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Billfish Maybe? – Tips for Fishing SoCal Billfish

billfish historyFor the past decade, there have been so few marlin in Southern California that they are barely worth the effort for most recreational anglers. This is reflected by most of the current recreational sportfishing fleet of yachts and pots that have been willingly driving over sleepers and/or tailers to get to a kelp paddy — filling their freezers with food they can eat, instead of spending hours and hours of driving aimlessly around searching for the elusive billfish.

Don’t be offended, I get it. This is certainly a better return on investment.

marlin flags
Photo Credit: Greg Stotesbury

Well, here’s the deal this year. It’s nearly the first of October and if your freezers aren’t full already, you are probably too late … big tuna have been around all summer. That being said, in case you have missed it, 2015 is on its way to being one of the most outstanding banner years for billfish in decades.

fishing reelsIf you have been fishing the big tuna, your boat probably has ample tackle with little if any additional investment required, other than maybe some fresh line, a couple of larger lures and a squid chain or two. Add these and you’re good to go.

blue marlinRight now, the billfish selection here in SoCal is pretty remarkable … black marlin, blue marlin, striped marlin, and short-billed spearfish — and possibly even a swordfish to bait. With the exception of sailfish that is the same lineup you would have if you were fishing Baja or Hawaii. However, they are here and now in Southern California; you can do-it-yourself and give it a shot.

But before you head out, let’s review some of the basics.

Billfish Basics

Let’s begin with where to go: There is a huge spread of fish from the Hidden Bank down south to the Nine and from the 14 Mile Bank to the shipping lane … plus all the way up to the Channel Islands off of Oxnard, which would suggest that no matter where you live in Southern California there are billfish in your front yard.

marlin tipsIf you are not familiar with the different banks, the precise locations can be found online or on www.satfish.com. Pinpointing where you’ll find the best bite is just a few clicks away on the Internet. Try the on-site forum here to start. Other good resources are the Marlin Club and other weigh stations that usually have updated reports on their answering machines.

rigging tipsBait wise, nothing is better than a tank full of green mackerel, which may be available at the local bait receiver; if not, try making some with sabiki rigs at the receiver or under a kelp paddy. An excellent backup is ballyhoo that can be purchased at West Marine in San Diego. They work as drop backs with a hook, or they can be trolled with or without a squid skirt rigged with a hook. They can also be used as a sweetener at the end of a squid chain without a hook.

marlin teasersSetting up your trolling and teaser spread depends on many factors, from boat to crew size. On larger boats, in my case from a 30-foot to a 75-foot, using four trolling rods — two in the outriggers and two flats — is my preferred set-up. Regardless of how many anglers and/or crew are on the boat, by the time a couple of teasers are deployed and drop-back baits are set up, there will be enough to keep everyone busy.

Most of the action so far this year is behind the boat, so that’s where all the focus should begin.

marlin jigsRegarding lure choice … I prefer a straight-running lure such as a Zuckers 3.5; once I find a color that gets bit in a certain position, I leave it there until I have at least three of the four positions filled. Then I can continue to experiment with the fourth position.

After fishing the boat all season, the lure placement should have already been sorted out.

fishing tipsIf not, start with one flat on back of the second wave, another flat on wave three; one rigger on wave four and another on wave five to get started. Instead of running the lines off the rod tips, I prefer using rubber bands on the flats to keep the lures in the water and swimming correctly — plus when there is a strike the broken rubber band is easy to spot. Another trolling tip is to use tag lines with the outriggers, which return the rigger clip to the base after a strike.

If the crew is fewer than four in number, adjust the rod numbers accordingly. Treat each bite as an event, triggering responses from everyone on board. The designated angler — who can be named by agreement or rod assignment — goes to the rod, removing it from the holder and first sets the hook and then backs off the drag slightly on that first run. At least one drop-back bait should be in the water before the boat slows. Flat trolling lines and teasers should be cleared as quickly as possible.

