Marlin on Fly

Not as easy as some think

marlin fly fishing
What ever possesses a marlin to jump on and eat a pile of chicken feathers is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that it’s sure fun to watch them do it!Scott Kerrigan

If you want to catch a blue marlin on a fly, the North Drop is arguably one of the best places in the world to get it done. The full moon brings in a lot of aggressive marlin ready to eat whatever you want to throw at them!

Even though my angler’s goal was just to have fun, my personal goal was to catch at least 50 blues on fly for the season. A few years earlier, we’d caught 89 during a four-month season, with 23 of them on the fly rod. I figured that if we fly-fished exclusively for the summer, catching 50 could be possible.

fishing for marlin on fly
Unlike most fly rods, the ones used for billfishing are designed more for lifting power than for the actual casting of a fly line. A quick “flop cast” does the trick.George Sawley

How to Do It

If you read through the IGFA’s fly-fishing rules (igfa.org), you should get a good idea how to set up the tackle, but there are many nuances of the game that some people aren’t familiar with, which is understandable. Recently, I read an article in the IGFA’s 2012 World Record Yearbook that could confuse the reader about the proper way to present a fly. It gave the rules and regulations about the presentation of the fly, and then had a caption stating that the fly should be cast from a dead boat. That is not really the case. The rules clearly state that “the craft must be completely out of gear at the time the fly is presented to the fish and during the retrieve.” That doesn’t mean that the boat is stopped dead in the water. After pulling a 60-foot sport-fisher out of gear at trolling speed, the boat will travel at least 100 feet before coming to a full stop — even in a head sea. A fly angler can cast the fly anytime after the boat is out of gear. Consequently, I try to keep the boat going ahead as long as possible by leaving one engine in gear until the very last second before my angler casts, so that there’s still a fair bit of momentum on the bite. This helps the angler get a solid hook set. From another boat, or in video footage, it might look like we are trolling the fly, but, as the rules state, we are out of gear before the angler makes the cast and presents the fly.

marlin fishing on fly
Super-light drag settings usually result in some pretty dramatic aerial displays when using fly gear — especially from species that like to jump, like white marlin.Scott Kerrigan

Tease and Cast

I have six teasers running behind when fly-fishing: two lures in the long position, fished on long rods in the cockpit; one lure short, also on a long rod; a mudflap dredge fished on an electric LP reel in the left covering board; and two bridge teasers. The right-side (casting) lure is penned down to a roller about a foot above the covering board. The left-side bridge teaser is a squid chain fished behind the dredge. I’m not a big fan of pulling dredges, but we’ve seen twice as many fish with the dredge, so now we pull it all the time.

I prefer to fish our teasers from long rods, because you need the leverage that a long rod gives you when it comes time to jerk the teaser completely out of the water. If you are standing there flailing away with a short rod in your hand, the teaser isn’t going to come out of the water and the fish won’t leave it to eat the pile of feathers!

While timing is paramount in any bait-and-switch, it’s especially important when fly-fishing. We usually only get one shot to make this happen. The speed of the boat during the tease is also important. If I slow the boat down too fast, then fish can catch and eat the teaser. By keeping some speed, I can help the teaser man control the fish. Once a fish grabs the teaser and jerks off a bunch of line, he might not be coming back.

The popper-head fly we use is 9 inches long by 2 inches wide. It’s made from foam and feathers and weighs less than 1 ounce. We use a 550-grain shooting-head fly line in order to get it out to a spot about 35 or so feet behind the boat. Even on a good day with minimal wind, putting the fly in the right spot can be quite a task. Add on a 20- to 25-knot wind or a 6- to 8-foot chop and you are looking at a fifty-fifty chance of blowing it. To make matters worse, choppy sea conditions can double the amount of whitewash behind the boat. Since I’m turning a 30-inch prop on a transmission with a 1.75 gear ratio, slowing the boat down and using one engine only slightly reduces the wash. Once out of gear, the props still turn and create wash driven by the boat’s inertia, making it a challenge for both the fish and the angler to find the fly!

marlin fishing on fly
Fly-fishing rules only allow a 12-inch bite, or shock leader, before the start of your line-class tippet. That doesn’t leave much room for error.Scott Kerrigan

The Bite

The first bite on the fly is always the best. Going too slow reduces the angler’s ability to get a good solid hookup, so there’s nothing worse than having the fish come back to the fly for the second shot with the boat sitting dead still. So instead of waiting around for a second bite after the boat has stopped, I put the boat back in gear in order to try to get the fish up on another teaser and start the process all over again.

