I was sitting in the fighting chair, just dozing, the drone of the diesel lulling me into a relaxed stupor, my mind drifting into consciousness of my surroundings then drifting off into dreamland. Zing! Just a small sound, but I jerked my mind back to real time. I opened my eyes and searched the rods—no hookup. I looked back to the four lures bouncing along, skimming the surface throwing off a large splash, then diving deep, nothing unusual, but I could swear I heard that small zip as a little line was pulled off the reel.
What’s that? A shadow, maybe, something dark seemed to be in the middle of the pattern. My heart began to pound. The shadow moved over behind the lure on the short flat line. I jumped for the rod, looked out, but it was gone.
I scanned the wake, looking for any sign. Nothing. The water behind the right rigger lure looked darker! I reached for that rod just as a bill came out of the water right behind the lure. That marlin looked like a telephone pole swimming in the water, and it was lit up like a neon light was strapped on its side. The marlin’s fin was cutting a wake through the water just behind my lure, the bill was slashing from side to side, water flying everywhere as the marlin attacked the lure. Ten seconds of frantic action behind the lure, but no take. “Do something,” I said to myself. The marlin is still there, his bill out of the water, his mouth open, spray in the air as he chases the lure. I reach down to the reel, slip the drag into free spool for just a second, then slam the lever drag back to the strike position. The lure drops back, the marlin instinctively closes its mouth onto the lure, the ultra sharp hook drives into the marlin’s mouth and the reel starts peeling off line at a rate that is hard to believe. I’m hooked up!
I don’t know of any moment in any sport that is more exciting than the strike of a marlin. They are the most thrilling fish to fight, and more often than not you spot them before they take. The anticipation builds as they swim in the wake deciding which lure to take. Then all hell breaks loose as the hook sets and the marlin starts dancing across the top of the water, peeling off line at a pace that boggles the mind and tears up drag systems and freezes reels.
Every great billfish location has its own techniques and effective methods for catching them. Each place has different baitfish, different currents, and different infrastructures. So if you are going to Baja, to Hawaii, to Panama or Costa Rica you are going to have to adapt to the systems employed there. All are fun, and all require some degree of angling skill if you are going to enjoy them to the utmost.
Eastcape and Cabo San Lucas—Marlin Headquarters
Situated at the tip of the Baja peninsula of Mexico, Cabo San Lucas has perhaps the most productive waters in the world for marlin. And there are a lot of sailfish there as well. The waters from the Sea of Cortez mix the with the currents coming down from the Pacific side, and blend with the waters off mainland Mexico producing a concentration of baitfish and predators that is unmatched anywhere else. The region is legendary for its dorado (mahi mahi), large tuna, good wahoo fishing, roosterfish, blue marlin, striped marlin and sailfish. At times they also hold some numbers of black marlin, pargo, sierra, yellowtail and many other wonderful species.
While fishing techniques for the smaller gamefish do vary somewhat, for billfish the techniques and tackle are the same out of Cabo San Lucas and out of the Eastcape so we will talk about techniques that apply to both areas. The biggest reasons to choose between the two areas are cost, with the Eastcape area being much less expensive, but more limited in options for those staying on shore. Cabo is more expensive and much more “touristy”, but does have more shorebound activities and better eating and shopping.
Fishing at either location can be done in smaller pangas (open boats about 22’ feet long and outboard powered) or in cruisers. The pangas cost a lot less and are more limited in range and are not as comfortable as cruisers, usually chartered by those who are primarily after small gamefish who hope to maybe get a shot at a billfish along the way. Most serious billfishermen prefer cruisers unless the fish are known to be very close.
There are three types of marlin in Cabo and the Eastcape: striped marlin, blue marlin, and black marlin. Blacks are only caught incidentally, with the majority being stripes. Blues are the big ones, running from 150 lbs. to 1000 lbs., and requiring much heavier tackle if you are to land one. They fight hard and bust a lot of tackle! Summer and fall is best for blacks and blues, with stripes available year around. Striped marlin average 120 to 180 lbs. and are very tough. They are also more acrobatic than blues and blacks, putting on a show that an angler will remember for a lifetime. All marlin are caught using similar techniques although there are some specialized techniques for blues that tournament fishermen use. But for the average angler, the techniques are the same, just use heavier gear for the blues.
