Nick Smith is one of the world’s foremost billfish fly anglers. Here’s his rundown of what to expect and how to handle what happens between hook up and successful release of a blue marlin on the fly. The following assumes 20-pound class tippet (things change with lower test class tippets). This description begins with the strike, once the fish has taken the fly.
Things don’t always go as planned and even after this blue marlin came unglued on the leader, Eight Eights Capt. Mark Pagano wasn’t ready to give up on the tag. The fish remained on the surface for a brief moment where first mate Kyle O’Conner was given the opportunity to tag the free-swimmer. With angler Jill Yates and Michelle Keeney wiring the fish.
By Captain Chip Van Mols
Kona, Hawaii, as most know, is considered to be the birthplace of the modern trolling lure. Trolling a spread of lures armed with hooks is now the most popular method of fishing here. Our mostly calm water definitely allows for a nice presentation of your lures and also allows you to cover a lot of ground while hunting all the pelagic species that are available at any given time.
Most importantly to me is the Pacific blue marlin, some of which can be as big as the species typically gets. While we wait for a Large Marge to appear, a well-tuned spread of lures will allow you to catch the small marlin, spearfish, mahi, wahoo and tuna you will inevitably encounter along the way!
When I started here in the mid-80s, a four or five lure spread starting on the second or third pressure wave and staggering back a wave alternating from side to side was the norm. That hasn’t changed really except for the addition of bridge teasers and most recently dredges.
My Spread Placement
These days, we typically run dredges on both sides of our boat. Dredges are positioned below the trough between the first pressure wave and number two. My short corner is on the face of the 3rd wave on the starboard side; the long corner on the 4th wave port side. The short rigger is on the starboard side on number 5. The long rigger is on the port side on the 6th wave and the optional stinger or shotgun lure would be on number 7 down the middle (When a fish comes up in Hawaii, it is called out as “short rigger” or “long corner,” etc., rather than “right long” or “left flat,” etc.).
Size, Shape and Location
On my shorts, I like to run very aggressively, showy lures that are extra-large or large—typically 14-16 inches in length. I rig these lures with 11/0 or 12/0 hooks. From there, I’ll taper down in size and aggressiveness the further back we get. I figure it’s easier to set my biggest hooks close to the boat with less stretch in the line.
My riggers are usually both 12-inch lures sporting 10/0 hooks. For the shotgun, I usually employ a 9/0 on a nine-inch jet or bullet. We use tag lines off of our outriggers to elevate and spread out our lures. The tag lines are personal preference—I’ve lure fished plenty running the corners and riggers straight off of blacks clips on the outrigger halyards… horses for courses, as they say.
I like slant face lures on my corners. Generally, a slant face or straight cut “Hard Head” on the short rigger, a 12-inch bullet on my long rigger and a nine-inch bullet down the middle. As a matter of practice, I try to create a spread that utilizes variety of shapes running in a variety of ways. All of this talk brings me to color—more variety.
In Kona, I would say blue is the home color. Black combos, blue-green or green combos, and pink all work, too. Whether the fish really care about color or not, I do! My usual starting lineup color-wise would be a blue-green vinyl short corner, black vinyl long corner, and blue vinyl short rigger. For the long rigger, I prefer a blue silver 12-inch squid skirt over orange. White and pink goes on my 12-inch large bullet.
The stinger bullet can be a blue/silver flying fish combo or a pink squid combo. I prefer to employ a variety of color to start—from there I will let the fish pick. If my black one starts getting it, I will add another black combo and so on. I always want two blue combos out there. Just a me thing—I don’t feel comfortable putting all my eggs in one basket!
Hooks, Rigs, Etc…
In slant face lures, we point the hook down. In flat face, symmetrical, cup face or bullet-shaped lures, we point the hook up. Bang!
If you were to troll a single hook (run by itself with no lure) which way would it run? The hook always runs face up—we have underwater film to prove it. This is great for your symmetrical types of lures.
As I moved from double hook rigs to single, I found that my normally very straight running slant faced lures would have an annoying side to side action—with the point of the hook facing up when single rigged. I’m pretty sure it was Gene Vanderhoek that figured out if you pointed the hook down the lure would then run straight and have the same action we were used to in our favorite slants. It works!
There is one word of caution: the heavier the gage of your hook, the more likely that the hook will flip your lure upside down at times. To combat this tendency to invert, we’ve incorporated belly weights in the versions most of us pull. Single hook rigs are by far the safest option for all on board, and I have achieved a much higher hookup to landing ratio on billfish than I ever did running all double 180% rigs.
My rigs are made long enough that the point of the hook should just clear the end of the skirts, but the eye of the hook will always be inside the skirts per IGFA regulations.
The calmer the sea, the higher you will be able to pull your lures from the outriggers. Also, the higher up on the pressure wave you can run them. As the sea conditions deteriorate, we will lower the angle of attack by winding down the tag line to keep the lure from hopping out of the water. We may also move the lure a tad closer to the boat which will place it lower on the face of the pressure wave making it easier to keep them in the water.
When the sea is rough, I generally choose lures that run well in those conditions. Rough water favorites include the classic plunger style shapes, flat faced lures (think mold craft wide range type), jets and bullets. Cupped or funnel face types also do well in the rough. I always avoid trolling directly into the sea or directly down sea, as this makes it the most difficult to keep the lures in the water.
If you must pound into it or surf down sea, then lower the angle from the outriggers and position your lures low on the pressure wave to keep them in the water and running smoothly. When fishing in a crosswind, which will probably be the case if you are quartering up or down sea, I will lower my upwind side and raise my downwind side. If you are working a small area this will keep your crew from falling asleep, too!
My usual spread of Tantrums on an average day in Kona.
Captain Chip Van Mols was born in Michigan and graduated high school in Southern California. Van Mols moved to Hawaii in 1982, chasing the big waves on the North Shore of Oahu. It was here that he discovered marlin fishing. In 1988, Van Mols moved to Kona and has been chasing blue marlin as a vocation ever since.
Van Mols caught his first grander (1,165) as a crewman with Capt. Jerome Judd aboard the Jun Ken Po in 1994. He would go on to four more granders—1064 in 2009, 1062 in 2011, 1226.5 in 2015, and a 1,305 in Ascension Island in 2015 with Captain Brian Toney.
All of these fish were caught on lures! Beyond his Kona exploits, Van Mols has fished extensively on GBR and many other hot spots on Australia’s east coast, Ghana Africa, Venezuela, Guatemala, New Zealand, PEI/ Nova Scotia, Samoa, Fiji and a few other spots. His daughter Jada holds the IGFA woman’s Atlantic Blue Marlin record with the 1,305. She also holds still holds the junior Pacific blue marlin record with a 514 she caught with her father in 2003.
Do you have any comments or questions for us? We’d love to hear from you.
During a two-day fishing trip out of Port Aransas, Texas, the Quantified team —Wills Scott group out of Beaumont, Texas — reeled in a massive haul. All were standup except the swordfish. This was the first trip on Quantified. Justin Drummond was captain with mate DA Hughes III.
A trip offshore on the Outage, a 60′ Jim Smith owned by Hans Kraas out of Los Sueños, brought in a nice haul that included sailfish and blue marlin.
The highlight was when a blue came in on the left teaser, with 13-year-old Cole, Kraas’ son, throwing the left pitch only for it to then fade off before Cole’s mom, Nikki Bates, on the rod, fed it perfectly on the right long, and hooked it, making it the first blue she hooked herself.
This was Cole’s second blue on the wire, handling it like a pro.
In total, the group hooked two blues and 11 sails the first day and 31 sails and another blue the next. Not a bad couple of days at all.