Any type of surface fishing will get every angler’s adrenalin pumping. Targeting sailfish is one of those styles where the action and excitement is like nothing else. There are plenty of styles and techniques that are used to entice these elusive fish to the surface and the one I like best is ‘switch baiting’.
Switch baiting is a highly visual technique used to catch billfish all over the world with great success when the crew get it together, like many game fishing techniques it requires timing, teamwork and organisation. This piece is based on switch baiting for sailfish but the technique can effectively be used in targeting black, blue and striped marlin and applied to any location that billfish are found.
In a nutshell, the basic idea behind switch baiting is to tease up a sailfish by trolling skirted lures that are not rigged with hooks acting as a teaser. Basically anything that is trolled behind a boat without hooks attached to it can be considered a teaser. As the name suggests switch baiting is about getting the fish interested in the trolled teaser, keeping the fishes interest in the teaser, and then switching the teaser for bait. Sounds simple, and with practice it can be, but there are a few key rules and principles that must be adhered to in order to be successful.
The essential equipment
Outriggers x 2 – Although not absolutely essential, outriggers will be highly advantageous when setting your spread and keeping your lines apart.
Softheaded skirted lures as a teaser
I like to use softheaded pusher style lures skirted lures of about 9 inches in length. The colour pink seems to work for me but colour depends on location and is the fishermen’s choice. A soft head is best to use as opposed to a resin headed lure in order to prevent the sailfish from being spooked if it bites down on the lure. Some fisherman like to add taste to their skirts by stitching in baits within the skirt, I personally don’t do this but can’t see any real disadvantages in doing so if the action of the lure is not affected
Teaser Rods with spin reels x 2- These don’t need to be anything special, they are only used to troll the soft headed teasers skirts and retrieve them, however, anything too soft will negatively affect the way the teaser lure swims. Reels with a good drag and a moderate to fast retrieve ratio will suffice. The rods that I connect to the downriggers are short rods of about 15kg with spin reels spooled with 130lb Dacron, which is connected to 200lb mono leader of 2-3 metres in length. The drag is kept fully locked up! You need to be able to pull the teaser away from the fish at all times and that is why the rods have such heavy line and leader and a locked drag, this action of quickly pulling the teaser away from an interested sailfish will fire the fish up to no end and is essential to your success.
The daisy chain
The other teaser to run is a daisy chain, there are various effective kinds of daisy chains you can purchase or put together but I have found great success with an exciter bird with an even spread of plastic squid or fish trailing behind it. I usually run this off the back corner of the boat. If you’re in a trailer boat, it is essential that you keep everything on the surface so you can see the fish behind it. If you’re fishing out of a boat with a fly bridge or tuna tower, running sub surface teasers such as a dredge or witch doctor can be used as you have the advantage of height and the ability to see a fish behind it.
A fighting rod set up
This is the set up you use to present the bait and fight the fish with. I use an 8 foot Wilson Live Fibre Venom with a large spin reel that is loaded up with 15kg mono. You don’t need to go to huge expense when choosing your gear but I do suggest a reel with a high quality drag system. A rod no less than 7 feet in length is essential as this will help when skipping the bait back to the fish.
Using mono line gives you plenty of forgiveness when fighting billfish rather than the unforgiving zero stretch nature of braid. Circle hooks are used in this technique so there is always a chance of them being pulled therefore a bit of stretch in your line is good. I double my main line with a bimini twist and tie that to 100 to 150lb tough leader or a wind on leader via an Albright knot. I then connect my leader via Uni knot to a circle hook of about 6/0 in size.
Bait is an important part of this process and there are several baits that can be used. Whole garfish, mullet, pilchards and slimy mackerel are all effective. What ever is local and available in your area is your best option. Fresh is always best but they will readily take a bait that’s been frozen. To rig the bait you can stitch it up to a tow point or use a loop of dacron/wax thread through the baits eyes. I then loop it onto the circle hook of choice. The rods are all pre rigged with the baits stored in a bucket of water ready and waiting for a fish to come to the surface.
Setting your spread
How you run the spread of teasers depends entirely on the style of boat you have, sea conditions and your area. I like to stick with things that work. It may take a few trips but you’ll find what is best for your set up and the location you are fishing, however in saying that, this method of switch baiting can be applied anywhere sailfish are found and in pretty much every type of boat.
Once at the sailfish grounds a speed of 6-7 knots will work well depending on conditions and how your boat and engine perform at this speed. If you want to speed up to 9 knots that is ok but I wouldn’t recommend any faster than 9 knots or slower than 6. You can then lay out your daisy chain from one corner of the boat (port or starboard is irrelevant) and set it so it’s about 15m behind the transom. Then on each outrigger have the softheaded teaser out about another five metres behind the daisy chain, so about 20m all up. I often also substitute one of the soft heads for a tuna belly flap stitched up to look like a baitfish (with no hooks of course).
Its now game on time! When switch baiting you are relying on the crew to be keeping a good eye on the spread looking for the big dark shadow to appear behind the teaser. The moment a sailfish comes up behind the teaser, grab your fighting rod and get that bait in the water, flick the bail arm over on the reel and free spool the bait out next next to the teaser, this is known as skipping. It’s important here that you act quickly and keep the fish interested, any billfish could lose interest at this stage and not be seen again so you can’t retrieve the softheaded teaser until the sail shows interest in the bait. At this stage the fish may move off the teaser and behind your bait, if he doesn’t come off the teaser and onto the bait, the teaser needs to be moved from the fish, this needs to be quick so the fish then focuses on your bait. If the teaser is brought in too slow the fish will focus on it and move all the way to the boat, you might think that this would be advantageous having the fish come so close but it is not, that is why it’s essential to keep the drag locked on those teaser rods and bring the teaser in fast and out of the way, you want the fish to have complete focus and attention your boat with the hook in it!
When the fish is behind your bait it can be hard to see if it has actually taken the bait or if it is just checking it out, if you see it’s bill come over the bait you’re pretty safe in assuming you’re on and you then need to free spool the reel again, it is critical that there is no resistance at this stage, the fish needs to be able take that bait and swim away without feeling any weight or pressure, about 5-10 seconds of free spool is usually enough, you need to be careful not to leave it too long or the fish will turn and swim straight back into the spread and you will now have some serious issues.
Once you’re sure the bait has been swallowed and the fish is swimming off (and without a fly bridge it’s always hard to tell and a bit of a guess) it’s time to flick the bail arm over and go into fight mode, If the line doesn’t come up tight and you missed the fish, keep the bait skipping and get it back near the teaser, also start to pray the fish follows for another go! Once you are confident that you have that solid connection (and you will know after about 10 seconds if you’re still on) it is time to take the boat out of gear and fight the fish. Have the crew remove all teasers from the water and any other possible obstruction from the angler’s way. It’s best to have a crewmember handy with the tag pole and another ready at the helm. In the chaos of the fight it’s important to remain calm and enjoy the moment and take in the amazing aerial display and fight these beautiful fish will provide for you.
Switch baiting for sailfish and marlin can be great fun and get the heart really ticking, get out there and give it a go, practise makes perfect.