A Typical Day at Cabo
We were met at the dock by Juan, our dockmaster, taken down to our boat and introduced to our skipper. We bought some bottled water and soft drinks and a couple of beers which we stowed in the ice chest, got our lunches, purchased when we checked in the night before, loaded our rods into the rod holders. Then we were off! First stop was the bait guy where we picked up 10 live baits, a mixed bag of caballito (bigeye scad) and green mackerel. This cost us $20! Two bucks a bait, but necessary if you want to insure success.
Then the run out to the marlin grounds, a high speed run for about an hour. Suddenly the boat slowed.
“Marlin! Live bait! LIVE BAIT!”
Pandemonium! I jumped for my bait rod, the mate ran to the live bait well and grabbed a mackerel. I handed him my hook at the same time as the captain started maneuvering the boat in to position just ahead of the marlin. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the marlin tail slowly undulating as it swam, about fifty yards off.
My heart was pounding like a jackhammer, and I felt sweat trickling down my back as I put my reel in free spool, lobbed the bait in the general direction of the marlin and fed it line as the bait swam frantically away from the boat. The marlin turned towards the bait and I knew it had seen it. The bait actions became even more frantic, its tail vibrating the line as it dashed for freedom. Suddenly the line started coming off the reel a little faster and lot more smoothly. Pickup! I let the line freespool, not putting any tension on the line, just stopping the reel from overrunning. The line stopped for just a heartbeat, then started just peeling off the reel. I slammed the drag into the strike position, reeled down to get any slack or stretch out of the line and set the hook.
I looked out as the marlin came out of the water, spray flying in every direction, his tail wildly gyrating, then a huge splash as he landed sideways in the water. Immediately he was out of the water again, jumping ten or fifteen feet into the air. He was flying away from me, my line going off the reel at a rate that is hardly believable. Half the spool was gone and he was still jumping, swimming and greyhounding away from me faster than our boat can run. Gradually he slowed, then stopped. I looked at my spool and saw that I still had about a quarter of a spool.
Quickly I started to put pressure on the fish. Pump, wind, pump, wind. The fish is sounding, swimming deeper as I try to gain line. I would gain some on every downward stroke. Pump, wind, but now I’m not gaining, I’m slowly losing line.
“Now that the fish is settled down its time for a little more drag,” I say to myself. I inch the lever drag up over the strike button, adding a couple of pounds of pressure. That does it, I can gain line now. Pump, wind. Pump, wind. “Pace yourself,” I keep reminding my body, “you are going to have a lot more work to do here before this guy is released.”
Finally after much pumping I see the line starting to rise. The fish is coming up! I look out and about 100 yards away the marlin is flying across the surface making jump after jump, spray flying, his head shaking and his body driving huge sheets of water into the air as he crashes back to the surface. The captain aligns the stern towards the fish and starts slowly backing down on the fish. I reel as fast as my arm will let me and we come onto the fish quickly. It makes a couple of feeble, tired jumps and I know I’ve got him. The mate grabs the leader and leads the fish to the boat. The captain has come down, grabs the fish’s bill, reaches in and removes the hook.
The marlin sits there beside the boat for a moment, his sides all lit up like a neon light, still mad from the fight. He gives a tentative tail waggle and encounters no resistance. Sensing that he is free he swims into the depths. I’m elated, a high like no other, catching this king of all gamefish.
The captain puts the boat in gear and we continue toward the marlin grounds. Fifteen minutes later we put in the lures and start trolling. If we are lucky we will get a marlin to come up in our pattern and we will see the strike. Other times the lure strike will be blind. Sometimes the marlin will swim in the lures but won’t take one. That is the time for the dropback!
