Cabo Marlin Fishing - Tips for Catching Black Marlin in Los Cabos

Fishing for Black Marlin off Los Cabos, Mexico
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Black and blue marlin are the most targeted species on the Los Cabos tournament circuit. Big-dollar tourneys like the Bisbee’s Black & Blue attract a fleet of boats and an army of competitive anglers to Cabo every year in search of a winning fish. So, what’s it take to up your odds of landing a winner? A little knowledge, a lot of work and a little luck. I’ll try to help by passing on things I’ve learned about targeting black marlin in these fish-rich waters. Some of it comes from firsthand experience but I wouldn’t be able to teach you a thing if somebody – and in my case an armada of somebodies – didn’t share their wisdom with me first.

Unlike other marlin, blacks live only in the Pacific. They are considered by most marine biologists to be a continental shelf species – meaning that they tend to remain near landmasses and are unlikely to be found in open waters. Perhaps that characteristic contributes to the black marlin’s more deliberate nature. Black marlin are more likely to remain in a specific area for longer periods of time, move slower than a blue or a striper, and feed in a more methodical, systematic way. Like all marlin, they are opportunistic feeders but differ from the others in that they are known to consume loads of reef fish. Hunting areas of structure for grouper, snapper and other reef fish, the black develops more of a territorial personality. Blacks caught and released in one area are often caught again in the same spot weeks later.


Black Bart trolling lures available at Minerva's Baja Tackle
Trolling lures, like these beauties from Black Bart, are available at Minerva's Baja Tackle in downtown Cabo San Lucas.

Marlin fishing in Cabo San Lucas usually means trolling teasers to entice and casting bait to get bit. Although live bait accounts for more successful hook-ups, hook-ups on lures and dead bait are common. Dead bait is especially effective on blacks. The how and when to present both live and dead baits comes a little later. For starters, let’s set out a spread that does the job.

First and foremost is color when choosing lures that are effective on black marlin. Proper selection coupled with occasional changes can mean the difference between coming in with flags flying or being skunked. Remain flexible, if the colors you have out aren’t working, change them out one at a time letting a little time pass between one change and the next. For me, I usually start with a mix bleeding dorado patterns, black/white with blues/purples (skipjacks), and guacamayas – named after a breed of Macaw that sports feathers of red, blue, green and yellow.

Set your lures out in the proper positions using the wake waves as your guide. Run your stinger (the center of the spread) back to the sixth swell in the center of the wakes “vee.” Your long rigger should be placed back at the fifth swell, the short at the fourth. Use your corners too. Set the long corner to the third swell and the short corner to the second. Adjust each lure so that it’s on the front side of the wake, trust me, it makes a huge difference in the action. On the front of the swell, the lure pops and chugs without leaving the water. Park it on the back of the swell, and sure, it’ll pop and maybe chug but it’ll also get yanked right out of the water as swells come into play.

Pay attention to the “smoke” trail of each lure. They should leave a long trail and should break the surface well without leaving the water completely. That spray of water coming off the head of the lure is the single greatest factor in causing a reaction strike so ensure that each lure is running right. If it doesn’t look right, pull it in and make sure it’s not fouled in some way, fix the problem and send it back out.

Presetting and marking drag pressure on conventional fishing reels
Up your hook up ratio and lessen your chances of breaking off a fish by presetting drag pressure on your fishing reels. Colored electrical tape works great for making your own drag pressure scale, just make sure to use indelible ink that won't run when wet.

Drag pressure plays a critical role in hook-up ratios on trolled lures. I recommend setting them to about 12 pounds, a little less on the outriggers. In my experience, more hook-ups occur on light drag then heavy.

While playing the waiting game, keep a look out for tailers and have at least one, preferably two, pitch-bait rigs at the ready. When a strike occurs, be ready to cast baits back to where the strike took place. Missed strikes happen, but when they do, don’t give up on that fish! If you’ve had a knockdown but can’t see the fish, an effective method of enticing a second strike is to free spool the struck line for a ten count and twitch it sporadically while dumping line, switch back to striking pressure and crank, crank, crank!! The drop mimics injured prey, the twitch helps sell it, and the sudden retrieve can turn a mildly interested black into a wildly interested black. If the drop and crank doesn’t work, turn back towards the strike zone and get ready to cast bait.

A bridled skipjack or yellowfin tuna is like candy to a hungry marlin
If conditions are right and you're able to make bait, having a couple of live skipjack or small yellowfin tuna in the tuna tubes ready to present to a teased up marlin is wickedly effective. Video on bridling skipjack.

