Fish University 201: Trolling for Marlin

Setting a lure pattern for Marlin

There is no better way in life to invoke the opinions of fishermen than by writing a piece on THE way to set a lure pattern for fish. Especially Marlin. But reading another story on how to troll for these amazing creatures is all part of the fun of learning about the great sport. So whether you’re a beginner who is looking for ways to increase your strike ratio, or if you are an avid Marlin fisherman who has for years fished a certain way and totally disagree with everything I say, both are fine. So long as you enjoy the article and get on the water, I applaud you as a fellow angler.

Many skippers will tell you it is important to be prepared for the day you get lucky. Everything I write about in this article (and almost everything else I do when I fish) is related to that central theme, because we hear all too often about the fish that got away. Far too many anglers chalk it up to just having too big a fish for the gear, but deep down, most anglers know many times a fish getting free was a result of their own resistance (read: laziness and/or frugality) to ensuring the tackle was perfect.

A Marlin lure is a tool used by a craftsman. And any good craftsman should know care of the tool and understanding what makes it work are of high importance if the tool is to bring success. It should be of the right shape and size, color and feel. The lure itself is such a complicated tool that the infinite variables of its design warrant a story of its own. When you read Fishing University 310, we’ll go into great detail about the design and construction of a lure, but this article will go more into setting and watching the lures when specifically trolling for Marlin

Notice the skirt on this lure

Notice the skirt on this lure

Once you have a group of lures you or your captain is comfortable with and are at sea, it’s time to set the pattern. Generally, you’ll set the longest lures out first and range back to the short lures, but when you fine tune them, it will work in the opposite direction. Assuming you’re running with five lines, set the stinger first. The stinger is the rod that is either in the transom or the rocket launcher off the bridge. It sometimes clips up into a center rigger, but some skippers run it without.

Remove the lure with care from the lure pouch or bucket. Inspect the lure and leader for signs of previous strikes, chafe, cracks, and skirt condition. If the leader is chafed, don’t chance it. Spend the dollar and replace it, or cut it back and re-rig it if it is still long enough. A 400 pound test leader with a chafe is now a piece of 150-250 pound test at best, and when it comes time to get up close and personal, you need something you can hang on to, not something that will snap as soon as you heat it up.

Hold the lure in the air by the leader about three or four inches above the head, get the hooks set into the head at the angle you like (some even use square hosels or rubber to hold the hook position in place), and then carefully peel the skirting around the hooks so the skirts are straight with the hooks properly concealed. Gently lay the lure into the water and let the forward motion of the boat take the lure from you as you let the leader slide out. It amazes me to watch how many people will just throw the lure into the water without doing this. By failing to place the lure into the water carefully, it does a number of things.

 First, the action of the lure and the water and airflow around it is different than the design calls for, meaning a fish may not strike it. Unnatural, jerky movement in a lure may look just too artificial for a fish to show any interest. Second, tossing the lure into the water may inadvertently cause the trailer hook (or even the lead hook) to catch the head or the front of the leader, or it may cause the hook placement to move within the lure head. There is also a strong chance of a hook loop over-ride on the trailer hook, meaning the bottom of eye of the hook (the open end) is actually carrying the load. When you are dealing with predator fish that are sometimes hard to find, you want to make sure you are taking advantage of every opportunity to retain a strike when you get it. Remember, the lure head will slide out of the way once the battle begins, so any fouling in the line of tension will cause more foul hookups, lost strikes, and on the fish that are fought with the open side of the eye on the hook, a hook eye bend-out or break-off at leader.

As the lure slides back into position, count the waves made by the boat that run parallel to the stern. Don’t use the wake that goes out in a "V", use the rolling wave generated directly behind the boat as the guide. Sometimes in rougher seas the waves are tough to count, but do your best. If you study it long enough, you’ll see it. Run the stinger out to the 6th wave on a larger diesel powered sportfisher, and consider one more wave on a smaller outboard boat.   The long rigger should go to the 5th wave, the short rigger on the fourth.   Place the long corner on the third wave, and finally, set the short corner on the second.  Again, add a wave for an outboard boat (I've found that for some reason smaller boats, perhaps with different sounds, need the lines out a little further to draw in the fish.

Each lure should be placed on the front of the wave, just below the crest. This gives the lure the most opportunity to surf downward without popping out of the water all the time. It also gives the lure the best action, best water flow, and as Stu Dixon, maker of Leprechaun Lures says, "More puff." By puff, he means the spray generated by the leading edge and its flow around the head. This signature of the lure can often be the single biggest factor in enticing a strike.

Outriggers move the lure outside the wake.

Outriggers move the lure outside the wake.

After the stinger is set and you run out the rigger lines, pay attention to the action on the rigger lures. Flat days are easy, but you’ll need to keep close watch on the bend in the line on a windy cross sea to make sure the lines don’t tangle. Skippers and crews have to be extremely careful of this, because the only thing worse than spending an hour in rough seas untangling lines is losing a fish from a bad hookup made the result of lures flopping back behind the boat. And since the fish can literally strike at any time, it certainly behooves the crew to pay attention and not risk this precious window of opportunity.

