Maximize Multiple Billfish Hookups

Skilled teams turn single fish into doubles, triples and even quads using these choreographed techniques.

Will Drost

Maximum Opportunities

There’s little margin for error on the sport’s biggest stage. With the caliber of skill and tight scoring typical in the Lucas Oil Offshore World Championship, every chance counts. Winning teams consistently maximize their points by converting single hookups into double, triple and even quadruple releases. Commitment, patience and coordination are required. But teams that take advantage of multiple billfish shots are usually the ones taking home the championship’s top trophies.

“The techniques for catching multiple billfish have become a lot more refined in the last 10 years,” says Capt. John Bayliss, who has been fishing competitively since 1980. “Everyone is getting dialed in. You’re already slowing down with one fish, you’re already making the turn. So those teams that can add more releases, up to four sometimes, can really change a scoreboard in a hurry.”

Bayliss and other tourney veterans, like Capt. Rob Mahoney on Sea I Sea, a 72 Viking based at Pirate’s Cove Marina in Manteo, North Carolina, or Taylor Beckford, who has mated on several private boats since 2009, all honed their skills in destinations with plenty of opportunities. Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Mexico’s Yucatan region and the Dominican Republic offer large masses of sailfish and marlin during peak seasons, so crews can perfect their multiple hookup techniques. Some variables will always exist between boats, but certain practices are universal.

“Less is better, especially with multiples,” Mahoney says. “We run four hooked baits — two flat lines and two more off the long ’riggers along with two squid daisy-chain teasers, plus mullet and ballyhoo dredges. Most of the baits are circle-hooked naked ballyhoo, but we will sometimes run a mullet or mackerel behind one of the squid teasers. We keep a ballyhoo/chugger combo on a 50-pound pitch-bait rod for medium blue marlin and an 80-pound outfit with a mackerel for large blues.” Bayliss runs a similar spread.

“Too much stuff can make it cumbersome to work around fish,” he says. “So, with multiple opportunities, center or shotgun baits are usually left out. It’s best to keep everything very, very simple, as straightforward as possible. Every situation is different, but things happen fast, and it’s a lot easier to take a rod from the rocket launcher to feed a fish right away.” Beckford, who learned his craft fishing in the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Bermuda and Costa Rica, sticks to a proven spread as well, using a mix of artificial and natural baits. Beckford was a member of the Fa-La-Me team that won the OWC in 2015.

“It all starts with pulling teasers and the baits, but the reason we get so many multiple shots is because of the dredges, which resemble small schools of bait,” Beckford says. “We basically pull the same thing everywhere we go. I can’t say exactly what we use, though, other than it’s a mix of real and fake. It’s getting to be so hard to stay ahead of everyone else, we have to stay competitive and keep a few secrets.”

For teasers, Beckford normally puts out two squid daisy chains for sailfish and white marlin. Depending on the location, if more marlin are present, he adds Mold Craft and Black Bart lures to the offerings.

“Nothing would happen without a good boss,” Beckford says. “It’s expensive to be really competitive at this level. Dredges require a lot of bait, and you need the tackle and crew to make it happen. Some guys don’t want to commit and go all in.”

Offshore World Championship

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The Execution

To generate the maximum chances at multiple hookups, the baits have to be in the water as long as possible. Both Pacific and Atlantic sailfish often swim in packs, as do white and striped marlin. Small- to medium-size blue marlin will also travel in pods. The teasers and dredges draw the billfish into the spread. If the crews execute properly without tangling, they can then capitalize on the extra chances to quickly pad the score.

“My goal is to try to avoid backing up. I’d rather slow down, put the boat in a circle and drive by,” Mahoney says. “As soon as you pull in the other lines and start backing up, you lose opportunities at more fish.

“The inside dredge is always the most effective for multiples because it’s in clean water,” he says. “So we might pull it in tighter and prospect, or drop a bait beyond it and reel back in to get another bite at that fish we never see down deep. If I’m trolling down-sea, instead of turning, I will keep trolling because most of the time, the fish are tailing with it. If I’m going up-sea, I will turn a faster circle, hoping to pick up more.”

Mahoney always has a spotter in the tuna tower to keep an eye out for fish and their reaction. With the higher elevation and different angle to the water, the glare is minimized and the spotter can pinpoint other targets. The anglers not engaged should concentrate on their own baits in anticipation of another bite instead of focusing on the others fighting fish.

If he does have to put the boat in reverse to chase a fish, Mahoney will retrieve the rigger baits until they’re dangling in the water straight down off the tip. As the bait sweeps toward the bow, when the boat goes backward, those free-falling baits will often trigger another strike. With blue marlin, when he goes into the circle, he slows down and tightens up the spread, so potentially one or two more tagalong fish can be fed.

