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Finding a Billfish for Crittercam

Sam Friedrichs is leading an ongoing project using Crittercam to help unlock the secret lives of marlin before it’s too late.

Depending on who you talk to, billfish are considered one of the most difficult fish to pursue with a rod and reel. Every billfish hotspot across the globe has their own methods of increasing their chances of success and Tropic Star Lodge in Panama is no exception. Regardless of the methods, this whole process starts every morning before the sun begins to crest the mountains as I find a ride out to the fertile offshore fishing grounds.

Mornings start early at Tropic Star Lodge with everybody grabbing a quick breakfast in the dark and leaving the dock as the sun is just coming up. Photo by Sam Friederichs.

I have two options: a 31-foot Bertram with lodge anglers or the 45-foot G and S Silver-Rod-O with Gary and Sherrell Carter. Both types of vessels are seaworthy and have experienced crews; the only difference is how they chase marlin. The Tropic Star Lodge boats specialize in using live bait to catch marlin where as the Silver-Rod-O specializes in what is called bait-and-switch fishing.

The marlin chasers of Zane Grey Reef. In the foreground is the 45-foot Silver-Rod-O which specializes in bait-and-switch. In the background is the Tropic Star Lodge fleet trolling live baits in search of marlin. Photo by Sam Friederichs.

To live-bait fish for marlin, the lodge boats begin every morning running out to Zane Grey reef where they catch 6-8 football-sized yellowfin or black skipjack tuna. In most other types of fishing these tunas would be considered a great catch but, when it comes to marlin fishing these 2-8 pound fish are just a bite-sized snack. Once the bait tanks are full we will run a little further offshore into about 300 feet of water. Upon arrival, three leaders with large circle hooks are prepared. These unique hooks, while large and menacing to look at, are designed to catch the marlin in the corner of the mouth ensuring that there is no internal injury to the fish. These hooks are attached the tunas in a manner which allows them to swim naturally as they are slow trolled behind the boat in an attempt to entice a marlin into biting.

The fleet from Tropic Star Lodge makes a mad dash to catch small tunas for bait and get out to the marlin fishing grounds. Photo by Sam Friederichs.
While this yellowfin tuna is considered perfect size for sashimi, in Panama they are the preferred snack for big marlin. Note the circle hook which will safely hook the fish in the corner of the mouth avoiding internal injury during the fight. Photo by Sam Friederichs.

The Silver-Rod-O uses a different approach called “bait-and-switch.” This unique method capitalizes on the fact that billfish have no fear of the boat. Instead of using live bait, these guys troll four hook-less lures called teasers. These plastic teasers give the appearance of a fleeing baitfish or squid on the surface. They are trolled in roughly the same area where the lodge boats are fishing with live bait. When a billfish sees one of the teasers he will swim right up to it and try to grab it. Right before he is able to clamp down on the teaser a mate will reel it away from him and he will follow it towards the boat. As the fish swims towards the boat, an angler will drop a baited circle hook into the wake. As the bait approaches the incoming teaser with hungry billfish in pursuit, the teaser is yanked towards the boat so the thing the billfish has left to chase is the hook bait which the angler will allow them to eat.

This is a depiction of the bait-and-switch technique with a mahi-mahi. The process is the same with a billfish only the strike is a lot faster. Photo by Sam Friederichs.
The strike of a large marlin is so fast that if you blink you will miss it. Even at 1/1000th of second my camera was only able to register the lit up tail of this 400-pound blue marlin. Photo by Sam Friederichs.

Once a billfish is hooked, the angler will proceed to bring the fish to the boat in the quickest way possible. Contrary to popular belief, the act of catching a billfish quickly is not a matter of brute strength but rather a combination of angler skill and boat handling. The boat will actually chase the fish in reverse allowing the angler to gain line on the reel. When the fish gets close a mate will grab the heavy leader and bring the fish to the boat where he will grab its bill and remove the hook. Once this occurs I lean over the side and attach the Crittercam in the cartilage below the dorsal fin. The fish is then revived and released to film its world under the waves.

Whether live baiting with small tunas or using bait-and-switch, this is the sight we want to see shortly before we deploy a Crittercam system. Photo by Sam Friederichs.

 

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