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October 25, 2001

Monsters on the Fly

Learn the secrets of catching billfish, dolphin and tuna on the long rod.

Targeting large game fish in deep water on fly was considered an impossibility before the 1950s, and even up until the past 15 years or so only an elite handful of fly fishers pursued it. Few people believed fly tackle stood much chance against billfish and other wide-shouldered predators, with even dolphin and tuna considered monster opponents for fly fishers.
In addition, most blue-water veterans considered it tough enough to get a boat within viewing distance of a marlin or sailfish, let alone get within fly-casting range. Another obstacle to accepting such an unlikely style: ignorance. Most offshore captains just weren't familiar with the rudiments of fly fishing and therefore tended to discourage it. Skippers complained that when a fish finally ate a fly, the battle consumed too much time and usually resulted in a break-off anyway.
The first problem -- fly gear that couldn't handle big fish -- proved to be more psychological than real. Fly fishers took more than casual notice of the successful techniques by light-tackle saltwater anglers of the time who had started to whip tarpon exceeding 100 pounds with some regularity. And if a 125-pound tarpon can be bested on 12-pound-test spin tackle, then why not on 12-pound fly tippet? For that matter, if it can be done on tarpon, why not sailfish, marlin, dolphin and even bigger game fish?
The second challenge - getting the boat within casting distance of typically skittish billfish, tuna and the like - seemed a tough nut to crack. But that too changed quickly as more sophisticated techniques using teasers to attract billfish and live chum to call in dolphin, tuna and other species became widely known, and fly anglers took note.
As surveys of the angling public revealed that the average fly fishers occupy upper-income brackets -- sacre bleu! -- the industry quickly recognized that most of those so-called "snobbish" folks could afford custom rods and reels and weren't the tiniest bit shy about laying out the big bucks for exotic fishing trips and weekend resort seminars. The result: a growing legion of long-rod aficionados who've become more and more adept at catching billfish, tuna, dolphin, wahoo and other species on fly.

Tease 'Em on In
As it turned out, teasing fish to get them within 40 feet or closer to the boat proved easier than imagined, and it remains the most essential key to successful blue-water fly fishing. This means getting a fish's attention by trolling a teaser -- a hookless lure, bait or lure/bait combination -- and then winding the teaser in to within fly-casting range. In many cases, fish can be teased right up to the stern of the boat, requiring just a flip of the rod.
The species targeted dictates the teasing method. For billfish, fly anglers might troll one line with a daisy chain of plastic squids, another line with a marlin lure and perhaps one or two lines with a fresh-dead bait such as a deboned mullet.
If, say, a sailfish comes up first on the daisy chain or lure, the mullet teaser's worked next to it so the fish transfers to the scent of the mullet; otherwise, the sail bites the tasteless plastic and loses interest. The idea is to let the sail taste the mullet, then tease him by yanking it away and continuing to wind toward the boat, allowing only an occasional taste and not a firm grip -- you want to avoid getting the mullet ripped off the leader.
As the fired-up sailfish follows the mullet to within casting distance, the teaser man eliminates any line slack, points the rod tip at the mullet and, at the cue from the angler, flings the mullet entirely out of the water so it ends up in the boat, or at least far enough away so the sailfish can't see it. At the instant the mullet leaves the water, the fly must be cast to the same spot so the sailfish immediately transfers its attention to the fly.
If the teaser isn't gone when the fly arrives, the sailfish will usually ignore the fly; if the fly's late in arriving, the sailfish may have already moved away. The timing must be perfect, requiring a bit of rehearsal if the teaser man is inexperienced.
Some experts combine lures with bait. "Since the 1950s when I first started catching offshore fish on fly, I've gone from trolling plastic lures to belly baits, and now soft-head lures in combination with belly baits," says fly-fishing legend Apte of Plantation Key, Florida. "The advantage is that they first see the lure and rise to it, then taste it." Apte prefers bonito for belly baits because of the oily scent, but any available baitfish will work: Remove the entire belly of the baitfish and then sew it up so it remains intact with the lure while trolled. These belly baits are also known as Panama strips.
"You need about a dozen to 15 Panama strips in the ice chest, because while hungry morning fish will stay on a stale strip longer, they won't do so later in the day when their appetites become less keen," says SPORT FISHING's fly columnist Dan Blanton of Morgan Hill, California, who's fished throughout the world for blue-water species. "Changing the belly strip often later in the day is a major ingredient for success."
Teasers must be worked a bit differently for each species, particularly when it comes to sailfish or marlin. "With sailfish, take your time; don't just hurry the teaser into the boat," says Winston Moore of Boise, Idaho, who's probably caught more billfish on fly than anyone in history. "Get the fish so frustrated that you could practically throw your tennis shoe out there and he'd take it."

