Marlin fishing is habit-forming

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2004

Every fisherman deserves to catch a marlin. King salmon are majestic fish and halibut will test both you and your tackle. But nothing can match a marlin screaming out line 50 miles per hour while it tail walks a hundred yards behind the boat. I'll bet there isn't a fisherman anywhere who hasn't dreamed of catching a marlin. Fortunately, it is easier to catch marlin today than ever before.

I caught my first marlin in 1981 and have been addicted ever since. I still remember that first fish: We were trolling off Cabo San Lucas when the captain gunned the engines and said to pull in the lines as he headed for some birds working in the distance. When we got there I understood why he was in such a hurry: There was a school of perhaps a 100 striped marlin feeding on the surface. The mate tossed out a live mackerel and got a strike almost immediately. He handed me the rod just as the fish rocketed out of the water not 20 yards behind the boat. From that moment on I realized I was hooked.

I had told that story and many others to my good friend Lucky Cables several times trying to convince him to come marlin fishing with me. An avid salmon fisherman, Lucky was interested, but a serious accident in the mines made that difficult until this year. Once he decided to go, it was up to me to plan a trip within our budgets and with the best chances of success.

I caught that first marlin almost by accident. I was in Cabo to escape the Denver winter when I decided to charter a boat and got lucky. Now, after more than 20 years of marlin fishing, I'd learned enough to make it a pretty sure bet Lucky would catch a marlin on his first trip.

If you have decided that it is time to catch your first marlin, here are a few tips that will increase your odds:

Location, location, location. The most important tip is to go to where the fish are, and because marlin are found in all of the temperate oceans of the world, almost every warm vacation spot will list charters ready to take you marlin fishing. You may be able to catch a fish that way, but there are times and places where marlin congregate in huge numbers and these are obviously the places to fish. From my experience, your best shot at catching a marlin is in winter out of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico - barely 7 hours by plane from Juneau. The marlin you are most likely to catch are striped marlin of between 120 and 180 pounds. Stripes are the smallest Pacific marlin but believe me: They put up a spectacular, hard-nosed aerial fight.

Getting there. If you plan ahead, you'll find that airline fares from Juneau to Los Cabos are actually pretty reasonable, something in the range of $750, and much less if you use airline miles to purchase your ticket. Unfortunately, it's not possible to get to Cabo San Lucas in one day so you'll need to overnight in Seattle, which effectively raises the cost of your ticket by the price of a room in Seattle. The town of Cabo San Lucas is about 40 miles from the airport so you'll need to take a $15 shuttle or $75 taxi to your hotel.

Book a reputable charter. There are hundreds of charter boat operators out of Cabo and many are quite good. But not all. It is much better to book your charter before arriving in Cabo so you won't be stuck with a bad captain. Fortunately, most charter operators now have Web sites so you can do your research before you go. I've had good luck with the Gaviota Fleet (www.cortezcharters.com) and the Pisces Fleet (www.sun777.com/pisces.htm) but had one of my best trips ever on El Budster (www.elbudster.com). Once you find a promising boat on the Internet, call the captain and ask for references. One thing I like about both El Budster and Gaviota is that they are operated out of San Diego, Calif., so it is easy to contact them for information. If at all possible, you should fish two or preferably three days to make sure you don't hit bad weather or a day when the fish have lockjaw. Expect to pay between $350 and $400 for a day's fishing aboard a 26- to 30-foot cruiser. It is the same price for as many as four people so you can reduce your costs significantly by going with friends.

All charter boats will have appropriate tackle; however, there's a good chance the boat's tackle will not be in the best of shape. Over the years I've acquired both my own offshore tackle and the patience to lug it down to Cabo. I wouldn't recommend that first-time marlin fishermen buy new tackle, but if your halibut gear is in good shape you might consider taking it. Many boats in Cabo troll with 6/0 Penn Senators, and use 4/0 Senators for fishing live bait.

Accommodations and other costs. When I first fished out of Cabo San Lucas it was a sleepy fishing village with only one upscale hotel. It is now one of the most trendy and hip locations on the planet. What this means is that you can spend $1,000 a night on your room and shop in a multi-story mall that rivals the best shopping anywhere. But you can also stay at clean, moderately priced hotels like the Mar de Cortez (www.mardecortez.com) with rooms starting under $50. A Google search for "Cabo San Lucas hotels" will give you more choices than you can imagine, and most have pictures and descriptions to help you make your choice. Be forewarned: most hotels and restaurants in Cabo take Visa and Master Card; however, your card company will charge an extra fee for foreign transactions. It's best to pay with cash or travelers checks.

Likewise, you can spend as much as you want on meals, or you can do as I do: Buy fruit, cheese and bread to take on the boat and eat the best $1 fish tacos you've ever had at night. If you can keep your margarita consumption to a tolerable level, you can have a great, inexpensive meal at any one of several waterfront bars, including Solomon's Landing and Baja Cantina.

Get in shape before you go. Finally, it cannot be overstated how important it is to get in shape before you try to tackle a marlin. Most Alaskan fishermen have a story or two about a barn-door halibut that pushed them to their limits. But believe me: You won't be catching any marlin under 100 pounds and marlin fight much more than halibut. If you start a couple months before you go and work on your back, upper body and cardiovascular system, you'll have a much better trip.

So, how did my trip with Lucky turn out? Better than I could have imagined. Apparently there is something to his name afterall. On our first day we accomplished what we set out to do: Lucky caught his first marlin, a stripe of about 140 pounds. That fish did everything a marlin is supposed to do: a screaming 100-yard run when it took the bait, perhaps 20 jumps completely out of the water, and then dogged determination when it sounded near the end of the battle. Lucky was beaming and exhausted when we finally tagged and released his fish. We also caught a tuna and dorado on our first day.

On our second day we each caught a marlin. But it was on the third day that the fishing picked up: We caught five marlin, a dorado, and Lucky caught a 100-pound wahoo. Reputedly the fastest fish that swim, Lucky's wahoo took out 200 yards of line before we knew what was happening. When we got it in, the crew was even more excited than we were. Not only are wahoo considered by many to be the best of all fish on the table, but this monster will likely be the largest one caught all season in Cabo.

I had to congratulate Lucky on his wahoo, but it was hard: I've been trying for a wahoo for over 20 years and have yet to catch one. Lucky's reply: "I think you've created a monster. When are we coming back?"

• Bill Brown runs a fishing reel repair shop in Juneau. He can be reached at 789-2448 or wsbrown@gci.net.



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