Beating the odds in South African waters

[Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]
By Capt. Ryan Williamson

AFTER many years of successfully targeting billfish along the southeast coast of Africa, from Cape Town to Kenya, I have analysed the four basic methods of directly targeting the blue-, black- and striped marlin found in these waters.
These methods are:
Live bait trolling;
Dead bait swimming or skipping;
Pitch baiting; and
Trolling with konas.
All of the above are proven methods that have been used across the world wherever these top predators are found. Each method has its dedicated proponents who swear their method produces the most and/or biggest specimens. Arguments unfold during discussions between marlin charter captains as well as among recreational ski-boat marlin anglers who primarily fish the marlin-rich waters of the north KwaZulu-Natal coast.
Fishing around the Cape Verde and Great Barrier Reef islands for a few seasons prior to the onset of Covid-19, provided me with a great deal more hands-on experience on the water. It also gave me ample opportunity to debate at length with a great number of the world’s top marlin captains who ply their trade at these two premier destinations. These conversations have firmed up much of what I’d already concluded.
My current thinking when it comes to targeting marlin in South Africa and Moçambique, especially the Bazaruto archipelago is this: Look at the odds — the strike to release ratio — of these four basic methods as they have been recorded during the last five years, then decide not only which method you are going to adopt but also which gives you the greatest amount of pleasure.
From experience, my opinion of the ratios of raised billfish to the release of hooked fish for each of the different methods is as follows:
Live bait trolling: 60%
Dead bait trolling or skipping: 50%
Pulling konas: 30%
Pitch baiting: 70%
No doubt there will be differing opinions, but I am basing these percentages on South African and southern African experiences, and accept that if one only has one pull on a live bait, for example, and the marlin is released at the boat it’s 100%. If you experience a pack attack of stripeys and go 3:2:1 the ratio is 33% but a lot more excitement will be experienced for the same final score of one marlin released.
If you consider the options I detail below, and take cognisance of my suggested success percentages, then you can make an educated decision on what style of marlin fishing suits you personally.
In other words, if sheer numbers of marlin released is not your goal, then select the method that provides you with the most enjoyable day at sea.

Most of those who targeted marlin off Sodwana Bay in the late ’70s and ’80s under the influence of the Sodwana Gamefish Club targeted marlin almost exclusively with live bait — bonito, skip jack and small yellowfin tuna — bridled to a 12/0, 14/0 or 16/0 tuna hook attached to 400- or 600 lb nylon leaders.
There haven’t been huge changes to the techniques of live baiting, swim or skip baiting except for tweaking the rigging of baits, the quality of circle hooks available today and different bridle techniques on rigging live baits.
In the early days J-hooks were used; this produced a huge number of fish hooked in the belly sack, and resulted in numerous lost fish when the hooks tore out. Circle hooks then took over, mainly to ensure the safe release of fish, but they also resulted in a better hook-up ratio.
The down side to using live bait is, of course, the need to catch the live bait desired first thing in the morning. In the early days luna tubes were not available, so in essence one caught, say, two live baits, rigged them and then started trolling for marlin.
The major downside was targeting live bait in the backline, rigging them and trolling slowly straight out to sea through Shark Alley to the 100 fathom contour which the skippers all believed the big black marlin liked to frequent. If the slow-trolled live baits got taken by sharks, one had to up lines and return to the shallow waters to look for more live bait.
Catching more live bait was difficult, and if no more live bait could be caught skippers would revert to rigging a dead bait to slow troll.
The vast majority of marlin taken during that period were black marlin, some of which were really big fish. The biggest at the time was a 938 lb black landed on Piet Joubert’s Bonito and a black of 927 lb landed on Erwin Bursik’s Sea Lord. A good number of black marlin in the 200- to 600 lb class were landed, but very few in excess of 700 lb.
After losing their live baits or dead baits, boats tended to pull the odd lure during the ride home, occasionally landing a striped- or blue marlin. The biggest blue marlin caught during this era was, I think, a blue of about 170 lb caught on Clive Taylor’s boat, Kaydee.
The only single minded marlin angler during that era was Piet van Dyk, an ex-Kenyan, who only trolled Kenyan-style lures from his craft Yellowfin deep off Jesser Point, and accounted for a significant number of striped marlin.
If we look at the hook-up ratio on live bait trolling and skip baiting, I would say that with experienced crew and captains catching a number of fish you’re looking at the 60% mark.
When we look at live bait fishing, a lot depends on the size and strength of the bait. If a small fish eats a big bait the hook up can be difficult. Live yellowfin make fantastic baits and are exceptionally strong, but sometimes when the marlin is chasing the bait it can get wrapped up in the leader or get a bad grip on the bait.
When it comes to skip baiting, once again you may have a small fish come in on a big bait and battle to eat it.
The biggest problem when fishing for black marlin, from my experience fishing on the Great Barrier Reef and at Bazaruto, is that they have really strong jaws with very sharp bristles on the corner of their mouth and bill, which makes it difficult for the leader to slide into the mouth and for the circle hook to set in the corner.
In my opinion skip bait fishing and live bait fishing are the best when targeting black marlin. These two techniques are used in areas where black marlin congregate, such as the Great Barrier Reef, Bazaruto and Sodwana Bay, and where fishing is in shallow water with underwater sea structure. However, when you’re targeting striped- and blue marlin in open water with no structure, this type of fishing cannot compete with lure fishing.

