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September 28, 2009

West Coast Striped Marlin

Migrating marlin challenge SoCal anglers

One of the most remarkable panoramas I've ever witnessed from a fishing boat involved a sea full of dorsals and tails - what looked like an acre of curved black sticks emerging from the deep blue: striped marlin en masse off Cabo.

Of course, I was hooked up at the time, so my camera remained in its protective Pelican box in the vessel's salon. But I'll never forget that sight.

I didn't expect that Cabo marlin  phenomenon to repeat itself when I set out to catch a Southern California stripey last fall. But then again, I was also in the United States, checking out a "backyard" fishery available to many West Coast anglers. What SoCal gives up in numbers it gains in convenience.

I scheduled a two-day mission to score striped marlin with top release-tournament promoter and captain Chris Badsey and Okuma Fishing Tackle's director of product development, John Bretza. Badsey's success with striped marlin became legendary in 2007 when his tournament team released 179 striped marlin in one day in Mexico, then topped that a month later with 190.

Couple that level of experience with Okuma's tackle and lures (the company is the exclusive distributor for Pakula), and I felt I could truly wager on the odds. I should have bet money.

Marlin Migration
Striped marlin occur in the Pacific and Indian oceans, preferring a water temperature of 68 to 79 degrees. They're found in depths to 650 feet, though usually above any thermocline that may be present, according to  fishbase.org.

Stripeys may grow to more than 500 pounds; the all-tackle world record came from New Zealand waters in 1986 and weighed 494 pounds. The California-record striped marlin, caught near Catalina, weighed 339 pounds.

Scientists think the stripes that swim in SoCal waters from July through October migrate up from Mexico after spawning. They're caught primarily from Santa Barbara Island south to Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands.

On the early October days I fished with Badsey and Bretza, we would hunt our fish near Catalina, running out of Dana Point in Orange County in the Team Okuma 28 Prokat. Okuma's former marketing specialist Ric Hawthorne joined us, as did Trailer Boats publisher/editorial director Jim Hendricks on the second day.

Tough Stuff
Our first morning dawned slightly foggy but colorful as the sun rose above the coastal mountains and a sea-lion chorus erupted. The seas just offshore rolled gently as we worked at catching Pacific mackerel - greenbacks - at the Barber Poles off Dana Canyon with sabiki rigs and a chum bucket. We found little bait at the buoy, but plenty beneath a floating dead sea lion.

We would use the greenbacks as pitch baits to marlin on the surface or to feeders that might appear in the spread and may not take an artificial lure. Bretza had outfitted five 8-foot Catalina Marlin casting rods with Tiburon SmartShift 7540 and Cavalla 15 II reels and spooled them with 50-pound Western Filament Tuff XP braided line for backing with 30-pound P-Line top shots connected to eight to 10 feet of 60- and 80-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leaders and 8/0 Eagle Claw billfish circle hooks, snelled for a better hookup ratio.

The long rods feature oversize guides and offer improved casting  distance and accuracy over the shorter rods many private-boat anglers choose. Bretza chose the small reels because of their casting ease and spooled them with braid backing to increase line capacity.

Badsey usually drops down to 30-pound-test line and leader for tournament use so he can cast farther and present livelier bait. He keeps light drag on the reel so the fish stays at the surface, and then brings the boat to the fish for quick releases. But we were in no numbers race on this day.

Pakulas at the Pinnacles
Bretza piloted the Prokat west toward Catalina and the 286 - a pinnacle  surrounded by water 2,000 feet deep. The 40-plus-mile ride took well over an hour as the seas began to build  offshore. But we had a little time to kill: Badsey says the hour before and after a high tide generally generates a bite. High tide would clock in at about 10:30 a.m.