We were headed to the Gulf Stream out of Wrightsville Beach, and Rick’s 33’ custom center console was loaded with 263 gallons of diesel, 500 pounds of ice, thousands of dollars in Talica reels and Hanta rods, but yet we didn’t have a single ballyhoo, or any type of bait, anywhere on board.
Capt. Rick Croson, of Living Waters Guide Service, purposely leaves the bait behind for all of his blue water trolling trips, but what he brings in its place is much better and more productive—he brings 25 years of offshore experience that he now uses to design custom lures under the name of Sea Vixen Tackle Company, Rick’s new lure manufacturing company based out of Wilmington, NC.
Rick pulled off plane just shy of the 170 Rock, about 60 miles out of Masonboro Inlet, where there’s a productive ledge that drops from 265’ down to 340’. Leslie (my wife) and I, along with good friends Tony Del and Tim Vandenberg, had joined Rick in late November for a chance at some wahoo and blackfins.
Maybe it was the moon (we were coming off of a full moon so the wahoo could have been feeding all night) or maybe the wind (it was a low pressure wind that was perhaps putting more pressure on the fish and keeping them deep), but all of our early marks on the machine were below 200’. No eye-brow shaped wahoo marks were where Rick hoped they would be—near the surface, or at least above 100’.
Quickly putting out the spread, Rick told us a little more about the move away from ballyhoo, “For years I’ve exclusively been using resin head style lures instead of ballyhoo, so I partnered with a client-turned-collaborator and we started our own company making unique and original designs.”
The six Sea Vixen custom lures we were now pulling behind the boat as we moved over the ledge all had ballistic resin heads, a lot of tint and/or flash, and custom skirts with UV additives. Pointing out a few marks now up in the 150’ depth, Rick added that each lure was designed to fit a specific place in the lineup.
“Depending on the shape of the head,” Rick explained, “not every lure can go in every spot. For example, some lures require angles. Long riggers have a lower angle than your short riggers, so the longer baits today are bullet heads and small cup lures that require less angle. They work better with the line trying to pull them out of the water but not aggressively trying to pull them out of the water.”
“We have a miniature, flexible spreader bar,” Rick added, referring to the 14” wide “Tuna Frys” spreader with two baits on the outsides and three baits down the middle, one with a snap swivel to attach a leadered bait with a hook, “that needs a greater line angle to keep the bar right on top and skittering along the water’s surface. You want them to produce a lot of action, so they go on the short riggers.”
However, before he was able to talk flat lines, we had our first fish on. Rick likes to troll both the offshore and the inshore side of the 170 ledge, and this first wahoo bite came as we headed from shallow to deep.
Leslie grabbed the rod, but as Rick wrapped a fighting belt around her waist, she could do nothing but let the fish peel off drag.
For about 10-15 seconds after the strike, Rick had kept the boat at the same trolling speed, hoping to pick up a second strike, but then when a second strike didn’t come, he pulled the boat back to idle speed so Leslie could start trying to gain back all the line that had dumped.
The fish’s impressive first run eventually came to end, and then Leslie started the struggle to bring the unwilling pelagic to the boat. She seemed to channel all of her group fitness classes—including pilates and bodypump and bodycombat—to make steady progress against a fish that had decided to stay down all the way back to the boat. Then frustrated with the slow progress she was making against a determined fish, Leslie opted to sit on the livewell lid and put her foot up against the gunnel, employing a rowing machine motion of pushing with the legs and then reeling line.
The fish came close to gaffing-range, so Rick offered a little coaching. He had her keep the rod at a lower angle to the water and use short pumps and short cranks, approximately one foot at a time. The constant lower angle was so that the fish couldn’t turn and come at the boat and create any slack in the line (or create even the opportunity for any slack in the line), and Leslie and Rick had the fish in the box within 12 minutes of the strike.
Rick set the boat back at his preferred 1200 rpm trolling speed, which had us going about 6 knots into the sea and 7.5-8 knots with the seas, and then continued to explain the day’s spread.
“For the flat lines, I have a diving plug on one that’s being pulled real close, and on the other side I have a bullet again, one with a little bit of a dome. It skitters on top but doesn’t pull real hard. And I have it pinned down real tight to the water line with a rubber band, and that allows me to turn and all the lines go over or under each other. They won’t tangle with each other.
“That’s why we can catch a fish and leave the lines out,” he continued. “The closer baits are lower in the water. Short riggers are a mid-distance, and then the long riggers are far back. And I do everything the same amount of distance. The two long riggers are the same distance, the two short riggers, and the two flat lines. So when you turn, the lines physically can’t cross each other.”
Rick started our day with a quick fish, but we now found ourselves covering water and waiting (hoping) that the steady marks on the machine would rise over the course of the day. We knew the fish were on the ledge, so it was just a matter of when (if) they decided to come up and start feeding.
The down time gave us a chance to take off a layer of clothing or two, grab a drink and a bite to eat, and it also gave Rick time to talk more about the philosophy behind Sea Vixen Tackle Company.
All of the trolling lures are specifically designed to fish the offshore waters off the NC coast, and they’re engineered especially for meat fish, as opposed to big billfish hard baits that are merely scaled down to a smaller size. The Sea Vixen selection was designed to target wahoo, tuna, and mahi first. They’re weighted different, they run different, and each lure was sized and colored in patterns designed for North Carolina prey species.
“The diameter of the lure,” Rick said, keeping a close eye on the depth finder, “creates a bubble, and it’s the size of the bubble that shows as the actual size of the lure. For meat fish, we are using lures that look too small to target big fish like wahoo and tuna, but because of the bubble that surrounds the bait when trolling, the lures look much bigger in the water.”
