Baiting Stripes

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Al McGlashan gives readers a master class on the techniques for fishing bait schools for striped marlin.

When it comes to striped marlin everyone thinks lures are the best option but I’m hear to tell you that bait is best. Fishing bait schools is one of the most productive ways to catch striped marlin.

Obviously the key to success is to find the bait, which is paramount. I can not stress the point enough that live baiting is only effective on the bait, if you troll no mans land you are literally wasting your time. Find the bait and you will find the marlin, in fact I would go as far as to say no bait no billfish!

Not all bait is the same

All billfish are opportunistic hunters that prey on a wide range of bait species. Yet having said this not all bait species are suitable for this style of fishing. Skipjack tuna travel at high speed making them impossible to keep up with when live baiting. Flying fish are near impossible to catch and die quickly. Slimy mackerel on the other hand are marlin candy. Congregating in huge schools slimy mackerel are like a neon sign for striped marlin. Better still the schools are slow moving schools making them perfect for live baiting.

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The interesting part is that the bait usually sits down deep in the bottom half of the water column so it is imperative you have a decent sounder, like my Furuno. Even more so you need to be able to operate the sounder and understand the picture, because you need to be able to distinguish the different types of bait on the sounder. Slimies swim with cowayung and leatherjackets which are much further down the marlin menu so its imperative to distinguish the slimies. To make things easier the slimies tend to sit higher in the water column than yakkas and this is where the term ‘high bait’ comes from. Alternately if you have a cheap sounder you can always drop a bait jig down and see what comes up!

While bait is the key to finding fish it is equally important to understand that not all bait is the same. A bait school being harassed by predator’s shows up very differently on the sounder screen compared to a bait school that is happily feeding. A feeding school will appear green, which indicates the bait is spread out. Alternately, a school that shows up red is tightly packed because predators are herding it up. The tighter the bait the more trouble it is in and that is sweet music to anglers!

High is best

The higher the bait is in the water column the more likely you are going to pull fish off it. By pushing bait to the surface the predators can trap it, forming a bait ball, and feed on it at leisure.

The same principle applies for bait that is marking up down deep, hugging the bottom in 100 or more fathoms. Wherever you find a vertical peak or a high bit in the bait it is a sure sign that there is something harassing it. So in other words always fish the highest bit of bait irrespective of how deep it is.

As you work a bait school monitor it constantly on the sounder. The moment a striped marlin and its mates turns up on the scene you will suddenly notice the bait schools will dense up all of a sudden, showing up as a more intense red color. As soon as this happens a bite is almost guaranteed.

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Stay on the bait

To be honest catching striped marlin on live bait isn’t particularly difficult because the bait does all the work for you. Panicking, the bait will send out nervous vibrations that will quickly attract any nearby predators’ attention. The trick however, is to get your bait in the right place, or more correctly, the strike zone.

A bait school is the underwater equivalent of a takeaway shop and believe me the predators know it. So, the key is to keep your baits right next to the bait school and never leave it.

As the bait school is the centre of attention it makes a lot of sense that it is where you need to be. Even if you don’t get any bites initially, don’t stray away because the further you travel from the bait the lesser your chances. A hungry fish will find the bait so make sure you are there to meet it.

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Work the water column

To maximise your chances the best approach is to run multiple baits. Considering I fish from trailerboats these days I like to run three baits, two from the outriggers and one down deep in the centre.

The riggers are set well apart to minimize the chances of tangles as you do make tight turns over the bait school. The third bait has a breakaway lead attached and has a number of markers along the line so we know exactly how deep the bait is. Drifting over the bait this line is set at the same depths as the bait school is showing up on the sounder. If the bait is marking at 80 fathoms then this is the depth you need to position the bait.

The best approach is to drift over the bait as slowly as possible. Keep reversing the boat up to compensate for the wind and current to help hold you in position directly over the bait. Once you lose the bait on the sounder use your GPS (zoomed right in on the plotter page) to realign yourself for the next drift. While drifting, the baits on the outriggers will naturally swim down and then hold position at various depths, which in effect means you are covering a majority of the water column.

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Keep ‘em lively

There is nothing as appealing as a fresh live bait kicking about enticingly on a circle hook. For this reason it is a good idea to look after your baits and ensure they are in tip top condition at all times. A live bait tank with a high flow pump is essential as is the need to minimize contact. When you are baiting up avoid handling them too much and get them into the bait well as quickly as possible.

Another trick is to constantly upgrade your baits. Not surprisingly baits tire quickly and by regularly replacing them your chances of a bite increase dramatically. It really is amazing how often you get a bite as soon as you put a fresh bait out.

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Fire them up

As you drift over the bait don’t just sit there idly waiting for a bite. Instead you can tease them into action with your bait jig. Simply drop the jig down into the bait school, load up on baits and then slowly wind them back up to the surface. Any predator loitering around the edge of the bait school is quickly going to get excited by the struggling baits and chase them to the surface.

Quite often as you bring the bait jig up, stop it momentarily to really get the fish excited. Just be warned if you give the baits slack line and a billfish turns up then you can end in a huge tangle. Then you have an even bigger problem on your hands – trying to get the bait jig back before the marlin steals it!

Not only does this technique help to fire up any fish, but also helps to keep the bait well replenished.

Bite time

Always take note of the tide change because bait will commonly rise up towards the surface for the change of tide. Why this occurs is not clear but irrespective of where you fish around the world the best bite time is around the tide change. With this in mind you have to be on the spot for the bite period over the tide change. The best days for live baiting are those that have two tide changes, one in the morning and the afternoon.

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When you do get a bite don’t retrieve the other baits. Instead leave them out for as long as possible. By leaving your gear in you immediately have the chance of turning your single hook up into a double, or even a triple. Remember fish usually only bite for a certain amount of time, be it 20 minutes or three hours. It makes little sense to immediately pull the rest of your baits in when you get a bite, so get someone to look after them and leave them out as long as possible.

Using heavy tackle means you can control the fish you are fighting while still continuing to fish with the other rods. It can be a hassle to do two jobs at once but believe me at least 30% of the fish we catch bite while we are fighting another one.

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