Switching Them Over

Over the past few years I’ve made no secret that one of my favourite ways of targeting marlin in New Zealand waters is switch baiting. Lure fishing, live baiting and dead baiting all have their own distinct advantages in differing scenarios. By integrating all three you‘ll certainly increase the crew’s level of involvement, enjoyment and possibly even catch rates if things run smoothly.

We all argue ‘till the cows come home’ about hook up rates and differing techniques, it’s really important to understand that lures, dead baits, live baits and even switching have unique advantages and disadvantages in different situations. Target species, bait concentrations, feeding aggressiveness and crew work can all affect hook-up rates, not to mention all the other little intricacies of game fishing so it’s completely foolish for anyone to say one technique is better or worse than the other.

Striped MarlinWhat switch-baiting will certainly provide is fantastic visuals that I believe to be so important with marlin fishing, one of my favourite experiences in fishing is watching people’s faces when they first witness a billfish bite no further than 40 feet from the boats transom.

Switching also increases the involvement of the whole crew, rather than having one angler on strike for hours on end while the rest of the crew sleeps, eats, drinks, plays cards or all of the above!… with switching everyone’s fishing and can have a job if they wish.

From a chartering perspective, I’m always trying to teach guests and anglers something a little different and perhaps have them step outside their comfort zones. Switch baiting certainly gives me that opportunity… especially in New Zealand conditions with striped and blue marlin being absolute suckers for hookless teasers and pitch baits.

Switch baiting requires a little bit of teamwork and timing, but generally it’s not as challenging as many may believe as long as crews keep everything simple and effective. 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.

Some crews use anything from fender teasers to witch doctors through to spreader bar teasers, Yes, they certainly all work and will raise fish… let’s face it, marlin are hardly the most intelligent fish in the ocean! But once you’ve raise fish you have to be able to obtain a smooth switch. Often these apparatuses become more of a hindrance than a help and it’s a major operation to clear the teasers and pitch a bait.

In my opinion, some crews confuse matters further by either leaving hooks in their lures or by simply running too many teasers full stop! I prefer to clear hookless teasers easily and efficiently and pitch back bait without too much fuss. Presenting the fish with just one option minimise things going wrong, it’s important to understand bait trolling speed and a good lure speed can be quite different – presentation is always the key with switch baiting.

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 you’re towing lures around the ocean. Yes, it does work on occasions, but generally switch baiting and lure fishing are two totally different techniques that shouldn’t be confused. Often I find billfish become confused, disinterested and fade off in a scenario with 4 lures and bait in the spread at the same time.

I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to introduce switching to somebody new and they can’t resist but put their favourite lure out the back with hooks in it. 9/10 billfish will always fade off to the long teaser, or lure in this case… sometimes you’ll hook them on the lure, but more often than not you won’t . The point being, the whole reason with running teasers from the start was to get the billfish to eat your pitch bait. Running a lure with a hook in it anywhere in the pattern simply reduces switch-baiting effectiveness and you just end up chasing your tail in a lot of cases. In my opinion it’s pretty difficult to switch billfish effectively with hooked lures anywhere in the spread, no matter what you do!

As far as teasers go, I generally run only 3 and sometimes just 2 when I’m switching. This depends entirely on how many spare hands on deck and in an attempt to keep things simple and mistake free. I’ve run four in the past but it became apparent 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’re fishing in the right areas at the right time.

I generally find 300-400lb mono is more than suitable for teaser leader in most of New Zealand’s scenarios; leader lengths for teasers need only be 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 daisy chains 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, it is only a teaser and it’s important to clear it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

This is another major reason which makes lure fishing really difficult to switch from. Leader lengths are generally too long and cumbersome to obtain a smooth switch. Reeling the swivel to the rod tip and still having a 15 -30ft leader to clear (by hand) with a fired up marlin in pursuit can make for very amusing viewing – It’s obviously much easier to clear teasers with just short ‘jack’ leaders.

We use custom built teaser poles for teasing billfish into position. Teaser poles certainly aren’t a must for switching but they’re a really handy tool especially when you start taking switching to another level, as with blue water fly fishing.