“Live bait! Live bait!” As soon as a marlin is spotted in the pattern, the angler designated as the dropback angler grabs his bait rod and rushes to the bait tank where the mate will put a live bait on the hook. The captain will slow the boat and the angler drops the bait back to the marlin. Just drop it back in free spool, just like the marlin take above. As soon as the bait is picked up the captain will stop the boat. When you think the marlin is ready then set the hook—this is usually just a few seconds
There is technique to this bait presentation. The marlin usually will not immediately swallow a bait. Instead he will catch the fish sideways and swim with it tightly in his mouth, crushing it. This is when you must free spool the line. Once the marlin is ready to eat it will drop the bait, take it back in head first and swallow it. The angler can sense this happening. The line comes slowly off the reel–the marlin is swimming with the bait in his mouth. The line stops, just for an instant—this is the marlin turning the bait to swallow. Then the line starts coming off, usually a little faster than previously–this is the marlin, now satisfied, moving back into hunting mode, looking for another bait. Trust your senses as you visualize what is happening. I have seen times when I have had to wait as long as 45 seconds before the marlin finally ate it. Pull too soon and you’ll not hook the fish. But normally about six to ten seconds is right. If the fish jumps he has felt the hook and you need to set it NOW.
[This brings up one of my pet peeves: Often in Mexico the boat captain will try to help you set the hook by accelerating when he thinks the fish has swallowed the bait. If you think that this is the time, then push the reel drag lever up to strike and go along with his program. If you don’t think the captain is right, hold your right hand very high and shout “ALTO” (stop!).
[I think it is very easy to set the hook on a live bait, and you darn sure don’t need help from the captain when this is going on. Once the fish is hooked I do like to see the captain accelerate, AFTER the hookup, just to make sure that we don’t get slack in the line if the fish swims directly toward the boat faster than I can reel. Just you be ready and take control if the captain gets over anxious on the gas.]
With lures there isn’t so much technique. If the fish hits the lure it usually is hooked by the speed of the boat and the strike drag. You can set the hook a little more if you like by a series of short, sharp, pulls on the rod, but it is usually not necessary. Just pick up the rod and enjoy the fight. TIP: If the fish is swimming in the pattern but not biting, and you don’t have bait for a dropback, try dropping a lure back about 30’ or so, and then reel it back as fast as you can. Sometimes the crazy action of a fast moving lure will entice a reluctant fish.
After a good day of fishing it is normal to tip the crew. Usually the tip is about 10 per cent of the boat rental, total, shared by the anglers on board. If you run overtime for the day because you are on fish, then tip some extra. When fishing with someone we usually each take three rods on board, two lure rods and one bait rod. Sometimes we put out four trolling rods, and sometimes only three, it just depends on what the crew prefers. We keep the bait rod ready, and I wear my fighting belt from the moment we start running until I hit the dock again—you never know when you will spot a tailing marlin.
Incidentally caught fish happen a lot when targeting marlin. I have caught yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and dorado frequently while chasing marlin. I have even caught yellowtail and pargo. A typical day means you will catch fish if you are going out of Cabo or the Eastcape.
Stand up Versus Fighting Chair.
The long range boats pioneered stand up gear for tuna, but marlin fishermen were quick to adopt it. Standing up and fighting a marlin using a fighting belt is more fun, and it also makes you better able to fight a fish, especially near the boat. For striped marlin and small blues and blacks it is just a better way to fish. If you are not in good shape buy a harness as well as a fighting belt, and clip the harness to the rings on the reel. The fighting chairs on Mexican boats leave a lot to be desired anyway, often being in disrepair. In Hawaii I use a chair, in Mexico I think you are better off using stand up gear.
Sailfish in Cabo
Pacific Sailfish are the fastest fish ever clocked in the ocean! They exceed 70 mile per hour for short bursts. Their fight is more of a sprint than the marathon struggle with a marlin, but it is totally spectacular. When they first hit they may go in any direction, leaping high out of the water, that sail just flying as they whip their body from side to side. Twice I have had sailfish come flying in after the hookup and hit the boat with their body. They go completely crazy as soon as they feel the hook. But the fight is usually a short one, seldom exceeding ten minutes. These fish go so crazy with their greyhounding and acrobatic leaps that they burn themselves out in a short time. But what a short time! Have someone ready with a camera and you will get the pictures of a lifetime.
