Pitching Baits to Billfish


It’s no secret that one of my favourite ways of targeting marlin is switch baiting or towing hookless teasers and pitching either dead or live baits once you’ve raised a fish. Switch baiting requires a little bit of teamwork and timing, but generally it’s pretty straight forward as long as you keep everything pretty simple.

Many crews seem to confuse the matter by either leaving hooks in their teasers/lures or by simply running too many teasers full stop! I commonly hear of crews trying to pitch baits back into lures spreads, this is generally not a preference of mine as trolling speeds for lures, dead baits or live baits are significantly different. Yes, sometimes this does work, and the marlin eats either the bait or a sinking lure, but often I find billfish become confused, disinterested and fade off in this scenario. I prefer to clear the teasers (three or four max) easily and efficiently and pitch back a bait without too much fuss, rather than having four or five lures and a bait in the water at the same time.

I’m sure many of you will be pleasantly surprised how long a billfish will pursue teasers when there aren’t any hooks present. Rarely, but sometimes marlin won’t tease and will fade off for no apparent reason, but how many of you catch every single marlin you raise on a lure? I rest my case.

Switching billfish can be done in a number of differing scenarios and with a little practice; it can be a really fun and effective way of fishing for billfish, especially stripes and blues that are so common in New Zealand waters.

In earlier articles I’ve mentioned a few pitch-baits that work really well in many of New Zealand’s scenarios. Sometimes bait prefererences can be over-shadowed by what bait is available at the time. I’ve used anything from squid, belly-strips, trevally, mullet, small to medium kahawai, small tuna’s through to my favourites of either slimey mackeral or blue koheru.

Billfish eat both live and dead baits just as effectively when switch baiting and it’s a myth if anyone suggests they prefer one to the other. What you may like to consider when choosing pitch baits is target species, bait size, line class and boat speed in an attempt to present your bait in best possible manner.

The following are techniques I use myself or teach others when pitching baits to billfish.

We all know that billfish react differently every time you raise one, so in some ways it’s difficult to write about what to do as a rule. Billfish species, feeding aggressiveness, sea conditions and vision can all have effects on switching characteristics, so it’s important to read the situation that’s in front of you and act accordingly.

When I raise a fish, as a driver I always pull into a slow turn when switch baiting - whatever side the fish comes up on is the way I make my turn. This opens a passage of clear water on the inside of your wash which is perfect for slipping a dead or live bait to an excited marlin. As the bait goes back, the boat slows and the crew clear all the teasers quickly and efficiently. I generally use three teasers and very rarely four, depending on how many spare hands are on deck in an attempt to keep things simple and mistake free.

How far the angler lets the bait go back obviously depends on the behaviour of the marlin, but generally anywhere from the second to the fourth pressure wave is fine as a ‘bite zone’. Very rarely will marlin not find a pitch bait if all the teasers are cleared efficiently, especially if Striped Marlin and blue Koheru are involved.

I try to keep my boat speed up as much as possible (5.5 to 6.5 knots) even when pitching live baits, remembering that your bait should have been pitched on the inside of a turn. Fresh live baits shouldn’t have any problems swimming at this speed for a while. If your live bait does skip a little, marlin generally eat it anyway! Dead baits should either skip or swim perfectly at 5.5 – 6.5 knots.

It’s here that the art of pitching a bait, controlling the bite and free spooling comes into play.

Generally, I teach anglers to hold their (stand-up) rods under their left arm with their left hand at the base of the reel controlling any overrun. The pitch-bait is free spooled back to the ‘bite zone’ and held there with the reel remaining in free spool. I try to teach anglers to hold the line up with their right hand, between the reel and the first roller guide for three reasons.

Firstly, you can hold your bait in position accurately, let the line slip through your fingers if need be, i.e. the fish drifts back slightly or if the fish is ahead of the bait the angler can quickly put the reel in gear, crank it forward 2 –3 winds, back to free spool with their right hand holding the line once again.

Secondly, for sensitivity, or feeling what is happening with your bait. This is especially important when pitching live baits that can at times be out of sight. By holding the line lightly the angler has better feel for what is happening.

Finally, controlling an aggressive bite. At times teased marlin can pounce or ambush baits and controlling the initial bite can be easier said than done. By holding the line up the angler can let the line roll of the spool without overrun or backlash. Once the marlin eats, the right hand can be placed on the reel controlling the free spool and ready to push the drag up.

Having the clicker on is also a good way of controlling any overrun, although more confident anglers may choose not to bother.

If pitching skipping baits, I get the angler to hold their rod tips up to maintain a good skipping action that is more attractive to billfish. As soon as they obtain a bite I get them to lower their tip and point their rod directly down the line while free spooling.

If pitching live baits or swimming baits I obviously have the angler hold their rod tip down to obtain a good swimming action and also point their rods down the line while free spooling a ‘bite’.

