Setting Up for Switch Baiting
Switch baiting is a fun and exciting way to target billfish and it’s a form of fishing that I’ve made no secret about enjoying. Lure fishing, live baiting and dead baiting all have their own advantages and enjoyment factors, but by integrating all three you can increase your own enjoyment levels and add or try something new this summer.
Some will argue that switch baiting will increase your hook-up percentages, although I generally agree, I guess you can’t really say that as a rule as it all depends on a number of factors such as who you’re speaking to, what species you’re targeting, feeding aggressiveness, tackle or line class of choice and weather conditions, these all can have an effect on your hook-up percentages and success.
What switch-baiting will certainly provide, is fantastic visuals that I believe to be so important with marlin fishing and above all else it will hopefully get some fisherman thinking outside the square and trying something a little different this summer. From a chartering perspective, I’m always trying to teach anglers something a little different and perhaps have them step outside their comfort zones. Switch baiting certainly gives you that opportunity… especially in New Zealand conditions with striped and blue marlin being suckers for hookless teasers and pitch baits.
As fisherman we should never disregard differing methods of catching fish, whether it be lures, baits or switching, they all work well in the right scenarios. Switch baiting may just be something that you have the confidence to try this season and add another string your fishing bow.
In the past I’ve written about different pitch baits, teasers and techniques we try to teach anglers when pitching baits. The following is a description of the equipment, gear and techniques you can use to make switch baiting a smoother operation, hopefully it’s of some aid when the game season finally rolls around.
Probably the most important thing to consider when setting up for switch baiting is to keep things as simple as possible and not over complicate things. I recall a few years back, working for a captain who insisted on setting up for switching like some sort of macramé knitting set… he had lines, leaders, rubber bands, drop backs, release clips, the works… I just about needed an instruction manual to set it up each time!
Obviously the more you complicate things, there’s more chance of things going wrong. If you keep things nice and simple you’ll certainly find things will go a lot more smoothly, especially when you’re just starting out.
I’ve seen some crews use anything from fender teasers to witch doctors to CD flasher rigs through to spreader bar teasers, Yes, they certainly all work and will raise fish… lets face it, marlin are hardly the most intelligent fish in the ocean! But once you raise fish you have to be able to obtain a smooth switch. Often these apparatuses are more of a hindrance than a help and it becomes a major operation to clear the teasers.
Over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to fish with some pretty good operators, and they all keep things nice and simple.
One thing that I don’t like doing so much is mixing and matching… if I’m lure fishing, I like to fish lures, if I’m switch baiting I like to fish hookless teasers. What I don’t like is pitching baits when your towing lures around the ocean. Yes, it does work on occasions, but generally switch baiting and lure fishing are two totally different techniques… this is where I feel a lot of people get switch baiting totally wrong.
I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to fish teasers with somebody new and they can’t resist but put their favourite lure out the back with hooks in it. 9/10 billfish will fade off onto the long teaser, or lure in this case... sometimes you’ll hook them on the lure, more often than not you won’t, especially if striped marlin are involved!
The point being, the whole reason with running teasers from the start was to get the billfish to eat your pitch bait and improve your hook-up ratios. Running a lure with a hook in it any where in the pattern simply reduces switch-baiting effectiveness and you just end up chasing your tail in a lot of cases.
From my experience, it’s pretty difficult to switch fish effectively from hooked lures, no matter what you do… in saying that I certainly look forward to someone proving me wrong. I know I’ve said it before, but many people will be surprised how far marlin will follow you if they don’t get pricked by a hook!
Another reason, which makes lure fishing difficult to switch from, is basically the long leader lengths. Even if you choose to use wind-on leaders, leader lengths are generally too long and cumbersome for switch baiting to run smoothly at all times. When I’m switching, generally leader lengths for teasers are only about 3ft long and certainly no more than 6ft.
Sometimes I run a daisy chain of 3-4 rubber squid followed by a slightly bigger teaser or even a daisy chain of dead baits in some situations. Obviously your leader lengths maybe slightly longer in these cases, but generally I try to keep leader lengths down, as it is only a teaser, and you need to able clear it as efficiently and effectively as possible.
I generally find 200-400lb mono is more than suitable for teaser leader in most of New Zealand’s scenarios, but I’m sure most fishermen can work that one out for themselves.
Teaser poles are something that aren’t widely used in New Zealand at all, but they’re certainly a popular and handy tool for switching that are used by many of our overseas friends. A teaser pole is basically a stiff blank without any guides, (a) because a teaser pole doesn’t need guides and (b) to save unnecessary costs involved with building the pole.
The line runs up the inside of the blank and out the tip, it’s basically a pretty simple and cheap piece of equipment, but really effective once you get a little
more serious about switch baiting and fly-fishing for billfish.
I like teaser poles that are really stiff and have very little flex. This makes it a lot easier to get teasers off marlin if they do manage to get a good hold of it. I also like poles with a bit of length. 8ft is usually about right, just so your teasers can get a bit of lift when trolling, the crew can steer the teaser (and marlin!) to the correct strike zone and so the crew can cast teasers back out if need be… this is also, once you become more practiced with switch baiting.
From a recreational point of view, if you don’t want to spend the money on teaser poles for a start, any 80lb rods are fine as substitutes. Obviously they’re not as versatile as teaser poles for reasons explained earlier, but from a recreational standpoint they’re fine. As long as you use a reasonably stiff rod and you can crank the teaser in, there’s no reason why it can’t work well… once again, keep everything simple!
