Time To Tangle With Marlin

When it comes to marlin fishing Australia really is world class with no less than six species of billfish on offer. Kaydo Fishing World’s offshore expert Al McGlashan takes a look at this iconic gamefish and highlights when, where and how you can get connected with one of the World’s most revered species. 

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A thrilled Al McGlashan with yet another big billfish caught from Strikezone, his marlin magnet.

 Everybody dreams about catching marlin. They are a beautiful fish with the most streamlined of bodies and silvery blue flanks. Not only can they grow to be one of the biggest fish in the sea, they are also the most spectacular renowned for high flying antics and explosive runs.

Marlin are part of the billfish clan which include sailfish and swordfish. There are three species of marlin found in Australian waters from the enigmatic blue marlin found well offshore to the black and striped that patrol the continental shelf and occasionally venture close in to shore.

Marlin fishing was once considered a sport for the rich and famous but dramatic improvements in boats, outboards and marine electronics have brought these magical fish within reach of many sport fishermen. As a result the popularity of marlin fishing in Australia has soared in recent years and suddenly anglers are catching marlin in everything from six metre trailer boats to tinnies and even kayaks.

Finding Marlin

There are two main influences that dictate marlin movements—oceanic currents and the availability of bait. These two factors are heavily linked and by understanding them anglers will find more marlin.

Water temperatures play a vital role and in most cases marlin prefer water between 21 and 25 degrees.  Clean blue water with about a knot of current is ideal and can be easily found by employing technology such as a quality colour sounder. This is particularly the case for blue marlin and to a lesser degree stripes. Black marlin on the other hand are far less fussy and can be found in dirty green water, but as a rule they still prefer clean blue water. Satellites can read the the seas surface temperatures and water colour which is easily accessible via the internet.

Marlin will also often congregate over deep water structure like reefs, canyons, pinnacles and seamounts. Baitfish often congregate in huge numbers over these areas when the conditions are right and in turn attract the predators. The development of high-tech depth sounders and GPS units has made finding these underwater formations and bait concentrations an easy task.

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Hooked up to a fish down deep – always a challenging time while fighting a billfish.

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Heading home after another top day out wide.

Fishing Techniques

The best way to catch marlin is trolling lures, skip baiting or live baiting. Marlin are oceanic wanderers which can make them hard to locate. Think about it there is a lot of water out there so even if you narrow the search area down it is still going to be a big area to cover.

Skirted lures can be trolled faster than baits, which makes them ideal for covering the ground searching for fish. Despite looking oddly like squid, skirted marlin lures are designed to imitate a fish splashing along on the surface. Most anglers troll a spread of four or five lures to form a ‘bait school’. Skirted lures between 6 and 10 inches work best inshore for stripes and small black marlin, while offshore big lures from 10 to 14 inches and heavy tackle are used. Trolled at between 6 and 9 knots these lures will create a lot of commotion splashing about on the surface, which marlin absolutely adore.

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A drone shot of a boat trolling likely grounds as skipper and crew keep a close watch on the teasers and electronics.

Possibly the biggest mistake made by many anglers is to troll lures too far back. Unlike tuna, which can be very boat shy at times, marlin have little fear of boats and in fact it is often the boat which can initially attract these curious fish. For this reason it is important to run the lures right in close behind the boat.

One of the most important things to do is to keep your hooks razor sharp. Marlin have very tough, bony mouths that are extremely difficult to penetrate when lure trolling. The sharper the hook, the easier it goes in. Yes it is a simple philosophy but it works. Despite the obvious, many anglers don’t sharpen their hooks and as a result miss a lot of fish. Remember the hook attaches the angler to the fish so keep them sharp.

 Go Natural

Skip baiting is another highly successful technique that is particularly effective on striped and black marlin. Smaller baits like bonito work a treat in NSW waters, in Queensland anglers chasing giant blacks use baits as big as 20kg mackerel.

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A sensational image of a lit up fish preparing to feed.