The beauty of a sailfish is something to behold. That huge sail, the iridescent colors, the spotted dots and lit up stripes up and down its body make the sailfish the most attractive fish to photograph in the ocean. Once the fight is over, take a moment and enjoy one of nature’s treats as the fish swims alongside the boat. It is a picture you will carry in your mind for the rest of your life!
The sailfish in Cabo are caught just as if you are marlin fishing. The major difference is that when presenting a live bait to a sailfish they often toy much longer with the bait, sometimes dropping it and picking it up several times before eating it (and sometimes, not!). In other places there are specialized techniques for sails, but in Cabo they are treated just like marlin.
When a sailfish is spotted there are usually more around. They often travel in packs of three or four. So if you hook up on a sail be sure to keep a live bait in the water for a little while longer and see if you can’t get a double. That is also true of marlin, of course, but even more so of sails.
Marlin and Sailfish Equipment in Cabo
Boat equipment in Cabo is pretty junky. Bring your own and you’ll have a lot more fun. You will need a couple of rods (as below), three or more rigged lures ( I bring 30 or so, but I am a fanatic), and live bait or circle hooks and spools of 100# and 150 # leader. Don’t forget the hat, the rod belt, swivels and sunscreen (spf 16 or more). Drink water all day, keep hydrated.
If you are going after the biggies, blues and blacks, then go to heavier tackle. 50 lb. if you are really a good experienced angler, and 80# to 130# if you want to land most of them. You will need heavy reels such as Penn Internationals in 50W to 80W sizes, or similarly sized Shimano Tiagras, Finn Nors, or Accurates. Most anglers use mono exclusively when fishing marlin, although I like a backing of braided line because you can get more on a spool. Two speed reels are standard, and you will really bless them if the fish goes down and the fight is long. Stiff 5.5’ to 6.5’rods rated for the line strength used are needed, and you should have roller guides.
For striped marlin 20# (for really experienced anglers) to 30# (for the rest of us) gear is about right, and a reel that holds at least 450 yards of 30# mono. Some anglers prefer the comfort of 50#, but it is overkill. You will still need quality reels, these billfish are tough! Penn Internationals, Shimano Tiagras and others, in 20 or 30 size work well. The h3er two speed graphite reels work well also. Penn Formula 10kg and 15kg (two speeds), Shimano two speed 20 and 30’s, and smaller Accurates, new Daiwas and others will work. Any rod rated for 30# test will work. I like 5.5’ to 6’ for trolling and 6.5’ to 7’ for casting live bait. Roller guides are needed if you get a tough marlin.
Don’t even think of bringing one of those small salmon reels that hold about 250 yards of 30# line. If you don’t get spooled your reel will burn up or just plain explode. I have seen all of those happen when people go cheap. Buy or borrow a good reel if you are going to Cabo.
Lures should be 9” to 12” long for most fishing. Up to 14’ for blues. These are the squid type lures with the heavy heads. Color preferences vary by angler, but the green mackerel and black/purple combos are the bread and butter of tournament anglers. Red or orange in the middle of the day work well. “Bleeding mackerel”, a combination of red and yellow, are used very successfully and are a favorite of Mexican skippers (maybe because they like the colors?). “Petroleros” a brown and orange combo is another favorite. Smaller heads, ¾” to 1” in diameter, are usually preferred for striped marlin and larger diameters for blues, but there is plenty of crossover when fishing for either species. I like straight running lures with flat heads, but many prefer the more agitated action of lures with scooped out head shapes. Most anglers use double hooks rigged at 90 degrees to each other in sizes from 9/0 to 12/0 to match the lure size. The most popular hook is the Mustad 7731.
Leaders for lures should be about 15’. IGFA allows up to 15’ for line sizes 20# and below, and longer leaders for 30# to 130#. For most of the striped marlin a lure leader of 125# to 200# mono works well. If you are targeting blues then 250# to 600# mono is usually used because the fight can last a lot longer and the bill will eventually abrade the leader. Most mates prefer mono because they “wire” the leader (that is, they grab the leader to control the fish at the boat) and mono is much easier to hold onto than either spectra or wire.