“When you are trying to win tournaments, you’ve got to turn singles into multiples to be competitive,” he adds.

Mahoney has the teaser and dredge reels on the bridge so that he can control the deployment. That allows him to assess what is happening, so he can leave the teasers and dredges in the water as long as possible for more chances to raise additional fish.

“Ideally, I try to have all the fish on the inside of the turn,” Mahoney says. “The first fish hooked is usually the last one caught, but not always. You might have a white marlin straight down and you can’t make any headway. So I’ll go after the closest or jumper on the surface first and then go back after the persistent ones.”

“You don’t want to get caught with your pants down,” Bayliss adds. “Quick reactions make a big difference. That allows for adjustments, to pull the teasers in, let the dredge out a little or drop a bait beyond the dredge and prospect for that one you don’t see. It all happens so fast, but you must have patience to wait ’em out. You have to stay disciplined. I make myself go twice, three times in a circle once one fish is hooked, and on the third time, here comes two more. Keeping the baits in a circle and as close to the hooked fish as possible is the key to multiple bites. Sailfish and white marlin especially have partners most of the time, so it’s just a matter of added enticement.”

Offshore World Championship

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Team Effort

Capitalizing on multiple shots is not accomplished from the sofa in the salon. This is an active angling method that requires constant vigilance from the cockpit, quick reflexes, good communication and the ability to follow instructions. Familiarity with each other and previous fishing experience certainly increase the success rate.

“Captains and mates that have fished together for a while have a definite advantage because they know each other’s moves,” Beckford says. “The anglers have to be ready at all times too. They need to be holding the rod, anticipating the strike. When that fish pops up, they need to listen to the captain and crew and look for the fish. The hardest job for a mate is to try and tell someone where to be and what to do — and they don’t want to listen. I’ll tell them the number of fish, where they are and how to present the baits. The best ones listen to what I’m saying and follow through. It’s important to know where that fish is and what’s happening. Is there a big belly in the line, is it jumping off the bow? If you think you’re tangled, let the crew know. I’ll get the teasers close or in the boat – you just concentrate on the fish.”

Beckford says the angler with the first fish should move to the far side of the cockpit while the second goes opposite. If another pair is hooked, the captain slows the boat and the battles continue until the fish are all released.

“Doubles are much more common than triples or quads,” he adds. “Most of the quads we’ve landed have been in Costa Rica. It’s a short window to get that third and fourth fish to bite. It works, though.”

Mahoney says the family and friends team aboard Sea I Sea are serious about competing against professional crews. His anglers keep the rods in their hands constantly throughout the day, and they listen carefully to instructions.

“This style of fishing is a 100 percent group effort,” Mahoney says. “You need good mates to instruct the anglers. Everyone has to move rods around and over each other, riggers go up and down, teasers come in and out. We do it all as a team.”

Mahoney feels tackle choices are equally important. Sea I Sea uses light-weight Shimano Talica BFC 20-pound-class reels with high gear ratios for sailfish and white marlin. When targeting blues, they bump up to Shimano Tyrnos 30s, all on Blackfin stand-up rods.

“All of our outfits are as light as possible, with high retrieve rates. So the guys can hold the rods all day, catch the fish faster, and they aren't worn out, so they react quicker.”

Dave Ferrell

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Experience Counts

The adage “practice makes perfect” definitely applies when it comes to turning single bites into multiple releases. Patience and calm demeanors are key factors too. Fishing in areas with high concentrations of billfish helps perfect timing, coordination and other skills because of repetition. Pandemonium and nervousness diminish efficiency and hookup ratios.

“When it’s all going off, it’s best to stay calm. Celebrate afterwards,” Beckford says. “When you’re calmer, you pay more attention to the small things that are so important. That comes with experience, until it’s second nature. If you’re watching for the fish and standing right there by that rod, the odds of multiple hookups are much better.”

“My guys take it as seriously as they can,” Mahoney adds. “They fish hard and they listen, but they also enjoy the moments when we do have multiple fish on and use those opportunities to make memories. That’s the fun part.”

Bayliss agrees previous experience in billfish-rich waters like Quepos in Costa Rica, Isla Mujeres and the Dominican Republic sharpens the skill level, but it’s also balancing the playing field in tournaments.

“Those fisheries are all highly competitive, and 20- to 30-bite days are not uncommon several times each season. On the East Coast, one shot per day can be a big event,” he says. “So when you have that many opportunities at multiple shots, you relax. It’s an automatic response when the fish do show up. You learn more each time, you get better, you don’t panic. When you’re relaxed, you can take full advantage of more opportunities.

“All great anglers have spent time in these spots, where the fish really live,” he adds. “There is a lot of talent out there. But those of us who practice the art of multiple hookups are learning more each season. And that’s pushing us all to find any edge we can to get that one extra fish or two to put us over the top.”