I recall as a child being glued to the screen watching one of the late Mal Florence’s videos on the Cairns marlin scene. Having grown up catching catfish in a muddy river these amazing billfish were like something from another world and quickly became my greatest fishing ambition.
Since moving to Cairns around 2000 I’ve managed to encounter a few of the fabled marlin, bringing some to the boat while being embarrassed by others. I’d learnt to eagerly look forward to the inshore winter run of small blacks as these give the trailer-boat fisherman their best chance of tangling with old stick-face.
As the 2017 season rolled around I had decided to give it a decent go. Winter was only just starting to take hold when the reports started popping up.
Some of the Cairns Game Boats were reporting over 10 tags in a day which is fantastic fishing. Like most fisheries the marlin season can have good years and bad, but it was evident early that this year was going to be a cracker. It was just a case of waiting for the wind to drop and being ready to give it a shot.
Eventually a flat spell lined up with some time off and saw my 625 Cruise Craft "Reef Madness" headed for the inshore waters around Fitzroy Island with the sole target being black marlin. We weren’t to be disappointed and had no trouble raising fish.
This was the first of several trips cashing in on a bonza mini marlin season with an average day raising five and boating up to three fish during the course of an 8 hour day.
Not having a lot of experience with marlin I was elated with the results, as were some mates who managed to join the marlin club. They really are an amazing fish and to see one bouncing around the ocean like a kid on a pogo stick is a real thrill, particularly when it’s connected to your line.
It’s something I would recommend to any keen angler, but for success some specific tactics and preparation is required. This is how I went about it.
In kitting out for marlin, I’d decided on a mixed trolling spread of 5 lines which meant outriggers are essential.
Not having the budget for the big names, I ended up with a set of 3.5m poles which are fine for trolling gars and small pushers. It is accepted that outriggers should be the longest and stiffest available for best results.
Longer poles allow a greater spread of baits, while stiff ‘riggers allow the line to break away cleanly when a fish strikes.
Positioning of outriggers is a subject that can be as simple or as complicated as you make it, and there is a lot of info out there regarding pole angles and heights. I decided on a simple setup for "Reef Madness" to maximise spread with the short 3.5m poles.
For this I mounted the bases at the top of my canopy frame with the poles at right angles to the keel of the boat.
In practice this budget set-up works well and has now got enough runs on the board to hold my confidence.
The trolling outfit
The majority of inshore winter run marlin are between 10 and 20kg and being clean fighters there is no need for anything over 15kg line.
Mono is preferred over braid as the stretch and water resistance is helpful in avoiding slack line and keeping constant pressure on the hook point.
These fish can do some insane direction changes and head-shaking jumps that would easily dislodge a hook when using non-stretch braid. Line capacity should be at least 500 metres.
As the boat is kept at trolling speed until all lines are pulled in, a lot of line can end up in the water before the boat is turned around to follow a hooked fish.
If you’re struggling to find enough outfits (bearing in mind the standard spread with outriggers is five baits), try re-purposing braid outfits by giving them a mono top-shot of 100 metres.
Overhead reels are best as they don’t have the bail arm friction point or line twisting nature of threadlines, however provided there is a decent line capacity even the eggbeater you use to throw slugs at tuna will work, particularly if it has a soft action rod to compensate for the non-stretch braid.
Next up was to decide on what to tow.
The most popular troll-bait by far for Cairns mini-marlin is the skipping gar.
Marlin find these silver morsels irresistible and they will troll for hours without breaking up (if not eaten first).
I settled on a standard single 10/0 Gamakatsu SL hook crimped to 150lb Jinkai leader. When crimping on the hook, a 2cm sprig of fishing wire is slipped into the crimp and bent at right-angles.
The hook is fed through the gill of the gar, exiting through the stomach. The bent fishing wire is then poked through the beak of the garfish and held in place with a bait spring. It’s a fairly standard skip-bait rig and with a little practice can be set up in under a minute.
Circle hooks are a popular choice for marlin and provide a more secure hook-up with less chance of the fish swallowing the hook. There is a different rigging style and technique involved though and in the interest of simplicity I stayed with the J hooks this season.
Once the skip-bait is rigged, a pink squid skirt is often slipped over the head to add some visibility and help to avoid spinning.
This season I’ve been using Moldcraft Hoo-Hooker heads, which are plastic squids but with a blunt face. These little trolling heads get the gar swimming more like a skirted trolling lure and over half the marlin I’ve raised have come up on them.
The added bubble trail and noise seems to really seek out attention. They’re particularly useful set at the rear of the spread as they will keep the bait up on the surface where a common squid skirt might slip under the surface and spin.
Apart from the gar, I often found room for a single Halco Laser Pro or Rapala Xrap as both these lures will get hit by marlin, however the hook-up rate can be pretty ordinary.
Also on hand were a few skirted lures and I managed success on the Richter "Soft Grassy" more than once.
Marlin are inquisitive buggers and will be initially attracted to the commotion of your boat, but you can never have too much of a good thing. I run a sub-surface mirrored teaser from one corner and a "bird" teaser with squid chain from the other. These are run 7 to 10 metres from the boat and the nearest baits should be set just behind them. These things aren’t just a gimmick, and it is not unusual to find tooth marks from errant mackies and scuffs from marlin bills on them. It is important to get them in first before slowing the boat though, because a teaser rope wrapped around your propeller is a real downer.
Marlin can swim at any speed, but when trolling anywhere between 5 to 8 knots should put you in the game. I generally stay between 5 and 6 knots as this is an economical speed for my rig and allowed me to troll a mixture of baits, skirts and hard-bodies if desired.
When a fish is hooked, don’t touch the throttle! Maintain course and speed while pulling in teasers and other lines as quickly as possible.
You don’t want any slack line, particularly in the initial stages and pressure should be maintained at all times.
This can also lead to multiple hook-ups…. As if one screaming marlin wasn’t enough!
After the bite
There are a couple of different views on initial drag settings with some fishing straight strike drag and others starting light.
Once the trolling spread was set, I kept outrigger lines just past free-spool with the ratchet on, while the flat lines were fished with a very light drag for the initial take.
In the event of a bite I would let the fish turn and start to run for a few seconds before pushing the drag up, aiming to pull the hook into the fishes jaw.
I found if the drag was fished at strike marlin would come up and hit the bait repeatedly with their bills but unless they hooked up straight away would often disappear.
Allowing them to grab the bait and swim away with it seemed to make a difference. More insight can be found by watching any of the plentiful underwater trolling camera footage on Youtube.
Often the fish will grab the bait sideways and sit in the water facing up for a few seconds before swimming off.
Well, it has all gone well and you’ve got that marlin by the side. What next? If you want to get a photo holding the fish you can either grab it by the tail or the nose, but a couple of things need to be remembered.
The tail wrist can be quite thick and will take two hands and a decent cockpit length so the offsider can reach it.
I prefer to grab hold of the bill but wear gloves as the bill is very rough and the fish will thrash around wildly as soon as you touch it.
Ideally for the fishes welfare and if possible the hook should be removed in the water and the fish lead along until it kicks away.
So now you’ve landed your first marlin, the stuff of childhood dreams. Suddenly anything seems possible and a whole new world of game-fishing becomes apparent.
It’s a wildly addictive form of fishing and before long you’ll have a whole new genre of expensive fishing gear to try and hide from your significant other.
If nothing else though it will give you a reason to look forward to the next windy FNQ winter, when the marlin come to town.
Cheers, Stephen Polzin