Billfish Fundamentals

By Gary Graham

As I snapped photographs here and there during the Bisbee East Cape Offshore tournament, I eavesdropped on bits and pieces of conversations among participants about conditions, techniques, bait, and other salient elements and my thoughts were drawn to some of my 1980 tournament days on my boat, the “WaterCloset.”

Usually, every spring before the offshore fishing season heated up, some of the fishing clubs would host “Marlin Seminars” featuring a panel of professional captains such as Gene Grimes, Peter Groesbeck, Mike “The Beak” Hurt, Steve Lassley, along with private boat owners, Mark Josepho, John Tanner and a few others, including myself. The seminars were very popular and usually had standing room only as eager “newbies” were joined by seasoned veterans in search of ways to improve their catch. Most attendees eagerly sought secret tips that would transform them into instant high-liners, when, in reality, the information was more basic, mostly about fundamentals.

This season, as a photographer on several tournament boats, I’ve noticed that many of the automatically-applied fundamentals taught in those days seem to have been lost.

I have had the privilege of riding with many of the world’s top fishing captains, and without giving any secrets away, the most important lesson I learned from them is their attention to detail. Captains and crews alike do sweat the small stuff.


On the WaterCloset, the team (anglers alternated occasionally) and I spent most of our summers and falls chasing striped marlin off the Southern California coast.


On the WaterCloset, the team (anglers alternated occasionally) and I spent most of our summers and falls chasing striped marlin off the Southern California coast. Every fishing day began as a blank slate. Sure, the web or friends or at that time, the VHF radio, may have provided some possible intel based on prior trips, which might have been significant, but even more important, on most days, the blank slate was filled with the following:

  • Temperature changes and current breaks.
  • Kelp paddies, Sargasso, floating objects and bait.
  • Feeding fish, sleepers, porpoise, and birds.
  • Bites.
  • And anything else that you might want to return to later, no matter how trivial it might seem.

These days, all the above events should be marked on your GPS, (even if it is just the MOB button), and then it should be labeled when everything settles down. Also, turn on the tracking which will simplify knowing where you have been. These items that become a piece of the day’s puzzle not only may be important later that day but might even be valuable on the next trip.

If you are trolling and that sometimes long-awaited strike finally happens, don’t touch the throttle until you have assessed what is happening. If the fish is hooked, slow the boat gradually; do not pull the throttles back abruptly. Either way – hooked or not – mark a waypoint on your GPS. If the fish falls off, continue trolling in a circle back over the area of the bite.

During the day, as your number of waypoints grows, use them to create the parameters of the area you are working. Be aware of not only the directions you tack, but also where you have the most bites.

Lure placement in the pattern can also be a factor. Up swell, down swell or cross swell… all these influence how the lures swim. Count from the corner of the stern when setting up the pattern and remember placement can vary with sea conditions.

The most essential key to success is your crew and communication. Familiarize everyone with the boat. Be sure that each member understands what to do prior to the beginning of the fishing day. If your crew alternates, it is critical to fill them in on the way out to the fishing grounds: what is expected of each member. The worst time to have a conversation about the role each will play is after the clicker sounds. Who is the angler? Who clears the tackle? Who does the drop back? Knowing this in advance will add to your ability to achieve your goal.

Lastly, tackle and equipment storage: In the midst of a hookup, having crew members floundering around trying to locate a butt plate, gaff or other necessary item can be a distraction; they should always be stored in their proper place and team members should be told in advance where they are located.

During an event, there is a fine line between speaking loudly enough to be heard over the engine noise, and yelling. When an event happens, everyone’s adrenalin is coursing through their veins… no need to add to it!

Avoiding chaos in the cockpit is a huge advantage. Although I’ve seen operations that seem to thrive on just that and do very well, those that avoid that distraction seem to be flying more flags at the end of the day.

Put the same effort in planning your fishing day as you do in planning your fishing trip. Apply these fundamentals and it won’t be long before you and your crew earn the title of “high-liner.”





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