Chasing blue marlin, especially in tournaments, used to mean pulling out the big guns — those big gold Penn 80s and 130s that hold a mile of monofilament and cost more than my first car. But even though heavy tackle has its place, the undeniable shift toward lighter gear in many of the world’s blue marlin hot spots means you’re just as likely to find anglers standing up to the man in the blue suit with a 30-pound-test outfit in their hands.
The Travel Transition
When Capt. Butch Cox was fishing out of Oregon Inlet in North Carolina during the early 1980s, everyone was using wire leader and 50-pound-class gear, even for the notoriously finicky white marlin in fall. “It was just the way we did things back in those days, and we thought it was impossible to catch marlin on mono,” he says. “Then some of the guys like Chip Shafer and John Bayliss started traveling, going to Mexico and catching marlin and sails on mono leaders. Then boats went to places like Venezuela, where they could try new techniques like using lighter leaders because you got a ton of shots at billfish every day.”
Travel was one of the major keys in the shift toward anglers using lighter gear. By the mid-1980s, Venezuela had emerged as the pre-eminent hot spot in the billfish world: If you wanted reliable fishing and big numbers, it was the place to be. Cox captained the 57-foot Paul Mann Prime Time there for several seasons starting in 2001, where he learned a valuable lesson: The harder you pull on a marlin, the harder it wants to pull on you. “The boats were white marlin fishing in the fall, and when a blue one came along, we’d try ’em on a 30,” he says.
“We learned that with the lighter drag, the fish was more likely to stay on the surface and jump a lot, where we could maneuver the boat on them for a release. With 50- or 80-pound-test line and a heavy leader, you could put more pressure on the fish, but they would just go deep. And it’s just not as much fun for the angler on heavy tackle either. We were having a ball catching our fish standing up.”
Scott Kerrigan is one of sport fishing’s most prolific photographers, but he was a hardworking, well-traveled deckhand before becoming a full-time lensman. His first season in Venezuela was in 1994, fishing aboard Sam Jennings’ Revenge with Capt. Mike Lemon. “It was already packed to the gills with boats because of the great fishing,” he says. “There’s no doubt that the techniques and tackle we were using there had an effect on the way we fished in other places. When we traveled, we would talk to other crews and we’d say: ‘Wow, you remember how we caught them in Venezuela, with 7/0 hooks and 125-pound-test leaders? Wouldn’t it be fun to try that here?’” As those traveling crews returned home, they brought those same tactics with them, and the use of light tackle began to take root.
Tackle and Technique
Another important factor in the transition came in the form of greatly improved tackle. Today’s monofilament leaders are stronger and more consistent in terms of breaking strength, largely replacing wire for most applications. High-visibility lines quickly gained popularity when they were first introduced, giving captains a better way to visually track a thrashing billfish on the surface, even in rough seas. And unless you’re buying IGFA-rated line, the mono itself is probably overtesting its actual breaking strength by 20 percent or more.
In the late 1980s, Shimano released its Triton Lever Drag series reels, followed shortly by the two-speed TLD II reels. Now anglers had a reel that offered good line capacity and a smooth, reliable drag in a lightweight package that was comfortable to use while fighting a fish standing up. The TLD series quickly became a favorite for anglers around the world, and many top crews still use them today.
The rise of the dredge also helped bump the shift toward lighter tackle. With dredges came a better chance to raise multiple billfish at once, which played nicely into the hands of those willing to fish with lighter gear. Rather than just get one bite and focus on a single marlin with an angler in the fighting chair, teams could be ready for more than one fish, hooking and fighting two or three at the same time. Try doing that with an 80-wide in your hands.
The first time Cox put a dredge in the water, he saw the benefits firsthand. “Jimmy Fields was my mate and brought one on the boat when we fished the Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament in North Carolina in 1996,” he says. “Jimmy tied it to the cleat with a piece of rope. I won’t ever forget it: We were getting ready to run to a different spot, and our angler, Joey Zimmer, was trying to clear the dredge, and he kept saying, ‘There’s something pulling on it.’ Sure enough, there was a white marlin back there.” Nowadays, dredge-fishing has become completely mainstream in the marlin-fishing community, and it’s to the point where it’s unusual to find a boat not equipped to pull at least one.
But the real quantum leap in tackle happened with the widespread adoption of circle hooks. In the late 1990s, Capt. Ron Hamlin vowed to use only circle hooks in the prolific Guatemala fishery, even if it meant catching fewer fish. He backed up the bravado by posting incredible catch rates, proving that circle hooks were a better choice for both the fish and the fisherman. An unexpected benefit was the fact that because the hook tended to latch onto a fish at the corner of the jaw, fewer marlin were being lost from chafed leaders. The circle hooks allowed teams to transition to lighter leaders, which improved the action of their baits and resulted in even more bites.
