook holds the live bait.
A 2 foot piece of size 5 brown wire connects to this swivel and runs back to the lighter butterbean bucktail jig. Just like the ribbonfish rig, the wire switches to size 6 from the jig back. When using large ribbonfish, it sometimes requires adding another treble hook the same distance back. There should be enough treble hooks on the rig that one extends behind the anal vent of the ribbonfish.
Don’t give up if you aren’t catching kings on your ribbonfish or zombie rigs. Ribbonfish have a lot of flash that fish see from greater distances than smaller baits and they often get the attention of fish that hit other baits in your spread before getting to the ribbonfish. The zombie rig creates even more flash than a ribbonfish by itself. It’s movement also intrigues kings, especially the large ones, and temps them to come charging into your spread. Smaller kings will see the flash and be attracted, but will rarely hit a zombie rig or a really large ribbonfish.