THERE’S nothing new about trolling deadbaits for marlin. In fact, before decent trolling lures became readily available in Australia, deadbait trolling was perhaps the most widely practiced technique for catching billfish right around the country.
The mighty split-tailed mullet and the humble skipping gar were probably responsible for more billfish captures during these times than anything else. However, as decent trolling lures became more common, and skirted lure trolling gained serious popularity with Aussie anglers throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, deadbait trolling and the art of rigging baits gradually took a backseat position to the newfound “glamour” of brightly coloured skirts, mother-of-pearl shells, resin heads and frothy smoke trails. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that there would be plenty of keen billfish anglers out there today who have never trolled a deadbait for marlin, having fished exclusively with lures (and perhaps the odd livebait) for their entire billfishing career.
Of course, the art of preparing, rigging and trolling deadbaits is not completely lost. The majority of professional charter crews still rely heavily on deadbait trolling as their preferred tactic. In certain areas, especially “up north” in the heavy tackle fishery off Cairns, or the light tackle black marlin and sailfish fisheries along the Queensland and northern WA coastlines, trolling with baits is still the most widely practiced technique. While many crews will troll lures at certain times in these fisheries, they always appear to be a lot more confident with a couple of well-rigged baits skipping or swimming in their wash.
Lure trolling and livebaiting certainly have their time and place as well; the key is knowing when and how to apply each of the various techniques to maximise your chances of success. Having the ability to prepare, rig and present a trolled deadbait is a skill that every billfish angler should have at his or her disposal. For the purposes of this article, when referring to a deadbait I’m referring to a rigged “skipbait” and not a swimming bait. To be honest, I don’t know too many anglers who troll swim baits outside of those aforementioned Queensland/WA-based fisheries; however, there are plenty who are pulling skipbaits, almost exclusively in some areas – so that is what we will cover here.
While piecing together this article, I had a chat with Capt. Steve “Hoggy” Haygarth – a successful professional marlin skipper – to gather his views on this deadly technique.
Hoggy was quick to point out that skipbaiting is his preferred method for targeting the average striped and black marlin in his native NSW waters between Port Stephens and Sydney. Whilst he also employs a lot of switchbaiting in his program, it seems more often than not there is a pair of well-rigged, skipping slimies in his wake.
Hoggy’s reasoning is simple enough: skipping baits allows him to cover almost as much ground as he would when lure trolling, but gives him a much better hook-up rate due to the fish striking and swallowing the baits in a much more natural and purposeful manner then when they are “swatting” at a lure.
It was also interesting to note that he believes skipbaiting will catch him just as many marlin as livebaiting would, minus the boredom associated with drifting around waiting for a blind, lacklustre bite on a deep-set livebait. He also explained that half of the excitement of marlin fishing is in “the bite”, so trolling skipbaits allows him and his crew to watch as the fish cruise in behind the bait, all “lit-up” and ready to play the game.
When to Skip?
There was one important caveat when Hoggy nominated skipbaiting as his preferred tactic, and that was that there must be bait present in the general area that he’s fishing. In other words, skipbaiting is the “go-to” technique when you have found good markings of bait through an area. When there’s little or no bait and you’re fishing in “search mode”, then lure trolling or, even better, switchbaiting, tend to be more effective options. Luckily, “skipping” and “switching” go hand-in-hand with one another, as you can use the same rigged baits for both techniques.
A tactic employed by many successful crews is to pull teasers around in switchbait mode until they start marking bait on the sounder. Once they’ve found good bait holding through an area they’ll replace the teasers with skipbaits and slow the boat down to work the zone more thoroughly. This is arguably the most effective way to consistently find and catch the average 60-100kg striped or black marlin, in central to southern NSW waters at least. More than the odd big blue has turned up to crash the party, too!
It’s no real secret that the humble slimy mackerel is one of the favourite prey items for a hungry billfish. They would undoubtedly be the most commonly used bait (both live and dead) for marlin in NSW waters, and indeed along much of the East Coast. It should come as no surprise then, that the mighty slimy makes a supreme skipbait. Other species that make a good skipbait include bonito (which are almost as highly regarded as jumbo slimies), big sea gars, sauries, cowanyoung, big yakkas, frigate mackerel and small skipjack (striped tuna) and mackerel tuna up to around 2-3kg in weight. It’s not a bad idea to mix things up and run a larger bait (a bonito, for example), and a smaller one (say, a slimy). Quite often the fish will first rise to the larger “teaser” bait and then switch across to eat the smaller one – other times though they will simply pick one off and smash it, big or small.
Rigging & Setup
There are a number of different ways to rig a (small) skipbait. The method I use is about as quick and simple as they come. With a little practice, you can knock out a skipping slimy in about 60 seconds. Check out a how-to video at fishingworld.com.au for a step-by-step run through of my preferred rigging technique.
