How to

Driving for marlin

If you’re serious about catching billfish, having an experienced driver manning the helm will maximise your chances. David Green reports.

Catching marlin is one of the most challenging pursuits any angler could wish for. It is a team sport, and in many ways the angler gets the easiest job. Once the hooks go into a decent big billfish, you need a good plan as to how you are going to drive the boat to catch the fish as quickly as possible, and this varies a lot depending on the vessel you fish from. The game is very different when you target marlin from a small trailer boat, particularly if you fish with only two people on board. Driving the boat correctly is more important than the rod skills of the angler. Good boat driving catches fish faster. Before you hook up, you need a good driving plan.

The panic factor
It all begins with a moment of extreme excitement/panic or alarm. All is going along quietly, and then suddenly you have a rampaging marlin tearing the surface to foam as it feels the hook. At this stage it is vitally important to keep the boat in gear, as this keeps the line tight and clears the fish past all the other lines. Some skippers accelerate slightly to help drive the hooks home. The golden rule however, is never stop the boat! This is also the stage that most marlin are lost, particularly when trolling lures. The first few jumps often see the lure thrown as the wildly gyrating fish goes airborne. If you survive this part, the most important thing you need to do is rapidly clear all the other lines, and if there are only two of you on board, this will take a few minutes. Don’t panic if the fish is now several hundred metres away if you are fishing from a small boat. You need to keep the boat going forward as you clear the gear. Clear the shortest lines first and store the gear where it won’t get in the way of the angler. Pulling in four lines and a teaser in less than two minutes is quite a skill, especially if you are also in charge of driving the boat!

Once you’ve got all the teasers and lines onboard, most marlin will settle down and often go deep. Blue marlin are an extreme challenge from small boats, and the biggest risk is that you may get spooled before you clear the gear. Big game boats with professional crews will generally clear the gear a lot faster than you will on a small boat with two or three people on board. Our main target off the Gold Coast is generally black marlin between 20 and 120 kilos, depending on the season, and the tackle we use is mostly 8 to 24 kilo gear. These are extremely challenging targets from a small boat, and it is a good idea to go on a trip with an experienced crew before you go on your solo mission. You’ll learn a lot by watching a good crew at work.

Use the boat to your advantage
The next part of the fight is all about getting that line back, and this is where good controlled boat driving comes into its own. On a game boat, most skippers put the boat in slow reverse and back down on the fish. Try to follow the line rather than the fish. Marlin are extremely fast, and when they change direction the angle of line disappearing into the water is often very different to where you think the fish would be. By following the line you avoid getting a big curve of line in the water, and big fast fish can bust you off from water pressure alone. At this stage – if in a small boat – I like to have the fish off the rear quarter and rather than reverse down on the fish the aim is to drive the boat to intercept the fish’s path, following the line as much as possible. Try to pull the fish so it heads into the current. This creates drag on the line and helps lift the fish up, to the point it will often jump again. Try to avoid situations where you get a stalemate. The aim is to exhaust the fish, and I like to see line going off or coming onto the reel. If the fish is lugging deep and the angler isn’t gaining line, drive ahead of the fish and be prepared to lose some line in an attempt to get the fish up. Often in a small boat, circling over the fish will break up its pattern and cause it to change direction. It is a game of angles and pressure. A big fish down deep is hard to gain on if you are directly above it. Keeping off the fish will generally be the best way to get it high in the water column.

As the fight goes on, the fish will slow down and the jumps are generally slower. Bigger fish over 70 kilos generally take over half an hour to land on 10 or 15 kilo tackle, but the fight can be extremely variable. If you are tagging the fish make sure the pole is ready as you can often get a tag shot in a fish that is far from spent. Big  game boats have a great advantage here and chasing jumping marlin in a rapidly reversing game boat is a very efficient, often wet, and very exciting method to catch fish quickly.

Heading your way
The middle phase of the fight is where the balance changes in favour of the angler. There will come a point in the fight where the fish will start to rise in the water column; you can often see the marlin on your sounder at this stage. Repeatedly circling and driving up current will slowly lift the fish, and on most tackle the drag pressure will eventually start to see the fish lift as your angler gains line with each pump of the rod. This is often the turning point of the fight when you gain more line than you lose. On light tackle or with big fish this phase of the fight can last for hours; when big fish get their heads down in heavy current you have to be extremely patient. The longest fight time I’ve had was over four hours and we’ve had plenty of bigger fish on for more than two hours. You don’t get too many easy fish from a small trailer boat. Additionally, never dismiss small marlin as easy. You may get the fish to the boat quickly, but a small black marlin on light to medium tackle can be very dangerous as it is still full of energy and the bill is a very dangerous weapon. More people are hurt by small marlin than big ones.

At this stage it is important, from a small boat, that you have your end game ready. You need good tracing gloves, pliers and a knife at your side and if you are fishing two-up from a small boat this is the most exciting part as you will get to the point where you have to leave the wheel to trace the fish. When the fish has settled down, drive so you intercept its path. Often you will see the double or leader out of the water just wide of the boat. With your angler working the fish you will get to the point where you get a grab at the leader. From a small boat it is vitally important that you keep the boat in gear and motor ahead of the fish. The aim is to have the fish slowly swimming alongside the boat. When you leave the wheel to take the trace make sure you have enough boat speed to stay ahead of the fish. I had a marlin jump into my tinny a few years back and it is an experience I am not at all keen on repeating!

Lead the fish like a horse, don’t make sharp grabs. Keep it even and keep the boat going forward. At this stage on most fish you can grab the bill and with your other hand remove the hooks or cut the leader. If the fish takes off, release the leader. There are no prizes for hanging on and this is how injuries occur or fish jump into boats. It is certainly not a fishing style without risk and over the years I’ve seen a few marlin related injuries in the hospital I work in.

Never leader a marlin so the pointy end is directly facing you. This can be extremely dangerous as a single kick of the tail can see you in big trouble in a flash. A tired fish is much easier to handle than a fresh one, so taking early shots on the leader definitely adds to risk. Catching marlin, particularly from small boats, is an adrenaline rush hard to describe. If you have a good game plan for how to drive the boat you are at a great advantage

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