The art of live-bait­ing for Gulf Coast blue mar­lin

By Jim Cox

A blue mar­lin weigh­ing 899.6 pounds on Cot­ton Patch won the 2015 Emer­ald Coast Blue Mar­lin Clas­sic. A year later, an 806.8-pound blue on You Never Know won the 2016 Blue Mar­lin Grand Cham­pi­onship. In 2017, the heav­i­est blue mar­lin weighed only 654.2 pounds, yet it helped Capt. Jeff Shoults cap­ture the Gulf Coast Triple Crown for his team on Mol­lie. Each of these qual­ity Gulf of Mex­ico tour­na­ment fish had one thing in com­mon: They were all caught on live bait. The only thing more im­pres­sive than the size of these fish was the size of the checks that were cashed.

Live-bait­ing for blue mar­lin is not a new tech­nique. In Hawaii, there is a rich his­tory of pulling lures for big blues, but cap­tains there have been us­ing live bait there for decades, long be­fore lure­fish­ing be­came pop­u­lar. In fact, live-bait­ing is well doc­u­mented through­out the Pacific and else­where in the world.

But how has this tech­nique gone from be­ing some­thing you would oc­ca­sion­ally hear about on the docks a few years ago to the hottest method for win­ning tour­na­ments in the Gulf of Mex­ico to­day? The an­swer lies in the abun­dance of oil and nat­u­ral­gas plat­forms found through­out the re­gion.


“All of us have used live bait, dat­ing all the way back to the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s,” says Capt. Johnny Dor­land, of Cot­ton Patch, from Orange Beach, Alabama. “The dif­fer­ence was just that there were no rigs back then for us to eas­ily catch bait.”

Back in the early days, live-bait­ing was a tech­nique of op­por­tu­nity. Boats trolling on a rip or weed line would see a blue mar­lin feed­ing on the sur­face, then catch and rig up a small mahi be­fore slow-trolling it along the line. Long­time cap­tains have shared sto­ries of suc­cess­ful mar­lin catches us­ing this tac­tic, but they were few and far be­tween. There was no way to keep the bait alive for long ei­ther.

In the 1980s, a weather buoy was in­stalled around an area known as the Steps, about 60 miles from Orange Beach. Shoults, from Destin, Florida, says it was the first place that al­ways held a good con­cen­tra­tion of bait. “We could tar­get blue mar­lin con­sis­tently us­ing live baits there, but even so, it was noth­ing like how we do it to­day,” he says.

The lack of lo­ca­tions to catch bait wasn’t the only hin­drance for cap­tains be­fore rigs be­came abun­dant. “We didn’t have tuna tubes back then ei­ther,” says Dor­land. “If we did catch a small tuna, we had to im­me­di­ately bri­dle it up. We had no way to keep small tu­nas alive on the boat.”


But the game has changed to­day. There are hun­dreds of oil and gas rigs that hold in­cred­i­ble amounts of bait, and tuna tubes are as com­mon­place on Gulf Coast boats as out­rig­gers. When live-bait­ing started to catch on years ago, cap­tains be­gan equip­ping their boats with four to six of these tubes in or­der to hold bait. The learn­ing curve was quick; cap­tains fig­ured out a hand­ful of tubes was just enough to hold a few baits, but it could be frus­trat­ing when you quickly ex­hausted your bait sup­ply and had to reload.

To­day, most boats are set up to han­dle a dozen or more live baits with high-ve­loc­ity aer­at­ing pumps, which not only keep the bait alive but just as frisky as when they were first caught. The tubes are made of PVC and painted black on the in­side to help calm the oc­cu­pant. Baits are placed nose down, with hun­dreds of gal­lons of oxy­gen-rich wa­ter flow­ing through their gills. Mod­ern tuna tubes are a game changer.

Also rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent to­day is the range and speed of tour­na­ment sport-fish­ers that now rou­tinely run as much as 250 to 300 miles one way in search of their pre­ferred bait and a tour­na­men­twin­ning blue mar­lin.

“Jason Buck, on Done Deal, was re­ally the live­bait pi­o­neer,” says Shoults. “He was the first one to leave the dock with a plan to run a cou­ple of hun­dred miles just to start fish­ing. He would re­fuel, catch bait and he had the boat set up to keep his bait alive. Done Deal caught a lot of big fish, and won a lot of money do­ing it. Af­ter that, ev­ery­one took no­tice.”


Even af­ter all the suc­cess of the Done Deal team, the tran­si­tion to live-bait­ing for many cap­tains was not an easy one. Long­time Gulf of Mex­ico skip­per Capt. Joe Bir­beck, on You Never Know, was one of many who were slow to come around. The idea of cir­cling an oil rig all day at just 2 knots didn’t sound like time well spent to him. “I felt like I didn’t have the pa­tience for it,” he says. “I just kept think­ing about all the blue mar­lin I had caught on lures or pitch baits; it had to be 100-to-1 com­pared to live bait.”

