Tags Fish Guide

Striped Marlin

Tags Fish Guide
THEY are probably the most beautiful of all the marlins. Athletic, agile and very fast – striped marlin are the quintessential billfish in my book.  I can still vividly recall one red-letter day, at the back of Rottnest fishing the FADs in 200 metres, when striped marlin turned up. We were fishing a big school of mid-water bait and had already tagged two reasonable blue marlin. We were heading down the swell when the stripies showed up. There could have been as many as eight or nine that glided effortlessly amongst our lures; pectoral fins lit up like neon glider wings, dorsal fins erect and occasionally breaking the surface.

They followed us for a minute or so, as would a pod of boisterous dolphins, and then they were gone from sight. We hooked one shortly afterwards, put a tag in its shoulder for good luck, and sent it on its way. The sight of those glorious fish is etched forever in my mind.  Where striped marlin go to when they leave Perth waters we don’t know, and therein lies one of game fishing’s great mysteries.  Many marlin anglers believe that just seeing a striped marlin makes a day on the water worthwhile and actually catching one, well, that is special.  On the eastern seaboard, striped marlin are the most common species of marlin in the southern part of the fishery. Here in WA, they are not as common as we mainly see blue marlin, with a sprinkling of stripies. We can’t have everything I suppose.

Striped marlin have the thinnest bill of any marlin species and the highest dorsal fin, which is roughly equal to the depth of their body. Unlike a black marlin the pectoral fins on a striped marlin can be folded alongside the body, and the fin is leaf shaped. Striped marlin are also the most slender of the marlins and their lower jaw is narrow and pointed, whereas blues and blacks have solid, stocky lower jaws.  Blue marlin do display stripes too, which may cause confusion with striped marlin at times, but the stripes on a blue fade very quickly when stressed or dead. The stripes remain on a striped marlin even after death.

Striped marlin are the smallest of the three marlin species found in WA waters and a good fish would be over 100 kilos. The average size is variable, but most that are encountered are between 70 and 90 kilos. The Australian record is a healthy 191.5kg, caught off the NSW coast in 1992.

Like most marlin, stripies roam the tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, ranging down as far south as latitude 34 degrees. They are generally found in water temperatures that range from 21-24 degrees Celcius and are the most widely distributed of all billfish, preferring more temperate waters to their larger marlin cousins.   We do know that striped marlin spend most of their time in the surface layer of the ocean, above the thermocline, but we don’t know much else about them. Striped marlin can usually found from Broome in the north down to Perth in the south, but stripies can get down as far as the South Coast.

Breeding and migration
Striped marlin are a highly migratory species, and a breeding aggregation has been identified off WA’s North-West, between 10 and 20 degrees south. They are open water spawners that are thought to spawn in summer, with the lower temperature limit for the distribution of larvae being 24 degrees Celcius.  Striped marlin are social creatures and form small schools ranging from two or three up to double figure numbers on occasions.  Even though striped marlin are far more inclined to travel into temperate waters than their cousins, the Leeuwin Current plays a big part in bringing them close to the Continental Shelf, where they can be caught by recreational anglers.

These days recreational anglers rarely kill striped marlin, preferring to photograph and release them. Many of us also tag them as part of the national tagging program, run by the NSW Fisheries Department, and in addition a second tag is sometimes placed for the Billfish Foundation research program.  The most significant impact on striped marlin stocks are the longline fleets operating around the Indian Ocean. Indonesia alone is thought to have over 200 longliners operating in the north-east corner of the Indian Ocean. Now that’s a lot of hooks in the water.
Unfortunately Canberra has just seen fit to change the Commonwealth Fisheries Act to overrule the no-take regulation, put in place to protect all marlin by the West Australian Government in the early ‘90s. Currently game fishing representatives have negotiated an interim agreement with WA longline operators to only retain dead striped marlin, but the Australian Fisheries Management Authority wants a quota of around 2000 striped marlin for this fishery! Now that’s a hell of a lot of dead striped marlin and we’re trying very hard to get them to change their minds. Our saving grace at this point in time is that less than five longliners are currently working off our coast, most likely because fish are scarce.

Tackle and bait
As with blue and black marlin there are three main methods used for catching striped marlin and these are live baits, dead baits and lures. But on the East Coast, where striped marlin are far more common, there are growing numbers of boats using ‘switch baiting’.   This method employs lures and teasers to raise the striped marlin and then live baits are cast to them. As you can imagine, this is a very visual and exciting form of fishing, but the lack of striped marlin numbers off WA has meant this method is not yet practised much locally.  Lure fishing is not the most efficient way to catch stripies because they are not as aggressive when attacking lures as blues and blacks. They all too frequently fail to hook-up.

Anglers need to fish smaller skirted trolling lures with expertly sharpened hooks to try and hook stripies. I would look to use name brand lures that have 30mm diameter heads with 200mm skirts. Anything bigger may still hook stripies, but nowhere near as easily. Even a successful team of marlin anglers would probably only expect a 50 per cent hook-up rate on lures with striped marlin.

Many anglers fish 37kg and 60kg line classes when chasing marlin, so when striped marlin turn up they are outgunned on this heavy gear. When fishing specifically for stripies on the East Coast anglers commonly use 15 and 24kg outfits, with more experienced anglers going right down to 8kg gear. Now thats fishing.

Fishing methods
If trolling a pattern of lures, and/or baits such as gardies, it is a good idea to run at least four or five lures, staggered across the wake of the boat to avoid tangles. The use of outriggers for this is essential.  Switch baiting requires that teasers are used to bring the fish up to the back of the boat where a bait can be cast to them. A combination of hookless lures, teasers and a couple of dead or strip baits are trolled until the striped marlin are found. When the marlin come up crew members wind in the teasers, taking care not to scare the fish off when doing so. But at least one bait teaser that attracted attention from the marlin is left in the water to keep the fish interested. It should then only take one good cast with a live bait to hook a striped marlin. Hook-up ratios using switch baiting are very good indeed.

Marlin are generally where you find them but your chances of finding and hooking striped marlin are much better around bait schools. Slimey mackerel are the number one bait, but pilchard and scaly mackerel schools will hold fish too. Remember to troll your teasers around the edge of bait schools, not through them, so that you don’t put the bait down.  Trolling along current temperature lines can turn up some fish too, as can FADs and other floating objects. Look for birds too as a sign of where the bait is.  It is not a good idea to bring striped marlin onboard for a photograph, as this can damage the fish and can be very dangerous for crew members too. Tired marlin should be swum alongside the boat until they have recovered. This is done by holding the bill just below the surface of the water and moving slowly forward to force water over their gills. These marvellous fish are well worth the effort of looking after them.

References: Sea Fishes of Southern Australia by Barry Hutchins and Roger Swainston.  FAO Species Catalogue – Vol. 5 Billfishes of the World.
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