My short, new angling career has been a very interesting learning experience as well as a very humbling one. I now qualify to fish almost any tournament, having not been a paid crew member for more than 15 years. I’ve been able to be an angler on my 30-foot Grady-White and on other boats like Reel Tight, Pescadora and Lady Colombo, among others. After setting multiple IGFA records as a captain, and instructing numerous anglers to world-record catches over the years, you’d think that you would get used to working under pressure. But grabbing the rod with a blue marlin or a sailfish chasing the bait during a dead-bait trolling tournament still makes me nervous. And I’m not alone in that respect.
Seasoned tournament angler Rob Ruwitch of Sharky’s Revenge fished the old Billfish Extreme Release League tournament series with ESPN cameras in his face and over his shoulder, as well as many other big tournaments. He says that he feels the pressure when it’s his turn and the captain and crew are counting on him. I know that when I miss a fish, I feel a ton of pressure and a bruised ego on top of it. It is so much easier to shake off the mistakes or just plain misses when fun fishing.
What’s Your Job?
What can you do to do your part? Start by doing what the mates do, and stay right by the rods all day. And help put out the baits — by free spooling each bait to its position, the angler gets acquainted with the rod and reels and becomes familiar with which bait is on what rod and where it should go in the spread. In the beginning, you may feel that you’re a hindrance, but you’ll get faster with practice, and everyone will appreciate the help. Let the mate attach the line to the rigger clip just in case you get a bite during this action. There’s nothing worse than getting caught with the reel engaged while you have the line in your hands, and the rod is sitting in the rod holder. That’s probably going to be a sancocho.
Reel in the baits when they need to be checked. This gets you used to moving the bait through the spread with the wind conditions of that day. If you’re the one checking and changing out baits, when the fish comes up you will automatically know which rod is attached to the bait that the fish is on, and you’ll be used to getting a single bait out through the spread. Sometimes you need to reel a bait in to get it to a fish, and this helps with that too.
Working the baits also allows you to become familiar with the position and the sensitivity of the drag lever and the balance of the rod and reel — important factors in becoming a good angler. Even being able to levelwind the reel without looking is very important. There is nothing worse than piling up the line in one spot and jamming up the spool with a fish just inches from release.
When our boat is not getting bites, and other boats around us are getting bites, that’s when it’s time to check the baits. Think about it. There are four or six baits out there all doing the same speed, maybe even all swimming, and now you start reeling in a single bait. It starts skipping and leaping out of the water. It starts making noise and acting like a baitfish would act if a billfish were chasing it in the wild. Watching showers of ballyhoo in the Keys will teach you a lot! That bait wants to get the heck out of there! This action could trigger a bite.
Checking the baits in this manner is akin to the “prospecting” that some sailfish experts deploy. Anglers prospect by dropping baits back in free-spool to make them look like dying baitfish, and that’s easy pickings. By dropping back and reeling a single bait back up over and over, some teams claim that they get as much as 25 percent of their bites with this method. Prospecting will also teach you how to drop-back, because you really have to use little to no thumb pressure to let it sink properly. You want that line pouring off the rod tip straight into the water behind the boat. Once you can do that, and still detect the pickup, you’ve got a lot of guys beat.
The Chase Scene
Once, while fishing off Venezuela on the Hooker, I was up in the tower slow-trolling live baits around the bank when I saw a houndfish running for its life with another fish in hot pursuit. As I got closer, I could see that it was a blue marlin that was hot on the houndfish’s tail, and an incredible chase scene developed right in front of me. Every time the marlin approached the houndfish, the houndfish would take flight, bounding away about 20 yards or so in the opposite direction. I felt very privileged to be watching the whole thing play out and saw about six to eight of these chase scenes before the marlin finally grabbed the houndfish.
It was at this point that it became really interesting. The marlin had the houndfish crosswise in its mouth, like a dog with a bone. As it swam along at about 3 knots, I turned the boat to follow it. The marlin swam about a hundred yards or so before I saw it stop, shake its head and then start swimming again. After the head shake, I could no longer see the color of the houndfish around the face of the marlin.
The one unique characteristic of ballyhoo and houndfish that I found in examining the contents of the stomachs of billfish many years ago is that you will find the bait in different directions and folded over. With most other baitfish (goggle-eyes, small bonito, etc.), the baits tend to lay headfirst in the stomach. When eating smaller baits, a billfish can do a quick head shake and turn it, so it is directed headfirst toward the gullet. And while the baitfish wiggles its tail to escape, it actually swims itself into the stomach. Guy Harvey has filmed a lot of this, and you can actually see it on film now. With a squirmy ballyhoo or houndfish, billfish have to force it down their throat after it’s been squeezed to death. Even in a swordfish, you find a lot of the squid in one direction in their stomachs.
It was only a few years ago that we all used skipping ballyhoo, and then it seemed we all went to swimming baits. We got plenty of bites with those skipping baits, so why doesn’t anyone use them now? I think a few boats do without knowing it. By trolling fast, they will get a few of their baits to jump and skip occasionally. Some crews also put too much weight under the bait’s chin, which can hurt you on the drop-back if the bait sinks too fast. Sort of like a mullet with a big chin weight; it’s a great-looking bait, but it’s got a lousy hookup ratio. Maybe that’s why we only use them for teasers nowadays
Billfish expect a live bait to take off when they get near it. That’s why it’s so important to be able to drop the bait in the fish’s mouth when they stick their head up behind your trolling bait. You want to get that bait inside of the billfish’s mouth. If you let the fish bite it, they try to squeeze the life out of the bait before swallowing it. They want to kill it so they don’t have to chase it again. Then they release their grip enough to suck it down.
Unfortunately, if you don’t wait until the fish swallows the bait and engage the reel while the fish is still squeezing the bait to death, the bait tears in half and you get to reel in the head. Another sancocho!