The Feed

Improve your hook-up percentage with a smooth drop back.
Steve Dougherty.
Watching a billfish take a bait is an amazing sight. Whether you are targeting giant black marlin or the wily small white, billfish exhibit similar feeding habits. The trick to hooking one soundly, especially on a circle hook, is letting the billfish take the bait and give it some 'drop back,' so the billfish swallows down the bait before you begin to fight the fish. Story and photos by Steve Dougherty.
It took considerable time for anglers to accept circle hooks but they are largely the preference in almost every occurrence when fishing with live bait or rigged dead bait. When sized properly to the target species and specific offering, circle hooks greatly improve hooking efficiency and inflict less damage on the fish for post-release survivability. However, for the point of a circle hook to pierce a bony jaw, the entire bait and exposed hook must be fully swallowed, with the fish given a chance to swim away. A circle hook will not grab if the fish is swimming or jumping toward you on the bite.
With a choreographed drop back allowing zero tension on the main line, a billfish can feed and turn away. At this point, line will peel off the spool faster than it should. You will need to give the fish a five to 10 count depending on the bait and the size of the fish before you engage the drag. As the line becomes taught and the hook pulls from the fish's throat it will twist and lock into a perfect hook-set in the corner of the jaw.
Circle hooks are what dictate the need for a smooth drop back, but the technique wouldn't be as effective without the latest conventional reels offering near zero friction in free spool. Whether targeting juvenile blue marlin off Costa Rican seamounts, big Pacific sails in Guatemala, white marlin in the Outer Banks or sailfish in Florida, the same style reels are being used.
Maintaining a kite spread in varying wind speeds requires anglers to constantly adjust the lines as the kite's height changes. This greatly influences the timeliness of your drop back. With light wind conditions, keeping your baits on the surface isn't much of a challenge, but when it's blowing 25+ it can be difficult to keep baits out of the air. Not having enough weight rigged on your main line beneath the kite cork is likely the number one factor your bait resists free spooling, though it's also important to ensure the kite ring isn't in the release pin backwards or the main line will rub on itself and delay your drop back.
In years past, the drop back was heralded as a magic number, usually a five count, but like almost every aspect of sport fishing there is no set standard. I've seen sailfish hold a bait and mash it in their mouth for 60 seconds before deciding to feed, requiring the angler to free spool and provide the perfect tension on the fish throughout the entire sequence. Conversely, we've had many sailfish come in hot on a huge goggle-eye and peel off toward the horizon requiring a very short drop back.
The timeliness of the drop back is largely influenced by the altitude of your kite. If a kite runs sky high you will have an excessive amount of line falling from the kite clip upon coming tight. A kite running too low will make it difficult to pull the short bait's leader out of the water as the cork catches at the first clip. If a sailfish comes up jumping without popping the kite clip (as pictured here), then your feed was too long. Quickly retrieve the slack and softly pop the clip, hoping the circle hook holds tight as the line falls from the sky.
Trolling dead bait requires a slightly varied approach compared to kite fishing, though the premise is largely the same. Feeling the bite is all about giving the ?sh ample time to eat before slowly engaging the drag. If your feed is too short you'll pull the bait from the fish's mouth. Too long and the fish will smell a rat and start jumping or spit the bait out entirely.
When trolling, you typically have baits running on the riggers behind the bridge teaser and some on the flats behind a dredge. The rigger baits naturally have some drop back as the line falls from the clip to the surface of the water. This may mean you need a shorter drop back once you get to the reel. The flat lines are a bit different. When you see a fish teasing in, hold your rod tip at the fish until it eats. Then begin your count and slowly engage the drag. There are three likely outcomes that will follow: a hooked fish, a "sancocho" (when you miss time your drop back and reel in only the bait's head) or the fish never bit at all and you end up with a bait that's still tracking straight. If that's the case, keep it out there and hope it gets picked up soon.
Whether trolling or kite fishing, if you are not actively searching for fish then you are basically waiting for the outrigger clip to release. Billfish often linger in the spread unbeknownst to anglers above the waterline. The crews that consistently post the highest release numbers are always ready for the bite to happen and know exactly what to do in any scenario.

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