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Tips for Landing Local Marlin

If you are targeting marlin off the tip of Baja, your chances of hooking up with one of these powerful, acrobatic pelagics are pretty good. The large populations of striped, blue and black marlin in the waters off Cabo, San Jose del Cabo and the East Cape make such an encounter likely. But landing a marlin off Southern California can be a more difficult task. Only striped marlin move up into our local waters, the season is shorter here, and the numbers of “stripers” on tap pales in comparison to Baja Sur. This makes the use of effective angling techniques, baits and equipment even more crucial, as you may get only one shot at “billfish glory.”

Start off with the Right Gear

Before you start searching for marlin around known haunts like the Catalina Channel or the 43-fathom spot, make sure you’re equipped with the right tackle. Conventional 30# tackle is the average with the occasional angler using as much as 50# stand-up or trolling rods will fit the bill (no pun intended), matched up with two-speed lever drag reels of the same class. Fill your reels with Spectra or Dacron and a top-shot consisting of 50- to 150 yards of monofilament or fluro carbon (depending upon the size of the reel). Attached to that should be about 12 feet of 250- to 300-pound leader or 150-pound wind-on stainless steel cable. Wind-on wire cable is recommended, especially if you’ll be fishing from a smaller boat, to avoid breaking off on the outboard or prop when leadering a fish. You will be trolling live bait, such as Pacific mackerel or bonito, use a circle hook sized appropriately for the size of the bait rigged behind the gill plate through the back. A circle hook is preferred because the fish typically ends up being hooked in the corner of the mouth, instead of being “gut-hooked.” This makes releasing a fish at boat side much easier, and also drastically improves the hooked marlin’s chances for survival. Some anglers prefer using 7/O to 10/O “double hook” rigs with crimped wire leaders. This kind of rig increases your chances of hooking up when a fish strikes, especially when using larger baits. If you will be trolling live baits from a smaller boat with limited bait tank space, tuna tubes are essential. These tubes, which attach to the gunwale, can keep individual larger baits alive for hours.

Trolling Tips

While live or fresh dead can be very effective, you won’t be able to go as fast and cover as much ground as when trolling with lures alone (a trolling speed of 7 to 12 knots is generally the rule when trolling baits). Anglers sometimes choose to troll with straight lures or straight bait, but often a combination of the two is the best way to go. Try fishing a couple of live or fresh-dead baits from your outriggers, while trolling two marlin lures from the “inside” rod holders. This way, whether the marlin are in the mood for live bait or artificials, you’ll have it all covered. Slow- trolling live or fresh-dead baits for can be extremely effective in areas containing schools of tuna, skipjack or other baitfish – the marlin’s favorite prey. When “blind” trolling, large, fresh-dead bait will often out-produce a live bait because it causes more of a commotion on top when pulled behind the boat. This is a good way to capture a marlin’s attention and attract a strike. These billfish are extremely aggressive, and are not boat shy in any way. In fact, marlin are actually attracted by the whitewater of a boat’s prop wash and baits skipping along the surface. If you will be slow-trolling larger baits such as yellowfin, bonito and skipjack, these baits should be properly gutted and sewn to optimize their action when trolled. Bigger baits should be rigged with at least a 10/O steel hook, attached by a “rigging thread” run between the eyes of the offering with a bait needle. Several good knot and rigging books are available that describe and diagram effective rigging techniques.

The “Run and Gun” Method

Instead of trolling blindly, many anglers (especially those with smaller private boats) employ the “run and gun” method. This means they motor along at higher speeds until they spot schools of bait, flying fish, or other possible billfish indicators, such as flotsam or birds. It’s also crucial to keep a close watch for “tailing” billfish and “jumpers.” When running at these higher speeds (about 17 knots), it often pays to troll a couple of high-speed marlin lures. Marlin are fast, powerful swimmers, and there’s always a chance of a strike, even while covering ground at this speedy clip.

When You Hook Up

Once you hook up with a marlin, remember to keep the boat at trolling speed for about ten seconds before backing your speed down to “idle.” Remember, you will still need to retrieve the other lines that were not bit. Putting your boat immediately in neutral can cause these lines to drop straight down, resulting in tangle ups. Once all the other lines are in, you can adjust your boat’s speed and heading according to how the fish is running.

Leadering a Marlin

When a marlin is ready to be leadered, it’s important that the line is kept clear of the boat and motor, the angler backs away from the rail, and the fish is kept in the proper leadering position. The helmsman should always be ready to turn the wheel or make any necessary maneuvers to keep the fish and line abeam of the boat during this process.

Handling and Releasing a Fish

  1. PLAN AHEAD. Minimize stress and exhaustion by using tackle strong enough to land fish quickly. Set hooks quickly to minimize the opportunity for fish to swallow hooks .
  2. MINIMIZE HANDLING. Do not touch the eyes or gills. Large fish are best released by leaving them in the water and removing the hooks. Small fish should be brought on board and handled with a damp towel or damp cotton gloves, which will minimize damage to the skin and protective slime of fish. Control the fish, gently but firmly so it cannot "flop" around and cause itself any further injury. Do not use a gaff.
  3. USE THE RIGHT TOOLS TO REMOVE THE HOOKS. Needle nose pliers work well for fish hooked in the mouth, while a deep-throat de hooker should be used for deeply hooked fish. Cut the leader close to the fish's mouth if hook removal is not possible. Never pull or jerk on the leader to remove a hook.
  4. RELEASE FISH GENTLY. If the fish is stressed or exhausted, revive it by gently moving it forward through the water until it is able to swim off.


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