Switch-baiting is recognised as one of the most effective ways to catch billfish. But you don’t you don’t always need to use bait to experience the effectiveness of this technique. By SAM BAILLIE.
IN recent years, the art of “bait & switch” or “switch-baiting” for marlin has really come of age. Although this angling technique has been used by professional crews for quite a long time, it is only in the past five to 10 years that it has really been opened up to the average fisherman.
Over this time, many anglers have refined their switch-baiting skills to the point where their hookup rate, that is, the amount of strikes that they have converted into solid hookups, can sometimes be pushing beyond 90 per cent. When you compare this to the hookup rate of lure trolling (sometimes as low as 30 per cent), this fact alone serves to highlight just how effective this technique can be in the right hands.
Essentially, switch-baiting is follows similar principles to lure trolling. The key difference is that when “switching”, hookless teasers are run in place of the lures, and when a fish strikes, the teaser is wound to the boat in order to bring the fish closer in. While the teaser is being retrieved, the angler readies a pre-rigged live or dead bait and pitches it in front of the fish. The teaser is then pulled from the water, and if all goes to plan, a very hyped-up billfish will “switch” onto the natural bait that has taken its place. This then allows the angler to freespool the bait on the bite and make sure the fish has it well inside its mouth before striking, a sure fire way to secure a solid hook-up.
This all sounds great, and it is, however there are a couple of drawbacks for the average fishermen that don’t receive a lot of coverage. The biggest of these is that the crew has to be switched on (no pun intended) at all times. Switch-baiting will not work, or at least not to its full potential, if you are not standing by manning the teaser lines, ready to pitch the bait at all times. To get the most out of this technique, you really do need to be ready to go as soon as a fish crashes the teaser.
Not everyone has the stamina to stay focused and sit there staring at a spread of teasers all day long. Most people’s minds will begin to wander after a few hours, and everyone has been guilty of having a midday snooze out there at some stage or another. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just means that there’s a chance your teasers will get nailed while you’re not paying attention and you may miss the fish.
Another drawback associated with switch-baiting is that it requires a certain degree of experience in handling a sometimes cumbersome game outfit. In the heat of the moment, when a fish is charging towards the back of the boat and everyone is shouting to make the switch, it can be very easy for an inexperienced angler to muff the pitch and overrun the reel. Likewise, if they do manage to get the bait out there without a problem, it is just as easy to get caught up in the excitement and forget to feather the spool when the fish nails the bait; again, the most likely outcome will be a nasty overrun followed promptly by a loud bust-off.
Of course, this is all part of the learning curve, and keen anglers will quickly work these little bugs out of their system. There is, however, another method of fishing that involves a similar technique to that of switch-baiting, only with a few less points to remember. It is a great alternative for anglers who have limited experience, and is also much easier for juniors and female anglers to master, as they may sometimes find it difficult to manipulate a heavy rod and reel in the manner needed to effectively switch-bait.
Having stumbled across it more out of necessity than anything else, I’m not really sure what it’s called, however I do know that like switch-baiting, there are plenty of anglers who have been doing it for a very long time. For want of a better term, I will refer to it here as “lure-switching” or “switch’n lures”.
In essence, lure-switching combines the best of both worlds for the average angler. It allows the additional “freedom” of lure trolling, and by that I mean that it doesn’t require the same degree of concentration and effort from the crew, but at the same time it gives a hook-up rate that is closer to that of switch-baiting.
Many anglers would be aware that when lure trolling, the hookup rate is often better on the “short” lures, or those that are closer to the boat, as opposed to the “long” lures; those that are running at the back of the spread or on the outriggers. This is due mainly to the fact that there is less line between the rod and the lure; less line means less stretch. It sounds pretty simple, but you will find that hooks will generally bite harder and faster when you try to set them on a shorter length of line.
Taking this into account, it would then seem logical that you should try to encourage fish to strike the short lures as opposed to the longs; and what is the best way to encourage them to eat the short lures? Teasing them in!
