Lure Fishing: Perfecting the Art

Targeting marlin with lures is more than just sitting back and watching the spread

lure-fishing for blue marlin
Pulling lures is vital to catching blue marlin.Pat Ford

Crews targeting sailfish and marlin with natural bait have raised their game to a whole new level as dredges have become a staple in the spread. But if you want to target blue marlin, you better be ready to pull lures — and there are some incredible custom lure makers today creating works of art that produce even more fish than before. There is little doubt that lure-fishing is a more effective way to target blue marlin, especially big blue marlin. But fishing lures properly also takes a keen eye and some experimentation.

From lure-fishing’s early beginnings, skippers from Kona — starting with Henry Chee — experimented with and developed lure shapes to attract blue marlin. And today, the backyard shops and garages of Hawaiian fishermen are still turning out deadly accurate, handmade, fish-catching lures.

The Kona influence on lure-fishing is unmatched historically, and some of the finest custom lures, shapes and rigging tricks come from Hawaiian fishermen. Capt. Kevin Nakamaru is one of Kona’s top skippers and has fished the Pacific and Atlantic, winning tournaments and weighing grander blue marlin in both.

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the art of lure-fishing with Nakamaru. He believes fishing with custom lures makes a difference because the lure maker builds each lure individually, not part of a mass-produced run. The custom lure maker is not building them for big business; they create lures that take time and effort to build right, and they put that into every lure, with the sole goal of helping captains catch more fish. The better the craftsmanship, the better the lure.

blue marlin up to boat
The experienced crew aboard Saranita fished for blue marlin off Madeira and the southern coast of Portugal, which proved to be a fantastic testing ground for lures.Karl Anderson

Lure Testing Grounds

This past summer, we took our 63-foot Merritt Saranita to the eastern Atlantic with the help of Sevenstar Yacht Transport to fish Madeira and the southern coast of Portugal. I had the good fortune to fish with several great lure fishermen on our deck, including my crewman Bo Jenyns and Kona deckhands David Borges and Kyle Vannatta, who were fishing with Capt. Matt Bowman on Tracy Melton's Grander and fish with Nakamaru in Kona. The neat thing about fishing a place like Madeira is there are only a few boats, and everyone works together to find the fish while also spending time discussing lures, rigs and techniques openly with each other. Over the course of the summer, Capt. Frothy de Silva, Jenyns, Bowman, Borges and I had several conversations about lures — and hook-sets in particular. Lure selection, position and how they are rigged and balanced are all important parts of the equation for success. Different shapes and sizes of lures run best when matched to sea condition, position in the spread and considering what bait is in the area, so you can do your best to "match the hatch.

lure-fishing for marlin
Rubber hook stoppers on the back of lure heads allow the hook-set to stay locked in, preventing the lure from rolling.Karl Anderson

The Crews' Spread

Nakamaru’s go-to spread for blue marlin fishing includes a Marlin Magic Super Dog or Super Ruckus on the left short, a Koya 861 on the right short, a Polu Kai tube on the left long, a 12-inch bullet on the right long, and a Koya 9-inch bullet on the center rigger — all with a single-hook hook-set. He also has two big teasers, a Marlin Magic Super Dog or Super Ruckus and a Koya Poi Dog, up short on the second wave. When it comes to the shape of his spread, Nakamaru fishes both a staggered and square pattern depending on what species of fish he is targeting. If he is trolling for marlin and switching off his teasers, he fishes a square pattern so there is no distraction for the fish with the lure.

If there are not a lot of fish around, he will stagger his spread so that he has a greater appeal to spearfish, tunas and anything else that could come into the spread.

Jenyns’ typical blue marlin spread is staggered and includes a super plunger on the short corner, a lunger like the Polu Kai Instigator or Moyes B.C.K. on the long corner or rigger, a straight runner like an Aloha Smashbait or Marlin Magic Smokey Joe on the long corner or rigger, and a tube on the long rigger. Rough versus calm water affects his placement and decision as to what lure shapes to fish. Many mates put out a spread and watch the lures from the comfort of the covering board, but Jenyns is frequently adjusting, tweaking, and raising and lowering clips on turns or when changing from a down-sea tack to a quartering tack. Much like natural-bait fishing, if the lure is not swimming, is spinning or it stalls, it’s not being fished correctly and needs some swimming lessons.

single-hook rig for blue marlin
Capt. Frothy de Silva prefers a single-hook hook-set constructed with double-stranded monofilament matched to the size of the lure.Doug Perrine

Bowman runs the 37-foot Merritt Northern Lights in Kona and Grander in Madeira. He fishes a square pattern with four or five lines and lures evenly placed on waves four and six with his teasers on the second wave. He likes the square pattern because he feels it allows the fish to stay focused on its initial target and not get confused with a lure behind it. He prefers using tag lines because he believes they give less drop-back to the fish. He wants lures that run straight at all times and serve as a consistent target. His short baits include one or two larger-style lures like a Marlin Magic XL Ruckus or Henry and Koya Super Dog or Poi Dog. He'll either fish a large Koya 861, 12-inch tube or medium plunger or Koya Bullet on the riggers. If there are tunas or smaller billfish around, he adds a 7-inch Polu Kai Rocketman on his center rigger. His single-hook hook-set is stiff, with the connection at the hook and leader shrink-wrapped.

