One of the aspects of sport fishing that clearly demonstrates the concept of outstanding personal achievement and the pursuit of the “impossible” is the hunt for billfish on fly – and blue marlin in particular. While the number of anglers who can count the accomplishment of taking a sail on the long wand is growing steadily every day, there are still only a handful of people who have ever hooked a blue marlin on a fly, let alone catch one.
The legendary fly-rodder Billy Pate spent many years pursuing blues with a fly rod before he was able to bring the first fly-caught blue marlin to the boat off the coast of Cuba in 1978. “I’ve had somewhere around 30 blues hooked up on the fly but have only managed to get one into the boat,” says Pate. “Every single one of them sounded on me. They are a tough, tough fish.”
Even with all the obstacles that can stand in the way of success, anglers find themselves pushing the limits of their tackle and stamina in an effort to heighten the already stratospheric thrill found in the sport of big-game fishing. It’s this natural, competitive progression and man’s innate urge to achieve that makes the prospect of defeating a blue marlin on fly such an appealing endeavor. However, it’s those same long odds against success that keep the majority of us from even trying to catch a blue one on fly. And that’s a shame, because not only is it possible to do, but it can be accomplished with more than a modicum of success when done in the right way with the right tools in the right place.
There’s Going To Be a Fight
One thing you hear from everyone who’s been lucky enough to have a blue marlin hooked up on a fly rod is that you are going to be in for an intense battle. Although it’s not surprising that a large fish would put up such a struggle on light tackle, it seems that blue marlin still have a little bit extra even for their size.
Hal Chittum of Islamorada, and part owner of Hell’s Bay Boatworks with buddy Flip Pallot, spent a few memorable days in Venezuela with Pallot this past May pursuing the blue dog on fly gear. “I’ve caught a lot of sails and big tarpon on the fly, but these were absolutely the toughest fish I’ve ever had on a fly rod,” said Chittum. “They are so strong and have such stamina – they jump all over the place, come to the boat, and they are off again. I’ve never seen a fish do that before – they just fight to the bitter end.”
Notice he said “these.” Chittum became the first man to ever land two blue marlin in one day on the fly during that trip – and he actually did it twice! He and Pallot combined for an incredible seven blues in six days on the fly with Capt. Dave Noling on the Courtesan, and neither had ever caught a blue marlin on fly before that trip.
Globetrotting angler Nat Harris of Burlington, North Carolina, also found his first fly-caught blue in Venezuela. Harris, who cut his fly-fishing teeth catching sails in Guatemala, was surprised by the ferocity of the Venezuelan blues. “Sails are pretty easy, but when a blue marlin comes up, he’s all business – he’s not there on a social call,” says Harris. Fishing with Brad Simonds on the Final Fantasy out of Marina Portofino, Harris hooked four blues and three whites on his first day out – and broke off every one of them.
“I just didn’t know how to manage my drag with a greyhounding blue marlin on the other end. Simonds told me: ‘You are now learning that a blue marlin is different than a sail.’ So,” says Harris, “since I already knew how to hook them, we upped the tippet to 30-pound and went out and caught one the next day. I never worked so hard in my life, but I can’t wait to do it again.”
A New Tease
Knowing that the odds are stacked against you in this endeavor seems to bring out the innovators in those who choose to give it a go. Chittum and Pallot spent weeks preparing for their successful trip to Venezuela, and the techniques and equipment they brought along were developed for the sole purpose of teasing, hooking and releasing a blue marlin on fly. While others may have been doing it longer, the pair’s achievements shook the fly-fishing world and might prove to be the impetus for others to take up the challenge.
“In preparation for this trip, Chittum and I developed some techniques that we thought would work pretty well on these bigger fish. At first we tried some of the things that Noling had had success with in the past, and it just wasn’t working. Noling was very open to our suggestions, and once we did it our way things started to work great – so well, in fact, that we feel with a little more refinement, we could catch some really big fish with these methods. It’s amazing to me that more people with big boats don’t take up fly fishing. But I think a lot more will once they see that this is an exciting and viable game.”
Since catching any billfish on the fly hinges on the crew’s ability to tease up fish properly, Pallot had Kenny Carmen at Biscayne Rods build him a pair of 10-foot-long teaser rods. Pallot feels that outriggers are inappropriate for teasing and that the long teaser rods offer a couple of distinct advantages over the use of bridge teasers. “The long rods allow the person who’s doing the teasing to move all round the cockpit, and just by laying the rod over to the port or starboard he can steer the teaser to the fly,” says Pallot.
The long levers also allow you to get the teaser out of the water and away from the fish in a hurry. “With the longer rods you can back-cast the fly way up front beside the boat. They work so well because they completely remove the teaser from the equation, allowing the billfish to focus on the fly. It’s amazing how well a blue marlin can sense the presence of a teaser in the water,” says Pallot.
He prefers to use Newel reels on his teaser rods due to their light weight and high-speed retrieve, two very important considerations when it comes to playing keep-away with a hot blue. “We also use very high-visibility line on the teaser rods to help you bring your eye to the line. This gives the angler (and the crewman on the teaser rod) a good feel for how the teaser moment is developing, not to mention letting the captain see things happen.”