The other benefit of teasing a fish before getting it to bite a lure is that it will be a lot more aggressive and will usually line up the lure and smash it hard without missing. It sounds silly, but sometimes you really do have to wonder how marlin (stripes in particular) managed to reach the top of the food chain when you see how clumsy they can be while trying to eat a trolled lure.
So, how do you tease a fish into taking your short lures? Well, the simplest method would be to run your normal trolling spread, however before you send your long lures out, remove the hooks and run them bare. Set your short lures as you would normally, perhaps even a little closer than normal, and start trolling. If a fish nails one of your short lures straight away, then you’ve already got a reasonable chance of securing a solid hookup. If a fish charges in on one of the long teaser lures, then all you need to do is crank it in towards the boat and tease the fish up. As you wind it closer to the short lures, the angler should pick up the rod nearest to the fish and drop the short lure back in front of it. Holding the rod tip high and using it to steer the lure directly into the fish’s path, the crew should then be able to clear the teaser away from the fish, and after a couple of quick cranks from the angler to get his/her lure really smoking, the fish should happily switch over to the “hooked” lure and smash it without hesitating.
A good option for angler at this point is to drop the rod tip and back the drag off for a few seconds to let the fish turn away before striking. An alternative option, particularly useful for small fry and junior anglers, is to simply leave the rod in the holder for the strike, and use the teaser to draw the fish right to the hooked lure running short. Popping the teaser out at the last second, the fish should jump on the short lure that now takes its place. Most of the time, the hookup should be fairly solid.
You may not hook as many fish as you could if you were switching with live or dead baits, but at the same time, if you haven’t had much experience with freespooling fish or what have you, then it is more likely that you will lose less fish, as you have eliminated the initial pitch and reduced the chances of an overrun or mistake. It’s a bit of an each-way bet.
Lure-switching also lends itself very well to light tackle fishing, which was what my mates and I originally began using it for. We enjoy the sport of light tackle marlin fishing and mainly use eight and 10kg line. The only problem with running such light line classes is that the hookup rate on lures is very poor, due mainly to the light drag pressures that you are restricted to using.
In the areas that we fish, unless you stumble across a heavy concentration of bait, you usually have to cover a lot of ground to find a fish, so trolling is by far the most effective method. Also, quite often we will have beginner anglers onboard, so we want to try to keep things as easy and enjoyable for everyone as possible. Lure-switching allows us to do all of this, and still convert the majority of our strikes into solid hookups, even on eight and 10kg tackle. It’s kind of like “lazy man’s switch-baiting”, I guess. The other major draw card is that there’s no need to stop at the bait grounds and waste time trying to catch livies (which is sometimes harder than catching the marlin); likewise, there’s no need to spend time catching, storing and preparing dead baits. You just get out there, put the teasers and lures in the water and start fishing!
As a rough guide, our lure-switching spread will usually consist of the following: a Witchdoctor teaser running off one corner of the transom, with a daisy chain made of four or five large Moldcraft lures running on the surface on the opposite corner. The reason I prefer the Moldcrafts here is because they are serious marlin lures in their own right, but are relatively cheap, very tough and because it’s likely that the daisy chain is going to get thrown about savagely when it’s being cleared, these “soft” lures won’t do any damage to the boat or crew, nor will they get damaged themselves.
These two teasers work in unison to create plenty of activity right at the back of the boat. They help to raise fish and draw their attention to the shorter lures; and believe me, they work!
Once these are in the water, we will then set a larger, hookless lure on the third or fourth wave back off each outrigger. These are run off teaser reels that are mounted to the handrail on the flybridge, with the line running through a small pulley mounted halfway up the outrigger pole. It’s the skipper’s job to clear these teaser lures should a fish bite. If you’re fishing from a trailerboat, don’t have a teaser reel setup or don’t have outriggers, then an easier way to do this is to run the two teaser lures on heavy outfits straight out of the rodholders. Stagger their distances a little and you shouldn’t have any problems with tangling.
