Anatomy of The Bait and Switch

There is nothing in the world more exciting than bait and switch marlin fishing. It can change your life… literally. This is how it works. 

by Elliott Stark

Raising a marlin or sailfish on a teaser is perhaps the best thing in fishing. The only thing more exciting than seeing a dark shadow appear beneath the teaser—bashing it mercilessly with its bill—is what happens next. This sight sets into motion a choreographed cockpit dance that takes place between the captain, mates and anglers on the boat.

The Teaser– The Bait

A Dark Shadow Appears

Something appears on the teaser that was not there before. It may be a shadow, a swirl, a splash or take the form of a head and bill.

If the fish is on the flat line, it is the mate that withdraws the teaser. If the fish is accosting the bridge teaser, the captain wraps it in, hand over hand, closer to the boat. Regardless who is directing the teaser, the goal is to draw the fish closer to the boat and into position to see and consume the hooked pitch bait that is to come.

The Dance– The Switch

Deploying the pitch baits. Photo courtesy Dr. Matt Holcomb.

Now, up steps the angler. Depending on where the fish is in the spread the angler will deploy a pitch bait that has been awaiting just such an occasion. The pitch bait might be in a tube off of the fighting chair or sometimes sit rigged and waiting in the bait cooler. The angler must deploy the bait so that it navigates the spread without tangling the lures and teasers in the water.

The Bite

The bite. Photo courtesy Dr. Matt Holcomb.

Free spooling the pitch bait into position, the angler listens instructions or updates from the captain. The captain’s vantage point is higher– he has a better view of the action. In addition, his eyes will be trained for this.

“Here it comes, be ready!” or “Left long…. There he is… Coming on you!” Sometimes the updates are less certain… “I don’t see him! Be ready… there he is!”

If the fish is a big one, this interplay is all the more exciting. The words exchanged by parties in this case may not be suitable for printing. Exchanges and exhortations are thrust in the heat of the moment—excitement makes poets out of some; it makes sailors out of others. There is nothing in the world more exciting than a big fish in the spread.

The Hook Up

After free spool, it is time to engage the reel. Photo courtesy Dr. Matt Holcomb

When the angler gets the bait into position—in a spot in front of the fish, in place where the fish’s vision is not obscured by aeration from the boat’s wake—the mate or captain snatches the teaser completely out of the way.

If the teaser was a flat line, the position of the bite will be close to the transom of the boat. If the pursuit is billfish on the fly, the fish will be teased all the way up to the boat—no matter where the pursuit started.

Nothing better illustrates the TBF Experience than the bait and switch. For more on the TBF Experience, read this

A marlin is not accustomed to being toyed with. It is the apex of its domain. When it comes into the spread—intent to attack and ready to eat, it uses its bill to kill and stun. Under normal circumstances whatever hapless creature it accosts is maimed or killed…

What is this rubber thing that does not die, but continues chugging through the water at eight knots? Rather than being confused, a hot fish will seem mad. It continues blasting the teaser, chomping and whacking it.

Sometimes the fish will disappear beneath the water, only to resurface for another attack—sometimes on the same teaser, sometimes on the opposite side of the spread. Sometimes it will fade off and disappear all together. The unpredictability of bait and switch fishing is part of its charm.

The Jump

Upon encountering resistance the marlin is likely to come out of the water. Photo courtesy of Dr. Matt Holcomb.

When all goes according to plan the aggression of the fish transfers to the pitch bait. When it all goes like it should it is the circle hook-rigged mackerel, ballyhoo or small tuna that takes the brunt of the attack. A crashing, shoulders-out-of-the-water assault on a pitch bait takes your breath away.

Those experiencing the speed, ferocity and sheer awesomeness of a bait and switch marlin bite for the first time are unlikely to be able to process what they are seeing—let alone successfully navigate how to hook the creature without backlashing their reel. For most people—if you are fortunate enough to experience this sight more than once—it takes several iterations before they can successfully participate. Most first timers are rapt, rendered temporarily unable to process what they are seeing.

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When the fish eats the pitch bait, it is time for the drop back. The angler’s job now is to give the fish time to mouth and consume the bait—free from interference. Too much force exerted on the line by a thumb or finger and the jig is up, the fish likely to feel something out of place and turn loose of the bait.

Too little guidance on the reel—or if the reel or rod find themselves out of position—and the reel backlashes. A backlash is likely to result not only in a broken line and lost fish, but some heckling from the rodsman’s buddies.

If it is a run of the mill fish, the hard time will be in the form of jokes. If something goes wrong on a good one—a marlin of the full grown variety—is likely to haunt the angler’s dreams. In this case, his friends are not likely to say anything for a while.

The Tag and Release

John Richardson applies a TBF tag to a 450 pound blue marlin caught aboard the Picaflor, Richardson’s 42 Merritt, in Panama. Photo courtesy Dr. Matt Holcomb.

When it all goes right with the bait and switch, however, the five or seven seconds of free spool gives the fish time to consume the bait. Engaging the reel’s lever drag then stops the flow line into the water and allows the circle hook to work its way into the corner of the fish’s mouth. The rod doubles over and drag engages as line spills into the water.

It is likely as not that the fish will now jump. Hang on and enjoy… don’t forget to breathe. This is the most exciting thing in fishing. The anatomy of a bait and switch culminates in the bite. It can be a life changing experience.

The blue marlin sequence above was photographed in Panama on the Picaflor, a 42′ Merritt owned by John Richardson. Photos courtesy of Dr. Matt Holcomb.

About the author:

Elliott Stark is a consultant for The Billfish Foundation. He publishes FishTravelEat.com and operates Starkfish LLC, a consulting practice active in the fishing, conservation and tourism spaces. Elliott started his career with TBF from 2008-2012. He has fished on four continents, contributes to a number of publications, and would rather fish than eat.