Lures should be attached to the line with a ball bearing snap swivel. The line is usually doubled for the last 10’ or so, created using a bimini twist or spider knot. If you want to lose a fish, or get your line so twisted it is unusable, then try using a barrel swivel—ball bearing swivels only.
Live Bait Rigs
Live bait hooks in sizes from 7/0 to 9/0 work well for most bait in Cabo. Owner, Gamakatsu, Eagle Claw and Mustad all make good hooks. You can tie a live bait hook to the leader with a perfection loop (also called the Mexican loop) or you can purchase one of the live bait hooks that has a small welded ring on the hook. The important thing is to have the hook swing while the fish is swimming so that the action looks natural.
Circle hooks are gaining acceptance and are now usually required in release tournaments because they almost always hook the fish in the side of the mouth facilitating a healthy release. Go up about one or two sizes from a live bait hook when using circle hooks.
Leaders for live bait should be lighter than those used for trolling. Most anglers us 100#–either mono or fluorocarbon–, but some drop down to 80# and even 60# if the fish seem finicky. Some anglers tie the leader directly to the line (Albright knot), while others prefer a small (90# to 135#) swivel.
Special Techniques for Circle Hooks
Circle hooks require a special technique to work properly when using live bait. Once you get a pick up, point the rod directly at the fish and put as little pressure on the line as possible as you free spool the line out. Once you are sure that the billfish has eaten the bait, while the rod is still pointing at the fish, making sure that the fish is still swimming away from you, GRADUALLY increase the drag up to the strike position. This gradual increase in pressure lets the geometry of the circle hook work. The hook comes out of the gut, works its way to the corner of the jaw, and then penetrates and turns for a secure hook up. If you put too much pressure on the hook too fast then the hook comes flying out of the fish’s stomach and doesn’t have time to work its way over to the corner of the mouth before it is pulled entirely out of the mouth. Slow and steady results in sure hookups. Besides being healthier for the fish, the hook rarely pulls and the line is at an angle where it seldom can fray. Overall, a big plus for those who use circle hooks.
The Kona Coast of Hawaii, The Big Island, is where to go if you want to catch the really big ones. Here is the only land for 1000+ miles in any direction and migrating blue marlin come by here in good numbers, especially in the summer and fall. They are around the other islands in this group as well, but the water is frequently uncomfortable due to the unrelenting trade winds. The leeward side, the protected side, is what the Kona Coast means in Hawaiian, and that is why it is so popular with fishermen. Flat water and Hawaii—it doesn’t get any better.
There are many charter boats here, most of them big cruiser type battlewagons, and available at reasonable daily rates, starting at about $500 for a long day, and going up from there. These are really nice boats with good tackle and big well maintained fighting chairs. They are outfitted for just one thing: large blue marlin. This is where the 1,376 lb. all tackle blue marlin record was caught by Jay deBeaubien. Hawaiians measure their season by how many “granders” were caught each year. A “grander” is a fish weighing more than 1000 lbs. Sometimes several are caught in a couple of months. Not that you can’t catch smaller striped marlin, especially early in the year, but the boats and the captains are geared for the big ones.
Fishing is often a short run, sometimes right outside the harbor which is just a couple of miles south of the airport. Large 130# outfits are the norm here and each boat will provide good equipment for the angler. Several people can fish on a boat, but the reality is that you will likely only get one or two shots at one in a day, and that is a good day. I fished Kona for 28 days before I got my first blue marlin strike, and then I caught five in four days. The fishing is somewhat slow here, but hooking up to a big blue is what it is all about. You can’t believe the power of that first run, the mind blowing speed with which they can strip line off a reel set at 35 lbs. of drag. That is why most of the boats have the really heavy gear.
I have seen blue marlin hit a 50 lb. outfit and watched the angler put the reel into free spool and point the rod right at the fish for zero drag and seen the line snap! The pressure of the marlin dragging that line through the water at that speed snapped the 50# line like it was nothing. Lighter gear like 30# stuff usually just can’t survive that first run of a really big marlin. But if you do survive, then you at least have a shot, so some guys keep coming back for more. Many of the light line records for blues were set here.