Examples of bait used with a chugger fitted to the front to create a smoke trail.

As I intimated, in the early days this method of fishing was a last resort if live bait could not be secured, but a number of the founder members of Sodwana Gamefish Club had fished Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and brought back with them the know-how to rig dead baits for both swimming and skipping.
With this style, outriggers were deemed essential equipment on a ski-boat. Some weird and wonderful outriggers were made and fitted which, when paired with the original homemade fighting chairs, made the ski-boats of that era into marlin boats!
Again a number of great black marlin were landed using this Aussie-style of targeting these mighty fish.
Securing dead bait in sufficient quantities prior to the November competition at Sodwana Bay was a major exercise due to the lack of pelagic baitfish found off Durban during the end of the cold water season. Big shad, small Natal snoek, the odd bonito and even rainbow trout were frozen, the latter by the Griqualand Gang, and transported to Sodwana Bay in order to supplement locally caught baitfish while at this venue.
Some very strange dead bait rigs were fashioned based on information in angling books and magazines that purported to describe how to rig dead baits for marlin.
Paradise Island rigs used by the small fleet of slow marlin charter boats operating off Bazaruto Island also featured in the local arsenal back then. At the time, that was the only affordable marlin fishing destination for South Africans who aspired to catch a mighty black marlin. The waters around Santa Carolina also played a very important role in inducing those who fished there to bring back the system of baiting which was very productive.
From the mid ’60s to 1973, before the onset of the civil war in 1974, this fishery was producing some incredible black marlin and a fair number of granders were caught by South African and Rhodesian anglers. The biggest of these was a 1 109 lb fish caught by Monty Smith of Durban in 1973.
With all this success, it’s not surprising that the style of tackle and bait rigging that proved so successful off Bazaruto Island found its way to Sodwana Bay.

A typical pitch baiting and lure spread pulled by Ryan Williamson.