When you start moving again for a second shot, the casting gets very difficult. The angler really has just one shot at making the perfect cast. The mate is bringing the fish in hot, and there’s lots of white water, so the angler must put the fly in the blue strip of water on the first try. One mistake on the cast and we have to go back into gear and try to tease the fish up again. The problem with not getting it right on the first shot is that the fish may lose all of its aggression or, even worse, lose all interest and swim off.

marlin fishing on fly
Hopefully, the fish will stay on top, and, better yet, if the sea is rough, start heading down-sea.Scott Kerrigan

The Fight

Even after all that, getting hooked up can sometimes be the easy part! One of three scenarios typically plays out once you come tight. The first and best-case scenario occurs when the fish eats the fly and just sits there until you back up to it for a quick release. It can happen! I got lucky in Venezuela in 1999 when we were the first boat to catch a blue marlin in a fly tournament in the Atlantic Ocean. We caught three blue marlin out of four bites — and we caught all of them in less than five minutes. The fourth one that got away came off just seconds before a release from too much slack as I backed down fairly aggressively. We caught two fish in 30 seconds and one fish took two minutes.

Some fish start the windshield-wiper dance, where they just sit in one spot shaking their head from side to side, whipping the seawater into froth while trying to shake the hook. When this happens, you have two options: You can try to roar back while the angler keeps the line tight with the direct-drive reel without breaking the tippet — not an easy task when you are the drag system. If you crank too hard, the tippet breaks; not hard enough, and the hook comes free. The second, and smarter, thing to do is to wait the fish out until it starts to settle down.

Unfortunately, as the fish calms down, it starts to sink. As it sinks, it starts to slip out of the quick-release range, so just as it begins to stop splashing back and forth, you fire back as hard as your boat can go. At this point, with the boat spooled up in reverse, you have only seconds to make a perfect stop right on top of the fish. Any captain who has driven on top of a marlin can tell you that this does not always work out for the best. Best-case scenario, you get the release; worst-case scenario, the fish comes up jumping in front of the boat and the line gets in the wheels or rudders.

The most dangerous fish is the one that just goes ballistic on the bite; jumping fish break the tippet faster than any other kind. We set the drag at less than 1 pound so that the angler has to completely control the speed (and the drag) of the spool. If you don’t have enough drag, the spool lashes back; if you have too much, it breaks the tippet. The maximum line class you can use for your tippet is 20-pound-test, and that tippet sits directly behind the 12-inch shock leader. This means that your 20-pound tippet section spends the entire fight rubbing against the marlin’s scaly hide.

So maybe you make it past all those hurdles; you made the perfect cast, the hook found a solid purchase, and the fish didn’t shake you off on the bite. After a stellar series of jumps, you controlled the spool without breaking the fish off, but you still need to get close enough for a release — now what?

Fortunately, marlin like to surf down-sea when hooked, and the big swells common to the North Drop usually dictate which direction the marlin heads. When the fish pops up and starts running down-sea, all you have to do is catch up to the fish from behind and get the release. This can still be tricky when fly-fishing, since fly reels turn at a 1-to-1 ratio — at best, the angler gains 12 inches for every turn on a full spool. Even the fastest winders can’t keep up when I’m running the boat, so I have to figure out the angler’s pace and stick to it. Also, the rules do not allow the use of a harness, so the angler must hang on to the rod during the entire fight.

The worst-case scenario occurs when a fish eats the fly and just dumps line off the reel as it heads straight for the bottom. Luckily, these fish usually seem to go down for just a short time before leveling off and heading away in a particular direction. They never just go straight down.

We have 2,000 yards of backing on our reels, and on several occasions I’ve seen half the spool of line pulled off the reel in the course of just a few minutes. Anytime I see 1,000 yards of string in the water, I know it’s just a matter of seconds before the line breaks. But it’s no time to panic.

Since most fish on the North Drop head northwest once they’re hooked, I’ll point the angler in that direction, have him add some additional drag, and watch the rod tip with the boat sitting still; if the line keeps pulling off in that direction, then I’ve got a good idea that he’s moving off in that direction. If not, I can move the transom around until I find the point where the drag increases the most — and follow that line. (You can do the same thing by backing down at different points on the compass until the rod tip relaxes, and then turn and follow along that path.)

Once the fish settles down, it usually moves along at a slower pace of around 2 knots. Start moving in the same direction as the fish in order to relieve the pressure on the line and start picking up the belly of line that has formed. Eventually, the fish will start to make its way back to the surface. As the boat and the fish move in the same direction, we start pulling out the belly. As you work on the belly, the fish normally makes its way back up to the surface. Don’t ask me why, but the fish always seems to come back up on top at some point.

Once the fish starts to get close to the surface, all we have to do is get back to it quickly in order to get the release. Depending on the fish, the whole process can take from as little as 15 minutes to several hours or longer, but the fish always comes back to the top, so be patient.

I hope that, having read this, you now have a better idea of all the agony we put ourselves through by throwing a fly. I also hope it doesn’t scare you off from trying it out for the first time. The first time someone asked me to go fly-fishing for blue marlin, I thought that he was crazy, but after catching a few fish with a good team, I was hooked forever.

By the way, we only caught 37 blues on fly for the 2012 season — out of about 60 bites.