Bait fishing: How to catch fish with a strayline rig

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Time to strayline

With all that you’ve learnt about bait fishing in previous videos and tutorials you’re ready to put it into practice and catch some fish with a strayline rig. 

When your burley trail is set and a beautifully streamlined bait is sorted it's time to practice the strayline fishing technique and hook into some fresh fish for dinner.  Strayline fishing is a great way to catch beautiful eating fish such as snapper, trevally and kahawai.

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Straylining is a great way to catch snapper

Here we go…

The whole idea of strayline fishing is for the bait to drift down naturally, with the current. Almost as if you’ve just thrown a piece of bait in the water with no hook or sinker on it and it naturally catches in the current

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Drifting strayline bait (half pilchard)

Ridgeline -

Step 1: Choose sinker weight.

Select a weight anywhere from 1/4 ounce up to 2 ounces (generally). Start with a weight lighter, rather than heavy. Remember the aim is to use enough weight to help your bait drift down to the bottom, towards the fish. You don’t want it sinking down in an unnatural way. The bait should ideally drift down through the burley trail (where the fish are feeding), and end up in the zone you've targeted.

Selecting sinker weight depends on the conditions.

To start, use a weight you think will get the bait down drifting nice and natural. If you find it’s too light, or heavy, simply cut the hook off the trace, add another weight and try again. Sometimes no additional weigh is needed and the bait can get down on it's own.


How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Bean sinkers 1/4 ounce to 2 ounce


Step 2: Get the bait into the water

Spin reel: Open the bail arm so the line goes out freely and gently cast your bait into the burley trail.

Overhead reel: Put the reel into free spool, meaning the spool  spins freely - but keep your thumb on the spool that the mainline is wrapped around so it doesn’t go out too fast and get tangled or bunched up (known as a birds nest).

Lob your bait into the water in the same direction that the burley is going. Then feed the line out by holding the line and letting a little bit out at a time. You want to let the line out at the same rate the bait is drifting down. This will help it drift naturally away with the current.


How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Lob bait back into burley trail


With an overhead reel remember to keep your thumb on the spool (holds the line) to avoids the dreaded "birds nest" or line bunch up/tangle. It also helps you control the speed of the baits descent (down naturally with the current). - Daiwa fishing New Zealand


Step 3: Feeding the line out

Feed out the line  by pulling line off the spool and letting it float down. Do this until you’re sure the bait has reached the bottom. It can take a few minutes to get there, depending on the amount of weight you’re using, the depth of water, and  current flow.

If  you pay close attention to the line you’ll know when it hits the bottom. The line will stop running out and often you can feel the sinker and bait land on the bottom, this can be very subtle though.


Thumb spool and guide line out

Thumb spool and guide the line out

Step 4: Hitting the bottom

Keep your focus, as once the bait has hit the bottom the line can still be carried away by the current. If this happens the line will not be straight, and a big sagging section, called a ‘belly’ will form and you won’t feel what’s happening with your bait. A key part of strayline fishing is being able to react to the biting fish and you won’t be able to do this with slack line.


How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Keep line taut to feel for bites

Step 5: Reposition your bait

Once the bait reaches the bottom tighten the line (wind in slack line) and keep the overhead reel in free spool.

If you have a spin rod with a bait runner function, flick the bail arm back into a closed position and turn the bait runner switch on. This lets the line run out freely if a fish picks up the bait and runs away with it. If you have a spin reel with no bait runner, keep the bail arm open and hold the line with your fingers.

If nothing happens after about 30-60 seconds, lift the rod tip up. This will move the bait. If you let it sit there for too long you run the risk of getting snagged (hook or sinker stuck on the bottom).

By lifting the line you’ll move the bait which can get the attention of nearby fish. You might need to let out a little more line again as the current picks it up to let it drift further back.

Do this a couple of times, then if there are no bites, it’s sensible to reel the bait back in and start all over again.