Teaser PoleA teaser pole is best described as a stiff blank without any guides, (a) because a teaser pole doesn’t need guides (b) there’s no chance of it fouling around guides when the teaser’s jerked from the water and (c) 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

The poles should be stiff yet still flexible enough to load up in a parabolic action if a billfish does manage to get hold of the teaser. The added length of teaser poles (normally 8ft) allows decent leverage when you need to pull a teaser off a billfish. Using long rods also gives us the ability to tease a fish from either side of the cockpit and reduce the chance of the crew getting in the angler’s way. Crew can essentially steer the teased fish to the pitch bait or saltwater fly.

From a recreational point of view, if you don’t want to spend the money on teaser poles for a start, most 80lb rods are fine as substitutes. Obviously they’re not as versatile as teaser poles for reasons explained above, 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 more than adequately.

As far as teaser reels go, basically any reel that’s robust and a gear ratio of around 3:1 is more than suitable for New Zealand conditions. As for drag settings on teaser reels, we simply lock them up to where they will only lose line close to breaking point. I usually use anything between 100lb-200lb monofilament top shots on the teaser reels; this allows you to really 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 like marlin getting a head start and taking any line off the teaser reel, that’s why we tighten the drags right up. Sometimes it can’t be helped and it can be quite amusing watching crew tussling with a billfish on a hookless 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.

Due to the extended length of teaser poles I can usually run my teaser straight off the tip, on occasions when I want a bit more spread I’ll run the line straight through a roller-troller in the riggers. The main line simply passes through the roller-troller so it can be retrieved quickly and easily or trips out if a marlin does get a hold.

Bridge TeaserBridge teasers certainly aren’t essential for switching but they can be fun for the driver to be involved. My bridge teaser is generally run in the short corner position and the teaser reel itself is mounted just above the steering station. When I raise a fish I don’t have to move from the steering wheel and throttles, everything can be done easily and efficiently from the helm position. Once again keeping things simple is really important, if it’s too much trouble for the driver it should probably disregarded as you can end up in a nasty tangle… trust me I know!

The main line from the bridge teaser 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.

In regards to teasing billfish, we all know that billfish can react differently every time you raise them, so in some ways it’s difficult to explain teasing in black and white as a rule. Billfish species, feeding aggressiveness, sea conditions and vision can all effect obtaining a smooth switch, it’s important to read the situation that’s in front of you and act accordingly.

Switching Boat PositioningWhen I raise a fish, as a driver I always pull into a sweeping starboard turn – This simply is in relation to the way I set my spread up. Other options that also work fine is turning to whatever side the fish comes up on. This opens a ‘pocket’ of clear water on the inside of your wash which is perfect for slipping a bait back to an feisty marlin. As the bait goes back, the boat slows and the crew clear all the teasers quickly and efficiently. (Diagram 1)

Probably the 4 most important pointers with teasing that I try to follow each time;

(a) Don’t be too quick to pitch the bait and just read the fish and situation first

(b) Don’t be too quick to clear the teasers for much the same reason, 9/10 fish will follow you for a long time if they’re not pricked by an 11/0 ‘J’ hook! You’ve generally got plenty of time up your sleeves in most cases.

(c) Never cross the teasers over. Trying to tease a fish past a spread of teasers never works in my books, billfish just don’t like it and become confused and usually fade off in this situation… This is another reason why I find obtaining a smooth switch when lure fishing is generally not that effective. If you raise a fish on a short teaser, clearing the long teasers from behind the fish usually has the same adverse results. In this situation I find it best to wait for the fish to ‘fall back’ to the long teasers or simply leave the long teasers out and try and get the bite up short.

Finally (d)  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. Maintaining your speed keeps the fish in sight and ideally in the ‘pocket’ created by the sweeping turn.

The subject of hooking these teased up marlin is like opening a ‘can of worms’ that’s probably best left to another time. One thing that will certainly improve hook up rates is having good quality bait on hand at all times. A good set of tuna tubes and a good live well system certainly helps 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.

Although carrying live bait on board is important, it’s certainly not essential for switching. Skipping dead baits can be just as if not more effective at times, the visuals when billfish eat skipping pitch baits are at times spectacular and one of the main reasons we all love game fishing.

It is important to understand that rarely but sometimes billfish simply won’t tease, but not all billfish get hooked and caught on lures either (we all know that from experience!). I’ve regularly had guests say that with switching you can even have fun missing fish – if that makes sense in an odd sort of way.

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. Above all else it can be a really effective way of targeting stripes and blues that are so common in New Zealand waters. Why not try something a little different and fun this summer? You’ve really got nothing to lose.