This is not marlin 101, but the advanced class for those looking to change things up a little and catch more Southern California marlin. The technique discussed in this article may sound good when read, but prove difficult to wrap your head around once you are actually on the water, where the marlin are.
You’ll need to start with a set of 4 or 5 soft head marlin jigs. I like the Moldcraft Standard Wide Range, and the Moldcraft soft birds. The Wide Range swims good both on the flat line and in the rigger, and stays in the water on semi rough days. Rig the Wide Range with 12′-15′ of light leader material. I use 90# Seaguar or Berkley flourocarbon. I really can’t express enough how important it is to find the leader in the packs that have it wrapped in big coils. The small plastic leader dispensers give the leader way too much memory, and that memory seriously affects the way the jig swims. You can (and I sometimes do) go lighter on the leader, as you will not be catching any marlin on these jigs. Do not rig any hooks on these jigs, just a bead and a perfection loop knot or crimp to keep the jig from being pulled off the leader by a hungry marlin. (trust me)
For the birds I also use light leader, and rig them with a snap swivel and bead behind the head. The swivel is for attaching to the Wide Range marlin jig leader, and should be buried inside the skirt. Keep these leaders short. I use 6′-10′ for easy storage when you need to get things out of the way quickly. The length of the lure leader has to do with swimming action, and keeping the swivels out of the water, so don’t try to shorten those. I also like the squid daisy chains from Moldcraft. Again, I re-rig these with lighter leader, sometimes flourocarbon.
Once on the water, use those gyros and all the intel you have to find the fish. I will troll your standard marlin jigs with hooks while looking for the break or weed line I want to fish hard. This will not be a trip where you bounce from high spot to high spot. You will find the marlin and stay there. This is where most guys get seriously tripped up. Understand that when you find the bait, birds and life you are looking for, and have some intel that told you there is marlin there, stay there. The area of life may sometime be a tiny “postage stamp” of conditions. Don’t let anything other that those conditions evaporating make you leave where the fish are. You may even want to turn your VHF off, seriously.
Now deploy your soft heads in a symmetrical pattern. Flat lines short, and where your boat gets bit short. Adjust for weather obviously, but you already know that because this is an advanced marlin class. Set both flat lines perfectly even, and apply the minimum drag necessary to keep line from coming off the reel. For the flat lines I either use a Moldcraft Soft Bird with a Moldcraft Wide Range attached to the swivel and swimming behind. It is important that all your leaders are exactly the same length for this. Getting the bird/jig combo perfectly set so that the bird is “fluttering” and the jig is swimming takes a little adjustment, and patience. It’s worth it. If the bird is being pulled out of the water by the rod tip, attach the trolling line to the reel handle with a rubber band, lowering the line and helping the bird do it’s thing properly.
Sometimes I will choose the Moldcraft Squid Daisy Chains on the flat lines. Same principle applies here. I never mix them up by putting out one daisy chain and one bird/jig combo. You’ll find out why later in this article. For the outside (rigger) lines I use just the Moldcraft Wide Range if the jig is going to be trolled in an outrigger. Birds get pulled up by riggers, and daisy chains have too much drag for what we are doing here. On bigger boats I will troll outside lines from the rod holder, and not use the riggers at all. This condenses the spread, and keeps all the jigs easier to watch. (and trust me, you’ll be watching the jigs) The outside lines also need to be even, whether they are in the riggers or run from the rod tips on the outside. Run the outside jigs one wave longer than the flat lines, and never held down by a rubber band on the reel handle. Like this, you’ll be able to maneuver at will without tangles.
Now for the bait portion of this lesson. Your typical marlin baitcaster is a 7′ parabolic rod with large guides for knots to easily pass through. I use the same rods for dropbacks as I do for casting on feeders or tailers. A reel in the shape and line capacity of a Penn 500 (please don’t use an actual Penn 500) filled with either 16, 20 or 30# mono works great. Don’t overfill the reel, as there will be knots that need to fit on the top of the line. I wind the line in a “U” shape to accommodate the knots down the middle of the spool.