Meanwhile, in the world of high-stakes billfish tournaments, the pendulum was in the midst of swinging toward the side of conservation. Tournaments started to set minimum-length requirements for blue marlin, and some tournaments were even going toward an all-release format, awarding points for each billfish let go during the day. Sure, someone could still win a pile of cash in a brown-bag calcutta for landing the largest blue, but to win a prestigious series of events like the Bahamas Billfish Championship, you needed consistency. Teams had to catch a bunch of billfish to compete, not just one big blue marlin.
Jennifer Dudas saw the transition firsthand as a longtime scorekeeper for the BBC. “I remember back in the ’90s, and even up until 2010, most of the boats fishing in the Bahamas were fishing 80s and 130s and pulling big lures. The goal was to catch the biggest blue marlin. Calcuttas all focused on fish on the dock; releasing marlin was not the goal back then.” As the tournament shifted toward a conservation-oriented ethic, lighter tackle became much more prevalent. Individual tournaments and even the overall Bahamas Billfish Championship series title were now being won or lost on points, not pounds. The change toward lighter tackle also caused a shift in participation. “This was the direction tournaments were heading, but you can’t make all the people happy all the time,” Dudas says.
Cox remembers a tournament in St. Thomas where the light-tackle phenomenon even caused some confusion. “It wasn’t the Boy Scout but another tournament that awarded points based on line class, with lighter line earning more points,” he says. “Ronnie Fields called in a blue marlin release on 30 for Big Oh over the radio, and the tournament committee boat came back and said, ‘Thirty-what?’ They had never heard of anyone catching a blue marlin on light tackle like that.”
Taking those hard-fought lessons from Venezuela and elsewhere, captains also learned new techniques for fighting marlin. Thankfully, marlin hooked on light tackle tend to stay on the surface, making it much easier for effective boat handling to gain the upper hand in the fight.
“You don’t want to fight them up and down straight off the transom,” Cox says. “I want to circle around the fish, pull on them from a different angle, and fight them parallel to the boat, if I can. Change the direction and the angle. It helps if you can see which side the fish is hooked on, and then pull from the other side. You cannot let a marlin just swim along, whether you’re using light or heavy tackle.” He also understands that the pointy end of the boat goes through the water better than the square end: Cox isn’t afraid to drive ahead to circle on a fish. “It’s just not real smart to back down hard into 4- to 6-foot seas,” he says.
Not Quite Light
St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands holds a special place in the hearts of those fortunate enough to fish there. That magical stretch along the North Drop holds some of the most aggressive blue marlin on the planet, and it’s an incredible fishery, especially around those luminous full-moon periods from July through October. So let’s break out the 30s and go fishing, right? Not so fast.
In addition to blue marlin, the North Drop also is known for its sharks. Fight a marlin too long or too deep, and chances are above average that the taxman will come calling. Richard Gibson has been photographing billfish in St. Thomas since 1980 and has seen his fair share of battles won and lost. This season, he’s signed on to fish aboard Chad Damron’s 75-foot Weaver Sodium; they will be fishing all heavy tackle. “Last year, Damron had several big fish that he couldn’t turn, even with 80-pound gear,” Gibson reports. “We also lost a few more to the sharks, so this year, he’s using heavy tackle, all 130s on bent-butt rods. You’ll usually see one really big fish on each moon, and he wants to be ready.”
And big marlin always seem to have a knack for pouncing on the lightest outfit in the water. Just as I was wrapping up the research for this story, I got a fishing report from a buddy of mine in the Bahamas. They were having good mixed‑bag fishing for whites, sails and some small blue marlin off the Abacos, and were fishing big lures on 80s in close to the boat and ballyhoo on 30-pound-test outfits from the riggers.
Sure enough, a really big blue one piled on a dink bait, and they were unable to keep the massive marlin from completely emptying the reel in about five very exciting minutes, despite some aggressive boat maneuvering. Be forewarned: When fishing with light tackle, you run the risk of bringing a knife to a gunfight when a big girl shows up in the spread.
Looking Astern and Ahead
The advances in tackle and technology aren’t slowing down anytime soon: The rods, reels, hooks, lines and leaders are beefier and stronger — yet smaller in diameter and lighter in weight. The dynamics of stand-up fishing continue to improve, with better harnesses and, heck, even better shoes.
And while light-tackle marlin destinations abound — from the Dominican Republic to Costa Rica and beyond — heavy tackle will always have a spot in the rotation, especially in the world’s big-fish destinations. So the next time you have a choice, remember Butch Cox’s advice about fishing light tackle: The harder I pull on you, the harder you’re going to pull on me