As far as teaser reels go, there’s obviously plenty on the market, but you can’t go past reels like Penn Senators. Senators are cheap, robust and more than suitable for the job within New Zealand conditions. All a teaser reel needs to be is strong enough to crank a teaser in, but not overly cumbersome.
I usually use anything between 100lb-130lb monofilament top shots on the teaser reels; this allows you to tighten the drags right up without too much fear of cracking your teaser off if a marlin does get hold of it.
I don’t really like marlin getting a head start and taking any line off the teaser reel, that’s why we like to tighten the drags up. Sometimes it can’t be helped and it can be great fun and amusing for crew tussling with a fired-up billfish on a teaser… once crew do manage get it off the marlin, watch the pitch bait, because it’s more often than not a pretty aggressive bite with great visuals.
In the past I’ve worked on boats with electric teaser reels and to be honest I think they’re pretty over-rated, they certainly don’t result in any more fish being caught and they’re also extremely expensive. For what they’re worth price wise, I can’t see the value being repaid in advantages. That’s just my opinion, and I’m sure many experienced captains around the world may disagree.
Where I do feel electric teaser reels are an advantage, is on the bridge. Electric bridge teaser reels are great because they can obviously free the captain’s hands up to purely drive, with a flick of a switch the teaser or teasers can be cleared easily.
As far as electric teaser reels are concerned in the cockpit, I find them to be far too restrictive and cumbersome, especially with the presence of electrical cords, plugs, power points/batteries and salt-water… need I say more! Isn’t it easier just to wind a teaser in? As I mentioned earlier, I just like keeping things as simple and effective as possible.
From a recreational or trailer boat stand point, electric teaser reels are probably not that high on the agenda anyway, but it’s just an example of how some boats are set up for switching.
Usually, I run my teasers straight off the tip of the teaser pole, but on occasions when I want a bit more spread I’ll run the line straight through a roller-troller in the riggers. I certainly never use rubber bands, tag lines or release mechanisms of any sort when I’m switching.
The main line just simply passes through the roller-troller so it can be retrieved quickly and easily or trips out if a marlin does get hold. Once again, I don’t like it when marlin get a head start so I have the roller troller done up reasonably tight and the drag on the teaser reel done up tight as well.
My bridge teaser is usually run in the short or long corner position depending on the spread of teasers I’m using at the time. The teaser reel itself is mounted just above the steering station, so when I raise a fish I don’t have move from the steering wheel and throttles. Everything can be done from the helm position.
The main line from the teaser reel simply passes out the side of the fly bridge down through a glass ring or small pulley on the rigger and into position. It’s very simple but effective and it allows the teaser to be cleared and deployed without too much fuss. I realise not all boats are configured the same, but with a little ingenuity, I’m sure you can come up with a similar set-up that’s just as easy to use… even on trailer boats.
I generally only run three teasers when I’m switch baiting. I’ve run four in the past when we had an electric teaser reel on the bridge, but it became apparent pretty quick that you don’t raise any more fish with an extra teaser or lure in the water… three teasers are more than enough if you fish in the right areas at the right time!
In a trailer boat situation, I can’t imagine trying to fish anymore than three, remembering the more teasers you have in the water the more you have to clear efficiently. If I felt I was in the right area, I certainly wouldn’t be concerned about towing two teasers.
Other tools such as a good set of tuna tubes and a good live well system certainly help with switch baiting for obvious reasons. Having the ability to carry good quality live bait will help you in just about any salt water fishing scenario, but that’s a totally different article again.
Although having good live bait on board is important, it’s certainly not essential. Skipping dead baits work fine, in fact they’re probably the preferred pitch bait in a lot of situations. The visuals when marlin eat skipping pitch baits are at times spectacular and one of the main reasons we all love game fishing. If decent pitch baits aren’t readily available you can always buy some at your local fish market to get you through.
Other switch baiting tools such as drop-back hand spools can also make switching a little easier, especially while you’re starting out and getting use to pitching baits. Hand spools should be mounted on your aft covering board, usually in the corner so your bait can be pitched in a clean water column.
Basically to set the hand-spool up, the correct amount of line (drop-back) is let out to the ‘bite zone’. The line is then connected to a release clip of your choice that’s mounted on the apparatus. The line (drop back) is then wound back onto the hand spool ready for use when a fish is raised.
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’. The pitch bait is held by the release clip, in the right position, ready for the bite.
The advantage of this system is obviously freeing up another hand on deck and maximising 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 commonly talk to people around the New Zealand scene who have reasonably poor hook-up ratios each summer, but year in year out they seem to persist with the same old lure fishing program. If you enjoy lure fishing and it’s working for you, that’s great! If it’s not, perhaps try something a bit different, you maybe surprised at the results.
It is important to understand that rarely, but sometimes billfish won’t tease, but not all billfish get hooked and caught on lures either… we all know that from experience.
Switch baiting is real fun and effective way of targeting billfish in New Zealand. I’m certainly not trying to disregard other methods like lures and baits because they all have their time and place as conditions dictate. But switch baiting is without doubt one of the most visually exciting methods you can try. It’s also not as challenging as many may believe as long as crews keep things simple and effective.
I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with what I’ve written, but I do look forward to people giving it a go this summer and coming up with their own opinions, methods and fine tuning. It’s a known fact that striped marlin are difficult to hook on lures due to their needle like mouths and feeding characteristics, why not try something a little different and fun this summer, as you’ve really got nothing to loose… Good luck!