One of sport fishing’s most well-known lure-makers, Capt. Bart Miller believed that lures out-fish natural bait for marlin because of the lure’s action as it moves through the water.
Marlin Fishing Tips – Baits or Artificial Lures When Fishing for Marlin
When Bart Miller died in 2018, he left behind a rich legacy as one of the sport’s most well-known fishermen-turned-lure-designers. His line of Black Bart lures has become the gold standard around the world for their ability to raise and catch marlin. Miller’s friends and longtime business partners, Jack Tullius and his brother Gary, continue that legacy as the current owners of Black Bart Lures.
And yet for all the popularity of artificial lures, natural bait remains a top choice in many areas of the fishing world. Mark Pumo grew up fishing off Miami and the Bahamas. He started fishing some of the local billfish tournaments after college, where he noticed a need for high-quality natural baits. His team at Baitmasters of South Florida has become one of the sport’s top bait suppliers. If you’re pulling a ballyhoo, Spanish mackerel, mullet or squid in your spread, there is a pretty good chance it arrived to you in one of those distinctive yellow-and-black Baitmasters packs.
To help better understand the specific benefits inherent to artificial lures and natural baits, we looked at a number of critical parameters. This is a head-to-head comparison: bait versus Bart.
This is perhaps the most important factor to consider. If you’re chasing only blue or black marlin, then a spread of large, active lures fished on heavy tackle is hard to beat.
“Lures give you the ability to cover water at higher speeds, with the size and fish-raising action you need to get the attention of an apex predator like a marlin,” Jack Tullius says. “While elephants do eat peanuts, big fish usually prefer to hunt and consume large prey items that are worth the energy they expend to chase them down.”
However, if the target species include white marlin, sailfish and game fish, then bait may be a better choice. White marlin are especially notorious for their ability to whack even a small lure multiple times without finding the hook. In this case, a spread of chin-weighted ballyhoo fished on circle hooks is a much better option.
From Southern California down to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, teams pull artificial lures for striped marlin, but they almost always have a pitch bait ready, often a live or fresh-dead caballito already bridled and ready to go. If the marlin doesn’t hook up immediately, the bait is introduced to entice the fired-up stripey to switch over. It’s a tactic that allows the boat to cover territory as the crew searches for fish on the surface, while greatly improving their hookup ratio once they do raise a marlin.
Where you fish has almost as much importance as the target species, and the two are certainly related. Specific locations in the world are almost exclusively dead-bait-centric locales, while others are the hallowed halls of lure fishing. In Central America,the dead-bait ballyhoo spread is the bread and butter of the charter-boat and tournament crews, just as it is throughout the Carolinas and Florida. But venture to Bermuda or Hawaii, and the name of the game is lure fishing. This isn’t to say there is not some crossover: The Costa Rica captains will occasionally pull lures at the seamounts for blue marlin, and the smart Bermuda captains will have a pitch bait ready for a white marlin on the Challenger Bank, but in general, the destination will often dictate the tactics on the water.
Release or Kill
It has been said that you pull bait to fly flags and fish lures to cash checks, and there is some truth to that bit of dockside philosophy. If the goal is to pile up billfish releases in a tournament, it’s hard to beat a dead-bait spread. With circle hooks, most fish will be hooked in the corner of the jaw, and it’s much easier to hook and quickly release double- and tripleheaders of sailfish or white marlin on bait. But if only the largest blue or black on the dock wins the Happy Gilmore-size check, a big hunk of skirted resin is almost always a better bet.
While it does take experience and skill to become a really good lure fisherman, it’s also much easier for a relatively inexperienced team to start catching fish with lures (and a spread of five Black Barts fished at 8 knots is a pretty good start). Dead bait requires a higher level of skill, starting with the preparation. “Poor bait prep and sloppy rigging techniques mean that the bait will wash out quickly and not swim correctly,” Pumo says. “It takes dedication and lots of practice to gain proficiency as a dead-bait fisherman, but it’s also a great source of pride for those who achieve that level of ability.” Pumo also notes that Baitmasters offers expertly prepared, pre-rigged natural baits for those who may not have the time or experience to rig their own.
