Ever since I heard about a 72-pound white marlin landing $1.4 million in the White Marlin Open, I can’t stop thinking about chasing down whitey! Although they may be one of the smallest billfish, white marlin are certainly among the toughest to catch.
First, white marlin love to show up when you’re trolling a big-fish spread. They’ll crush the left long-rigger bait, knocking it out of the rigger clip and maybe pull a few feet of line off before spitting the hook like a watermelon seed and move on to the left short and take a swipe at that bait.
If you manage to hook the white marlin on anything bigger than a 9/0, don’t hold your breath. Odds are the fish will come unbuttoned once again and fade off. Or, it may take a swipe at the last rigger bait just to add a little more insult to injury as it cruises off.
The white marlin’s wily behavior and its scrappy demeanor makes me love them, and at times hate them, all the more.
Most crews in the Atlantic prefer to troll a mix of lures that will give them the best chance at catching whatever species they encounter: yellowfin, small bluefin or albacore tuna, marlin, dorado and wahoo. If you focus on one species, you will likely miss out on a bite, so it makes more sense to vary your lures and see what happens.
Mixing up your offerings, however, will undoubtedly cost you a few white marlin. Sure even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then, but if you really want to score with whitey, try your hand at the bait-and-switch.
Light-tackle anglers chasing line-class records were among the first to perfect the art of the bait-and-switch. The technique is relatively simple but brilliant. Let’s say you wanted to break the Atlantic sailfish world record on 6-pound test. So you set out a spread of hookless teasers, basically lures or rigged natural baits minus the hooks, and watch and wait for the right fish.
You don’t need to bother with fish that are too small or the wrong species. You limit your targets, saving bait, tackle and injuring less fish. When that world-record sailfish shows up in the spread, the mate springs into action, luring the fish in with the teaser. Each time the fish takes a swipe at the teaser, the mate yanks the bait out of its mouth with the rod and cranks on the reel to drive him in.
When the fish is close enough to the boat, the angler drops his or her bait (on the 6-pound line) over the side and positions it next to or behind the teaser. Once the bait is in position, the mate pulls the teaser out of the water, and that enraged sailfish will switch over and grab the angler’s rigged bait like a hungry dog in search of a bone. Simple right? Well what sounds simple can become a complete cluster during execution.
Like any offshore fishing tactic, you won’t get too far unless you find the fish. The mid-Atlantic coast provides the best shot at finding white marlin. Ocean City, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia Beach and the Carolinas represent some of the best white marlin grounds in the world. White marlin show up every year, riding warm-water currents.
White marlin should begin to appear around July and stay through September, but it changes from year to year, depending on the amount of warm water in the area. The best tactic is to locate temperature breaks, especially breaks located near a defined drop-off. Troll both sides of the break looking for billfish — sometimes they’re hunkering down in that ugly green cold water, so zigzag back and forth, but spend most of your time on the warm side.
Water temps of 75 degrees or higher are ideal, but you can still find white marlin in water in the low-70s. Once you find the area you want to try, you must make a decision. Which spread are you going to set out?
If you decide to use the bait-and-switch, you really need to stick to your guns. You can pull a couple of dink ballyhoo in the long-rigger or shotgun positions rigged with hooks if you don’t think your angler’s experience level will catch fish using the bait-and-switch. But do not use hook baits in the short-rigger positions or as bridge teasers.
Most crews pull two big dregdes and two bridge teasers, a squid daisy chain on one side and a large hookless teaser on the other side, perhaps a Mold Craft Senior Wide Range or a Black Bart Super Pro Jet — something in the 12- to 14-inch range. For a shotgun or center rigger, use an Illander-and-bird combo or a Mold Craft Lil’ Chugger rigged with a horse ballyhoo. Again, you can use a hook in this long bait, but be ready, white marlin will pop up back there quite often.
Keep at least three pitch-bait rods nearby and rigged. I’d suggest two rods rigged with dink ballyhoo sitting in rod holders on each transom corner and one rod with a larger pitch bait at the ready should any blue marlin pop up — a Spanish mackerel would be ideal, but a split-tail mullet or strip bait will also work. While a 20- or 30-pound outfit is ideal for white marlin, you want to put that larger bait on a setup no smaller than a 50-wide.
Keep your pitch-bait rods close at hand in a gunwale rodholder or in one of the fighting-chair rod holders if you have one. Wrap the leader neatly in tight circles. Hang the leader over one of the reel’s lugs, or use a rubber band to keep it tight and easy to unload in a jiffy. If you use a wind-on leader, make sure the knot is located outside of the guides. Sometimes this knot will get hung up in a guide as you’re dropping your bait back and will cause a bird’s nest.