Lure fishing predominates in this area (those top water marlin lures were invented here), but often someone will catch a skipjack or small yellowfin and rig it with a harness right through its nose and drop it back to free swim behind the boat. They’ll “troll” these tuna at four knots or so, dropping back and free spooling on a strike just like you’d live bait fish in Cabo. This technique is frequently deadly, and you often can catch the big ahi (yellowfin tuna) with this method.
Hawaiian skippers keep the fish. If you want to keep your fish when you go out, then be sure and discuss it with the captain ahead of time. Normally, you get your picture taken with the fish and then the fish buyer takes it away, crediting the boat’s account. There is some incidental catch of mahi mahi (called dorado in Mexico), wahoo and yellowfin and big eye tuna. There are a lot of tuna in the 100# to 250# class, many of which are caught on marlin trolling lures. I have caught five large tuna incidentally on lures while trolling for marlin off Kona myself.
Another fun fish is the Pacific Shortnosed Spearfish. This small relative of the marlin rarely exceeds 50 lbs. but is fun to catch, fighting something like a small stripe or sail. These fish are rare in other places but show up in good numbers in Hawaii on occasion and enliven many otherwise slow days.
Good water and the chance to catch a grander is what Kona is all about. If you want numbers then go to Mexico. On the other hand, the Big Island has wonderful hotels and spectacular scenery making it a perfect family vacation spot. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone bring there own equipment to Hawaii. It is heavy, expensive, and the boat has all you will need.
Mainland Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama for Sailfish
Mazatlan has similar fishing to Cabo with frequent catches of striped marlin, blue marlin and sailfish. It has also become something of a swordfish hot spot. Below there, mainland Mexico and further south offers only a few marlin and becomes primarily a sailfish fishery with only incidental marlin catches (although I caught my first blue marlin in Costa Rica on 20# sailfish gear on one of my better days, it went about 220 lbs). Tournament Anglers Association holds its annual tournament in Ixtapa/Ziahuatenejo in January. They sometimes average two sailfish per person per day and even more when it is red hot! On hot days some anglers catch more than ten sailfish. January through March are really hot there, and a little earlier in Acapulco.
Fishing for sailfish in these mainland countries is mostly the same. Dead bait is rigged with a single hook and skipped across the top of the water—hence the name “skip bait” fishing. The trick with this skip bait fishing is to hook the fishy, a very tough job. In tournaments it is common for people to talk about their score for the day by stating “I got 2 for 5”, or even “I got 1 for 9”, meaning that they got two fish for five strikes, or one fish for nine strikes. These sails are tough to hook! Respectable scores for experienced tournament anglers is about 60%, so don’t get frustrated when you miss a few. The nice part about sailfish fishing is that they are often so numerous that you can get a lot of shots during the day.
Normally the dead bait is included in the price of the charter and much of the fishing is done from pangas in places like Ziahuatenejo, and from cruisers more often in places with longer runs like Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Further south all of the runs are a little farther and it tends to be almost exclusively cruiser fishing. It is common in Costa Rica, for example, to run thirty or forty miles to the fishing grounds—pretty uncomfortable in a panga.
Prices on boats runs the gamut here, ranging from very reasonable in Ziahuatenejo (about $200 or so for a panga) to Guatemala where the price can be $600 to $1200 per day for a boat that can reach the sailfish grounds fairly quickly. You can negotiate a lower price for pangas, but don’t do it! The skipper will make up for the lower price by using less fuel. You might find yourself fishing 10 miles offshore when the fish are out 20 miles ?.
Skip Bait Gear
12# (for those who want a challenge) to 20# gear (for most of us) gets the job done for sails. Although they are nice, you don’t need roller guides for sails since the fight is usually a short one, but I’d still recommend them if you feel adventurous enough to use 12# gear. Reels must be quality reels. Remember you are catching the fastest fish in the ocean and that line is going to peel off that reel at 70 mph! I have seen reels smoke and seize up very quickly when a sail is putting on a show. Penn International 12 and 16 class reels will work well here, as well as graphite reels like a Shimano TLD 20. Two speeds aren’t necessary because the fight is usually a short one and the fish aren’t the type to sound and make you strain. Sails are a great fish because they don’t wear you out physically.