With a pair of hookless teaser lures running at the rear of the wash, all that remains to do is set a pair of smaller lures in close to the Witchdoctor and daisy chain. I like to run the lure that is on the daisy chain side right in close, only a few feet off the back of the chain. A smaller lure running in this position will rarely remain untouched if a fish comes up, as anything that rises to the Witchdoctor will quickly switch across to the daisy chain that is splashing away on the surface. Running your lure close to the end of the chain mimics what tuna fisherman try to achieve when running a hook in the last lure of their squid chains, that is; a weak “straggler” that’s trying to keep up with the pack, however doing it this way, you’re not fighting the added drag of a full daisy chain when a fish takes the lure. On the Witchdoctor side, a second lure is then run one or two waves behind the other and acts as an in between.
A spread like this would be a good starting point for anyone looking to try this technique, however there are a number of variations that can be brought into to play depending on the conditions and the fish you are chasing.
One simple variation that works well if you are short-crewed or the wind is blowing strongly across the pattern, is to run just a single teaser lure at the back of the wash, running down the centre or on the downwind side of the spread. By eliminating the second teaser line out the back, you have dramatically reduced the chance of tangling or fouling in rough weather. A larger lure works well in this instance, as it will hold in the water better and attract the marlin’s attention from further away. The other benefit of running a single teaser lure at the rear is that it means there is less gear to clear when a fish does come up, great for those who are fishing from small boats or with limited crew.
Another variation on the first spread described above is to run the exact same teaser set up (two hookless lures at the rear and the Witchdoctor/daisy chain combo off the transom) but place three “hooked lures” in the pattern instead of two. Set two lures running parallel to each other off each corner, right in close to the transom teasers, then place a third lure down the centre of the spread, anywhere from halfway to right inline with the rear teasers. This third lure running down the centre can act as a bit of an insurance policy against marlin that drop back from the close lures, or against missing strikes from other gamefish like tuna and mahi mahi.
There are endless possibilities as far as spreads are concerned when using this technique, but the two main points of the whole exercise are:
1: To minimize the amount of line between the angler and the fish at the time of striking.
2: To tease the fish and get it really “revved up” before presenting your hooked lure, hopefully resulting in much cleaner and more aggressive bite.
Keeping the above points in mind, this technique is infinitely adjustable and can be tailored to suit just about any boat or crew, no matter what your level of experience. All that’s needed is a little bit of imagination when setting your spread.
As a basic guide, we normally use larger, more active lures for our teasers. Something like the Marlin Magic “Tube”, which is unbeatable on really calm days, with the Moldcraft “Senior Bobby Brown”, Topgun “Apollo”, Marlin Magic “Ruckus” and Zacatak “Rocket” and “Rat” all making regular appearances in the pattern as well. Realistically, any lure will do the job, but it makes sense to stick to lures that are proven and very successful at raising the bites.
For the “hooked lures”, pretty much anything from the Zacatak range is a safe bet. Stick to the “Mini” range for 10kg tackle and under, and upgrade to the “Medium” lures for 15kg and over. The reason these lures work so well for this purpose, aside from the obvious fact that they are well-proven fish catchers, is that their cupped face and straight-running, “predictable” action makes them very easy for an excited marlin to line up and smash. The “Mini Rocket” in particular has proven quite deadly on the light gear. It doesn’t seem to matter whereabouts in the spread this lure is running; quite often the fish will simply rise straight onto it without even worrying about the teasers!
Getting beyond the technical side of things, “switch’n lures” is a fantastic way to fish for marlin, especially for anglers with limited experience or those who don’t have the predilection to prepare, rig and maintain baits all day long. Of course, it does have its flaws like any method of fishing, but at the same time, it has been used effectively to win tournaments and catch records. And besides, there is still no technique in marlin fishing that is truly 100 per cent effective. At the very least, switch’n lures is a great way to break up the monotony of everyday lure trolling and have some fun playing with fish and watching them get revved up before they eat your lures. Why not give it a try this season? Chances are you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.