Availability, Storage and Refrigeration
The availability of high-quality natural bait in certain parts of the world is a big issue, often forcing teams to ship large quantities of frozen bait to a destination well ahead of time. Sometimes this isn’t an option, especially when overzealous customs officials become involved. I’ve even seen cases where ballyhoo is considered frozen food, even after we pointed out that it’s clearly labeled as bait on the package. On the other hand, it’s easy to pack a full spread of plugs in a soft-sided lure bag and take them with you anywhere in the world.
“Natural bait also requires storage and refrigeration/freezer space, either on the boat or elsewhere,” Pumo says. “It has to be kept frozen solid until it’s ready to be rigged, and natural bait doesn’t last long once it’s thawed. Once the baits are rigged, they need to be kept cold but not in direct contact with fresh water or ice, which means a separate bait cooler or storage area on the boat.” Lures, of course, require no special treatment.
Do you or your crew have the time to properly rig a full box of natural baits, or do you want to hop on the boat and go fishing? Rigging ballyhoo or mackerel is a process that involves carefully thawing, prepping and rigging dozens of baits, and it requires a host of miscellaneous small items like chin weights, waxed floss, O-rings or swivels, copper wire, rigging needles and more. Meanwhile, the same lures you pulled yesterday are ready to go today. Just check those hooks for sharpness, snap the leaders in the swivels and you’re all set.
J Hook versus Circle Hook
One main disadvantage of lures over bait is in the release ratio. Most lure fishermen will say that if they can maintain a hookup-to-release ratio of 70 percent or so, then that’s doing pretty well. Some boast of much higher percentages, but then again, there are also plenty of stories of rubber-hook days where teams are zero-for-4 on blue marlin, where the fish is hooked and pulling drag but manages to elude capture during the fight for whatever reason.
Circle hooks, on the other hand, have a much higher percentage of hookup to release, thanks to their shape, which catches the fish in the corner of the jaw. “For a hard-jumping blue marlin, they can throw that J hook fairly easily, while they have a much harder time shedding a circle hook during the fight,” Pumo says
Interestingly, the mandated shift to circle hooks with natural bait, enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service, caused a complete shift in North Carolina’s tournament blue marlin fishery. The standard Carolina marlin bait — a horse ballyhoo rigged on a J hook and fished in combination with a blue-and-white Ilander lure — was now illegal in tournament competition. Teams quickly learned to lure fish for big blues, while maintaining their prowess at dead-bait fishing for white marlin, yellowfin tuna and other species.
Action versus Taste
Lures are great at raising fish and getting bites, but it’s hard to beat natural bait in getting a marlin to actually eat the damned thing. Much like a cat chasing a toy, a blue or black will sometimes bat a lure repeatedly in an attempt to catch, kill and eat it, often resulting in some spectacularly unsuccessful bites. If you free-spool the lure, it loses its action and the fish quickly loses interest. With a ballyhoo or mackerel, a short drop-back gives the marlin a chance to grab it, and since it looks and tastes real, they can turn and swallow it easily. And while they don’t chug and splash like lures, it’s hard to beat the realistic swimming action of a well-rigged mackerel, mullet or ballyhoo in the spread. This one’s a draw.
Because of their fish-raising splash, color and shimmy, lures are a terrific option as teasers. Many a marlin has been raised to a Black Bart fished as a teaser before either being switched over to a pitch bait or hooked on a lure in the spread. On the other hand, a squid daisy chain with a ballyhoo chase bait is standard in just about any big-game fishery in the world. Having that natural bait gives the fish a taste of the real thing and keeps it engaged for those crucial few seconds needed to get a pitch bait in the water
More From FECOP
FECOP Costa Rica Fishing Species
Pacific Blue Marlin
WHERE FOUND IN COSTA RICA: Marlin can be found all along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. They are a pelagic and migratory species which means they live near the surface in deep, off-shore waters. They typically are found in warmer tropical waters between 70-85 degrees, which Costa Rica has year round.
