It’s game on for black marlin trolling basics

Holding the fish in the water with the boat in gear is critical to a healthy release. This fish was tagged before being released. Hopefully it is recaptured in the future to gather information on its size and where it has traveled.

by Kasper Lenigas •

With the approach of summer and the big burst of warm water pushing down the East Coast, a lot of offshore anglers’ minds turn to pelagics and, in particular, black marlin.

Black marlin are often seen as a fish that needs to be caught out of game boats or large trailer boats, however, they are easily accessible to anglers out of trailer boats as small as 4.2m.

Almost every year from November onwards we can expect to see black marlin off the South East Queensland coast. Generally most are juvenile blacks ranging from 15-40kg but you can encounter larger fish, some over 100kg at times. The run of juvenile black marlin is an inshore run of fish that are often found from as close in as the beach out to 150m of water, which is easy to access for most trailer boats.

The most common way to catch juvenile black marlin is trolling a spread of 2-5 skirted lures. By trolling a spread of skirts you can cover a lot of water and locate areas where the activity and marlin are, or intercept fish on the move. To troll a spread of lures effectively you’ll need the right equipment and set up.

Boat and Gear

Most boats over 4.2m in length powered with the right outboard will get you amongst the marlin. The rod holder position in your boat is critical to success, as this will ensure the lures are spread correctly to avoid tangles.

Rod holders in the back corners are ideal for shorter lures. Rail rod holders that sit wide of the gunnels, gunnel rod holder or outriggers are ideal for longer lures as they give the lure height and spread so they work properly.

Generally when trolling for blacks, most boats run a spread of 4-5 lures, but this can be daunting for people new to trolling as the lures can tangle easily. Depending on how many people are on board, it can be a bit of a process to set and retrieve, especially when you’ve hooked a fish. I suggest a spread of 2-3 rods as it’s very easy to manage.

When running a spread of 2-3 lures, I suggest running your short and long corner set a little further back than normal, then run the third rod off the short rigger position. If you don’t have a rigger, just elevate the rod or set it out a bit. I usually use rail rod holders and set the rods out and elevate their position until I’m happy with how it works the lure.

If you are confident running a fourth rod, run it so you have a longer lure in the spread – just in case the fish are a little boat shy and feeding further back.

For seasoned anglers, teasers are also great when run close to the boat, whether it be a mirror, dredge or bird teaser. However, for anglers new to this form of fishing I suggest going with out, as it’s one less thing to worry about clearing when you get hooked up.

Traditionally a lot of juvenile black marlin fishing is done with light tackle. However, using overhead gear with 8kg monofilament can be a little hard to use if you haven’t done this style of fishing before. I recommend using 15kg mono either on spin or overhead tackle, as you have a little more control especially if you hook a larger fish.

Spin tackle is perfectly fine to use on these smaller fish. A lot of anglers feel more comfortable using spin gear and it can handle small black marlin with ease. The 24kg gear can be a little too heavy to enjoy the fight on smaller fish so it’s important to use the appropriate drag.

You need to run at least 300m of line when chasing marlin. Most spinning reels won’t hold this amount of 15kg monofilament so I suggest running 30-100m of 15kg mono as a top shot on top of your spool of braid.

Monofilament is good for this style of fishing as it is very forgiving – it stretches and absorbs the shock and headshakes, as juvenile black marlin are very acrobatic. Mono line also helps in hooking the fish as the stretch allows the hook to set better and it’s drag in the water helps keep the hook in place, especially if you get slack line through the fight.

The gear I recommend is 20-30 size overhead reels and 5000-8000 size spin reels on 5-7’ rods rated from 10-15kg or 15-24kg. The rod and reel doesn’t need to be heavy for these juvenile fish, the most important thing when trolling is the right drag setting so the hooks used in the lures set properly and stay in.

The rule most used for strike drag setting is one third of the breaking strain of the mainline. For 15kg line you would use 5kg strike drag, but anything from 3-5kg is fine. Using the right hook rig and hooks in the lure will greatly improve your hook up ratio.

As black marlin have a hard bony mouth and bill, finer guage sharp hooks are the key to success. Hooks like Pakula Dojo in size 20-25 and Gamakatsu sl12s in 6/0-9/0 work well.

Skirted lures and rigging lure selection is very important – you need to run the right lures, in the right colours, in the right sizes, in the right positions to allow the spread to work effectively.

The general rule of thumb with lure colour is the closer the lure is to the boat the darker the colour and the more natural and lighter/brighter colours should be further back. At short corner I use black or dark colours, long corner a natural colour, short rigger bright pink red or purple, and long rigger green or lumo.

The type of lure head on your skirt will also have an impact on success rates, as certain lures work best in certain positions. Shorter heads with large cup faces are best run close to the boat, this is because they usually dive deeper and have a lot of action making them more visible to the fish as they get under the white wash created by the boat. The further back you go the longer the lure head and smaller the cup face, as the white wash further back in the spread isn’t as thick or deep.

Slant head lures are great to use as well, but work best with cleaner water behind the boat.

For smaller black marlin you don’t have to run very large lures, 4-8” is enough. Run the bigger lures close to the boat and go smaller further back.

When rigging skirts for black marlin I prefer to use 2m of 100-150lb monofilament leader crimped to or tied to a hook rig. Your hook rig can be either a double or single and there are many ways to make them. I use a single as they are much easier to make and don’t twist up or spin as easily as a double after a few fish. A lot of the time you’ll find that you’ll hook the black marlin on the rear hook if you use a double hook rig.

