By Joe Byrum
When it comes to fishing for blue marlin with lures, the hook set can often be an overlooked part of the equation when things are going right and a heavily scrutinized element when they’re not going so well. Typically, when the latter comes into play a fish has just come off or you had a bite that didn’t translate into a hookup. The deliberation gets even heavier when these things occur in multiple instances during a short period of time. The truth is that some marlin aren’t going to be hooked no matter what we do.
A fish with a lance on the front of its face attacking an artificial lure being trolled at 8+ knots is just not going to result in a successful encounter all of the time. These fish can try your lure at all kinds of different angles and sometimes they don’t even open their mouth. But that doesn’t keep us from trying to optimize our presentation and continually trying to creep our hook up ratios as high as humanly possible. Consistency is the key in this game.
Other than the scores of granders that have been pulled from Hawaiian waters, part of my draw in moving to Kona in 2016 was to learn about lure fishing from some of the world’s best captains. The calm waters on the west side of the Big Island provide a year-round proving ground for lures. And the terminal tackle associated with them, with shots at blue marlin of all sizes. Having your tackle dialed in is paramount. Because any day you leave the harbor could be the day the fish of a lifetime comes into your spread.
Standard Hook Set
Let’s start with a somewhat standard blue marlin hook set. Then we’ll go into a few variations that may give you some ideas about how to improve your own setup. A single hook rig has become the standard in most cases these days and among most of the captains I spoke with. While it makes sense to think that more hooks would result in a better hook up ratio, it’s been found that a single hook results in as good and usually better ratio and is much safer for both the fish and crew.
If you’ve ever tried to release an angry marlin with one hook in the fish and another swinging freely, then you know what I’m talking about.
The hook I’ve been using recently with the most success is the all-new Tantrum x FUDO Heavy Tackle trolling hook in a 9/0 to 12/0 depending on lure size. This hook has a needle-eye to keep it streamlined and is built extra strong with the perfect gape and a unique plough point. It comes out of the package sharp and stays that way, with minimal if any sharpening required. The hook is then crimped onto cable, usually between 600 to 900 lb.test and this connection is covered by a piece of heat shrink.
On the top end of the hook set, you’ll make another crimped loop with a piece of chafe tubing protecting the loop. This loop should be perpendicular to the one connecting the hook eye, so that you can push the leader and hook set into your lure stopper and control which direction the hook is pointed.
Typically, we run our angle-faced lures like tubes and plungers with the hook down and lures like hard or soft heads and bullets with the hook pointed up, since that’s the way they naturally want to track. The leader is connected to the hook with another chafe-tubed and crimped loop. It’s important that you crimp the leader loop so that the natural coil of the line goes up toward where it will be hanging from the ‘rigger, or in other words, coming up from the head of the lure. Otherwise, the lure will be working against the coil of the leader and you will not get the optimum action out of the lure.
The leader size for this type of rig is usually around 530 to 600 lb. test but can be adjusted depending on what works best for the specific lure you are rigging. The connection between hook set and leader can either be taped or heat-shrinked but be careful if you choose the latter to not get the heat too close to the mono, so the material isn’t compromised. These rigs are usually fished with 20 to 35 pounds of drag on the bite, with the average probably around 28 pounds.
The Hook and Rig
Working with Capt. Chris Donato on the 37-foot Merritt Benchmark in Kona, we got a chance to experiment with a variety of hook sets in an effort to maximize our hookup rate. We started with a rig similar to the one mentioned above and then made it into a stiff rig. This was done by using heat shrink across the entire length of cable, from hook shank to the leader connection, with the idea that a stiffer rig would achieve a better hookup without the hook being able to move as much.
We did find an uptick in our ratio off the bite using this system, and while we were successful in catching a lot of fish this way. And we found that we were losing some fish during the fight that we thought had been hooked well. We attributed this to the stiff rig acting as a lever, almost like a pry bar, to wedge the hook out during the fight. While the heat shrink would often break and cut down on the length of this lever, when it stayed intact, we felt that the rig may be working against us.
This led to more experiments, using aluminum rods with 3D-printed clips and heat shrink to keep the stiff rig tight during the bite, then ultimately releasing the hook from the rod after the fish was pulling drag. This system seemed to work much better, and we had one streak of eleven blue marlin bites in a row that were all successfully caught. The one drawback to this rendition was when a hard bite would break the stiff connection and the lure action would suffer in trying to get a second bite out of the same fish. Donato has recently worked out a system to eliminate this problem with a stronger connection between the hook and stiff rig but wasn’t quite ready to share his revelation just yet.