The Setup
While wahoo, stripers, kingfish and other big-game fish represent popular targets when the opportunities arise, the glamour species on the minds of most blue-water fly fishers are marlin, sailfish, dolphin and tuna (mainly yellowfin and blackfin).
Those who succeed at consistently catching these species on fly must learn teasing or chumming techniques and then figure out the best ways to present and manipulate flies. Casting efficiency is not important in blue-water fly fishing because almost all shots are only 10 to 30 feet behind the boat.
Moore says, "Once the targeted fish are brought within casting distance by teasing or chumming, three things must take place at the same time: 1) The angler yells 'Now!' or 'Neutral!' and the captain immediately throws the engines into neutral; 2) Someone jerks the teaser out of the water; and 3) The angler makes his cast."
The angler must not cast before the boat is taken out of gear - doing so goes against IGFA rules. With the teaser pulled away, the game fish should be facing your fly when it splashes down in the same spot.

Specialized Gear
You don't go after grizzly bears with a pea shooter, and fly gear designed to take cutthroat won't cut it for monsters such as marlin. This means toting a sturdy rod and reel that can hold a mean mess of backing line for blue-water fly fishing. The heaviest rigs entail beefy 8- or 8 1/2-foot, 15-weight rods and #5 reels (marlin gear), although most experts settle on 12- or 13-weight rods and #4-size reels that can still handle all but the largest of marlin. Dolphin, blackfin tuna and smaller blue-water species can be successfully handled on 9- or 10-weight gear.
"I like fiberglass rods rather than graphite for blue-water fly fishing because a lot of casting isn't necessary, and fiberglass has a lot more backbone to help apply pressure," says Moore.
Fly lines and leaders can be purchased specifically for blue-water fly fishing in any fly shop that stocks saltwater gear. "Most billfish aren't leader-shy, so I go with leaders that measure under 7 feet, including shock leader of 80- to 100-pound mono," says Apte. "For dolphin, I might go to a 9-foot leader with 50-pound fluorocarbon shock leader. Your reel should hold a minimum of 500 yards of backing - mine holds 700 -- and I cut my fly line back to about 60 feet, since long casts aren't necessary."
A number of anglers prefer large-arbor reels for offshore fly fishing. "They're a real blessing for tuna and marlin when cranking hundreds of yards of line becomes the major part of the battle - and they really hard work," says Blanton.

Don't Fear the Flies
Spin and conventional anglers unfamiliar with fly fishing often seem reluctant to try the sport, particularly on big game. Often they ask veterans to reveal the "secret" to landing billfish on fly, since it seems too formidable a task. Says Apte, "People want to know the black-and-white of fly fishing, but unfortunately the answer's gray. You just have to jump into the pool and start swimming. The beauty of offshore fly fishing is that you don't have to be a good caster. The key is observation - watch the fish closely, keep the fly in his face, then pop it hard, slow it down, speed it up, drop it, do whatever lights his fire."
I saw Apte battle a 375- to 400-pound blue marlin on 16-pound tippet and put the mighty beast to within 30 feet of the boat twice during the nearly two-hour battle. If the Mexican captain of that single-screw boat had even a smidgen of talent, he would've backed down on the marlin for an easy gaff by the mate. Instead, both times he ran away from the fish before clumsily trying to back down on the fish, giving the marlin time to regain strength and again sound. When the fly finally pulled, everyone aboard the boat felt anguished and at the same time exhilarated, for we had witnessed an amazing battle between man and game fish on fly.
I believe that blue-water fly fishing represents our sport's greatest challenge. Happily, more and more fly-fishing novices are discovering that the thrill of battling a sailfish, dolphin, tuna or other big-game target can be enjoyed by more than just the elite. Isn't it time you gave it a try too?