Each year, from September to April, juvenile black marlin are available to anglers along our eastern seaboard. Their proximity to the coast and willingness to feed makes them a prime target for any game fisherman, from novice to expert.
Generally juvenile fish will begin to show in North Queensland around September, making their way down the coast gradually, stopping for prolonged periods in areas of high bait density and favourable feeding conditions. Reports will filter in as these fish make their annual trek southward, this gives anglers ample opportunity to prepare for the coming season. Keen game fishing fanatics will begin to track the biomass long before it reaches their grounds, this is quite a simple task, via game fishing clubs, paper media and online reports.
Areas to keep an eye on for reports include:
Cape Bowling Green
Fraser Island/Hervey Bay
Moreton Bay Offshore
South West Rocks
Newcastle and Jervis Bay.
Marlin grow at an astounding rate. In the more northern extremities the majority of captured fish are juvenile and quite small, often ranging between 5 and 15kg. As these fish travel further south feeding, they put on weight, usually by the time the biomass reaches the QLD/NSW border, these fish are ranging between 15 and 25kg. This fantastic growth rate sees some of the larger specimens reach 40kg by the latter stage of the season.
Juvenile marlin primarily feed on smaller baits. Garfish, pilchards, flying fish, small tunas, slimie mackerel and yellowtail scad compose the majority of their diet. These bait schools are generally found relatively close to land. This brings the migrating marlin within easy reach of anglers with small boats, and in some locations even becoming a viable target for land based anglers. Shallow reefs, underwater raises, headlands and river mouths all provide current breaks and diversions which may attract bait schools and in turn marlin. Each location will have known areas which attract these bait schools, therefore it pays to do your homework prior to embarking. Once on the grounds, focus on current lines, visible bait schools, bird activity and underwater contours, remembering to keep an eye on your sounder for any bait balls showing subsurface. At times individual fish can be seen cruising the surface, it always pays to run a lure past these cruisers, although it can be intensely frustrating if their are not in a feeding mood.
Marlin like any fish are governed by external forces which trigger their feeding habits, some days bites are evenly spread over several hours, others can see a baron ocean for hour after hour, followed by pandemonium with fish eating lures every couple of minutes. Generally there will be a bite period over each tide change. Keeping a diary of bite times, tides, moon phase, water depth, temperature and location will provide some insight into triggers which may have caused the fish to feed. Utilising your VHF radio on known game fishing channels, along with conversing with other skippers adds to this wealth of knowledge.
The most effective outfit for targeting marlin on lures, is a lever drag overhead reel capable of holding at least 600m (preferably 800m) of the chosen line class. Matched up to an appropriate overhead rod between 5’6 and 6′ and you have an outfit capable of handling the majority of blacks and subsequent by catch.
Due to the vastly differing size of these fish in varying locations, line class selection can be a little daunting. Generally, in the northern grounds 6kg is the preferred breaking strain, this progresses to 8kg and then up to 10kg if fishing the more southern extremities of the range. Some anglers are tempted to use 15 or 24kg and this is fraught with danger, the last thing anyone wants is a billfish on the trace which is still full of beans.
Rigging your outfits for Marlin is a fairly simple process, simply form a double in your main line via either a plait (mono) or bimini twist (braid), attach this either directly to a snap swivel or to the dacron loop of a wind on leader. Wind on leaders give the advantage of having heavy leader on the actual reel in the closing stages of the fight. This is particularly advantageous in small boats or when fishing undermanned. Lure rigs can be either a single or twin hook rig (rigging demonstrations can be found online). Switched on anglers favour the use of light gauge saltwater fly hooks. Light gauge hooks penetrate the boney mouth of marlin under far less pressure than most other models. However, it should not be run on tackle over 10kg. Once you have selected your rig, attach it to 1.5m of 100-150lb monofilament or fluorocarbon and crimp a loop on the opposing end. This facilitates easy lure changes from the snap at the end of your double or wind-on leader.
When fishing aboard a vessel with outriggers (strongly recommended), a standard game fishing spread consists of 5 lures. Which are staggered back on the faces of differing pressure waves caused by your vessel. These waves are easily identified once up to trolling speed. There is a short corner (2nd or 3rd pressure wave), a long corner (3rd or 4th pressure wave), short rigger (4th or 5th pressure wave), long rigger (5th or 6th pressure wave) and a shotgun (any wave you choose after the long rigger). If fishing without the use of outriggers, simply stagger 3 lures back along pressure waves from 2 onwards.
Employing the use of teasers can greatly increase your odds or raising a billfish into your spread of lures. Teasers come in all shapes and sizes, from surface daisy chains to mirrored subsurface swimmers. For smaller billfish, a surface bird with a daisy chain of skirts trailing behind seems to be the most effective, however some anglers choose to run both forms of teasers.
Size, head selection and skirt colour is of great importance when selecting a spread. Most lures for smaller billfish range from 4″ up to around 9″, this is primarily dictated by baitfish size and fishing conditions. Try to match the size of the present baitfish if possible, however, in rough conditions, smaller lures may not work effectively and larger offerings are employed by necessity. Just as water conditions effect size, brightness effects lure colour. On cloudy overcast days or early and late in the day it pays to switch all of the lures to darker colours or even a luminescent colour. On brighter occasions, bright or reflective colours can come into their own.