This style of fishing was being punted by many marlin anglers around the world in the 1970s and began to find its way into the arsenal of anglers targeting marlin off South Africa.
My father, John Williamson, eventually became a worldwide authority on this, producing his range of Williamson Lures from his plastics factory in Durban. He and his great friend Gary Maas persisted with pulling lures in the deep waters off Durban on their boats Allure and Carpetbagger.
While travelling extensively across the globe selling his lures, my father accumulated incredible knowledge regarding the ballooning practice of trolling plastics for marlin. As a very young boy I crewed for him and not only learnt the practices of pulling lures, but also developed an intense love for marlin fishing.
Heading into the 1980s, the Sodwana fleet of ski-boats began to increase exponentially. The 17- to 19ft ski-boats so prevalent in that era were replaced with trailerable craft up to 10 metres long, rigged specifically for targeting marlin. These craft, adorned with imported stayed outriggers and fighting chairs, as well as those manufactured in South Africa to international standards, have become the order of the day off Sodwana Bay and latterly Richards Bay as well. Why? Because if you want to effectively pull big konas, you need a big boat that’s able to maintain a relatively constant speed over water.
“Pulling plastic” has produced some incredible catches of marlin both in number and size. In November 1998, Johnny Harel landed a black marlin of 1 300lb off Bazaruto Island on a lure, and it is still the current All Africa record.
Then, in 2002, Hennie Seaman caught a grander blue marlin of 1 113 lb (the first in South African waters) on Francois Erasmus’s craft, Big Time, and in 2007 Lappies Labuschagne caught a grander blue of 1 171 lb on his own boat, Black Magic.
A big shift in this style of fishing was the change in species caught from black marlin to blue- and striped marlin.
In the ’90s when I was fishing with my father and Gary, striped marlin were abundant. I remember on our best day we released four from 17 raised, and had many other days of raising five to eight fish and releasing one or two.
In the beginning the boats ran big lures (13- to 16 inches), but over time changed to smaller lures (9- to 12 inches). That improved the number of fish caught, but there were still too many fish lost. We all remember the good days — for instance fishing in Richards Bay we went six for seven in a day — but I have also had days where we have gone nought for five on lures.
Even in the ’90s there was a lot of talk of drag setting, type of hooks, open gauge, closed gauge, double stiff rigs, single stiff rig, double semi, 190 degrees or 90 degrees, chain gang etc. You name it we tried it, and along the way we caught some fish and lost some.
This debate continues, and still today I hear of different rigs and theories. International and local skippers will never tire of discussing the “perfect” hook rig.
If we look at the stats of professional captains around the world who have hooked hundreds and hundreds of marlin, at the end of the day an excellent catch ratio for lures is 50%.
On the east coast of Africa the diversity and differing sizes of marlin, makes it very difficult to decide on the best rig. For instance, when targeting stripeys, running small lures with 8/0 hooks definitely will increase your hook ups on small fish, but unfortunately the next bite could be a 700 lb blue or black and there’s a high probability of losing that fish on smaller hooks and leaders.
This makes it extremely difficult to standardise your lure size and hook rigs as opposed to when you’re fishing in Madeira, for example, where most fish are blues over 400 lb, so it’s a lot easier to decide on your lure size, hook size and leader thickness.
One good thing about this style of targeting marlin is that a skipper can set his spread directly after exiting the backline and immediately start marlin fishing. Marlin are so close in off Sodwana that during the major competitions the strike call ups begin even before the last boats have launched.
This is, of course, also the easiest way to target marlin. Once the spread is set, everyone aboard can virtually sit back and relax and wait for the action.

Ryan Williamson leadering another beauty.

