by Elliott Stark
Live baiting is founded on a very simple biological concept. Since the very first time two fish swam in the ocean, the big ones have been trying to eat the little ones. In spite of the simplicity of the precept, live bait fishermen represent one of fishing’s most secret of societies. Fine tuning their presentations, crafting marlin bites that are as intimate as they are spectacular, the captains who have perfected the fine art of live baiting have long been viewed as secretive and mysterious.
Their craft—catching big marlin using live bait—has been passed along from person to person in much the same way that Aristotle or Socrates advanced their philosophies. Originating from such exotic ports as Hawaii and Panama, taught from captain to mate in the cockpit of some suspiciously slow-trolling vessel, live baiting has taken the marlin tournament scene by storm. The introduction of live baiting to the Gulf of Mexico has turned the 800-pound blue marlin from a fish of a lifetime to something you need to hang in order to be in the conversation for winning a tournament on any given weekend in the summer.
Given its incredible popularity—increasingly tournament teams need to be proficient live baiters in order to have a chance in kill tournaments, a discussion of when, where and how to live bait effectively may be in order. Far from being a one size fits all proposition, live bait aficionados from different regions illustrate the many nuances to its practice. From Panama to Hawaii to the Gulf Coast, when properly deployed, live baiting is an incredibly effective and efficient way to target large marlin.
The Theory of Live Baiting
While there may be captains who are exclusively “lure guys,” there are few who avow to only live bait fish. The reason for this is simple: live bait fishing is best applied to situations of opportunity. When imagining when and where to empty the tuna tubes, you must think like a fish. Live baiting works best in places that are most likely to hold fish. Regions of the world associated with a tradition of live baiting all have one thing in common—structure.
It is the structure that holds bait and attracts marlin that make live baiting successful. From Panama—the Zane Grey Reef, Hannibal Bank and the shelf, to Hawaii and its ledges, to the Gulf Coast’s oil rigs, natural or manmade focal points in the ocean provide the live baiter’s bread and butter. Even when fishing structure, live baiting is generally reserved for times when the conditions are right.
Captain McGrew Rice, a veteran Kona charter captain, is recognized as one of Hawaii’s authorities on the fine art. “We have a lot of natural ledges here. Certain currents push lots of bait onto the ledges. When this happens, we go inside to catch bait and bring it outside to work the ledges. We then wait for the fish to show up,” Rice describes. Captain of the Ihu Nui, a 45-foot Monterrey, Rice has been fishing these waters since his father bought his first charter boat in 1968. Since 1986 he has averaged between 200-250 days fishing per year.
McGrew’s largest live bait-caught blue weighed in at 1,019. His experience and perspective is intensely valuable in how he determines when to deploy the bridle rigs. “We can live bait year round. When we do it really depends on the current and when the bait shows up. You want bait at 60-100 fathoms to know that the current is working right, you know. You don’t want it at 200-300 fathoms,” Rice explains.
Live baiting is about precision and thoroughness. The art can be conceptualized as methodically working an area that you are certain holds fish. Thinking about fishing in terms of three speeds is helpful. If the water is not what you are looking for, you pick up and cruise away at 30 knots. If the water is promising, but you haven’t located a focal point, lure fishing at 8 knots or so allows you to cover ground while trying to raise fish.
When you come upon the location that has everything you are looking for—bait, clarity, water temperature and maybe even some structure (a floating tree in Panama, for instance)- it’s time to toss the small tuna. Depending on region and approach, live baits are fished somewhere between “in and out of gear” to around three or four knots on the trolling valves. In this approach you are not trying to drive over sticknose, you’ve found the dining room and are waiting for him to take a seat at the dinner table.
Captain Jeff Fay, another authority on Hawaiian live baiting, illustrates the nuance of the theory. Fay, who runs his 37-foot Rybovich Humdinger, has been running charters since 1966. “I’m not really sure who started live baiting in Hawaii. I learned it from a commercial fisherman, Olney Roy. He’d been doing it for years, and that was in the 60s,” Fay describes his introduction to the art. “I live bait on structure—usually at the grounds around the 100 fathom mark. I fish bottom structure on the deep side of the 100-200 fathom mark. I fish the up current side of the structure. On the other side, you’ll get more sharks and less marlin.”
Fay’s best live bait-caught marlin are a 967-pound blue and a black of 953. As for bait preference, Fay prefers an aku—or oceanic bonito. While there are extravagantly appointed modern sportfishers that use swimming pool pumps to circulate a dozen tuna tubes, Fay’s approach is straight forward. “We run a big Ruhl pump. When we need more bait we catch it, because we generally only live bait when bait is available.” Rather than catching bait and running, he generally catches it and deploys it in the same spot. Situation is key.
