For me, Striped marlin are the perfect billfish.
They are incredibly obliging in that they run in packs, so when you find one you will often find more. Not only that but they have an endearing habit of cruising on or near the surface so that you can spot them, sometimes from a long way off, and equally touchingly they're not easily spooked when you approach them in the boat to cast a live-bait.
Often you find them just lying on the surface, immobile, to all intents and purposes sound asleep. I have a pet theory that they actually are asleep, or at least in a torpor. I think, and it is just an opinion, that at these times they have been feeding deep and are on the surface to re-oxygenate and warm up. This is backed up (a little) by the fact that often these fish disgorge squid when hooked up, and sometimes large squid at that. These large and aggressive Humboldt squid are found deep down so re-oxygenating and warming up would be a good idea for a fish that was hunting them, especially during the night. This would also explain why the majority of these tailing fish don't take a bait: they are stuffed with calamari! But it is, as I said, just my pet theory.
At times it can be maddeningly frustrating as you approach fish after fish and pitch a bait to them just to have it studiously ignored before the marlin glides off into the deep. But every so often a well-pitched bait gets a strike, and then the fun really starts!
Every fight is different of course, but there is a pattern to it that develops over time and experience.
The marlin’s first instinct will be to try to out-run you, and let’s be honest, this is what you have come for! That reel screaming, whoopin’-and-a-hollerin’, adrenalin rush ,first run with the fish jumping, cartwheeling and greyhounding away into the distance.
It is heart-stopping and personally I can’t get enough of it. I still yell and whoop with the best of them despite having caught well over 100 of these incredible fish.
The Captain will be on the case and the deckhand will have cleared the lines so that the fish can be backed down on.
There are two schools of thought about backing down: American captains usually back down really aggressively and try to get the fish to the boat during that first run. The rationale, which is sound enough, is that it is better for the fish as it will still be ‘green’ (i.e. healthy!) when it is released and you can get back to fishing quickly which means more shots at fish. I have fished with some Captains who rig the lines with an extremely long top-shot of 300lb test so that the mate can wire the fish at 30 or 40 yards. The entire thing is over in less than five minutes and the fish is either broken or cut off and never handled as it is too wild so early in the fight. It also means that the mate likely fights the fish for longer than you do.
The other school of thought, mostly used by the Mexican Captains, is to back down on the fish less aggressively so that the angler actually gets to fight the fish for a while.
Each to their own, and I confess that the former method is incredibly exciting, but for preference I like a bit of a fight (it’s the Scotsman in me) so I normally let the Captain take his time.
Given that you will still be a hundred yards or so away from the fish, it is likely that Stage 2 of the fight will start pretty soon. The marlin, having failed to out-run you, will now try to dive for the ocean floor.
This is less fun than Stage 1 but you have to grit your teeth and get on with it. For my part, I fight them the whole time pretty much. If they are running hard and taking line then I take a rest, but as soon as they stop I pump that rod and try to recover line, even if the line pays out again on the upstroke.
It’s psychology: I am trying to convince the marlin that it cannot win by diving deep. Even if I only get an inch, it is an inch more to me than to the marlin so it is worth the effort and it shortens the fight. I am aiming for a 25-35 minute fight all up. The fish is tired after that but not normally ‘bronze’ (i.e. exhausted and in need of recovery time) and they swim away without any difficulty. Fights that go on a long time normally happen when the angler has stopped fighting and is just hanging on to the rod with the fish static below them. That’s bad for the fish and dull dull dull for everyone on the boat. So fight ‘em buddy: that’s why you’re there!
I also prefer to be standing up these days. It gives me a lot more leverage and I can use my legs to good effect. Newbies always make the mistake of fighting the fish with their arms and get tired out pretty quickly. But it's not strength that wins, it's technique. You want to get the mechanics of the situation on your side. I get a good stance and lean back, pushing with my legs to gain line, then wind down as I lean forward. Then I lean back and do it again...over and over until the fish is in. I have a belly belt (but no harness) and it does get a little achy on the lower back at times but it's much better than being bent over in the chair and hauling with one arm! A chair is useful when you have a large fish on and you have a harness to spread the load. Otherwise it actually makes it harder to fight the fish. On a rolling sea and slippery deck of course, safety considerations have to come into it so always be sensible and if you don't feel securely balanced, sit down.
There will come a point, maybe about 10 minutes into this second stage of the fight, when you will feel the fish give a little and then you want to up the pressure on the drag and recovery rate of the retrieve.
She’s coming up.
You can track the line as it rises in the water, normally pulling away from you. The question is: How far away will she be when she breaks the surface to shake her head in defiance? That dictates how long is left.
Most times this is the beginning of the end no matter how far away the marlin is and you may get a few more jumps, runs or dives but the outcome is just a matter of time unless you over-cook the drag and pull the hook.
The deckhand will be ready to leader the fish anyway and, by convention, once that leader is grabbed the fish is caught – no matter what happens thereafter.
I used to have them lifted onto the transom for a photo but these days I’d rather just let them go as quickly as possible.
I’m also a circle hook fanatic: occasionally I do get a badly hooked fish that is bleeding, but those are the exception rather than the rule. This contrasts with J hooks where almost every other fish is deep hooked and bleeding. Live bait is swallowed by the fish after all, and a J hook will tear into anything it can whereas a circle almost always catches in the scissors of the mouth. There have been good studies done on White marlin showing that the mortality with J hooks can be as high as 40% whereas with circle hooks it is as low as 2%.
Why use a J hook if you are going to release the fish?