I tie a bimini twist in the main line to double the line. Some call this a shock leader, but I do it for the purpose of connecting the 30# to the bait leader (typically 90# flouro). For the connection to the leader, I use an albright knot. I will don gloves and pull as hard as I can on both of these knots, EVERY TIME. When it comes time to pull on a fish, I know for sure the knots are good. Tie the knots fresh every trip, no exceptions. This year I have been experimenting with wind on leaders, where the 30# fits inside a section of hollow spectra, and the leader fits inside the other end of the same section of spectra. That in itself is a whole other article/class. Finally, for lengths I use a short double line of 5′ or less, and leader length of 12′ or less. (We’ll add more leader next paragraph)
For the end of the leader I tie in a 150# Berkley barrel (not ball bearing) swivel, then another 2 to three feet of 90# flouro, then the hook. I like the 6/0 Gamakatsu HD Live Bait hook, but something similar will do just fine. Since this class if full of marlin experts, I will say that the circle hooks work great if you don’t set the hook when you get a bite. I do not know the name and numbers of the circle hooks, but any good local tackle store can help you with that. I use a 4 turn uni knot for the hook, and after pulling the knot tight and testing it, I slide the knot loose at it’s base so the hook can swing freely, like a ringed hook. I personally do not use ringed hooks, as they tend to foul while in a bait swimming in the bait tank. Same reason I don’t use ball bearing swivels, they foul and cause the line to twist as the bait swims in the tank.
Once fishing and in an area where you might find a marlin, pin a bait on and keep it in the bait tank, ready to cast or drop back in the blink of an eye. If you have multiple bait tanks, have every one filled with a bait pinned on and ready. I pin the hook through the bait on it’s back, behind the head. Just over the gill covers, down the middle of the back, there is a set of tendons that hold well and keep the bait alive indefinitely when done properly. You may like to hook your baits differently, and thats fine. I have tried all the other ways, and through the back of the head is what has always worked best for me.
Now you have your hook-less softheads out and your baits pinned on and ready, it’s time to talk about how to do this bait and switch deal. Assign one of your crew to watch the jigs. More than one if you have them available. If you hear a clicker for even just a split second, drop a bait. If you see a meter mark that looks good to you (yet another article), drop a bait. With the jigs out the way I described, you can pick up and run to feeders or tailers without worry. When you hear a rubber band snap, or a clicker chirp, you can look back and see what jig got bit. Why? Because all your jigs are set symmetrically and the one that got bit will be out of place. Have your crew place the jigs in the exact same spot, every time.
When you get a bite on one of the jigs, do not slow the boat (or stop). Keep the speed constant and the fish will stay with the boat. Sometimes, you can have the angler wind the rod with the jig or teaser the fish is on with one hand, and drop the bait with the other. Basically he’ll be hand feeding the marlin. I always play it like there is a whole school of fish on the jigs, even if I only see one. Drop as many baits as possible, and have crewmembers do double duty (winding teasers while dropping back baits.) Remember, the boat is still moving at trolling speed. If the marlin just will not come off the jig and eat the bait, I will turn the boat to the side the jig is on (that the fish is keyed in on.) This puts the jig into clear water, and slows it down a tiny bit. It also puts the bait in clear water, and more often than not, the marlin quickly switches over and eats the bait.
Now I offer this explanation for those who are asking “why”. First off, with no hooks there will be almost no chance of the jigs picking up eel grass or kelp. As all you experts know, marlin are on the bait which is often along weed lines that are next to impossible to troll through with traditional hooked marlin jigs. Next, we all know that Souther California marlin eat jigs differently that ones in Mexico or Hawaii. A very high percentage of our jig fish fall off because they just aren’t as aggressive with the jigs here. Way too many opportunities are missed when a marlin gets hooked on a jig and the crew clears all the rest of the jigs from the spread. The traditional way of hooking a jig fish is to throttle up and “set the hook with the boat”, thus removing any chance of hooking more fish on dropback baits. Finally, with soft heads the marlin can whack away at the jigs without getting stung and scared away. The lighter leaders help the jigs swim better, enticing more strikes. The whole package will bring more fish where you want them, behind the boat.
So give modern bait and switch a try, and see how you like it. For me, the hardest part is finding a crew that will commit completely to the drill. For most crews, the thought of pulling jigs with no hooks is more than they can bear. I do know for a fact that this method works incredible. You can take the basics I’ve outlined here and do your own twist, like with ballyhoo instead of live baits and softheads. Many do, with professional, tournament winning results.