And Bir­beck isn’t alone. A slow day pulling lures is more en­joy­able than a slow day of live-bait­ing. When the bites are few and far be­tween, it is a painfully slow day on the wa­ter. With the plas­tics out, the boat is mov­ing along nicely, you are cov­er­ing lots of wa­ter, there is a cool­ing breeze and also the chance of hook­ing a bonus wa­hoo, dol­phin, white mar­lin or sail­fish while on the troll. Those fish aren’t go­ing to eat a 20-pound blackfin at 2 knots. But few teams are in­ter­ested in a mixed bag dur­ing a tour­na­ment when one bite can be worth

sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars.

“You are fish­ing for one fish, the big­gest blue mar­lin at the rig,” says Dor­land. “Your crew has to un­der­stand that.” The mind­set has changed so much that Bir­beck now says he has to give him­self and his crew a pep talk when they switch back over to ar­ti­fi­cial lures, which they still do at times dur­ing tour­na­ments. “The size of the fish we now catch on live bait is just con­sis­tently so much larger than all the fish we’ve caught on lures,” he re­ports.


Cap­tains to­day have hun­dreds of off­shore rigs spread out over thou­sands of square miles to choose from, but the first step in the op­er­a­tion is al­ways the same. In or­der to be suc­cess­ful, you must first se­cure a good quan­tity of your pre­ferred species of live bait. Bait catch­ing is also a night­time task.

Once the sun goes down, the rigs light up the wa­ter around the plat­forms. The de­sired baits for blue mar­lin, pri­mar­ily con­sist­ing of blackfin tuna, bonito and skip­jack, hold tightly to the pro­tec­tion of the rig dur­ing daylight hours. But once dark­ness sets in, they ven­ture away from safety to feed on smaller prey at­tracted to the wa­ter’s sur­face, now glow­ing from the lights of the rig.

There is sim­ply no way around the fact that catch­ing bait dur­ing a three-day tour­na­ment is hard work for all in­volved. It adds late nights or ex­tra early morn­ing hours to an al­ready gru­el­ing work sched­ule for the crew.

“If we are mark­ing bait on a par­tic­u­lar rig, we are go­ing to com­mit to catch­ing our bait there,” says Shoults. “That means we might ei­ther still be mak­ing bait at 2:30 in the morn­ing, or we may have just pulled up to a rig at 3 in the morn­ing to start catch­ing bait.” Cap­tains ease around rigs, look­ing to mark meat­balls of bait on the sonar, usu­ally on the up-cur­rent side. They might be hold­ing at 60 feet or down a cou­ple hun­dred feet.

Jig­ging up blackfin tuna in the mid­dle of the night on a fun-fish­ing trip with your bud­dies can make for a great night with lots of ac­tion. Long bat­tles with pow­er­ful fish on light tackle, bloody decks and a fish box full of tasty tuna is a trip most an­glers would love once the sun comes up. But for tour­na­ment teams, it’s all busi­ness. You can’t start fish­ing for a blue mar­lin un­til the bait is caught. The pres­sure to fill the tubes is real, but the key is keep­ing the stress on the crew and off the freshly caught bait. “You have to treat each fish like a new­born baby,” Bir­beck says with a laugh.

Bir­beck gears up his crew to avoid fa­tigu­ing his an­glers and the fish by us­ing light reels paired with rods beefy enough to han­dle a lot of drag. “The last thing you want is your deck­hand fight­ing a fish for 30 min­utes,” he says. “The fish will be too spent to stay alive af­ter it is caught, and your mate, who was al­ready tired from a long day in the cock­pit, is now ex­hausted. We have lost all that time and not added a fish to our bait to­tal.”


Cap­tains seek both quan­tity and qual­ity when it comes to live bait. Tre­ble hooks on the jigs are swapped out for cir­cle hooks. When a fish is boat­side it is net­ted in­stead of gaffed. The goal is to get the fish in the tube as quickly as pos­si­ble. If a fish is ac­ci­den­tally dropped on the deck, it is thrown back. In­jured fish don’t live long in tuna tubes, and nei­ther do bleed­ing fish.

On a per­fect night, bait is marked, caught quickly and the crew gets a few pre­cious ex­tra hours of sleep. But in tour­na­ment fish­ing, es­pe­cially with big money on the line, things rarely go as planned, and ev­ery de­ci­sion by the cap­tain is mag­ni­fied. Even the top 1 per­cent of live-bait­ing tour­na­ment teams can strug­gle to make bait at times. The cho­sen rig might be de­void of life for some rea­son. Other nights, there might be plenty of bait on the sounder but they just won’t eat. Maybe they’ll turn on in an hour or two, or maybe they won’t.

Then, there are the sharks. “On a good night, you are go­ing to need to catch 25 baits to get a dozen

good ones in the tubes,” says Dor­land. “But if the sharks are thick, you might need to catch 50 or 100 to get that same dozen.”