The latest trend and, in my opinion, the most incredibly exciting way of fishing for marlin is pitch baiting. It’s the one form of marlin angling that leaves no time for anybody on a boat to snooze. The captain, crew and anglers have to remain incredibly attentive as there is so much that has to happen when a fish comes up to the dredge.
As the skipper of Smoker in Cape Verde, I practice the art of switch baiting, as do many other top level skippers. So why is the international marlin fleet moving to pitch baiting?
The excitement of teasing in a fired-up marlin to position it for the switch is something skippers and crew live for. There’s an explosive bite on the pitch just a few metres in front of you, and the angler holding the rod has to be on high alert after the bite, controlling the free spool, then pushing up the drag and setting the circle hook in the corner of the marlin’s mouth as the fish explodes out of the water.
Nothing can come close to pitch baiting for marlin in terms of excitement — and the 85% success rate on landing the fish! This high success rate is the reason tournament boats and professional captains around the world are using this technique.
When we look at percentages, we look at an entire season. During my last season in Cape Verde we fished 98 days and released 132 blue marlin. Thirty percent of these fish were caught on lures and 70% on the pitch bait.
For my spread we fish two lures on the longs with hooks in, two teasers on the shorts, and a dredge. The reason 70% of the fish are caught on the pitch is purely because of the dredge bringing the fish closer to our short teasers which is exactly what we want.
Some skippers do not run any lures with hooks in them, they just run four teasers and tease the fish in from the longs and pitch to them. However, I would not suggest this method unless you have more than two experienced crew who can tease the fish in from the longs.
Let’s look at some comparisons. With traditional lure fishing if you hook 100 fish, 50% will be landed = 50 fish.
When pitch baiting with lures on the longs, if you get the same 100 fish bites, and 30% are caught on lures with hooks, 50% landed = 15 fish. The other 70% of those 100 fish are caught on the pitch, and 85% landed = 59.5 fish.
Remember, the spread of lures and dredges you are pulling will raise you the same number of fish. The difference is that if you’re pitching to the 70% of fish teased in on your shorts, you will increase your landed fish percentage by 35% which is a large number.
When I discussed pitch baiting with fellow marlin anglers in South Africa, the feedback was generally negative. “Our fish are not like fish in Cape Verde; they’re not that aggressive,” was one comment. “We don’t have enough fish so it won’t work,” I was told.
A couple of years back Gary Prentice (skipper of Goloza) and I, in a joint venture, built and launched a boat — Pulsator. She was designed for fishing Bazaruto, but thanks to Covid, things changed. Fortunately Gary had an open mind and suggested we fish the 2020 Billfish 15 000 tournament using the technique of pitch baiting.
We rigged the boat up with two lures on the longs with hooks, and ran two teasers and a dredge — the same spread I fish with in Cape Verde.
We managed to get some quality bait and rigged up three pitch rods. The big pitch was a 80 lb rod and reel with 130 lb line and a bonito for bait. The medium pitch was a 50 lb rod and reel with 80 lb line and mackerel for a bait. Our small pitch was a 30 lb rod and reel with 50 lb line, and a halfbeak as bait.
Our six-man team ran through the drills — what pitch rod to pitch when a fish came up on the teasers, as well as who was bringing in the dredge. We were waxed and ready to go! We went four for five and managed to win the 2020 Billfish 15 000! After the tournament we fished some more days in the marlin season, then entered the 2021 OET and Billfish 15 000 tournaments. We battled to raise fish in the OET, but in the Billfish we went four for four and came in second.
Looking at the stats for 25 days fishing out of Sodwana Bay, when it came to lures on the long with hooks, we were six for 13. Black-, blue- and striped marlin were in the mix.
On the pitch, we were 17 for 17 with blue marlin, black marlin and sailfish, and nought for one on spearfish.
One has to remember that essentially, you are pulling a four-lure spread in the water and a dredge, so by using switch baiting we are not doing anything different in the way we raise fish.
The spread is the same whether you have hooks in the lures or not. The only difference is that by using a dredge, for 70% of our bites the fish will come up to our short teasers, which is exactly what we want so that we can tease the fish in and switch the correct size tackle and bait to the fish to ensure a hook up and a released/landed fish.
If we look at the numbers above from Pulsator in Sodwana and compare them to my last season on Smoker in Cape Verde, you can see the numbers are very similar. Obviously, the more days you fish the more accurate a percentage you’ll get.
After observing hundreds of marlin in Cape Verde, and their behaviour as we tease them in and switch them, and then fishing the same method in Sodwana, I can confirm there is absolutely no difference in the behaviour of the fish in our waters — some are super aggressive, and some are a little more shy.
In closing, if anyone is interested in learning the art of switch baiting, please contact me on 082 490 7622 and join me for some fishing in Cape Verde or Sodwana Bay.

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