Marlin Time in Costa Rica: Marlin can be and have been caught year round in Costa Rica. Historically, the best months for blue marlin in the Southern and Central Pacific regions of Costa Rica (Osa Peninsula, Quepos, Jaco) are November through January. Most years there is usually a ‘second run’ of marlin around June and July which may include an increase in black and striped marlin mixed in with the blues. Marlin are also found in the northwestern part of Costa Rica – Guanacaste from May to September when the bite then moves north along the coast with the drier weather and warmer waters.
Marlin Facts – Did You Know:
- Sometimes referred to as “The Lady in Blue”
- Average life span: 27 years (females); 18 years (males)
- It is illegal to take a sailfish or marlin out of the water for photos in Costa Rica
- Marlins are “Catch and Release” ONLY fish – Learn why it is against the law to remove these fish from the water in Costa Rica
- Best time of year to catch a Pacific blue marlin in Costa Rica – Year round peaking in Nov – January and again in April – times vary depending on which part of Costa Rica you are fishing – contact your Costa Rica guide or lodge for details.
- The Blue marlin is very large fish. Females are 3 to 4 times larger than males. Larger specimens can reach 14 feet in length and weight of almost 2000 pounds. On average, blue marlin usually reaches 11 feet in length and between 200 and 400 pounds in weight.
- Dorsal (back) side of blue marlin is dark blue while the belly is silver white in color.Blue marlin has elongated body, long tail, pronounced dorsal fin and sharp, spear-shaped upper jaw.
- Blue marlin uses its spear-shaped jaw to stun, corral and catch food. It feeds on crustaceans, fish (mackerel, tuna), dorado and squids.
- During the hunt, blue marlin will pass through a dense school of fish and inflict injuries with its spear. Dead or injured fish will float around and blue marlin will easily scoop them afterwards.
- Blue marlin relies on the eye sight to find food. It hunts during the day (diurnal animal).
- Blue marlin has 24 vertebrae which allow fast movement through the water. It reaches the speed of 60 miles per hour.
- Because of their large size and sharp spear-shaped jaw, blue marlins have only couple of predators: white sharks, mako sharks and humans.
- Blue marlins are very active and strong animals. They like to leap out of the water. Also, they will show powerful and acrobatic movements while trying to release of the hook.
- Blue marlins are solitary creatures. Sometimes they swim in pairs. Rarely, they will gather in larger groups (schools).
Blue marlins are migratory species. They will move from one location to another to escape low water temperatures (they prefer life in warm waters).
- Mating season of blue marlins takes place late in the summer or early in the autumn.
- Females become sexually mature when they gain the weight of 265 pounds. Males reach sexual maturity at the age of three years.
- Females are able to spawn 4 times per single mating season, releasing up to 7 million eggs. Only small percent of released eggs (less than 1%) will survive until the adulthood.
- Majority of eggs will be eaten by other marine creatures.