The same rigging method detailed on the Fisho site can be used for most of the other baitfish mentioned earlier; the only real exceptions being skinny baits like garfish and sauries, which both share a slightly different rigging variation. There is plenty of info on rigging skipping gars available online and in various books, so there’s little need to cover old ground here.
The set-up for skipbaiting is fairly basic. A couple of top quality 15-24kg game outfits are all that’s needed to fish this technique effectively. While Shimano’s Tiagra A-Series are THE best game reels money can buy – and, yes, they really are worth the extra money if you plan to fish regularly – plenty of crews are running the TLD-50A two-speeds with great results, especially for the 15kg line class. The lighter weight of a TLD can be an advantage, particularly when switchbaiting, as they are easier to swing around the cockpit when pitching baits to teased up fish.
The other major benefit with using the TLDs is that they have a lighter ratchet and free-spool rotation than the Tiagras, which means when a hot fish crashes your bait and rips the line from the release clip, there is less chance of a volatile overrun. Because this technique calls for your reel to be nearly in freespool on the bite, rather than at full strike drag, that initial crashing bite seems to be just that little bit smoother and more controlled with the TLD two-speeds, which can be a decided advantage at times.
Match your reel to a purpose-built, fully-rollered game rod – the Aussie-built Sabre Strokers are the next best thing to a custom job – and you’ve got yourself a potent and very capable outfit that will handle most of your gamefishing needs.
The only other items needed for this simple technique are a set of stainless Black Pete bait needles, a roll of medium waxed thread, a hank of 200lb Ande leader and a box of 9/0 or 10/0 circle hooks. The Eagle Claw L2004 and L2004EL patterns and Owner Tournament Mutus are the firm favourites with most southern marlin fishos, and are particularly good for tag & release.
Having rigged up your baits, all that’s left to do is drop them in the water and start trolling. A good set of outriggers, the stiffer the better, are a pre-requisite to get your baits skipping nicely on the surface. The baits should be positioned behind the boat just far enough to keep their heads out of the water, with the body splashing strongly across the surface, almost as if they are surfing down the pressure waves. Correct positioning is critical; if your bait keeps digging in and spinning below the surface, then you need to bring it closer to the boat to raise the towing angle and get its head out of the water. Conversely, if your bait is leaping from wave top to wave top and spending more time in the air than it does in the water, then it needs to be dropped back a little to settle it down. Quite often a slight adjustment of the outrigger halyard to raise or lower your release clip height is all that’s needed.
You’ll generally need to keep an eye on the baits and adjust their positioning as conditions change throughout the day, however, when fishing from larger gameboats with a set of full-size ’riggers, we generally run a pair of short whippings set at 20-fathoms and 40-fathoms on the main line and use these as markers to set the baits into the outrigger clips; this seems to suit most conditions. Dental floss is fine for the whippings; rubber bands are also a popular alternative.
The first bait is set “long” on the 40-fathom marker, and the second is set shorter at the 20-fathom marker. If you’ve got a shotgun or centre ’rigger on your boat, then I’ve seen plenty of guys do really well by running a third bait long down the centre of the pattern. On some days this sneaky “stinger” bait is the only one to go off; but then on other days the short bait will take all the bites. This is why it’s a good idea to stagger your pattern.
Remember to replace your baits with fresh ones every hour or two, as they tend to soften up and “wash out” if left out for too long. It’s also not a bad idea to run a teaser or two off the corners to add some extra commotion behind the boat. A secret weapon among successful tournament crews is the “Stripteaser”. Check it out on the Fisho site – they work!
Find a trolling speed that gets your baits skipping nicely in the prevailing conditions, generally somewhere around four to six knots is on the money, and then work the general area in loose circles or figure-eight patterns around the bait schools. Set your lines in the outrigger clips with just enough pressure to hold your baits in position. Adjust the reel’s lever drag so there is just enough pressure to prevent an overrun when a fish strikes the bait. When you get a bite, pick up the rod and point the tip at the fish, carefully freespooling it to allow the fish to swallow the bait unimpeded. A short count to 10 will give it enough time to get the bait down. Then all you need to do is push the lever up to strike, lifting the rod tip slowly at the same time. At this point the rod should load up as the circle hook finds its mark in the corner of the jaw, and line should start peeling off the reel as the fish takes its first run. The boat should slow down a little, but remain in gear and idling forwards throughout this whole process.
If you stumble across a really good looking patch of water, with plenty of bait stacking up on the sounder, then it’s very important to be persistent and work it thoroughly, all day if necessary.
If it looks “fishy” to you, then stick with it, because chances are it will only be a matter of time before the tip of a black dorsal fin breaks the surface behind one of your baits.
Right now as you read this is prime time for marlin along much of the NSW coastline, so what are you waiting for? Skip to it!