The arrival of the blue water in 2017 might tempt you to head offshore for the first time and chase some of the magnificent game fish present in our local waters.
Marlin and various tuna species are probably the most sought after, but many others also show up, such as mahimahi, assorted sharks and even the odd shortbilled spearfish. However, this type of fishing generally requires new techniques, different tackle and rigs – and the idea of heading out into the wide blue yonder can be very daunting for many inexperienced anglers. There is also the million-dollar question: where do you start looking for game fish?
But don’t be put off by these aspects, as they’re often relatively easily sorted with a bit of preparation and planning – and, thanks to the advantages offered by modern tackle and technology, you have a real shot at getting into some exciting marlin or tuna action.
In days gone by, big game fishing was mainly the domain of big launches and charter boats. Trolling with lures, live and dead baits were the standard techniques, and these boats often boasted an impressive array of large gold reels and game-fishing chairs.
The big boats still play a vital role in blue-water fishing – indeed, a couple of trips with an experienced skipper can really fast-track your experiences and skills regarding this type of fishing. They also allow overnight and multi-day trips to some of the more exotic locations, which often produces fantastic fishing, even if the weather’s not that great at times.
However, these days it is not uncommon to see the smaller fishing boats out chasing game fish, too. This is mainly because they are now a lot faster, more reliable and fuel efficient than before, and most are fitted with the latest in marine electronics, helping them to find the fish and stay safe whilst doing it.
So if you’d like to get out amongst the big boys, first make sure your boat is set up correctly. Number-one priority is the necessary safety gear. This should include lifejackets for all on board, flares for offshore use, a VHF radio, GPS, manual compass, first aid kit, and personal locator beacon.
You also need to ensure your boat is well maintained, especially the batteries – after all, you can’t get out and push! Check that you have sufficient fuel for the proposed trip, too: you should plan on returning to port with a third of your fuel still available to allow for unexpected variables, such as more fuel being used in rough weather, or playing a fish for an extended period.
The really nice thing about modern tackle and techniques is that there are heaps of options for blue-water fishing that are readily accessible and not too costly. It is possible to sort a couple of outfits that can be used for a wide a variety of blue-water fishing without spending a fortune.
In the past, most boats would use heavy-duty 50- and 80-size game reels spooled with 50lb (24kg) or 80lb (37kg) mono. Now it’s possible to fish with compact reels in the 30 size that hold enough 70/80lb (33-37kg) braid to give you a real shot at even the biggest game fish.
You’ll also need a couple of modern stand–up harness systems, some ropes and gloves – and possibly a serious gaff (or two) if intending to boat a big fish.
Keep in mind there are also several smaller blue-water fish, such as skipjack tuna, albacore tuna and mahimahi, which can be targeted on light tackle (i.e. standard soft-bait gear), providing great sport and also being useful indicators for the presence of larger gamefish, which feed on them and are often nearby.
For those new to blue-water fishing, I suggest starting by catching the smaller tunas, then trolling them alive around schools of baitfish. This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to get a bite. You will need 6-10 metres of 200-500lb trace material armed with a 9/0-12/0 hook (depending on the size of baitfish and/or the size of fish you’re hoping to hook). You also need an open-eyed bait needle, so you can insert and pull the rubber band or dacron loop attached to the hook’s bend through the front of the baitfish’s nose, just in front of its eyes. It is then a matter of unhooking the needle so the free end of the loop can be slipped over the hook’s point and barb to the hook’s curve, securing your baitfish.
Another accessory you’ll find invaluable for this style of blue- water live-baiting is a pair of tuna tubes – and fortunately they can be retro-fitted in most cases. The tuna tube is a small cylinder that pumps water over the fish’s gills at a high rate. Although a variety of smallish baitfish can be kept alive when placed headfirst into the cylinder, they’re especially valuable for keeping small tuna in good shape – a species notorious for quickly dying when kept in standard live-bait tanks.
Trolling lures is a popular technique when targeting blue-water fish, as it’s possible to cover a lot of ground while looking for activity; trolling is generally done at speeds around 6-9 knots.
Only use outfits you know will handle big fish, as Murphy’s Law dictates the biggest fish tend to jump on the weakest link (outfit) set out. Don’t worry if you only have one or two outfits that are suitable; you can run some form of teaser(s), such as a bird teasers, a mirror teaser, or a dredge to help create more disturbance and visual excitement in the water. These attract gamefish by providing flash and noise either on the surface or under the water.
Your choice of lure is important. There are literally thousands of lures to choose from, but some will suit various sea states, speeds and positions better than others. If I had to select a few favourite lures for trolling in the blue water I would be happy with the following: Zuker 5.5 black and purple; Pacific Eye Catcher in ‘Fruit Salad’; Zuker ZTWG in ‘Zucchini’; Pakula medium ‘Lumo’ Sprocket; and a Black Magic ‘Predator Pilchard’. These lures troll well in a variety of trolling speeds, positions and sea conditions, and represent a wide range of baitfish.
Having said all that, rigging them properly is probably more important than the lure type chosen. Blue-water lures can be armed with either a tandem- or single-hook rig; in either case though, the rear hook’s curve should protrude beyond the lure skirt. Always make sure the hooks are sticky sharp, as marlin bills are as dense as wood.
The lures and hooks are attached to trace material between 200 and 500lb, and usually crimped together rather than knotted. If unfamiliar with rigging, I recommend getting a tackle store expert to do this for you.
Trolling with lures can be frustrating, as many marlin will attack the lure, run off some line, then part company for some reason or another. To give yourself the best chance of staying hooked, your lures should be well spread out so they don't get crossed or tangled, and the reel's drag set lightly so it can still wind the lure in, but not much more - about two or three kilos of pressure is about right. Save pushing the drag lever up to 'strike' (generally set at around a third the line's weight) until the striking marlin has run a fair amount of line off in the water - anything from 15-30 seconds or even more. Finally, try to keep the weight on the line by keeping the boat moving ahead of the fish.
Whether you choose live baiting or trolling lures, the time will come when a magnificent fish is brought to your boat's side, waiting on your decision to either keep it or release it. If the fish is looking unharmed and you wish to release it, get your crew to grab the bill with a gloved hand, carefully remove the hook, then grab a quick picture or two. DON’T bring it on board. Swim the fish beside the boat and let it go when it starts to kick.
If, on the other hand, you want to keep a large fish, make sure you dispatch it quickly before dragging it on board. Also consider what will happen to it once back in port. Many game clubs call on someone local who, for a fee, will smoke your catch and vacuum pack it for you. Alternatively, make sure you have enough room to store your catch in a freezer if you’re going to deal with it yourself.
Getting out in the blue water is really exciting and gives you a chance to do battle with some of the largest fish that swim. The things you see when you travel out wide will amaze you too, from turtles and sharks to massive whales.
Such sights can make the trip worthwhile by themselves, but once you have heard that ratchet scream, or seen a big billfish light up and eat a live bait, you will be completely hooked, too.
This article is reproduced with permission of