by Ben Knaggs
Around most of the country, the onset of winter spells the end of the summer game fishing season. The warmer, southward flowing currents of summer ease off come mid May, and the waters south of the Tropic of Capricorn become too cold for most of our large, pelagic predators. Marlin are by far the most popular and highly sought after of these game fish species, and winter fishing for marlin is basically a non-event in almost all of our major game fishing ports. All except that is, for those in the north of Western Australia.
The stunning colourations of a sailfish are always a sight to behold. These fish are the most coastal of Aussie billfish species, and can often be found very close to shore
At this time of year WA’s north and north-west coasts are the place to be if you’re keen on game fishing action during the ‘off season’. From Coral Bay to Broome, and right up through the Kimberley if you’re adventurous enough to travel that far, the winter months offer some great action on small black marlin (below 50kgs) and sailfish. While these aren’t the dream sized billfish every angler aspires to tick off their bucket list, these baby billfish are a joy to catch on light tackle.
Small black marlin can be found in large numbers at times off the north-west coast of WA, even during the middle of winter
What really makes these small blacks and sails such an excellent target at this time of year is their accessibility. These fish will happily push right in close to shore, which means you don’t need a big boat to go chase them. Even the good ol’ 12 foot tinnie will get you amongst this inshore run of high flying baby billfish.
The method for tracking down and hooking into these exciting little game fish is actually fairly simple. In this part of the world where obtaining live baits is often difficult, small skirted lures in the six-eight inch size range are the best option. These should be rigged with light gauge single hooks such at the Gamakatsu SL12S to help improve hook-up rates. Alternatively, garfish rigged as skipbaits can also be used.
Troll your lures at a speed around five-seven knots (depending on conditions), which should see them popping out of the water every five seconds or so, but not so aggressively that they tumble or spin. Keep a regular watch on your lures, because these small billfish will often shadow a lure for a long time before striking. But more on that in a moment.
As you’re trolling along, stay on the lookout for any signs which could lead you to feeding marlin or sailfish. Birds dive bombing the water are a classic indication, and so should always be investigated. It’s a bit of a generalisation, but brown birds such as gannets are the ones that will most often signify feeding billfish, whereas white birds such as terns and seagulls usually feed on smaller baitfish that tuna and mackerel will ball up against the surface.
Schools of baitfish themselves – whether spotted rippling on the surface or in tight masses at mid water on the sounder – are also well worth trolling around, as are current or tide lines. Clean purple-blue water helps your chances of raising these fish onto your lures, although both sailfish and small black marlin will still occupy green looking water, so long as it’s not too murky.
These small billfish tend to go absolutely berserk once hooked. Be prepared for some fireworks!
Sometimes the first indication you’ll have that a billfish has found one of your lures is the rod suddenly bending over and reel screaming. But many times these small billfish won’t be in all-out attack mode, and just follow or half-heartedly bill whack your lure. This is where it pays to be on the lookout, with a plan B ready to go.
When trolling for small billfish, always have a circle hook rigged garfish (or if possible, a live bait) ready to throw back into the wake at a moment’s notice. A fish that is only half interested in a lure will often wolf down a bait, so this is a sure fire way to improve your catch rate.
This technique is known as switch baiting, and can be taken a further step by dispensing with the lures altogether. In their place, teaser lines of plastic squid and bird teasers are trolled, which are specifically designed to bring the small billfish up to the back of the boat. With a switched-on crew, it’s quite easy and really exciting to ‘switch’ the fish from the teaser to a bait and secure a solid hook-up thanks to the circle hook.
Small skirted lures will work well on baby black marlin, but always have a circle hook rigged dead or live bait ready to pitch back to a fish that that’s not quite in the mood to eat a lure
In waters where mackerel can be a menace to delicate skirted lures or precisely rigged troll baits, switch baiting can be the go-to method. It’s also the first choice when sailfish are the likely target, as these lightweight billfish are notoriously difficult to hook on lures with standard ‘J’ hooks. Switching them onto a circle rigged dead or live bait increases the hook-up rate many times over.
The north of WA just doesn’t seem to have a game fishing ‘off season’. The billfish may be smaller in winter, but if you scale down your tackle they’re no less fun than their big brothers and sisters of summer.