Rest your rigged bait in a bait tray in a cooler or in a bucket of seawater. Keep the reel in free spool or damn near — just enough drag to keep slack from crawling off the reel.
To keep confusion at a minimum, designate each angler a side of the boat, or a rod or a teaser. When that marlin shows up in the spread, you don’t want three guys going after the same rod, or worse yet, sitting around looking at one another with that “who, me?” look.
Usually the first person to see the fish come up is the captain. A seasoned captain won’t freak out or scream, he’ll simply announce the fish’s position: “Left long,” or “right short!” If you’re new to the game and have never seen a white marlin come in like a neon torpedo, I’ll grant you one freak-out. After that, you better be calm and cool or you’ll screw it up for everyone.
As the angler, resist the urge to run up the transom and toss your bait into the wash directly behind the boat. Instead, calmly make your way over to the side of the boat where the fish is located. Carry the pitch-bait and leader in your left hand and the rod in your right. You need to move quickly, but not in a panic. When you rush you will undoubtedly stumble, causing a tip wrap or a million other potential foul ups. Be calm and quick. You never know how long a fish will hang on a teaser, so speed is important, but it can also kill you. Sometimes they chew on it for what feels like forever. Other times, they take one look and fade off. So it’s best to get your pitch-bait in the water and be ready.
Drop your bait in the water from the side of the cockpit, making sure the leader unravels neatly with no knots. You want to avoid the bait going into the whitewash of the wake. The wake will throw the bait around like a washing machine, possibly damaging your rig. Lower the bait over the side with the reel in free spool and let the leader come tight.
Hold your thumb on the spool and keep the rod tip out to the side. This will hold the bait in the clear water and keep it out of the wash. During all of this, you need to watch your bait and listen. Don’t just drop your bait back. Wait for the mate or captain to make the call. If you’re dealing with an aggressive fish and don’t have much time, the mate or captain should tell you immediately when the bait hits the water. “Get it back!”
There are a few little tricks you can do to speed up the bait’s progress toward the teaser. Holding the rod tip low, just a few inches off the surface will help the bait sink a bit. This increases the amount of drag caused by the water and line will rip off the reel faster than holding the rod tip at hip height or higher. Use your thumb to adjust the speed and to hold your bait in place. Once your bait is in position next to or slightly behind the teaser, get ready and whatever you do, don’t take your eyes off your bait!
Resist the urge to look around. Simply watch your bait and listen for instructions. If the captain says you’re too far back, engage the drag and bring it in several cranks, then put your thumb back on the spool and go back to free-spool.
The worse thing that can happen here is a backlash, and they happen all the time because of panic and adrenaline. Be cool and listen.
When your bait reaches that spot next to the teaser, raise the rod tip, which will bring the bait back up to the surface, helping you see it. Make sure the bait is where you want it. You might only have a second or two to make any adjustments. With your thumb on the spool and the reel in free-spool, you’re ready for the bite.
The bite happens so fast that you’re bound to miss it unless you keep your vision locked on the bait. This type of fishing is all about the bite. It’s the most thrilling, exciting, electric aspect of the entire process. You don’t want to miss it. And, if you do miss it, you’ll miss any shot of catching the fish as well.
As the mate pulls the teaser out the water, get ready and make sure you’re in freespool. The fish can strike your bait from any direction, and if you’re fishing with a circle hook, it doesn’t really matter if the fish takes the bait from the side or straight on.
Once the white marlin hits, it will rip line off the reel. This is the tricky part. Using your thumb, you want to impart as little pressure on the line as possible, however, you need to keep that line from backlashing into a giant bird’s nest. You want the line to run off smoothly with no overrun.
If you push down on the spool too hard, you’ll burn up your thumb and pull the bait right out of the fish’s mouth. With a circle hook rig, you want to give the fish a count of five to 7 seconds. I usually count to seven using the old one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc. When you feel the fish is definitely not going to let go of the bait, slide the drag lever up to strike and you should be hooked up.
Don’t set the hook. Just reel the line tight and lift the rod tip. You’ll see that acrobatic white marlin go into performance mode and launch into a series of grey-hounding dives or back flips. If you try to set the hook like a professional bass fisherman, you will likely come back with nothing more than the head of the bait. San cocho!
Sometimes the fish will either miss the bait on the strike or only take it for a few seconds before spitting it out. If this is the case, engage your reel, lift the rod tip sky high to get your bait back to the surface. Once you can see the bait, reel it back into position and put your thumb back on the spool and drop the drag back into free-spool. Hold that rod tip high and get ready to start the process all over again. If the bait is blown out or not swimming, bring it in and get a freshy.
The art of bait-and-switch fishing takes some practice, but once you perfect the skills, your hookup ratio on white marlin will go up dramatically.
White Marlin Bait and Switch