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PROSPECTING FOR BILLFISH

Southern California Striped Marlin



Hoose Leadin

    The sun is just breaking the horizon in the east as we idle along the 250-fathom curve in lee of San Clemente Island. It’s early September and a small fleet of hardcore billfish yachts are working the same area for sleepers -- striped marlin sleeping on the surface with their tail fin exposed. Two guys in gyro binoculars slowly sweep the horizon, while a third guy wearing lowlight sunglasses looks in areas of water close around the boat. We are less than a mile from the east end of the island when I hear the words “Got one – at your 11 o’clock. Just past the second slick.” I set down my gyro binoculars and turn the boat slowly toward 11 o’clock when my friend says “OK, I got at least two fish now, at our 12 o’clock now.”
    As we approach a pair of striped marlin “sleeping” on the surface, two guys are now up on the foredeck baiting up with live mackerel from the bow tank. The marlin are motionless as we slowly slide past and in front of the fish, and both guys lob live baits from the pulpit out in front of them. As the first bait hits the water, both marlin wake up and one of them makes a turn for the bait. One angler looks up smiling and says, “I’m bit,” and moments later the second calls out “I’m bit too!” After a five-second count, reels are engaged and both rods double over with striped marlin jumping away from the boat in both directions. Life is good.
    This scene will be repeated countless times over by billfish addicts like me. Let’s look at some of the basics of striped marlin fishing and a few ways to outfit your boat for West Coast marlin fishing.

    SEASONS
    Southern California’s billfish season typically starts in late July and peaks around the full moon in late September. Striped marlin will continue to feed in the Southern California bight if there is a food source and the water is above 64 degrees. Larger striped marlin, billfish of 150 pounds and greater, can tolerate cooler water temperatures, and many seasons we have small schools of marlin camped out on bait areas into late December and even the new year. On January 2, 2016, my friend hooked a marlin in 62-degree clean blue water off the backside of San Clemente Island in an area that was holding schools of squid and mackerel for several months.
    Satellite tagging studies have shown that most of the striped marlin visiting Southern California each summer come from the west, specifically the area around the Hawaiian Islands. Although striped marlin have been caught as far north as Oregon and Washington during warm water El Nino cycles, Southern California is said to be their northernmost boundary before heading south for the winter to points all over the southeastern Pacific.
    When Southern California has an El Nino cycle such as 2015-2016, we are blessed by a perfect mixture of water temperature, bait, and volumes of striped marlin. The El Nino of 2015 was no exception, and literally hundreds of striped marlin were caught near the Channel Islands including Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa Island.

    WEST COAST BOATS
    Over the years, billfish anglers in Southern California have outfitted their boats specifically for West Coast-style marlin fishing. The techniques in Southern California call for many adaptations to production boats for this style of fishing. One of the most unique aspects of striped marlin fishing out west is baiting up, casting, and fighting billfish from the bow of the boat. For this technique, most hardcore billfish anglers install a live bait tank on the foredeck, typically just aft of the bow pulpit. Bow bait tanks are built to hold six to a dozen live mackerel and can be replenished with live bait from the cockpit tanks. Blue Water Tanks in Costa Mesa manufactures bow tanks just for this purpose and has several models to choose from depending on the size of your boat.
    West Coast-style sport fishers also install waist-high bow rails and an extended rail around the pulpit. The pulpit allows anglers casting live baits to marlin extended height for casting distance and doubles as a platform to fight a billfish from the bow. The bow rails and pulpit are a captain’s best friend on double-headers or when marlin swim off in opposite directions on a double hook-up.

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