Blue Water
Blue Water

Switching baits on small boats - the answer for marlin?

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Al McGlashen
January 2007

Many anglers believe that switch baiting is a technique that is restricted to big game boats, yet as Alistair McGlashan explains with a bit of flexibility it can be just as effective from a trailer boat.

When it comes to catching billfish few techniques are as successful as switch baiting. This is particularly so in this day and age where fish stocks are in a constant state of depletion and as the fish get thinner on the ground, anglers are being forced to travel further, and work harder, to get into the action.

Now, of all the billfish techniques, live baiting is arguably the most effective, however because you have to troll the baits so slowly it is impossible to cover much ground. So unless you are right on the spot then you are in trouble and chances are you will go home empty handed. Lure trolling, on the other hand, is a lot faster so you get to cover a lot more ground, but the inherent problem with lures is that they offer a frustratingly low hook-up rate. This is especially so on striped marlin which are notoriously messy eaters.

Switch baiting takes the bests of worlds, maximizing the amount of ground you cover as well as delivering high hook-up rates. Trolling at a comfortable 6 to 8 knots you cover lots of water but when a fish appears you pitch it a bait which dramatically improves your chances of a hook-up. So all in all the more ground you cover, the more fish you see and then you top it off with a high hook-up rate!

Striped marlin are made for switch baiting, which is great news considering they have a very poor hook up rate on lures.


A lot of anglers don’t switch bait because they think it is too complicated and hard to master. This is especially the case for trailer boats who, without the aid of tuna towers or fly bridges, struggle to see the fish as easily as a big game boat. Now, while this is certainly true it is by no means a technique restricted to big boats. It is simple a matter of refining the techniques to suite a trailer boat.

There is no doubt that the key factor to successful switch baiting for billfish is being alert and spotting the fish as soon as it enters the spread. Sure, with the edition of height a big game boat will do it easier, however it is simply a matter of being innovative and changing the technique to suit your own boat.

Without a tower all you need to do is run your hookless lures right up short, which will instantly give you a better view into the water even when standing on the deck of a trailer boat. In my 5.5 metre Honda- powered centre console I can perch myself on the gunwale and hang onto the console which instantly gives me a substantial height advantage over standing on the deck. It is a similar situation in a 6 metre fiberglass cuddy cabin. You can stand on the gunwale and hang on to the rocket launcher, or if your boat has a sturdy hard top you can actually sit on the roof.

Some anglers feel that the boat scares the fish and that is why they prefer to run their teasers further back, however I can assure you that that is a complete fallacy. Billfish are apex predators and have no fear of boats, in fact in most cases it is the boat that initially attracts them. This is particularly so when you use four-stroke outboards and since I have upgraded to my beloved Honda 90hp I have seen a distinct increase in the number of fish I have encountered.

Switch baiting is all about team work. Do it right and hooking up is kids play!


When it comes to a question of what to troll the answer is to keep it simple. Some anglers seem to be obsessed with running just about everything they own, in the belief that the more things splashing about in the water the greater the chance of raising a fish.

In reality I don’t think this helps at all, in fact it does the opposite in a lot of cases. The big problem is that the more stuff you throw out the back the more confusing it is for the fish to zero in on one. To make matters worse you then have to get everything in before you can pitch a bait and for this to happen you are going to need a lot of hands on deck, which is impossible in the confined spaces of a trailer boat.

In a small boat there is no need to tow everything you own, instead the best approach is to troll two of your favourite lures. My preferences are Hollowpoint Kona Killa, Meridian Demons or more recently a Black Bart Hot Breakfast, but to be honest most lures will do the job.

When it comes to actually trolling there are a couple of things you need on your side when switch baiting from a small boat, most important of which is sunlight. The sun will make it much easier to identify a fish, which incidentally usually show up as a brownish colour with electric blue pectoral fins. Try and plan your troll so that you are driving towards the sun in the

morning and afternoon, which will give you the best vision. On overcast days where there is a lot of glare it is all but impossible to see a fish from a small boat unless the fish actually breaks the surface. A bit of a breeze, say 10 knots, is also handy, but if it is rougher than say 25 knots then it is not only uncomfortable but also very difficult to switch bait properly from a small boat.

A solid marlin does its best to throw a dead mackerel, which it nailed after rising up to the teasers.