When the strike occurs, the skipper should not increase the boat speed unless the fish is charging the boat. The skipper should turn the boat favoring the direction the fleeing fish is traveling while the angler moves up that side of the boat to the bow, allowing the remaining crew in the cockpit to focus on any other fish in the wake dropping multiple baits in the water and extending the event as long as possible with the desired result being multiple hookups.

fishing marlinOnce the hooked fish settles down and the cockpit crew has everything under control, hopefully there will be at least one other fish hooked. If so, that’s when the fun begins! The skipper needs to assess the situation and determine which fish to favor, while the anglers simply “stay connected” — reducing the drag as the line disappears off the spool and increasing the drag when the fish tires and begins to slow down. Instinctively the skipper and angler are eager to retrieve line of the fish farthest away, though there may be an opportunity to release the closest fish quickly before committing to the distant one.

I can only remember one occasion when we had multiple hook-ups on our 42-foot Uniflyte, “WaterCloset” where we had to sacrifice one. Both fish were hooked on 12-pound tackle and they were going in opposite directions. My wife Yvonne was in the cockpit and her fish was headed off the stern toward the horizon; Don McAdams was on the bow. Both fish were taking line rapidly. Peter Groesbeck ran halfway up the ladder to the bridge and shouted, “Gary, you have to make a decision … now!”

I glanced at McAdams on the pulpit and could hear the clatter of his clicker as the line was rapidly stripped off his reel as his striped marlin fled. I turned to the cockpit, grinning down at Groesbeck on the ladder as I dropped both engines in reverse to follow Yvonne’s fish.

“I have made a decision,” I said to Groesbeck, “I sleep with Yvonne.”

Holding his rod high in the air to be certain I could hear the chatter of his clicker, McAdams glared at me as his line disappeared off the reel. With a loud “pop,” it broke at exactly 900-yards. For the record, we did get Yvonne’s fish.

I don’t recommend using light tackle unless your crew is up to the challenge. Battling fish on light line takes an understanding of how best to use it and some insight into the fighting abilities of the fish you are chasing. Technical skills have to be honed — from knot tying to fighting techniques — or you will break off many more fish than you’ll land.

fish fightWhile many skippers prefer fishing the angler on the bow, my own personal preference is to have the angler fighting the fish in the cockpit. The added visibility for the captain of both the angler and the fish, plus the ability to communicate easily is important.

marlin fishing
Photo Credit: Ruckus

Often the behavior of the fish dictates how to maneuver the boat and how the fish is hooked can usually be determined. For instance, if the fish remains a few feet underwater, odds are the fish is hooked on the side of the mouth farthest away from the boat. If it comes up high with dorsal exposed, in all probability the fish is hooked on the side of the mouth closest to the boat. When the fish is close to the boat or when the angler applies more pressure, the fish plunges toward the bottom; it is likely that it is tail-wrapped. However, all is not lost. Even on light tackle, the fish can be lifted using half-cranks. The key is do not allow the fish to lose its upward momentum by dropping the rod tip too far.

marlin fishing
Great Day for the Ruckus

I can remember the first fish I ever caught more than seven decades ago. It was a small smelt from beneath the municipal pier in Berkeley, Calif. The tackle was a simple Dacron handline with a tiny hook and egg sinker. Even then the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction wrapped in the challenge was overwhelming.

Sport fishing still dominates my choice of outdoor activity and I’ve learned folks are motivated for a variety of reasons — family fun, food for the table or perhaps just another way to enjoy the great outdoors. Whatever your reason for being on the water this season, this is your year to catch a billfish if you have ever had one on your bucket list!

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That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world records and in his first year as a member of the Tuna Club of Avalon, he received more angling awards than any other first-year member in the club's 109-year history. He's been involved with many California angling clubs and is the Baja California Representative for the International Game Fish Association. 
Gary's a conservationist as well as a writer and photographer. In addition to two books on saltwater fly-fishing, hundreds of his articles and photographs have appeared in publications around the world. Graham has devoted his life to finding new fisheries and developing new techniques — all of which he shares through his guiding, speaking, photography and writing.