De Silva has fished from his home in Tobago for years, starting his Hard Play charter operation in 1989. He also owns and operates the Madeira-based Pesca Grossa during summers. De Silva fishes both a square and staggered pattern depending on the conditions, and he varies the boat speed so lures perform best. This past summer in Madeira, he fished a square pattern with teasers on wave two and a pair of big lures like XL Ruckus — he caught a nice 850-pounder on it in early September — on wave four. He then puts either a medium Ruckus, Koya 861, an Aloha Small Smashbait or a tube on his long riggers on wave six. He prefers his lures to blow up and break the surface at all times, as long as they are not pitching and tumbling. He uses a single-hook rig with a Mustad 3X 7691 for heavy tackle and scales down to 2X and regular strength depending on where he is fishing, the size of fish in the area and tackle size — he prefers a lightweight hook to help lure balance.

lures for marlin fishing
Toothpicks can pin the lure from the front so it swims at a slightly different angle in the spread.Karl Anderson

Clip Preference and Tricks

Using tag lines or roller-troller clips is a personal choice, and which style you prefer really comes down to what you are comfortable with. Nakamaru is a firm believer in tag lines for his fishing in Kona when he has one mate and conditions are calm. He says the benefit of tag lines is they reduce drop-back, but they are not for everyone and do not perform as well in rough water. He uses a Black’s clip to a Dacron loop on the main line; this helps a mate when putting out the spread or getting a lure back up after a missed bite so the lure goes to the mark and is right back in position. By winding down on the reel to pull the tag line closer to the tip of the rod, you can easily adjust the lure to the trough when a fish is tracking it.

We use the roller-troller-style clip aboard Saranita for easy adjustment in the spread and because there is less material in the air. We believe this makes it faster to put the lure back in the clip after a missed bite and because we are typically fishing in rougher water and have two mates on board. The height of the outrigger clip is important because it's a good way to adjust the lures so that they run in the alleys between the bubble trails from the wheels and the hull wash. You can also get them to run outside the wash to allow the lures to swim or smoke under the surface.

“Lure selection, position and how they are rigged and balanced are all important parts of the equation for success.”

Balance is Key

Balancing the lure is arguably the most important aspect of this whole art — a lure that spins is unacceptable. The lure skirting, hook size, leader strength and rigging are typically the primary culprits for a lure spinning, and all play an important factor in making the lure run correctly. Nakamaru prefers a quality vinyl skirting that is sparse so the skirting does not give the fish a bad feel when it grabs a hold. Rubber skirts do tangle and can possibly be too bulky, affecting hookup ratio, so most deckhands will trim strands away to reduce bulk. Custom lures work better with custom skirting to better balance the lure.

There are many options when it comes to hook selection, and style is a personal preference; most use the size of the lure to select the size of the hook, either matching the head size or using a hook of smaller size. This past summer, we used a regular Mustad 7691 Southern Tuna for our heavy-tackle fishing. Many top pros also use Hayes hooks, Black Bart Pa’a custom stainless hooks or Owner Jobu hooks — again, plenty of choices for your style of fishing, with the primary factory being what you are confident using. The size of leader you decide to use depends largely on the tackle you are utilizing, but you should also put a lot of consideration into how it makes the lure perform. We use a section of light cable with a connection to the 600- or 700-pound mono leader when we are heavy-tackle fishing. For lighter tackle and smaller fish, mono works just fine. If the mono or cable is too heavy, it will cause the lure to stall. Most importantly, the size, shape and weight of the lure should support the leader, and you should try to keep as much of the leader out of the water as possible.

Most lure makers today build their lures with rubber stoppers on the back to pull the hook-set connection crimp in so that it prevents the hook from spinning. Before using rubber stoppers, crews pegged the back of the lure with toothpicks or something similar to keep the hook-set from spinning or rolling behind the lure.

Vannatta and Borges pulled an old trick out of their arsenal this summer and pinned a lure from the front with a toothpick to get it to swim out away from the bubble trail into clean water — a subtle change that made a huge difference in performance.

jumping blue marlin
Super plungers, lungers, tubes, straight runners, bullets and jets.Kevin Hibbard

A True Art

Without question, the best skippers and crewmen in the blue marlin business are using quality lures with single-hook rigs, and they’re paying attention to lure balance and the materials with which they are rigging based on the size of the fish and area they are fishing. The sharing of information and growing experience has improved catch ratios when lure-fishing. This has really allowed crews to finesse and excel at what has become an art form of sorts, just like the lures they fish have become collectable like art. Similar to using decoys for hunting ducks, utilizing lures to tease and catch blue marlin is some of the finest trickery there is when a big girl shows up in the spread and decides to bite.