The first bait I send out blind, meaning we still haven’t spotted the marlin, is the dead bait. Cast it on the inside of your turn and leave it in free spool holding the line loosely between your fingers so that you can feel it get picked up or billed but can still let line spill off the reel. Once back to the fourth or fifth lure, return the drag to near-strike pressure. Let the dead bait float and dump throttle letting the boat drift for a moment before reengaging throttle. If you spot your quarry, cast the live bait in front of it while bringing in the dead but be ready to re-cast it to the fish as well. Blacks are deliberate feeders and may prefer the ease of picking up the dead bait as opposed to chasing down a livey. If you're fortunate enough to have a bridled skipjack or yellowfin on hand, slip it into the water and feed it back to the marlin if the fish is big enough for the bait.

Should no strike occur but you spot a marlin coming up the spread, drop back both a live and dead bait and try to put them right in it’s face. At times, marlin will come up mouths wide open and a seasoned angler can literally drop a bait back right down its throat. Dead bait is easier to position than live in this instance and are often jumped on, especially by blacks. We'll assume you're using a circle hook on your baits – if not, you should be – so don't worry about the fish swallowing the bait and getting gut hooked. Let her eat.... then slowly bring up your drag pressure and the circle hook will slide up her gullet and found a home in the corner of her mouth.

Once you’ve managed to hook your black, know that while blues are faster, blacks are stronger. Get on the fish fast, any opportunity to break its spirit early is welcome and should definitely be taken. Black marlin don’t have the tendency to go deep like a blue will, they prefer to stay at a depth of 100-150 yards when they do run down. At the most, expect them to go as deep as 300 yards but very rarely deeper. Get on the fish quickly taking every opportunity to bring it up to the surface – and work, work, work. You’ll most likely be rewarded with an awesome exhibition of power with jump after jump to quicken your pulse. Breaking a marlin’s spirit fast means more time for you to get another, a greater chance for a healthy release plus the added bonus of the spectacle of a close-in fish going airborne and putting on a show.

Using some of these techniques and armed with knowledge of the species, a recent trip with former Baja Sur Sport Fishing Commissioner, Oscar Dacarrett, rewarded our group with not one, but two black marlin. Joining us onboard was my partner, Dolores Peralta (who's now my wife) and Gladston Texeira - business associate and friend of Oscar. Captain Cesar and first mate Christopher manned the helm and the cockpit. Late September is traditionally one of the best times of the year for targeting blacks and that’s when this trip took place. With tackle prepared, a full tank of fuel and plenty of cold drinks, we set out on a course toward the Gordo Banks.

After reaching our destination, where 85 degree azure blue water met with a solid but not to speedy current, we set out our spread and marked the moment with a cold beer, the first sip sacrificed to the sea to pay homage to our prey. Moments later, a short strike on the long rigger triggered a scramble to the stern and the process of turning a knockdown into a hook-up began. Although the marlin that struck the lure was nowhere to be seen, the struck line was free-spooled, a ten count pause, and, you guessed it… crank, crank, crank! Although there was no immediate second strike, the rod now in its holder and back on the outrigger, no more than a minute or so passed whe we heard the sound we all love. ZZZZZZZZZ came the second strike on the same lure!

Black marlin photo by Bill Boyce
Black marlin can and will put on one heck of a show if you get on the fish quick and keep her up top like this one photographed by our friend, photo journalist Bill Boyce.

A strong hook set was made and the battle began. Once the first run stopped, immediate pressure was applied to the fish, pumping up and reeling down to get back spent line. Several runs later, with constant attention paid in order to take advantage of brief “breathers” taken by the black, it was now on the surface and leaping. Jump after jump followed by a straight-up vertical lunge right at the boat kept all onboard whooping and cheering. After an exciting 30 or so minutes, we had a 350 pound black marlin alongside the boat in great shape and ready for release. Caught, photographed and released, this beauty would live to fight many more battles for many more years.

Where there is one black there are often more. Our spread was reset and we were back on the troll within minutes and soon we had black number two hooked up. This one opted to go deep and remained so the for the majority of the fight with only one series of jumps to entertain us. Gladston had never caught a marlin, let alone a big black. He worked on this fish for over two hours and ultimately won the battle. A 300 pound plus black marlin fights like a horse and when it’s pushing 100 degrees with little or no breeze, you get hot, real hot. After landing our second black of the day, a jump overboard into the warm yet refreshing blue water was much earned. Hard work led to great fun and amazing memories.

A black marlin is revived prior to being released off of Los Cabos, Mexico
Properly reviving your black marlin prior to release will significantly increase its survival rate.

So, remember that not all marlin are created equal. Know how to adapt to each species and your success rate will climb. Keeping pressure on the fish makes for a shorter, more efficient battle. The angler’s strength is conserved and the marlin is much more likely to survive post release.