Skip baits are usually trolled at 3 to 5 knots and in most cases only two baits are trolled – one from each outrigger. While lures are fished with heavy drags skip baits are fished with the reel just in gear – that way when the fish bites it is allowed to swallow the bait before the angler strikes.  Anglers only ever use the oddly shaped circle hooks for this job. These unlikely looking hooks virtually always penetrate the corner of the mouth.

Skip baiting is productive but when you fight a bait school packed up tight there is only one technique to use and that is live baiting. A big bait school is like an underwater version of a takeaway shop complete with neon lights flashing. If you want to get served then you need to go to the counter and it is no different for the marlin, so stay right on top of the school.

The best way to find bait consistently is with a good quality sounder. Think of the hi-tech device as a set of underwater eyes – the right sounder will show you exactly what is going on underneath.

Understanding your sounder is essential. Bait stacked up vertical in shape is also highly productive, while a deep bait school with peak is a sure sign for the presence of predators. Many serious anglers often spend hours scanning an area with the sounder, before deciding which bait school to focus on. Being a big fish marlin are easily picked up on the sounder as big red arches so with a well tuned sounder you can actually pick the marlin on the edge of the bait school.

Once you find the bait you can either slow troll around them or drift with the school. Drifting not only allows you to hang with the bait, but it also allows your baits to act naturally and swim deeper in the strike zone.

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Another lovely billfish boat side, another flag for the team on Strikezone.

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The waiting gamee. But good things come to those who persist, especially when marlin fishing.

As a basic rule most boats run three baits, two surface baits and one down deep on a sinker or downrigger. It is important to stagger the two surface baits, say 25 and 40 metres respectively to keep them apart. The deep bait allows you to cover more of the water column and will greatly increase your strike rate. Marlin, although pelagic, spend a lot of time in the depths, so it makes a lot of sense to employ a breakaway sinker for drifting or a down rigger for slow trolling.

One trick that works a treat when you are drifting over the bait is to drop a bait jig down into the school and then crank it back up once you load up with baits. Winding a full string of struggling baitfish up to the surface is like ringing the dinner bell and believe me the marlin come swimming – big time.

At times we have teased marlin right to the side of the boat and kept them there for several minutes eventually feeding them a bait. Believe me there is no better way to get the attention of a marlin marauding about near the school. The only downside is that you will go through a lot of bait jigs if the marlin keep eating them.

A fair sized fish leaps during the heat of the battle.

A fair sized fish leaps during the heat of the battle.

Fighting Marlin

Once hooked marlin can go ballistic tearing off on powerful runs or jumping uncontrollably all over the ocean. During the initial stages of the fight it is important to keep calm. A lot of anglers lose fish at this stage because they worry about putting on the harness and gimbal instead of keeping tight to the fish.

Communications between the boat captain and angler is essential during this stage of the fight – a simple misunderstanding can quickly lead to a lost fish. The better the driving and the smarter the angling the quicker the fish will be caught. In this day and age, where tag and release is expected, it is important to release the fish in a healthy state.

This may all sound easy but in reality, when 10-feet of marlin appears beside the boat, most anglers panic or do something silly. Rehearse and practice the moves before you hook-up and you will minimise the chances of mistakes.

What are you waiting for?

There are few things more exciting than catching a marlin out of your own boat. Thanks to modern technology it is now something you can do even out of a kayak. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and get connected to a marlin – it is one of the most exciting things you’ll ever do.


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Another of Al McGlashan’s sensational shots of a hooked marlin.

Fact Box: Black Marlin Migration

There is an annual migration of immature black marlin down the East Coast of Australia every summer and autumn. These fish usually hug the coast and, in places like South West Rocks, it is possible to catch them within a few hundred metres off the shoreline. Being very structure-oriented black marlin tend to congregate around islands, drop-offs and prominent reefs, anywhere that the bait is concentrated making them easier to find.

Aussie Marlin Hot Spots

Area                                              Season

South West Rocks, New South Wales                       Spring/summer/autumn

Port Stephens, New South Wales                              Summer/autumn

Jervis Bay, New South Wales                                      Summer/autumn

Cairns, Queensland                                                     Spring/summer

Cape Bowling Green                                                    Spring

Southport, Queensland                                              Spring/summer/autumn

Exmouth, Western Australia                                      Summer/autumn


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