Book learning" differs greatly from "hands-on learning." Hands-on learning entails gaining knowledge from real-world experiences, usually with both pain and/or pleasure to assist our memories. Book learning, which comes only from written words, is something we humans have only adapted to relatively late in our existence. We do not retain information as quickly and easily when we read about it as we do when we actually experience the pain, or joy, of a physical or emotional cause and effect.
Since I've never fished with most of you, I usually get asked the same questions over and over again, even when I have already written extensively on the subject. Therefore, if you have not caught a blue or black marlin over 200 pounds, you may well have forgotten how big an advantage it is to know how to use live bait for big marlin.
Even on a Small Boat
In Florida I often give talks to local sport-fishing clubs. Many of their members spend their summers targeting dolphin. A typical summer's day in south Florida often starts out with almost no wind and flat-calm seas. How-ever, in the late morning or early afternoon, as the temperature rises, big thunderheads usually start to build over the inland land mass. These storms quickly develop into massive and severe squalls. They contain lightning, torrential rain and strong, gusty wind that quickly builds into choppy and eventually rough seas.
In the calm seas of the morning, even fairly small boats can quickly get to the inner edge of the Gulf Stream, which can be as little as half a mile off the beach from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach. Boat owners with enough common sense to understand the danger of these big summer squalls, and who pay attention to the storm clouds, can quickly run offshore into the cobalt blue Gulf Stream waters and duck back into their home port before the squalls hit. They seek out and safely fish weed lines from center-console outboards or even freshwater bass boats.
I tell these folks that they should invest in at least one good lever drag reel (Penn Internationals are my favorite) and mount it to a short stand-up rod with a fast taper to the tip. The rod needs to develop a good bend under load to lessen the leverage operating against the angler but still has to have some backbone that can take up to 40 pounds of drag without breaking. If they fill the reel with 50- or 80-pound-test, this setup can catch just about any marlin that eats a bait.
At the terminal end, rig up a short double line and 30 feet of leader. I suggest using a 20-foot wind-on section of 200- to 300-pound mono and a heavy-duty (at least 300-pound) snap-swivel. This allows you to use a trace leader up to 10 feet long made of heavy monofilament, piano wire, cable or nylon-coated cable.
Most folks use a teaser while trolling offshore - I recommend replacing their teaser with a marlin lure with a hook in it. Trolling the big, armed lure on the heavy-tackle rig allows it to function as a teaser for dolphin, sailfish and wahoo. However, if a blue marlin eats the lure while trolling the rips and weed lines looking for dolphin, you now stand a good chance of catching it.
It's hard to imagine anything more attractive to a blue marlin than a big white log (your boat) surrounded by small dolphin - and with a brain about the size of the tip of my thumb - the giant fish is unlikely to distinguish your hull bottom from a log or any other floating debris caught up in the weed line. (See "Catching Dolphin")
Dolphin As Bait
When you start "bailing" school-size dolphin, take your one big rig, remove the lure and put on a 10-foot trace leader of 300-pound mono rigged for live bait with either an 11/0 J hook or, preferably, a 16/0 circle hook. (See "Live-Bait Rigs")
Quickly rig a small dolphin as a live bait and flip it back into the water. Let it out almost 50 yards, put the line in the outrigger pin and run it to the top of an outrigger so it's not in the way. Go back to catching and releasing dolphin (when you have killed all you feel like cleaning).
Once in a while a big fish will make the clicker on your 50 scream like a banshee as it runs off with your dolphin. Push the lever drag up and start doing battle. Your guests or children will never forget the experience with what will probably be one of the following: a shark, wahoo, really big dolphin, big yellowfin tuna or billfish (and probably a marlin). All you have to do is be prepared to catch a bunch of dolphin and use one for live bait!
Keep a couple of leaders with the hooks already attached, rigged and stored in Ziploc bags. It only takes a few seconds to get the little dolphin overboard and, hopefully, in harm's way.
Unfortunately, dolphin do not keep swimming and struggling when rigged as live baits, and for normal trolling a dead dolphin is as good, or even better, than a live one. A properly rigged dead dolphin swims better than a live one that's been bridle-rigged. But having a small, half-dead dolphin out when you are busy catching other dolphin will produce often enough to make it a good idea. Everyone should add this little trick to their quiver of fishing techniques.