Let Them Live

In 2003 I wrote an article for New Zealand Fishing News titled Tag or Bag. The article focused on when it is acceptable to boat billfish, but today this editorial would be deemed inappropriate for publication with the changes in sport fishing point of views and widespread movement toward conservation of critical species. While the practice of releasing fish can only benefit stocks, this notable action is only beneficial when the liberated game fish stands a good chance of survival. Marlin fishing represents the pinnacle of big game sport fishing, but it’s important anglers, captains and deckhands work together in an effort to catch and release these majestic game fish in the most efficient and least harmful manner possible.


Image 1 of 6

Photo: Austin Musselman Jr.

While I’ve successfully released hundreds of billfish, I clearly remember a spunky 200-pound blue that snatched a small lure on a 50-wide. When we finally got the fish to the leader it was completely spent, but the angler insisted on tagging the fish. I towed that marlin around for an hour trying to revive him with little improvement. The mate finally let go of the bill and the fish floated belly up and sank in our wake. The angler looked up to me in the bridge and said, “Still has a better chance than lying on the deck.”

Quick release and survival of the hooked fish should be the crew’s number one priority.

While you may have your own opinions, my views, along with many others, have changed a lot over the last decade. Since I started keeping detailed records in 2001, I’ve logged over 700 tagged marlin and boated less than a dozen. I have not put a billfish onboard any boat since 2006. The three fish that had a good chance of surpassing grander status were released to spawn again. I’m proud to think back on those big girls knowing that incredible gene pool is still out there. Stop and think that a mature blue marlin is capable of producing million of eggs several times a year, and it’s easy to see why these big breeders don’t deserve to hang from a scale.

Unfortunately, there are some scenarios when billfish perish during an epic battle, but a few key boat handling and fish fighting techniques will greatly aid in the survival of one of the ocean’s top predators. Perhaps the only thrill greater than conquering a marlin is watching the beaten warrior swim off into the deep blue after a successful release. When fighting billfish you’ll want to take into consideration the number of jumps, intensity of runs and overall length of the fight. Quick release and survival of the hooked fish should be the crew’s number one priority.

From an outsider’s perspective, big game anglers posing with dead marlin appear like roman gladiators having taken down a raging animal with not much more than a piece of yarn. However, the real fact is that big game success requires a team effort and even the most experienced angler can’t compensate for a bad captain. However, a seasoned skipper can make a rookie angler look like a pro.

No matter how much angling experience you have, you won’t have much control of your fish on the initial run and it’s likely your combatant will make a mad dash for the horizon. While monofilament stretches, having so much line in the water creates a lot of drag and can part the line even if your drag is well below the breaking strength of your chosen line class. While some scenarios call for backing down on the fish, this early in the fight it is more beneficial for the captain to turn the boat and point the bow in the general direction the fish is swimming. When making an wide turn the belly of line in the water will create serious resistance and the captain should advise the angler to back off on the drag. Because the angler on the rod may not be in tune with the tackle, it’s important to preset the drag lever with marked settings on a piece of electrical tape so the angler knows exactly where to place the lever when instructed by the captain or deckhand.

If the fish makes a sudden turn and starts greyhounding directly toward the transom, the captain will have to act fast and move the boat in right angles toward the fish. This will form a large belly of line, which will create the much needed resistance to combat slack line the fish created while rushing at the boat. Captains with little experience often accomplish this improperly and end up slow trolling the marlin and keeping it resuscitated, resulting in a drawn out battle for both angler and fish.

After the salt has settled from the first run and a majority of line is back on the reel, captains in convertible sportfishers typically turn the boat and back down on the fish. If you’re in a center console you can have your angler fight from one of the rear quarters while you continue to follow the line. In either case, if you’ve played your cards right you will have an opportunity to leader the fish before it catches its breath and takes off again. By executing the proper maneuvers and fighting fish on the appropriate tackle there’s no reason you can’t successfully release a marlin in less than 30 minutes. The goal is to tire the fish as fast as possible while limiting the stress on angler and adversary. Line should either be coming off the reel or going on at all times. While a quick fight is best for the post release survivability, experienced anglers also get more of a thrill from beating a big fish in a hurry rather than an anguishing battle for both competitors.

On other occasions you will get a fish that wants to swim deep and play dirty. However, it’s important to note that even though the angle of the line often makes it appear so, rarely do marlin shoot straight for the bottom. With that being said, a big billfish that has settled deep will result in a tough battle and one the angler won’t prevail without assistance from the captain. When a fish is holding deep and can’t be budged the captain should motor forward in an attempt to coerce the fish toward the surface. You’ll certainly lose hard captured line in the process, but the goal is to change the fish’s direction. Driving away from the fish down current will help plane it to the surface. Unfortunately, no two scenarios are the same and only with experience and observations will you be able to outmaneuver these super fast predators and tip the odds in your favor.

When a beaten billfish comes boatside you’ll have to make a decision to cut the leader or remove the hooks. Choose the safest for both you and the fish. As soon as the marlin is unhooked, turn its head toward the bow while the captain motors ahead. Make sure to keep the fish’s head submerged. Catch and release is hopeless if the fish is injured from over aggressive handling or a misplaced tag.

The IGFA and the National Coalition for Marine Conservation worked really hard on the Billfish Conservation Act, which has outlawed the importation of marlin in the United States. The Billfish Foundation also played an integral role in the early formation of the Take Marlin off the Menu campaign. Along with educating fishermen on the proper use of circle-hooks and handling marlin at the boat, TBF and IGFA have made an impressive impact over the last few years. There’s still a lot of work to do changing worldwide views on boating billfish, but it is a work in progress that continues to change with education. To make the most impact, tournament committees need to stop putting big purses on the table for kill tournaments and make these events tag and release only. With so much money on the line marlin will continue to die.

Big billfish are the most prized pelagic game fish and deserve the utmost respect. Do the right thing and proudly raise that release flag high. Buy a decent camera and capture these prized pelagics in all of their glory. We need professional captains to step up, and owners to back up their crews. That guy way back when had it right…every released billfish has a better chance than lying on the deck.