Switch baiting is a very active style of fishing that requires teamwork and precise timing to be successful. In most cases you need three or four people on board to get everything to run smoothly. As a basic rule I always designate everyone a specific job to ensure everything runs effortlessly - one person drives, two people work the teasers and finally one person feeds the bait back. To be honest it takes a bit of practice because everyone needs to work in unison and if someone doesn’t then you are going to miss fish. It may sound silly but we often rehearse our roles while it is quiet!

In a small boat space is of the essence so don’t take heaps of rods out on a trip, instead just take three or four. Now, if you are really serious about switching them you should buy purpose-built teaser rods, however in my mind they are over priced (well at least for a low paid fishing journo like me) for a rod that has no guides. Instead I just substitute two of my game rods which actually work quiet well.

I should also add that it isn’t just the rods you need to keep to a minimum. Space is very valuable in a small boat and it is imperative that you keep the deck clear because when the action starts anything lying around will become a problem. So clean up before you hit the water and make sure you have a place for everything.

In a small boat space is of the essence, so clean up before you hit the water.


When you finally do raise a fish you have two options – you can pitch either live or dead bait. Now both work, but the techniques employed vary greatly and it is important to understand the differences.

A live bait has the added advantage of actively swimming so it will attract the fish without any help from the angler. With this in mind I have found that as soon as you raise a fish all you have to do is crank the teasers in and then feed the livie back to get a bite in most cases.

The bait’s nervous behaviour will quickly draw the attention of the already excited billfish. The downside is that the livies are often too quick when they hit the water and have a habit of escaping the rampaging billfish in the prop wash. In most cases a tired or half dead bait is more effective than a fresh lively one!

On the other hand dead baits need to be ‘worked’ to entice the fish into biting. You also need to spend more time stitching up baits to ensure they can be towed as well as standing up to the rigors of a marlin attack, so there is a lot more angler involvement with dead baits. Although there is definitely a real art to stitching a bait, you can get away with a quick ‘stitch up’ where you simply stitch up the mouth and then attach the circle hook via a long bridle. Yes I know it is slack, but it still works a treat.

The best dead baits I have found are garfish (piper), small bonito or tuna. When fresh these baits are tough and can withstanding skipping over the surface as well as a billfish bite. Most importantly there isn’t a billfish alive that can refuse one as it splashes enticingly across the surface.

Few things will give an adrenalin rush like hooking up a marlin right at the back of the boat.

When using dead baits you actively have to tease the fish in then switch it over to the skip bait. There are a few tricks you can employ to simplify the process. Firstly work out how far back you will make the switch, which is usually around 5 to 10 metres back. The bait is placed on the gunwale (under a wet towel to keep it fresh) then the exact amount off line is stripped of the reel and trails along behind in the wake.

When a fish is teased up the bait is simply dropped over the side and starts skipping at the predetermined distance. Unlike livies where you just throw the bait in, with dead baits you need to really work the teasers and actually as the bait slips into position, you rip the teasers out of the water so there is nothing else to distract the fish’s attention. On top of this the angler needs to keep the rod tip high to ensure the bait skips enticingly.

To maximise my chances of getting a fish these days I usually employ both techniques. With a chilly bin full of rigged dead baits I always load up on a dozen livies before heading out to sea. Out on the water I normally pitch the dead bait first but then if we have no interest a livie is quickly deployed and we work over the immediate area. It is amazing how often this produces a bite. I should also add that I only use circle hooks which give me the highest hook up rate.

Switch baiting is all about timing and preparation – having everything set and ready will allow you to maximise your opportunities.


Switch baiting is all about being alert and reacting quickly. It certainly isn’t a technique for the bloke who just wants to go out and drag a few lures around while emptying the chilly bin. Instead you have to work as a team to convert every opportunity into a fish. Seeing a marlin race in after a teaser only to scoff down your bait right beside your outboard is undoubtedly one of the most exciting ways to catch a billfish, so go and give switch baiting a try!

Luke Hogan is all smiles after successfully nailing this little black marlin.

Deep diving option

There is no argument about the fact that marlin trolling can be a long a boring affair before a fish turns up. So to keep the troops entertained I often run a big Halco Laser Pro underneath the teasers. Not only does this lure draw strikes from mahimahi, tuna and other fish to keep everyone alert but it also acts as an additional teaser helping to attract the billfish. Having said that as soon as a fish enters the spread this needs to be the first lure you get in!

The author’s centre console can still be used successfully to switch bait.
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