- Current Pacific World Record:1,376 – Females can reportedly grow to 1,998lbs
- Common Name: Blue Marlin
- Size: Up to 14 ft
On any day of the year it is possible to release (catch and release species by law in Costa Rica) a Pacific blue marlin in Costa Rica (Pacific) but recorded releases are historically highest from November to January when the big dorado run is on. There is also a small peak in April as sailfish numbers drop. July through September there is a better chance at a black or striped marlin mixed in with the blues in Costa Rica
More About the Pacific Blue Marlin
Lacepede, 1802; ISTIOPHORIDAE FAMILY
From IGFA Fish Database
This pelagic and migratory species occurs in tropical and warm temperate oceanic waters. In the Atlantic Ocean it is found from 45°N to 35°S, and in the Pacific Ocean from 48°N to 48°S. It is less abundant in the eastern portions of both oceans. In the Indian Ocean it occurs around Ceylon, Mauritius, and off the east coast of Africa. In the northern Gulf of Mexico its movements seem to be associated with the so called Loop Current, an extension of the Caribbean Current. Seasonal concentrations occur in the southwest Atlantic (5°-30°S) from January to April; in the northwest Atlantic (10°-35°N) from June to October; in the western and central North Pacific (2°-24°N) from May to October; in the equatorial Pacific (10°N-10°S) in April and November; and in the Indian Ocean (0°-13°S) from April to October.
A Japanese report indicates that the blue marlin is the largest of the istiophorid fishes. It apparently grows larger in the Pacific. All giant marlins are females, and male blue marlin rarely exceed 300 lb (136 kg). The pectoral fins of blue marlin are never completely rigid, even after death, and can be folded completely flat against the sides except in the largest specimens. The dorsal fin is high and pointed anteriorly (rather than rounded) and its greatest height is less than the greatest body depth. The anal fin is relatively large and it too is pointed. Juveniles may not share all the characteristics listed above, but the peculiar lateral line system is usually visible in small specimens. In adults it is rarely visible unless the scales or skin are removed. The vent is just in front of the anal fin, as it is in all billfish except the spearfish. The back is cobalt blue and the flanks and belly are silvery white. There may be light blue or lavender vertical stripes on the sides, but these usually fade away soon after death, and they are never as obvious as those of the striped marlin. There are no spots on the fins.
They are known to feed on squid and pelagic fishes, including tuna and mackerel. A powerful, aggressive fighter, they run hard and long, sound deep, and leap high into the air in a seemingly inexhaustible display of strength. Fishing methods include trolling large whole baits such as bonito, dorado, mullet, mackerel, ballyhoo, flying fish and squid as well as various types of artificial lures and sometimes strip baits.
Some taxonomists believe that the Atlantic and Pacific blue marlins are closely related but separate species. They apply the scientific name Makaira nigricans, Lacepede, 1892, to the Atlantic species only and the name Makaira mazara (Jordan & Snyder, 1901) to the Pacific and Indian Ocean species. Others treat the two populations as subspecies, Makaira nigricans nigricans and Makaira nigricans mazara
Black or Blue? – It is hard for most captains and anglers to tell the difference at times unless they are close to the fish. At closer range, one can be quickly and positively identified since it is the only marlin that have rigid pectoral fins that cannot be folded flat up against the body without breaking the joints. It is also set apart by the airfoil shape of the pectoral fins and by its very short ventral fins, which almost never exceed 12 in (30 cm) in length, regardless of the size of the fish. The first dorsal fin is proportionately the lowest of any billfish, usually less than 50 percent of the body depth. The body is laterally compressed, rather than rounded; much more so than in similar sized blue marlin.
Note: It is against the law in most countries to remove billfish from the water for photos – These are catch and release fish ONLY – To learn more read Leave the fish in the water, why your dream photo isn’t worth it – by Todd Staley
On May 31, 1982, angler Jay de Beaubien caught the biggest Pacific blue marlin ever recorded by the International Game Fish Association while he was fishing aboard No Problem, a 43-foot Merritt captained by Bobby Brown. The bite took place at approximately 1 p.m. while they were trolling a silver and blue Kita lure off Kona, Hawaii. According to the angler’s account, “All hell broke loose with that first run.” Within minutes, the fish had nearly emptied the spool. However, despite several strong runs and the immense size of the fish, de Beaubien and the crew had the fish boat-side in just 40 minutes. Not long after, the crew officially weighed the 1,376-pound blue marlin, bringing the All-Tackle record back to Kona where it has remained ever since. This photo is for historical purposes only, it is illegal to remove billfish from the water.