Outriggers are used to move the lure outside the wake directly behind the boat and to reduce tangles from too many lines close together. While some fish will be excessively aggressive and take the short corner in the whitewash like a ton of bricks in an act of total aggression, other fish will come from behind the pattern and inspect the lures running off the riggers in clear water before taking them. Accordingly, it is important to pay close attention to the shape and action of the lures running out there. Conical heads are often good baits for the riggers. The downward angle of the line coming off the rigger tends to keep the head up a bit, giving the lure a controlled skipping action, much like a Malolo (Hawaiian for Flying Fish) would behave. 

Outrigger lures, by virtue of them running in clear water, should be well-mirrored, or contain flash inserts such as irridized glass, mother of pearl, or the ultimate, dichroic glass. I believe dichroic glass will become one of the more popular insert materials in the not too distant future, because it’s natural color reflection into the sea is very powerful. Dichroic glass, though expensive, takes the white light from the sun and reflects it into a soft color spectrum into the sea. It isn’t a rainbow, it’s just a soft color diffusion that has a very biological look to it. This natural light diffusion is so similar to that of bait-fish that Marlin have a tendency to attack from either the aggression or feeding instinct. Strikes come from behind the boat or from behind the pattern on rigger lures, so make sure the presentation is as good as it can be.

Flat lines on the short corners are the last lures to be set out in the pattern. Generally, these lures are the largest, and should be placed on the largest and most powerful rods and reels the boat has to offer. Most strikes of aggression from big fish result from the lure of the propeller(s) and engine noise made from the boat. This sound draws fish toward the surface for inspection, and when the fish realizes it really can’t attack a 40 foot pile of wood or fiberglass, its attention is diverted to the piece of candy dangling behind. Aggressive attacks like this are often one-shot hits, and the hook placement inside the lure is critical for achieving the highest ratio of strike retention.

The lead hook should be oriented such that the barb side is up, which will help the hook go straight into the jaw and set when an aggressive attack takes place. Having the hook down or sideways just seems to give the fish too many ways to get off when it goes airborne.

Good short corner lure

Good short corner lure

One other note on flat lines: bent butt rods lay the line low enough to the water on the corners that the line runs flat, keeping it away from the riggers and stinger in turns, especially in heavier winds conditions. Straight butt rods should be clipped to the reel by a rubber band or roller-troller to flatten the line onto the water. In all but the best of conditions, allowing the corner rods to run directly off the top guide and enter the water on a steep angle is usually asking for a tangle, especially if the rods are regular length (7 foot).

The stinger is the furthest lure back. Generally, it is the smallest in the pack, but for Marlin fishing, it is important to keep it about the same size as the rigger lures. Otherwise, you’ll get more Mahimahi and Ono bites at a time when you are targeting Billfish. Furthermore, since the wake is usually thinner at that distance and more clear water exists in its path, good flash in the lure head is important.

With all lures now set into the pattern, it’s time to fine tune them as a group. Tune the short corner first and get it running down the second wave just right. Move to the long corner, then the short rigger, the long rigger, then finally the stinger. Some like to place a small rubber band on the line just above the reel when the lines are set, which gives a quick guide to the location of the lure when resetting them. Make sure if you do this you fine tune the lures on the reset after a battle, then move the rubber bands to reflect their new positions.

Finally, when fishing for Marlin, it’s alright to have a beer or soda in hand, and it’s also important to enjoy the scenery. But of highest importance is to remember why you are on the water in the first place. Catching fish is a ball, but waiting for them to strike requires patience and understanding. It shouldn’t be a boring experience. Watch the lures frequently, notice their action, and constantly fine tune them or change them if you don’t like what you see. Study them and their movements in the water, and try to see them from the perspective of below the water line. Take a drink, cool off, watch for birds, but try not to leave sight of the lures for too long. Rotate the duty with the crew to keep it fresh. You never know when a fish will enter the pattern, and that day of serenity will forever change in the heat of the battle if you just take a little extra time to be prepared.

In review, with five lures in the water, a good pattern should include large (12-14") lures in the corners and three nicely shaped and well-flashed (9-12") lures on the riggers and stinger. Lures should be on the front of each wave, just below the crest. Corner lines should enter the water on a low angle, and rigger and stinger lines should be high enough to provide adequate clearance in turns. Lures should be frequently inspected for hits, damage and skirts properly hiding the hooks, and lures should be set into the water gently so as to avoid fouling the hooks in any way. The lures should be studied, tuned, and changed frequently, depending on the results.


Remember, of the five main aspects to fishing (finding, raising, striking, fighting and either releasing of gaffing) the highest degree of control you have is in the preparation of your tackle to focus on the strike itself. Setting an appropriate lure pattern will help tremendously, and actively finding ways to increase strike retention (such as hook placement) will make you feel as though Marlin fishing is a lot less about luck and more about skill. 

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