Pallot uses 30- to 50-pound for teaser lines because he doesn’t want to lose spool diameter, and consequently speed of retrieve, when a teaser is taken by a fish or has to be dropped back in an attempt to tease a fish back to the boat. “Many people use 100 or above so they can jerk the teaser away from the fish, but I think that if a fish grabs your teaser you should wait until he lets you have it back. If you jerk it away too violently it 1) tears up your teaser and 2) it increases the chance of the fish fading away,” he says.
Another technique that Pallot and Chittum put to good use was limiting the number of teasers behind the boat. “Many captains feel, and justifiably so, that the more commotion in the water the more fish you raise. But if you have a lot of teasers out, there will be some you can’t get in fast enough. You might raise more fish by pulling more teasers, but you can’t deal with them properly. I would rather tease up fewer fish and get them properly teased. Using this method, 95 percent of the fish raised in Venezuela took the fly and were hooked,” says Pallot.
With just two teasers you don’t have to drop back and you don’t have to convert from one teaser to another before bringing it to the fly. He comes up on the teaser and you respond to that fish’s attitude,” says Pallot. It also means that you don’t have a Chinese fire drill in the cockpit with everyone manning or clearing many different teasers when a fish comes into the spread or takes the fly.
Pallot feels that the choice of teasers will vary depending on what the fish respond to on a given day, but overall he thinks blues like lures that splash and make a lot of noise. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he likes big teasers. “I want teasers that make a lot of noise but still have a small diameter so that I can pull them out of the water quickly. There are some bigger teasers that will raise more fish, but if you can’t keep them away from the fish or take them away once the fish catches them, then you’ll never be able to convert the fish over to the fly,” he says.
Targeting blues with fly gear necessitates bringing out the big guns – the biggest fly reels you can find matched to the heaviest-class rods. “We were using Sage 14 weight RPLXIs,” says Chittum, “and we needed every bit of them.” The pair teamed up the rods with Billy Pate Bluefin fly reels because “they hold about a million miles of 30-pound Dacron and have a big enough diameter to allow us to keep up with the line when backing down,” he said.
Pallot said that they did quite a bit of experimenting when it came to which flies to use but eventually settled on a streamer fly tied by Bill and Kat Howe (760-938-2638). “We were getting a good drag with the streamers which resulted in hookups, and the shorter-shank hooks on the flies resulted in less leverage for the fish and stayed in better.” Chittum also likes the flies because they don’t hold any water at all and “can be picked up off the water and recast very easily. They are the best flies I’ve ever seen for this application, and our hookup rate was incredible.” The flies range in size from 12 to 14 inches and feature tandem Gamakatsu 8/0s with no offset.
The line setup the duo utilized followed a fairly standard setup: Dacron backing to Scientific Angler Billfish Taper Fly Line (cut to 60 feet), a 5-foot butt section consisting of 50-pound mono, and a section of 20-pound Mason Hard Mono for the shock tippet that terminated to a 12-inch, 100-pound fluorocarbon shock leader.
All right, I’m going to be honest here. Once you get a blue marlin to eat a fly, your chances of catching him – no matter how well you perform – are not very good. “Jim Grey has caught more on the fly than anybody,” says Billy Pate, “but out of the hundred or so he’s had on, he’s probably only caught about 10 percent.” Grey holds two Pacific blue marlin fly records on 16- and 20-pound tippet and is no slouch with the fly rod.
“The battle brings people the most frustration,” says Pallot, “but we basically used two things to help us: 1) the angle that you fight the fish, and 2) how Noling chased them down.” Pallot went on to explain that the majority of anglers like to get on top of the fish, trying to lift them from straight overhead. “But with so much stretch in the fly-rod system – fly line 10 percent, backing 10 percent and then the monofilament – it just won’t happen. If you are up above a fish and he’s down and strong, you are asking your equipment to pull the fish straight up through the water column. High-school physics says that can’t happen. You need an angle to get that fish to come to the surface, so you have to put a little distance between the boat and the fish – he won’t come up if you are pulling from straight overhead,” says Pallot.
When you do get the fish up to the surface, just following it is not enough. Pallot says that you want to follow the fish directly from behind. “Back the boat so the angler can pull straight back on the fish. Pulling straight back hurts the fish and destroys its will much sooner. This also allows you to use your energy in the best possible way instead of just expending it with no gain,” he says.
Pallot attributes a large amount of the success he and Chittum experienced on the captain and crew of the Courtesan. “Dave Noling is not human,” says Pallot in all seriousness. “He combines the most delicate touch with a tremendous aggressive nature. I believe he could make that boat move sideways in the water. Anyone who believes that the captain is any less important than the angler doesn’t have his facts straight. Any angler can come to the dock with the best tools, knowledge, etc., but it’s the captain who is going to be the one to put you into position to use it.”
Take all the information seen here, stir it together with the 10 or 12 shots a day that you’ll need for success, and there you have it – the perfect recipe for catching a blue marlin on fly. Oh, if it were just that easy.