Targeting Richards Bay marlin on thin line

[Originally published in the January 2021 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]

By Dale Leenstra
Photos by Claudia Blignaut

ALTHOUGH it’s not often touted as such, Richards Bay offers some of the best marlin fishing South Africa has to offer. Our peak season runs from November through to March, but we generally catch fish from September through to June when the conditions are good.
We are very fortunate to have such a long season as it gives us the opportunity to fish for them in different ways which keeps things interesting. I love to change things up and try new things all the time to try and improve my style of fishing, and use light tackle to target line class records.
The first time I headed out into the deep with four 30 lb outfits, it opened up a whole different dimension to fishing, and with it came a whole new set of challenges. Despite the challenges, I can assure you that it improves your fishing as a whole, from your tackle preparation all the way through to how you fight the fish.
At the start of every season my dad and I sit down and talk about what we would like to achieve in the coming months. There is a lot to consider as there is a big difference between targeting high numbers of fish and trying to catch line class records. Deciding in advance what you want to achieve gives you a very good idea of what to prepare and how to approach your days on the water.
We like to mix it up and try to do a bit of both; this means having all our gear ready to go as well as changing our game plan in the blink of an eye. I have two ways of going about it — the first is pulling hooked lures which is probably what everybody does, and the second is switch baiting.
When we started targeting records we decided the first line classes we would have a crack at were 10- and 15kg line because we could quite likely achieve a number of records with a very wide variety of species. We mainly target blue marlin, but at times we have good numbers of striped marlin and the occasional black, so there’s always a very good chance of hooking some species, but probably the biggest positive of using those light lines is that you also get opportunities at gamefish like dorado, wahoo and yellowfin tuna.
The gamefish you find out in the deep might not be as abundant as on the shallower reefs, but they often make up for it in size, and every now and then you get a shot at one that allows you to set the bar a bit higher than you would’ve been able to inshore.
I run a maximum of three or four lures at once, trying to put as little as possible in the water while trolling as this reduces the number of things that can go wrong. I am also very hesitant about running teasers, as the lures we use on the lighter lines are normally a lot smaller than our average spread.
At one stage I was pulling a very aggressive XXL lure tied off on the corner, but I found the fish sometimes got hung up on it and if we didn’t retrieve it in time they lost interest in the smaller lures running behind it. By taking it out of the water, you make sure that whatever comes up behind the boat has to eat what you have on offer. Unfortunately this has a down side to it too.
Off our coastline we don’t get many chances at fish weighing 600 lb and up, so when they come around you want to give yourself the best odds of catching them. Although it is possible to land them on thin line, this very often results in extremely long fights that normally end with the fish winning. For some reason the wind also always seems to be a couple of knots stronger than the areas to the north and south of us, and we fish rather rough conditions most days.
We always reserve the best weather days for record fishing to give ourselves the greatest chance of landing the fish, even if we only fish light for the morning and then change over to heavy tackle when the wind picks up and makes hooking and landing fish on thin line extremely difficult.
We keep our heavy tackle on standby so that a quick change over is always possible; it only takes a few minutes, and it means you can still fish effectively in rough conditions, especially if the fish are on the bite. The biggest problem is catching too many fish that are not big enough to be a record. We have always tried our best not to kill fish that we think could come up a couple of kilos short, and this meant we had to catch a lot of fish before we had the fish we were really after.
Although we had good success with the above-mentioned method, I felt the need to try to iron out as many problems as I possibly could. Personally I wanted to find a way to speed up the process of hooking the right size fish on the right line class, while also trying to improve on the numbers side of things.
This led to me doing a lot of research on switch baiting. I watched pretty much every video on the internet of blue marlin mauling teasers right up to the back of the boat only to crash a bait with the leader metres from the rod tip, and this fascinated me.

Dale Leenstra and Mike Leenstra preparing to release another marlin caught on light line.

