Every Marlin University is a true learning experience; our students ask a lot of questions over the course of an event, and that’s how we like it. The more you ask, the more you will learn. But in the midst of all the technical questions we hear, one of the most common among all of our students is “How do you decide where to put on a Marlin U?” It’s a good question, and the answer is a bit more complicated than one would think.
Back when we first started Marlin U, I decided its main goal would be to visit the places with the best billfish bites and hit them at the peak of their respective seasons so we could provide as many bites as possible for our guests. If we don’t get bites, how can we teach you how to fish? It’s still a good rule, and we try to stick to it to this very day. There are, however, a host of other factors that play into the equation as well, and although they can all disappear when the bite is hot, these same elements loom large when the fish refuse to cooperate.
When a Good Bite Doesn’t Cut It
One of our main stops for the first several years of Marlin U nearly 15 years ago was Venezuela. It was the perfect spot to hold a fishing school. There was great fishing during several different times of the year — blue marlin in spring, and whites, sails and blues in fall — and plenty of good charter boats to choose from, excellent food and great places to stay. Oh, and diesel fuel was 13 cents per gallon. It was fishing paradise, and during our last Marlin University there, Capt. Miguel Tirado caught 19 white marlin on his 31-foot Bertram Pull the Hook!
Unfortunately, Venezuela suffered a setback after a week of heavy rain caused massive mudslides along the Venezuelan coast in December 1999, and the area never fully recovered. A change in Venezuelan politics with the election of socialist Hugo Chavez dragged the country into despair, and now it’s no longer considered safe to visit. But you can bet the fish are still out there, and Venezuela will probably be one of the first places we put back on the schedule if it ever settles back down and allows us to put on a safe, comfortable trip. One of our most popular destinations, Guatemala, wasn’t one of my first choices for a Marlin U destination either. I visited Guatemala on one of my very first assignments for Marlin magazine around 1993 to cover an International Light Tackle Tournament Association tournament. At that time, there were no lodges operating in the area, and we had to stay at the Hotel Martita, which was still undergoing construction at the time. Let’s just say the facilities really weren’t up to speed — at least not in the sense that you would charge people to go there. The fishing was some of the best I’ve ever experienced; I think we were raising 10 to 12 fish a day and catching six or seven, which was very slow by Guatemala standards even back then. Luckily, several lodges sprang up in Guatemala that began to offer first-class service, good food, and great boats and crews. Places such as the old Fins ’N Feathers lodge and today’s Casa Vieja Lodge, where we do our sessions, provide a level of service that few can match. Nowadays, if you really want to learn how to pitch-bait a circle-hooked ballyhoo to a billfish, a weeklong trip to Guatemala during the peak of its season will hone your skills better than five years of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Captains here also have great success with blue marlin when they have to swing out wide offshore, so during certain times in late spring and summer, you can get a good shot at a Pacific blue marlin as well.
Blue Marlin Versus Sailfish
Although we might be prone to small fits of exaggeration from time to time, I try very hard to set realistic expectations for our guests when it comes to what — and how many — we are going to catch. Television shows and magazine articles usually tout the greatest numbers possible to catch your interest and get you to make a trip. Although those numbers are usually accurate, they also are usually atypical and at the best-ever end of the scale. Luckily, at most of the places we go, even their slow periods equal and exceed most of the best-ever billfish chances anglers have at home. Sometimes, but not always, even the best places in the world can get skunky for seemingly no reason at all. You can catch 35 out of 70 one day, and go six for 12 in the same spot the next. Another thing that causes higher expectations with numbers is the difference between whites, blues and sails. Students see we had 20 sail bites a day in Costa Rica and expect the same sort of numbers on blue marlin in St. Thomas. We try very hard to explain that no matter where you fish, if you can get one blue marlin bite during the day you’ve had a good day. Let me assure you, if you spend enough time on the water, there will come a time when that one billfish bite in four days becomes a cherished moment during your trip.
Another factor that might sway us to choose a spot not known for a ton of bites is the size of the fish caught there. In big blue marlin hot spots like Bermuda and Madeira, you can easily fish for four days or more and not get a sniff, let alone a bite. But the one that does finally make an appearance in the spread is usually a beast.
As Marlin University embarks on its 15th year with a growing number of alumni, and because we can’t keep taking them to the same great spots every year, we sometimes branch out to places off the beaten path to offer up a new experience. That’s how we came to make our first trip to fish Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and it’s also behind our new session in 2016 to hit the seamounts off Costa Rica. In case you haven’t heard, for the last several years boats have made the long 100- to 120-mile trek out to a series of seamounts off the coast, finding ridiculous numbers of blue marlin. Several intrepid teams spent their time, effort and money to erect several fish aggregating devices on the seamounts and upped the numbers even higher.
Capt. Josh Temple was one of the pioneers of this fishery out of Los Sueños, and his blue marlin numbers in 2013 stagger the imagination. During one epic trip in July, his anglers and crew aboard the 60-foot Paul Spencer Carol Libby raised 115 blue marlin and released 68, including one day in which they caught 24. This set the unofficial record for the most blue marlin in a day and surpassed the previous benchmark of 20 at the time. See what I did right there? I quoted some of the best-ever numbers. Luckily, Temple wasn’t the only one seeing this many fish, and it wasn’t long before word got out on the locations of some of these FADs and seamounts, allowing others to see and experience the same kind of action.
Capt. Randy Baker, one of our Marlin U instructors, made a trip out to the seamounts last summer and found a floating log covered in bait that his crew ended up staying with for over 100 miles. The natural FAD must have drawn every blue marlin in the area, and the crew drifted with the log, nicknamed Wilson, for six days. Baker and crew caught four doubleheaders the first day, finishing 18 for 27, one for one on striped marlin and one for one on sailfish, completing the slam. The following days, the crew went 20 for 26, 23 for 30, eight for 10, four for eight and six for eight on blues. In addition to an impressive trip for the entire team, on July 11, Baker became the only person ever to catch 20 blue marlin in a single day in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. After hearing this story, you can say it was a pretty easy decision for us to head there in 2016. We hope you can join us for a four-day trip out to the seamounts in July and August, or any of our great destinations that fit your schedule — you’ll be glad you did!
Marlin University 2016 Schedule:
Feb. 17–22 Los Sueños, Costa Rica / April 21–26 Iztapa, Guatemala / May 19–24 Cap Cana, Dominican Republic / Nov. 8–12 Australia Great Barrier Reef / July 29-Aug. 2 Costa Rica seamounts