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September 11, 2013

Striped Marlin 101

How much do you know about 
the prettiest marlin?

Many anglers consider the striped marlin to be the perfect billfish. It’s certainly among the most beautiful, with its bluish-purple stripes vividly blazing along its flanks. Stripies readily bite a wide variety of baits, and because of their habit of tailing on the surface, they also offer anglers the unique opportunity to sight-cast to individual fish. They’re among the most acrobatic of any marlin, with the speed and strength to catapult themselves in explosive aerial displays. And while they may not reach the grander status of their larger blue- and black-marlin cousins, striped marlin have been known to top 300 to 400 pounds in certain parts of the world.

Pacific Species

Striped marlin are a Pacific species; however, they still cover the most extensive range of any billfish species. Their habitat stretches from the west coast of the United States, Mexico and South America across the wide expanse of the Pacific and throughout the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa and New Zealand.

Somewhere along the evolutionary trail millions of years ago, billfish species developed differing traits and later were divided into separate groups. Sailfish belong to one genus (Istiophorus), Pacific and Atlantic blue marlin to another (Makaira) and black marlin to a third (Istiompax). Striped marlin, along with white marlin and the three species of spearfish, make up a fourth genus (Kajikia). Interestingly, striped marlin can also tolerate much cooler water temperatures than blue, white or black marlin, which means they can push deeper into the corners of the Pacific than other billfish species. The largest striped marlin live in the cool waters off New Zealand. That nation owns the current all-tackle world record, a 494-pounder caught back in 1986 by angler Bill Boniface. New Zealand is still the world’s hottest spot for those wanting to catch the very largest striped marlin.

Rather than focusing on sheer size, striped-marlin fishing is more of a numbers game — and they can be some pretty incredible numbers. The presence of bait definitely encourages schooling behavior, with the marlin acting more like sailfish, herding sardines or other small baitfish into tight balls before taking turns slashing through the schools. One region where this phenomenon occurs fairly often is in southern Mexico, specifically the Baja Peninsula region from Magdalena Bay to Cabo San Lucas and up inside the Sea of Cortez to East Cape. Just how productive can this fishery be? In 2007, a group that was fishing out of Cabo on Reelaxe released 330 striped marlin in just two days, letting go an incredible 190 stripies among five anglers in a single day, on Dec. 8, 2007. While these types of numbers are certainly unusual, it’s not uncommon for anglers fishing baitballs to experience double-digit release days.

Cabo: Stripey Central

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is regarded as the world’s epicenter for striped marlin for many reasons. It’s a well-known destination that’s easily accessible from just about anywhere, and the harbor is home to hundreds of charter boats. It’s also a matter of geography: Cabo is perched at the very tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean. In short, it’s striped marlin central. One charter operation that takes full advantage of this is the world-famous Picante fleet. Founded by Phil Gentile in the early 1990s, Picante features the largest fleet of Cabo Yachts in charter service anywhere in the world. The captains and crews in this fleet fish hard, often more than 250 days a year, and are widely regarded as among the best in the world when it comes to finding and catching striped marlin.

“We have striped marlin year-round here in Cabo. But February through August are the prime months,” Tony Craig, Gentile’s brother-in-law, says. “We use four primary techniques to locate and catch these fish: slow-trolling live or dead baits, trolling with lures and spreader bars at a faster clip, soaking live baits at 50 to 100 feet, and looking for marlin on the surface.”

To a great extent, the Cabo fishery revolves around the use of live bait. Craig says their boats typically spool up their 30-pound-class reels with 50-pound-mono and 100-pound-test leaders for casting live baits to fish on the surface. “Our top live baits are mackerel and caballito [Mexico’s goggle-eye],” he says. “But other species will work. We use circle hooks ranging in size from 7/0 to 9/0, depending on the size of the bait.”

When it comes to lures, the Picante captains typically reach for smaller skirted trolling lures in the 6- to 10-inch range in either Mean Joe Green (green skirt over black) or Petrolero (a combination of orange, brown and black skirts, sometimes striped with red or silver). If a fish is raised to a lure but is not immediately hooked, the crew fires out a frisky live bait that’s already been bridled to the circle hook. It’s a deadly technique that would work on any billfish, anywhere in the world.