By John Brownlee
Photos by Richard Gibson
Few forms of saltwater fishing can compare with offshore trolling for billfish in terms of utter chaos. Such activity has been accurately described as hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of panic, and if you’ve been fortunate to find yourself in the midst of such chaos, you’ll nod solemnly in agreement. You’ve seen it firsthand.
When a large billfish appears suddenly in your spread, time seems to either stand still or rapidly accelerate. Multiply that by a factor of 10 if a pack of sailfish or smaller marlin, such as whites or stripes, converges on your bait. Newbies often become paralyzed at the most critical moment, which translates into missed opportunities in a game where opportunities are often few and far between.
These moments define the sport. They make it exciting; many of us become addicted, willing to sacrifice time and capital to experience the rush again and again and again. But the initial breathlessness that often causes us to miss a bite must eventually be subdued so that limited chances aren’t squandered.
The top crews in offshore fishing long ago put aside youthful blunder and developed systems to maximize their odds for a successful hookup and catch. These crews have the choreography of the cockpit down to a science, where team members know their jobs perfectly and communicate with one another efficiently and clearly. When the big one (or pack of smaller fish) shows up, they instantly go into a methodical and well-rehearsed series of actions.
Talk it Over
Robert “Fly” Navarro has worked as part of these elite crews for years while chasing big billfish all over the globe. “Communication is key,” Navarro says. “You should be communicating before, during and after every bite. Have a plan before a bite about what everybody is going to do in the cockpit. Then communicate during the bite so everybody knows what you see and what you are planning on doing. I’m a firm believer in repeating what everybody says. If somebody calls out, ‘left teaser!’ I acknowledge by repeating it and saying ‘left teaser.’ That way they know they were heard. After a bite, communicate on what everybody saw and what everybody could do better. Even if you catch the fish, there’s a good chance that somebody could do something just a little bit better next time.”
The best mates keep track of where fish are in the spread and should advise you regarding what to expect over the next few seconds. But you have to listen closely to take advantage of their counsel. When everyone in the cockpit communicates clearly and calmly, you have a much better chance for success than if everyone is staring into the wake, screaming and whooping and hoping for a glimpse of the fish, with no one watching the rods.
I often tell anglers to ignore what’s happening behind the boat when the bite is on, which is easier said than done. It’s human nature to want to watch, and a billfish bite undoubtedly qualifies as one of the most exhilarating visual displays on the planet. It’s like staring into the sun: hard to look away. But you have to learn to leave that to the mates.
A mate’s job varies greatly, depending on the type of fishing. If you’re trolling hook baits in lures or natural dead baits, the captain and mates have to be in unison over who does what as the boat moves forward. The best teams have it down cold. If you’re trolling lures, no drop-back is necessary, and you either hook the fish or you don’t. But with rigged natural baits, you need to drop back in free-spool; the timing is critical, as is the amount of pressure you put on the line. Again, great crews can teach this essential technique.
Sizing Up the Situation
If you’re bait-and-switch fishing, it’s an altogether different game. This method — where you troll either hookless teasers or a combination of teasers and hook baits, then pitch rigged baits when a fish shows up — requires the most coordination between anglers and mates; there’s a lot happening in a brief period of time. The bait-and-switch is widely used in Central America because it enables the crew to make a visual determination of which species has risen (sailfish, striped marlin, blue marlin, etc.) and then to drop back a bait on the appropriate tackle. It saves you from fighting a sailfish on tackle that’s too heavy to be fun and helps prevent hooking a huge marlin on impossibly light tackle — unless that’s what you want. Bait-and-switch lets you choose.
No matter where or how you fish, the mates spot the big animal, give clear and concise directions, and clear the cockpit to provide anglers with the best chance for a hookup. The guy or gal on the rod needs to know their job, too. That means keeping a close watch on the tackle and making sure a drop-back goes smoothly, staying tight to and keeping maximum pressure on the fish, and avoiding backlashes. Communication, focus and quick, decisive actions are the hallmarks of a good crew. When it all goes right, you just may wind up catching a remarkable fish.
Click through the gallery below to see some Chaotic Choreography at its best.