Doubles are great for other species like mahimahi, which are typical by-catch while targeting blacks. But plenty of people have also caught them using a single hook rig. I find the single hook rig to be far safer when de-hooking or dealing with fish boat side.

As wahoo are another common by-catch, it’s important to use multi-stand cable in your hook rig as it prevents unwanted bite offs and losing expensive lures. The cable also prevents some chaffing, but the mono above your hook rig can become damaged from a marlin’s bill so you’ll need to cut it back and reattach your mono to the hook rig. You can buy pre-made hook rigs but making them is much cheaper. You can make them to suite the lure, you just need the right size cable and crimps.

Large mahimahi are a regular by-catch when trolling lures for marlin. They make for a great photo, can fight really well and are exceptional eating.
The best locations are areas with water over 25oC, with current, bait and birds present in the area.
This small striped marlin was caught while chasing black marlin on light tackle. They put up an excellent fight on 15kg and are stunning to look at.
Justin with his first black marlin. Fish of this size are very common and easy for most anglers to manage.
Juvenile blacks are incredibly acrobatic and a lot of fun. This one was hooked only a couple of hundred metres from the shore in 15m of water.
A large array of black marlin lures in various colours, sizes, heads and hook rigs.
A simple double and single hook rig. The use of heat shrink stiffens the rig and reduces tangles.

Trolling speed and lure position

A speed between 5-7 knots is perfect for trolling skirts, however your speed will fluctuate depending on the speed of the current and how the lures are working. You want the lures to come to the surface grab air smoke and dive then come back up for air and repeat.

The diagram shows how to position your lures correctly. The distance you place them behind the boat depends on your boat, but most place them on the pressure waves created behind the boat. My short lure is around 10m behind the boat, the next is 3-5m behind that and so on. As long as the lures don’t tangle and look to be working smoothly you are in with a chance of a hook up.

How to locate Marlin

Juvenile black marlin are unique in that they are a relatively coastal fish and travel down the coastline following warm water currents in search of bait-rich waters, so unlike other marlin they can be relatively easy to locate as they aren’t too far off the coast but you need the right conditions and factors for them to be in an area.

Generally water over 25ºC is ideal with current, bait and birds present in the area. Water colour doesn’t always need to be blue as they will feed in green water if bait is present.

There are certain locations/areas where marlin are frequently caught but it can take some time to learn where these areas are. The aid of some local knowledge is very helpful but as long as you get out there, cover the water and pay attention to what’s going on you’ll begin to work it out. Being part of a local game fishing club can greatly increase your chances of getting into these fish, as there are many experienced game fishers who are willing to share their experience and knowledge with other anglers.

My best advice is to find a location that is holding bait and with birds in the area, then wait until a tide change – the marlin might be there but aren’t active enough to eat a lure until the tide changes. And, of course, persistence is the key.

Some hot spots along the coast are: Fraser Island and Hervey Bay, Double Island Point, Mooloolaba, Cape Moreton, Point Lookout, Stradbroke Island, outside the Jumpinpin bar, Gold Coast and Tweed Heads.

Black marlin may travel great distances but they can be quite lazy – they don’t like to hold in strong current and will generally ride with it until they find an area where the bait is holding out of the current, making for an easy meal.

There is a whole array of by-catch when targeting black marlin, such as various tuna, mahimahi, wahoo, sailfish and other marlin species, such as stripe marlin and on rare occasions blue marlin. Some of these by-catch species are great eating and can put up an awesome fight, which can alleviate the boredom between black marlin bites.

The fight

Juvenile black marlin are very acrobatic hard fighting fish, making them incredibly good at avoiding capture. There are a few things that will greatly improve how many you covert from a hook up, namely the tackle and boat you use.

The boat can keep pressure on the fish, as well as change the line angle and increase/decrease the distance the fish is from the boat. It is important that you always have someone keeping an eye on the spread of lures so you can anticipate or prepare for a bite and know what it is that you are hooking.

Once you have hooked a marlin, it is imperative you keep the boat moving forward and away from the fish until you’ve cleared the other lures out of the water. If you can, make sure someone grabs the rod that’s hooked the fish so they can keep pressure on it while the spread is cleared, just in case the fish changes direction. Once the spread is cleared and the fish is away from the boat, gather your line and chase down the fish. Simply follow up on the line with the boat and keep an even pressure on the line and the fish.

Depending on the size of the marlin, the fight could last hours (or minutes). Once a marlin is boat side and ready for capture, make sure the person tracing is wearing gloves as marlin have very rough bills. Black marlin can also jump or go for another run boat side – so be prepared. When close enough, pull up on the leader and grab the fish by the bill firmly as they will shake their head and carry on. I suggest keeping their head in the water once you’ve grabbed them by the bill as they seem to calm down a lot quicker.

Black marlin are a fragile fish and don’t take too well to being pulled out of the water – if you wish to pull it from the water for a photo be prepared to keep it. They are quite nice to eat, as long as you bleed and ice them. If you wish to release them don’t pull them from the water, the best thing to do is keep their head in the water and the boat in gear to revive the fish as they are generally pretty spent from the fight. You can also get some great shots of the fish in the water upon capture, which really shows off their colours and size.            

Catching small black marlin is a lot of fun and any one who can wind a reel can do it. I’ve caught my fair share and love watching others, including younger anglers, catch their first and experience the spectacle of marlin fishing. Some days it can happen in the first hour or the last but as long as you stay patient and persist, something will happen – those moments of mayhem make up for the hours of boredom. I hope all this information gives you the confidence you need to tangle with your first marlin or the information you need to refine and improve your technique to catch more. Just remember to take enough fuel to get you out and back safely.