"Mostly, you miss the fish that strike your bait," he says, "even the really big marlin. A big bait is tough for most billfish to swallow in one hit. They'll strike again and again, but they won't eat. An 800-pound marlin can swallow a big bait with no problem, but you don't see too many of those, even when you're looking."
Benitez discovered that a rigged ballyhoo, strip bait or smaller trolling lure is an easier target for a sail or small marlin, and his clients' success rate soared. He also discovered that circle hooks enhanced the hookup percentages on his boat, especially with inexperienced clients who had never set the hook on a rampaging fish. The lighter tackle was easier to deploy and handle too.
Benitez says he found that even the greenest tourist gained a bigger advantage with the downsized technique. It only made sense that the strategy would work its way into tournament fishing, where, as Benitez says, "a bigger advantage is the name of the game" for success.
A Lighter Touch
Most importantly, when focusing on smaller quarry in billfish tournaments, anglers must match the tackle to the intended fish, says Stansel.
Targeting spearfish, white marlin, sailfish, hatchet marlin (roundscale spearfish) and bantam-size blue marlin instead of the one beast requires a different game plan with completely different tools.
Lighter stand-up rods and 30-pound-class conventional reels are best suited for dragging the smaller baits, chuggers and plugs needed for playing the points game in a billfish tournament. Durable monofilaments in the 20- to 30-pound-test range can handle most of the billfish you encounter.
"The lighter line means a lighter setting on your strike drag, especially because you don't want the fish to feel any resistance when it hits," says Benitez, "but most reels these days have drag systems that can handle dealing with a 200-pound marlin on light line. If you don't put too much pressure on the fish after the hookup, you won't lose it."
Stansel agrees with Benitez but adds that proper boat handling and teamwork increase the odds of success. The lighter tackle means that even a 150-pound blue marlin can put up a long fight, which can put undue stress on both the fish and the gear.
"You need to catch them quickly," he says. "You back down on them and get them to the boat quickly so you can leader them, take your picture and get them off fast so they can swim away."