Manufacturers to look out for include, Bahama Lure, Pakula, Meridian, Black Snacks, along with a whole host of other brands.
This position is the one most effected by prop wash and turbulence. Therefore larger cup faces and darker skirts are utilised in order to produce a profile and action which can be isolated within the turbulence. Blacks and Purples are often the most effective in this position.
This position while still in the prop wash is not as adversely effected by turbulence. Blues purples and pinks are highly regarded colours. Being positioned further back in the spread creates a much more horizontal line angle from rod to lure, therefore smaller cup faces on long, narrow heads provide more stability and less line drag.
The rigger positions are where slant faced lures really come into their own, these lures are run wide of the prop wash in clean water, this enables their swimming action to be appreciated in full. This position is a wild card giving anglers an opportunity to run whatever colour they choose.
Once again slant or cup faced lures can be run in this position, with colour being of limited importance. However, culture dictates this is the position to run a ‘lumo’ lure if you choose to have one in the spread. Funnily enough, results speak for themselves and this is definitely a proven fish catcher.
This lure is run straight down the middle of the spread and as far back as you please, most anglers choose blues, purples or silvers in this position and you can’t go wrong with a little pink in there either. Distance from the back of the vessel is the determining factor when choosing head size and shape. The further back the lure is positioned the smaller the cup should be, similar to the long corner. Most anglers use this position to run their smallest lure, although in windy conditions the sheer amount of line in the air can cause these lures to blow across the spread and heavier heads need to be utilised.
When underway a constant speed of 6-8 knots is preferred. Once lures are in position, vary speed within this range until all the lures are ‘breathing’ (surfacing and grabbing air periodically), this breathing is what creates a smoke trail of bubbles, enabling the quarry to home in and attack. When in strong head or tail currents, a few knots either size of this speed may be necessary to obtain the most effective action in your lures. Keeping one angler specifically watching the spread for fins, bills and strikes is not only more effective but thoroughly enjoyable, there isn’t many things more exhilarating, or sometimes frustrating than watching a marlin continually belt your lure, eventually getting hooked or losing interest.
Once a fish is hooked, it pays to drive off the fish. This not only drives the hook home and eliminates slack line, but pulls the remaining lures and teasers away from the fish. The last thing anyone wants is a fish entangled in 5 lines. Once the fish is clear, keep the boat motoring forward until all the lines are cleared. At this time communication is everything, slack line is the number one cause of lost fish. The angler and crew need to keep the skipper in the loop with regard to fish direction. Once the initial pandemonium of jumps and surface acrobatics have calmed, the skipper can back down or drive forward towards the fish and regain some line. Usually some more jumps can be witnessed when the fish is near the boat or on the trace, so keep the cameras at the ready. The latter stages of the fight can be nervous and downright dangerous if a fish has some fight left. If a fish is still very lit up or feisty it can pay to drive off and prolong the fight.
When the nominated crew member grabs the trace it is the most dangerous time for all passengers, keeping everyone clear and the boat in gear is important, and communicating once again becomes vital, you are basically dealing with a 5-40kg projectile with a spear attached to one end, the next angler to be speared in the chest, stomach or face certainly won’t be the last, but that is all part of the exhilaration. When tracing smaller fish (5-25kg) the majority of anglers prefer to grab the bill and hang on for dear life, even when tired these fish are incredibly strong. With larger fish some crews opt to noose the bill or employ the use of a Snooter (a pole with a retractable loop at one end), this is particularly advantageous with inexperienced crew. Once the bill is grabbed or Snooter secured the fish is yours to do with what you please. The vast majority of anglers target billfish with the intent to release, however some fish come up dead or near death and certainly are worth keeping in this situation. If you have a healthy fish and intend to release, it is always best to keep them in the water, although it is always tempting to remove the fish for a quick photograph, particularly for an anglers first fish. If done quickly the fish suffer little ill effect.
When targeting billfish with these methods there is a whole host of species which will jump upon your offering. Some desirable some not so. Sailfish are often encountered in the same waters as juvenile black marlin, these amazing fish are equally as impressive to find yourself attached to, some quite large specimens are captured within the same areas and near empty spools are often the case. Wahoo and Spanish mackerel are a great tussle on appropriate tackle, with long blistering runs, taste great and look quite spectacular fresh from the water. However, they do make a mess of your expensive marlin skirts. Yellowfin tuna will happily pounce on a skirted lure, particularly smaller profiles, these fish provide a great fight and tasty sashimi if you are that way inclined. Dolphin fish are probably the most impressive species encountered while trolling for marlin. They fight as hard pound for pound as a billfish, providing all the acrobatics and line burning runs of a marlin, are great table fare along with being one of the most visually appealing fish in the ocean. Along with these desirable adversaries you will also come across less appealing pelagics, mac tuna, striped tuna, barracuda and bonito will happily engulf a marlin skirt, along with a whole host of other species. These fish while not revered like billfish, still provide fantastic sport, and great bait for winter reef fishing.
Like any form of fishing, nothing steepens the learning curve like time on the water. So while we are enjoying one of the best marlin seasons in memory, why not get out there and get connected to your first marlin, or just another of many. Once you’ve had a taste it is an addiction which is very difficult to shake.