When it comes to catch­ing bait, there is only one thing worse for cap­tains and crews than try­ing to catch bait at a rig that is life­less or shark-in­fested, and that is hav­ing to make bait dur­ing the daylight hours. Af­ter the sun comes up, the small tu­nas have re­treated back to­ward the safety of the rig. They have also spent all night feed­ing, so they can be very tough to catch. Teams have learned day­time tech­niques, such as pulling plan­ers with small lures and flies, but it never works as well as jig­ging at night.

But the big­gest bonus is when you’re catch­ing bait at night, you are not los­ing any tour­na­ment-fish­ing time. Ev­ery minute spent catch­ing bait dur­ing the day is a chance for some­one else to catch the tour­na­ment-win­ning blue mar­lin. Many events have been won by teams that caught their bait first and were able to start fish­ing right at daylight. If your tubes are still empty, you don’t stand a chance.


If you think catch­ing bait dur­ing the day is hard, try get­ting a cap­tain or mate to tell you ex­actly how they rig live baits on their boat. Ev­ery team does it a lit­tle dif­fer­ently, and they all have in­vested too much time in trial and er­ror to share their se­crets. They will all speak in gen­eral terms, but be­ing tight-lipped isn’t just for fish that aren’t hun­gry.

The ba­sic con­cept is the same on ev­ery boat, but the sub­tle nu­ances are what give teams con­fi­dence when the bite oc­curs. All live baits are rigged on cir­cle hooks, but how and where the hook is at­tached can vary greatly. Some boats use monofil­a­ment bri­dles, while others pre­fer Dacron or braid. Some still use old-school No. 84 rub­ber bands. Bri­dle po­si­tions vary as well: Through the front of the eye socket, the

nose and the lips of the bait are all pop­u­lar spots.

“We spent a lot of time fig­ur­ing out what hap­pens af­ter the bite,” says Shoults. “You want the bait to come un­bri­dled af­ter the fish has eaten it, but you don’t want the fish to be able to shake its head and throw the hook out with the bait still at­tached.” Ev­ery blue mar­lin bite on live bait is dif­fer­ent. Co­op­er­a­tive fish might need only a 10-sec­ond drop-back, while others might take 30 sec­onds, a minute or more.

To­day’s sonar can spot mar­lin from the depths, but a dis­rup­tion on the sur­face can be just as telling as to­day’s most ex­pen­sive elec­tron­ics. “When I see a school of hard­tails shower in panic across the sur­face around a rig, I know what fish just caused that com­mo­tion,” says Shoults. “We are go­ing to buckle in and wait for that fish to eat again.”

Some­times it’s not just the fish you are try­ing to out-wait — it’s also other com­peti­tors. Dur­ing a big tour­na­ment, there may be other boats, maybe even a dozen or more, all fish­ing around the same rig, try­ing to catch the same fish. “When the rig is crowded, I try to find a way to al­ter our pre­sen­ta­tion,” says Shoults. “I want to make our of­fer­ing just a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent from ev­ery­one else’s be­cause that may be the dif­fer­ence be­tween us get­ting the bite in­stead of another boat.”

The se­cret to catch­ing big blue mar­lin in the Gulf of Mex­ico is not so se­cret any longer. For those will­ing to put in the time and ef­fort, live-bait­ing is a time-tested, tour­na­ment-win­ning tac­tic.


Jim Cox is the em­cee and tele­vi­sion host of sev­eral high-pro­file Gulf Coast bill­fish tour­na­ments. He is also an avid biggame an­gler, writer and ma­rine in­dus­try mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive.

Down the hatch! A blue mar­lin en­gulfs a jumbo live bait and comes up jump­ing (be­low). Ev­ery drop­back is dif­fer­ent, based on the size of the bait and the ag­gres­sive­ness of the mar­lin. Some might need just a few sec­onds, while others re­quire more time...

Be­cause teams are fish­ing for the largest blue mar­lin around a par­tic­u­lar rig, heavy tackle is pre­ferred, es­pe­cially in tour­na­ment sit­u­a­tions.

Tuna tubes al­low teams to catch their live bait dur­ing the pro­duc­tive evening or early-morn­ing hours be­fore sun­rise, keep­ing them alive for many hours. Most boats can now keep as many as a dozen bonito, skip­jack or small tuna alive for a day or more...

A bri­dled live bait goes out in the spread with the hope of en­tic­ing a hefty blue mar­lin (above). The many oil and nat­u­ral-gas pro­duc­tion plat­forms found through­out the Gulf of Mex­ico (be­low) serve as enor­mous bait fac­to­ries, at­tract­ing a wide va­ri­ety...

One com­mon method of rig­ging uses a short length of Dacron or waxed floss dou­bled into a loop and passed through the front of the eye sock­ets with a rig­ging nee­dle in or­der to bri­dle the hook to the bait.

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