Normally you bring your own leaders and hooks. The mate (or captain on a panga) will rig up a number of dead baits for you. Leader length for sails is about 12’ to 15’. The problem with this long leader is that when the mate makes up the baits you end up with leader laying everywhere, getting tangled and in the way. If you coil it up and fasten it, then it isn’t available when you need to reload in a hurry—a common occurrence on sails. The solution is to have a two part leader. The first leader attaches to your line and is about 10’ to 11’ long. This has a small 90# to 135# snap swivel attached (Note: Use only ball bearing swivels.). The second part is a short 2’ to 3’ leader that has a loop to attach to the swivel and a hook on the other end. The smaller leader lets the mate rig the baits with the leaders hanging loosely but untangled, available for fast access when the action is hot.
Leaders are 60# to 100# test mono, either clear, pink or fluorocarbon. Hooks are 6/0 to 8/0 either the Mustad 95160 or Mustad 3407, or equivalent, for “J” hooks, and 8/0 to 11/0 for circle hooks. I recommend circle hooks. Once you get used to them (see the explanation above) you will catch more fish, and the release is much cleaner and healthier for the fish.
You should also bring a supply of egg sinkers in ½ oz. (two+ dozen or so for four days) and ¾ oz. (1 dozen) sizes. These can be used by the mate when rigging the skip bait so that the bait swims in a natural manner. He rigs the bait by first splitting the tail then puts the hook through the mouth of the bait coming out through the belly and sews it in. Then he sews the egg sinker just under the jaw to make it swim upright. That is the way you will get it from him. You can now do some tricks.
Well, tricks isn’t really what I’m talking about, but you can dress up the bait a little. Let me hasten to add that the very best angler I have ever seen at dead bait fishing, Smokey Molle from Florida, never dresses up his bait at all. He fishes it naturally. I don’t think he misses 10% of the fish that bite, he is that good. But most people like to fool around and make their bait more attractive, if for no other reason than to get more strikes than their buddy on the same boat. Here are some options:
1. Drop a 3” hoochie over the bait’s nose. Any color will do, but I like purple. This is a nice, clean, easy to do improvement.
2. Drop a Sea Witch over the bait’s nose. I like blue and white, but many colors work. This gives the bait incredible action, and in my experience, gets a lot more strikes than any other improvement. Also, though, in my experience, it is a lot harder to hook them with the Sea Witch, resulting in a lot of frustration.
3. Use an Ilander in any color over the bait’s nose. This has the same problem as the Sea Witch and costs a lot more.
4. Put a hoochie on your primary leader (the 10’ leader that attaches to your line) at the swivel so that it is swimming a couple of feet in front of your dead bait. This seems to attract the fish and doesn’t seem to affect the hook set. You can use the hoochie with or without and egg sinker
5. Put the egg sinker on your primary leader just above the swivel instead of on the bait’s jaw. You get a lot of hits, still, and practitioners swear to hook up more often with the egg sinker off the bait.
6. Just about any other innovation you might want to try. I have seen spinners and other attractors work well. And in one memorable case I saw an angler take the lid from a bottle of Jack Daniels, punch a hole through the center and drop it over the head of a dead bait. The action was deadly. It worked so well I tried to empty a bottle of Jack myself, just so I could use the lid!
You should bring your own rods and reels to most of the southern locations. The gear on the boats is very spotty and in some boats is just plain bad. For sails at least two rods per person, and a supply of hoochies or other lures, swivels, egg sinkers, hooks, and leaders. You can also bring a couple of feathers just in case you decide to troll for a dorado on the way home.
BLACK MARLIN IN PANAMA
The blacks occur in good numbers off Panama in the winter months. If you are looking to notch your rod with a black marlin catch either try there or the Australia Great Barrier Reef out of Cairns in the fall. Tropic Star Lodge runs a number of 31’ Bertrams and can target blacks if you really want to go after them. Of course, that lodge is famous for the really world class sailfishing as well as some good large tuna fishing.