While most tournament-winning captains guard the secrets of their hook sets and leader dimensions as closely as the KFC original recipe, generally speaking there are some parameters for what to use and how. While Captain Wade Richardson may be too humble to tell you of his incredible skill in the live bait department, his pile of top black marlin release captain awards from TBF and a 2011 payday at Poco Bueno betray his secret. Wade recently concluded a 15-year stint running The Hooker in Panama, splitting time between Piñas Bay, the Pearl Islands and Coiba.
“Unless I’m tournament fishing, I prefer light leader—300-pound fluoro. We snell our hooks, instead of crimping them, because they’ll run straight on the bait. Crimps can roll over and hook the side of the bait. We also use a section of chafe tubing (where the leader meets the hook) if we’re going to kill a fish. You can control them better that way,” Wade explains.
Richardson also described how light leaders without chafe tubing make for an easy way to release fish. In addition to the wear on the leader from the bill, under pressure a weak spot is created in the line where it meets the eye of the hook. Light leaders without chafe tubing permit mates to pop fish off at the hook when exerting pressure on the leader, without worrying about the line breaking prematurely from the drag. For this reason, Richardson doesn’t exert full strength when locking in the snell before fishing.
Richardson carries an abundance of premade leaders in two or three sizes. The leader size is matched to the hook size. The largest is reserved for the biggest baits, with smaller bonito bridled on intermediate leaders and hooks. Matching the hooks to the size of the bait keeps them alive (and not helicoptering) longer.
When it comes to bridling the bait, Richardson prefers a snug fit without space between the bait’s forehead and the shaft of the hook. “You can control the baits better that way,” he says. To keep unruly baits in line, there are a couple of tricks. “If your rigger baits keep crossing, try poking the inside eyes out. They will then keep to the outside. For larger baits that pull out of the clip, you can cut their tail a bit.” This can also make it easier for the marlin to catch the bait, rather than it jumping out of the water or popping out of the clip before the bite.
Few captains have benefitted more in the past few years from the ability to live bait than Captain Jimmy Crochet. Crochet, who runs the 61-foot Viking the Conundrum, won The Billfish Foundation’s first ever Top Captain Award for the Gulf of Mexico in 2014. Based in Orange Beach, Alabama the Conundrum is a staple on leader boards of the Gulf’s biggest tournaments. Crochet credits his induction into the fine art to Captain John Holley of Destin, whom he fished with as an up and coming mate.
“We live bait a good bit while tournament fishing. Generally, we start at about 4 am, jigging to fill up the tubes. At daylight we bridle two baits straight from the jigs so that we start fishing with a full supply of bait. Our normal spread is four baits,” Crochet explains. “We run one close behind the boat (they generally hold this rod or rubber band the line to the reel handle). We put two baits in the riggers and put one out of the center rigger. We put our biggest bait closest to the boat. Sometimes we’ll pull a teaser with a live bait on the end of it too.”
Crochet’s favorite bait for marlin is a yellowfin tuna in the 15-pound range, with a firm bridle. As the Conundrum fishes larger baits, they also tend to feed the marlin longer. Crochet estimates that they will average between 25-50 seconds before putting the reel into gear. “Every fish is different. It really depends on what the fish is doing and how big the bait is, but generally the longer you can feed the fish the better,” he says.
Captain McGrew Rice’s Kona spread generally includes two baits. “We fish one on the surface, about 40 fathoms behind the boat. We fish the other on a down rigger at 150 feet, about 100 feet deep after the angle,” Rice says. For the downrigger, he prefers a rubber band attaching the line to the clip. “Our premium baits are two to five-pound skip jacks,” McGrew describes. “Yellowfin are good, but they have scales. Lots of times a fish will slip on the scales and get tangled up in the leader.” Once bit, Rice generally gives the fish 10-15 seconds, but says “they generally have it down pretty quick.” Rice also favors a snug bridle.
The Fine Art Demystified
Once considered practitioners of a secret, potent form of fishing magic, the wizardry that is well-executed live bait fishing is taking the marlin world by storm. Witnessing a captain and crew that are experts in the fine art is a sight to behold. Sure, big fish have been trying to eat little fish since there were fish in the ocean. Live baiting, however, is more than just exploiting a biological imperative. When executed correctly, it is a fine art.