Capt. Wade Fickling fishes out of Morehead City, North Carolina on the 55-foot Buddy Cannady The General and has enjoyed significant success catching billfish during his career as a mate and captain. Among many accolades, he’s captured the Top Charter Boat honors in the highly contested NC Governor’s Cup two years in a row. He stresses that his preferred hook set is designed with the motivation that he is looking for a fish to hang, since most of the time he’s pulling lures is during kill tournaments.
His hook rig is also unconventional from what we’ve already discussed because of his use of single-strand wire instead of cable. Fickling prefers a 9/0 to 11/0 Quik Rig Southern & Tuna needle-eye hook and double-twisted Malin #15 copper wire. The wire is fashioned with haywire twists on the hook and the leader side, with a barrel swivel connecting the wire hook set to the leader. There is a gap of about an inch between the two haywires. He also uses rubber stoppers on the back of his lures to hold the barrel swivel in place and prefers 400 to 530 lb. test leader, also depending on the lure.
Hook and Wire
His methodology with this rig is one based in practicality and experience, as he believes that this smooth connection between hook and wire provides a better hookup. He explains this by saying if you run your hand down a typical cable rig, you’ll often catch a snag on the hook connection where the heat shrink is placed. His years of pulling this type of rig had him seeing lots of bites where the fish came off and the leader was heavily chafed in this area. Many of his bites with his twisted-wire rig have resulted in fish that were hooked outside-in, around the top of the mouth and base of the bill, a great target to bury a hook in a marlin.
His logic is that the connection slides through the fish’s mouth much smoother and finds its mark more efficiently. Wade also notes that when pulling this rig, he’s using about 12 pounds of drag on strike and pushing it up to 18 to 24 pounds once the fish has pulled some line out. After using this rig for a while, he has plenty of confidence in the strength of the rig and its resistance to being hinged off and broken. He says his only concern would be an active fish causing a kink to weaken the wire, but he has not had any issue with this so far (knocks on wood).
Small Yet Strong
Capt. Marty Bates’ success is well known in virtually all big game fisheries around the world but he currently spends most of his time running the La Onda Mila out of Cape Verde. He’s caught multiple granders, and won the Blue Marlin World Cup in 2020 with a 964-pound blue. Marty says that after trying almost every type of hook and hook set over the years, he prefers a single hook in most applications and likes to use a smaller gauge cable in his rigs—about 400 lb.test.
This is because he believes the small and softer cable results in more bites converted to hookups and is still strong enough to withstand bill chafe and a hard pull on the leader. Lately he’s been using a hook that recently hit the market from a company called Sta-Stuk, and designed by Sam Peters of Release Marine. Using the Sta-Stuk hook last year, Marty enjoyed a hook-up rate of up to 80 percent on 64 blue marlin bites with lures while testing it.
Behind the Hook
The Sta-Stuk is based heavily on the science and physics of what happens during a marlin bite and the ensuing fight. The system consists of a Fudo hook separated into two parts then connected by welded rings that are held tight with a two-part sleeve. The idea is that the shank is longer for the initial hookup, but the sleeve detaches under pressure during the fight to make the shank much shorter. This reduces the rotational torque on the hook and therefore should cut down on the number of pulled hooks as a result. Marty told me that he’s excited by what he’s seen out of this rig so far and there are also starting to be some impressive results from others around the world since their release. Sta-Stuk hooks can be purchased through Fudo, Melton Tackle, and Fisherman’s Center.
He also says that after trying almost every type of hook and hook set over the years, he prefers a single hook in most applications and likes to use a smaller gauge cable in his rigs—about 400 lb.test—because he believes the small and softer cable results in more bites converted to hookups and is still strong enough to withstand bill chafe and a hard pull on the leader.
The bottom line is that blue marlin fishing can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. A common measure of excellence I’ve always heard is that if you’re catching 60 percent of your bites, then you’re doing well. There’s plenty of theories and strong opinions out there, but hopefully this sampling of a few different options helps you convert bites to hooked fish.
There are also some exciting innovations in hook rigs that will be interesting to see unfold in the coming months. Unfortunately, in this game we’re just not going to catch all of the fish we see, but that’s what keeps us innovating and coming back for more. Anyone can get lucky, but consistency is what separates the professionals, so be sure to adjust your presentation as needed but also give it some time and bites to get a true picture of what’s happening.
Even the best in the business lose some heartbreakers from time to time and as Capt. Fickling quoted one of his mates, “That’s fishing man.”