“The problem with using big marlin baits scaled down to size is that they are too heavy and don’t have good action. These Sea Vixen lures are designed to be smaller and lighter, so they have more action as they are being pulled though the water. And they don’t have to be trolled as fast as big marlin baits behind a sportfisher.”
The pop of a long rigger clip ended Rick in mid-thought, and then the clicker of the Talica 25 reel in the T-top rod holder announced that we had another big fish on.
This was Tim’s fish, and it hit a blue tipped, purple back lure with a flat face and round head (Rick’s been working so much on research and development that he doesn’t yet have clever names for his lures).
“Rick, I think my reel is locked up,” said Tim as the sound of screaming drag ended and he started struggling with the rod and reel.
“Nope,” said Rick with a coy smile, wanting to joke Tim at least a little for the question but wanting more to keep Tim’s confidence intact and land our second wahoo of the day. “You just have a big fish on.”
We again kept at trolling speed for several seconds, but again a second strike didn’t come before pulling back to idle. Tony and I helped clear all of the lines from the right side of the boat to give Tim a clear path to make up all that line.
The fish eventually came boatside, and again Rick coached Tim to keep the rod tip low and make only short pumps before cranking down. The wahoo, perhaps to prove Rick’s point, suddenly streaked forward past where Tim was standing and toward the bow. Rick didn’t try to correct our position by gunning the boat forward, rather he instructed Tim to keep patient, use the angle of the rod to maintain contact with the fish, and simply wait for the run to stop.
The fish stopped, fell back, and then streaked forward again, but again Rick and Tim waited out the fish’s run.
Sea Vixen had now produced two strikes, and we had two citation wahoos in the boat.
The wind started to lay, the pressure was getting ready to change, and the moon had gone down below the horizon. Conditions were changing, and so did the bite. Marks were now higher in the water column, and apparently those marks were blackfins actively feeding.
“We’re getting ready to get bit,” Rick told me, explaining what he was seeing on the machine. The marks on the very bottom, he pointed out, were moving up a little and starting to create a cloud. The tuna were marking big above the cloud, with red dots in the middle of their marks.
“When you see a green cloud with red marks in it, then the fish are actively feeding. A green cloud with no marks typically means they aren’t feeding,” Rick said as the rubber band popped on one of the flat lines just a fraction of a second before the starboard short rigger popped.
Tony and I again deferred to Leslie and Tim, but quickly after pulling back to idle speed, we had two more clips pop, the other short rigger and one of the long riggers.
“Those lures are designed to stay on top of the water and rest naturally, sometimes with a little action still, even at idle speed,” Rick explained proudly as all four of us were reeling in fish. “So they are still working even when you’re barely moving forward. I often catch fish while I’m still idling.”
The blackfins we targeted the rest of the day were in three schools up and down the crescent-shaped ledge, so Rick took repeated laps constantly moving from one school to the next, leaving very little down time from when fish were in the boat to pulling lures over the next school.
Rick would see marks, tell us that we were getting ready to get strikes, and then clips and rubber bands would pop. Sometimes we reeled in a disappointing false albacore, but most of the time we were adding blackfins weighing up to 20 lbs. into the fish box.
Each of the six lures we were pulling were catching fish, and each had first been just a Rick Croson idea. He would then take his idea to the lathe and make a single head, use that single head to make a single mold, and then pour a resin head that he would take offshore and fish and test until he had the lure, skirt and all, just the way he wanted it.
The Sea Vixen approach is then to address every little detail at every stage of the production process to create a custom lure that gives anglers the best chance of hooking and landing meat fish in North Carolina waters.
For example, lots of thought goes into the shape of the eye, the size of the eye, and the placement of the eye, depending on whether they are going for a flying fish lookalike or a squid replica. All of their resin heads contain a UV additive, because the rods and cones of most fish see shades of UV way better than they see shades of color. Their skirts, all hand made in California by a company that uses a thinner but stronger material (the thinner skirt allows for more action, but the durability keeps them from tearing), also all come with a UV coating, and the UV “pop” is a huge advantage, whether it’s complementing blue, pink, black, purple, or any color combination you can imagine.
Those who would like to see firsthand how Rick fills up a fish box without using any ballyhoo or bait of any kind should visit him on Facebook at Living Waters Guide Service, or you can call him directly at (910) 620-7709. He’ll be targeting wahoo and blackfins throughout the winter, along with bluefins, and then in the spring into summer he’ll also be focused on yellowfins, mahi, and billfish.
Or if you want to outfit your own boat with a spread of trolling lures, you can work directly with Sea Vixen Tackle Company by visiting www.seavixentackle.com, or calling (910) 769-5962. Sea Vixen won’t be stocking product in local tackle shops, preferring to work directly with the customer by only offering their lures online, and the website will launch in January. In addition to products and ordering information, the website will also feature information, instructions, and videos to better explain how any boat—sportfisher or center console—can successfully troll lures to target meat fish.
Rick and his partner Glenn Garrett are big on customer service, and they welcome visitors to their facility, located at 2712-A Exchange Drive, Wilmington, NC 28405. They even have a gathering/meeting room, stocked with a couch, chairs, a bar, and two huge TVs for showing “how to” videos. They’ll be using this room in the future primarily to host offshore schools once a month to better instruct clients (or would be clients) on how to rig, how to use, and how to customize a trolling lure spread depending on the season and the type of boat.
Who knows? Sea Vixen Tackle Company may end up being the best friend of ballyhoo everywhere.