How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Lift the line to reposition your bait

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Lift bait then let it drift back down

On a good day you won’t get to the bottom when you’re straylining, your bait will actually get nabbed by a fish while it’s falling. That’s one of the good things about straylining, it’s not necessary to be right on the bottom all the time.

Step 6: Getting a bite

Getting a bite is very exciting! But keep your cool, you’ll need it to land the fish. When fish bite your bait, it feels like little taps and pulls on the line and the tip of your rod will twitch. 

A common mistake that some beginners make is to 'strike' or pull the line quickly away to hook the fish. If you do this each time you get a bite or nibble all you'll do is pull the bait away from the fish and it will look suspicious to the fish (remember natural baits, a piece of bait does not jump around in the water on it's own).

You sometimes tease a bite by pulling the away slightly, either lifting your rod tip or with an overhead roll some line back in.



How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Tease a bite by rolling the line back on to the spool with your finger and thumb

Step 7: Let the fish run!

Whilst it may go against every fibre in your body a critical part of the strayline fishing technique is letting the fish run. Generally a bigger snapper will grab a bait in it's mouth and swim away with it before finding a clear spot to swallow it. While the fish has the bait in it's mouth swimming away, the bait and hook can easily be pulled out - so don't strike, don't lift your rod, don't wind - just "let the fish run" for a little bit.

How long? Well that's the million dollar question!  It varies and really comes down to you getting a feel for the area you're fishing. For starters try six seconds before setting the hook (more on this below). See if you're getting a good hook up rate and if you're not try shorter or longer times. You'll get a feel for it with a bit of practice.

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Let the fish run, but keep thumb on the spool to control the speed of the line running out.

Step 8: Set the hook

Setting the hook is when you lift the rod to make the hook sink into the fish, therefore 'catching' them.

If you’re getting little taps and nibbles but the fish aren’t pulling the line off the spool and running away with it, you can try teasing them by pulling the line away slightly. Sometimes that’s enough to tempt the fish into taking a good hold of the bait and running away with it.

In order to get the fish you need to set the hook. This is a different process if you’re using a circle hook or J hook.

Set a circle hook

If you’re using a circle hook you just need to tighten up the line. On an overhead reel, as the fish swim away put the reel in gear by flicking the bail arm over and the lever switch and letting the natural motion of the fish swimming away tighten the line.

Once the line is taut lift the rod gently, that’s all that’s required to set the hook in the corner of a fish mouth.

Set a J hook

If you’re using a J hook you will strike the fish when the line becomes tight. This means lifting the rod quickly with a bit of force, pullling the hook into the fish mouth.

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Lift the rod to tighten the line (not a big strike)

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

With a J-hook lift the rod with force & speed called "striking" the fish

Step 9: Reeling them in

Once the hook is set you can start to wind the fish in. Lift the rod tip up (this pulls the head of the fish up) and wind the line in as you lower the rod back down.  This is what is meant by "lift and wind".

Keep plenty of tension and a good bend in the rod (the top half starting with the tip). With a tight line the fish can’t shake the hook out of its mouth. If  the line goes loose you could lose the fish.

Let it run...

As you're winding the fish in if it starting running away with line (pulling line off your spool as it swims away) just let it run. You can damage your reel if you try to wind when the fish is running away and line is peeling out. If it is screaming away you can adjust your drag and make it tighter to provide more resistance to the fish (too much drag can snap your line so be careful here).

Use the lift and wind motion of the rod and reel to work the fish up towards you.

Your drag system will wear the fish down (more on drag here) until it’s close enough to bring into the boat.

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

If the fish is running line out just hold on, then lift and wind when it slows down

How to catch fish with a strayline rig

Snapper for dinner!

There you go, that’s the basics of pulling up a fish while straylining. This is a guide to get you started so get out there and practice, practice, practise. The more you fish the better feel you'll get for this whole fishing thing 😉 Good luck!

Check out our other bait fishing videos:


Strayline fishing with bait, squid