“How long do you free spool for?” is a commonly asked question that we’ve all heard on numerous occasions and it generally changes on every boat you fish on and with every so called expert you speak to. Free spooling time is something that you can’t really put a time on, as marlin don’t all bite the same.

I use circle hooks and I generally find that between 4 –7 seconds max is just right with a nice sized koheru, but obviously if you choose bigger baits slightly more time maybe needed. I generally don’t like letting marlin get the bait into their stomach, as I believe it hinders hook-up rates quite substantially. I prefer to hook fish as they have it their throat area, obtaining a much cleaner hook-up in the hinge of the jaw. I guess this sounds a bit vague, as many may say “just hook them anywhere”, but I can seriously say with a little practice you can get a much better feel for it.

Quite often if the bait is pulled from a marlin’s mouth, you’ll commonly get a second bite if you can get the bait skipping again. Putting your reel into gear too early rather than too late is not as bad an issue as some may consider.

Putting your reel up to strike and letting your rod tip load up, or reeling all the slack line until you can’t get anymore turns and lifting your rod tip is all that is required to set your hook, especially with the boats forward momentum. Remembering that nylon or monofilament has high stretch doing anything more than this maybe considered a waste of time and energy, especially if your fish is any more than 40 metres away when setting the hook.

Sometimes I get the angler to go ‘over the button’ briefly just to get the bait out of the marlins stomach or throat area, but this is a circle hook trick that probably wouldn’t be that successful with J’s.

Pitching baits from bigger chair rods is a little different, although much of the same principles apply. Obviously you’re a lot more restricted with mobility around the cockpit, but this can be overcome with organised crew work. It’s totally up to you how you organise your cockpit, as you may like to position your rod in either the covering board or central game chair. Rod positioning may alter as result of a number of factors so I’ll leave it in your capable hands.

If pitching baits from a chair rod, I always have the reel sitting in free spool with the clicker on. By doing this your rod and reel is always ready to go if you raise a marlin, and with the clicker on, line can be stripped of the rod tip quickly and efficiently into the ‘bite zone’ without the chance of over run or backlash.

The bait can be held in position by hand of either the crew or angler. If the bait needs to be let back simply strip more line off, if the bait needs to be brought forward simply hand line the bait forward what is required while letting the belly of line back in the wash.

As with the stand-up rod and reel technique it’s important to hold the skipping baits up and the swimming baits lower. Hand feeding billfish is great fun and nice way of ensuring your pitch bait remains in the right position even from a chair rod.

Some crews also strip a belly of line into the wash; I find this time consuming, unnecessary and you also lose abit of sensitivity with what the marlin is doing in the important few seconds following the bite. Sometimes marlin miss the initial bite, drop the bait or the angler may have felt a ‘false bite’, with a belly in the wash there is no way of determining these things. I prefer anglers to remain in control of the free-spool, if the any of these things occur, the angler or crew can hold the line, get the bait skipping again, ready for the second bite.

As long as your reel remains in free spool with the clicker on, pitching from a chair rod remains a one-man job, you have control over the free spool and you won’t have any problems with overruns.

Other tools such as round hand-spools can be devised to make pitching baits easier. The hand-spool system was initially devised overseas in sailfish fisheries where raising multiple billfish is the norm. It can be easily adapted to the New Zealand scene although they do have some disadvantages.

Hand spools should be mounted on your aft covering board, usually in the corner so your bait is pitched in clean water. The correct amount of line let out to the ‘bite zone’, connected to a clip of your choice and then wound back onto the hand spool ready for use when a fish is raised. Once again, your reel should remain in free-spool with the clicker on to control overrun.

When a fish is raised, all the crew does is place the live or dead bait over the side and it automatically feeds out to the ‘bite zone’ and is held there by the clip. The advantage of this system is obviously freeing up another hand on deck and maximizing multiple hook-ups. I use them at times, but I find them a little time consuming and you’re certainly a little restricted with pitching options and mobility, especially when bigger fish are involved. Having a good crew and angler is always best, but it’s maybe something you would like to consider when fine-tuning your own switch baiting.

I realise wind-on leaders aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they certainly make things easy when pitching baits. Rather than having full length leaders coiled up or in some cases tangled up, getting a pitch bait into the water cleanly seems to be major exercise to many anglers and crew, especially when hearts start pumping! Wind-on leaders just keep everything clean and simple, but once again, I’ll leave that in your capable hands.

A good live well and tuna tube system certainly makes things a lot easier with switch baiting although it’s not totally essential as dead baits can be just as, if not more effective at times.

As I mentioned earlier, keep everything simple with switch baiting and you’ll find things will run quite smoothly, hopefully I’ve touched on a few pointers that may make things a bit easier when pitching baits to billfish… Good Luck!