I rig everything on the boats we fish on to be as simple as possible, because we are usually just a two-man team. That is a disadvantage, but my dad and I have built a very good level of trust and understanding between one another over the years and feel that we can work around it. Since I am no longer a junior, we have tried to improve our numbers game as well as fish for records selectively, and switch baiting allows us to do exactly that.
Until recently this style of fishing was unheard of around here and, as far as I was aware, nobody was trying it aside from professional crew and skippers who worked overseas. The thought of being able to experience what I had watched on our own boat with the very same fish we had been catching all those years was incredibly exciting. We had often spoken about the idea of trying pitch baiting, but never before fully investigated what it was all about.
Finally it was time to give it a try!
From the moment you set up the spread, you quickly realise it is going to take some time to wrap your head around the whole idea. You go from thinking about all the advantages to imagining every possible thing that can go wrong, and I guess that is only natural when you leave your comfort zone. After a bunch of missed fish, we soon realised that we needed to go back to the drawing board to re-look at what was going wrong and how we could overcome it.
The spread I run doesn’t change very much at all from one trip to the next; I like to run one or two lures with hooks in them on the longs which are on 80- to 130 lb outfits, and two hookless teasers on the shorts. The lures with hooks in them often act as trap sticks for fish that don’t switch or fish that come up further behind the boat when you raise them. I also fish with a dredge tied off about 6-8 metres behind the boat.
Whether you decide to fish light tackle or heavy tackle it makes no difference to your spread, as the baits you are going to use to hook most of the fish are in the boat. To me catching a fish of 1 000 lb-plus is the ultimate in big game fishing, so I make sure I have always got a 130 lb outfit ready to go with a big bait such as a small yellowfin, bonnie or skipjack rigged up.
This main rig is on standby come rain or shine; the rest of the rods we have on standby depend on what we are trying to do at the time. If we are mainly trying to catch records, I will have a wide variety of line classes rigged up, including a 6-, 8- and 10kg ready, along with the big bait.
I try to predetermine what we want to catch on each one; for example I will decide we’re looking for a stripey or small blue on 6kg, but nothing much bigger than 100kg. We’ll target a blue of 120-180kg on 8kg and a blue of 180-250kg on 10kg. By doing this you can identify the species and size of fish to the best of your ability and pitch the appropriate outfit to it.
The wide variety of species we find off Richards Bay also allows us to target fish like stripeys on very light line without running the risk of getting smoked by bigger blues. Obviously this can be difficult at times when you only have a second or two to make the call, so it is natural to make a mistake every now and then. However, if you get it right, you can have a shot at a record with most of the fish you raise.
The downside to this plan is that you end up losing a lot of fish. Once you have hooked it the most difficult part starts. Putting big fish on the deck using thin line is not easy, to say the least, and although the reward is extremely high when you get it right, there are many days where all you have to take home with you is a story about the one that got away.
Although I love the challenge of trying to outsmart and catch these fish on thin line, it can become a little bit demoralising because — let’s face it — it’s lekker to catch something every now and then. This has led me to the way we fish at the moment.
I try to mix the record fishing with numbers, and for now we are targeting the 10kg line blue marlin record. We are specifically trying to catch one over 200kg for a 20:1 catch ratio, which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t been done in South Africa.
Due to the size of fish we are looking for, we don’t get an opportunity to pitch the 10kg on a regular basis and a lot of fish are raised in between. For fish that don’t meet our predetermined requirements we keep our 80 lb medium and our 50 lb small outfits on standby. This allows us to catch fish consistently and still gives us a shot at the right size fish on our selected line class, making the record catching process a lot more enjoyable as it can take many days to get it right.
Advantages, like an increased hook-up ratio as well as being able to have full control over what eats your baits, far outweigh the disadvantages of switchbaiting, in my opinion, but they are sill worth mentioning.
One thing you will notice is the reduction in your bycatch. It is very difficult to switch fish like dorado, wahoo and yellowfin tuna, and I have had to watch a good couple of meals disappear without batting an eye at a bait.
Switchbait fishing is also a lot more work. When fishing you have to focus all your attention on your teasers so that you do not miss a bite. Rigging baits is also an added extra which can take up to an hour every morning before you start fishing. For me personally there is no looking back though.
I don’t believe that there is a right way or a wrong way of doing things, but there definitely is a way that will work for you on your boat, and this method has proved to be successful for us. I believe it’s important to pick up useful information from anybody you possibly can, whether it’s what to do or what not do, it doesn’t matter.
I hope that what I have shared will be food for thought for a few people this summer and will motivate them to try something different. There are very few anglers who actively target records in South Africa and I would love it to become a regular talking point among our fishing community as I feel competitiveness and a good challenge are critical to moving forward and improving personally.

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