The Perfect Pitch Bait

A five-step process to improve the bait and switch.
Sam White

Pitching a bait to a lit-up blue marlin is one of those pinnacle moments offshore anglers live for. If this doesn't get the ol' ticker pumping a little faster, you should probably see a cardiologist. Pitch-baiting, or the bait-and-switch, will also help you improve your hook-up ratio once you are proficient at the process. Here are five tips and techniques to help you improve your pitch.

The bait-and-switch technique was initially developed for world-record fishing. Historians usually credit Capt. Skip Smith and record-chasing anglers Jerry and Deborah Dunaway for refining the technique.

At the heart of the bait-and-switch is a trolling spread utilizing fish-raising teasers with nary a hook in the water. As fish raise to the teasers they are then targeted with the appropriate-sized tackle, depending on the species and the size. The angler then selects the correct setup and drops back or "pitches" the bait over the side while the teaser is yanked free of the water. The result is usually a spectacular bite right off the stern as the marlin switches off the teaser and inhales the bait.

The key to a good pitch-bait setup is being able to get the hook bait in the water as quickly and efficiently as possible. Many crews will use a PVC tube or other holder mounted in a handy location in the cockpit for instant deployment, with the bait resting in saltwater. The last thing you want to do is root around the bait cooler while a lit-up billfish is thwacking away on the teaser. Ballyhoo, Spanish mackerel and a variety of strip baits are all great on the pitch, just size the hook, leader and bait to the game fish you expect to encounter. Most boats will have a light setup for mahimahi, sails and small marlin with a larger rod standing by in case a big marlin shows up on a teaser. With light tackle, the leader can be wound right on the reel (especially if you're using a wind-on leader) but for heavier gear, carefully coil the leader and use a rubber band or small wire tie to attach the leader to the side of the reel so a quick yank is all it takes to be ready.

Pitch the bait over the side of the boat, never from the transom. If you toss the bait off the transom it can get caught up in the swirling backwash from the props. Drop the bait over the side and freespool the bait into position ahead of the teaser. The captain or crewmember manning the teaser will bring the fish in and then yank the teaser clear when it's close to the hook bait. Keep your eyes on your bait and get ready for the bite... here he comes!


When most anglers think of pitching a live or dead bait to a fish raised on a teaser, they're probably thinking sailfish or marlin. Mahimahi are also a great target for a pitch bait. First, they will usually stay glued to a teaser rather than hopping from side to side in the spread (or worse, whacking the teaser once and fading out of sight). And because of their bright colors they're easier for the angler to spot and track in the spread. Got novices aboard? Let them take the first (or second, or third) shot at a mahi on the teaser to help perfect their pitch-baiting skills.

?While sails and other pelagics put up a respectable fight on 20- and 30-pound class tackle, if you're really down for a challenge then bring a light rod and be ready to match your skills. Because you're not trolling with the light rig in the water, you can choose which fish you want to tangle with, just let your captain know that you'd like to pitch with a 12-, 8- or even 6-pound outfit if the right fish shows up. It's a blast and you'll become a better angler for it. Just remember to add extra drag by holding the line between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand rather than pinching the line down against the foregrip of the rod. You might want to wear some light angler gloves as you perfect your skills.


In Central America and throughout the Caribbean, the pitch is usually a dead ballyhoo or Spanish mackerel with an appropriately-sized circle hook in its nose. But head out west to Mexico and southern California and live bait rules. Boats tend to pull a spread of artificial lures at a faster clip and won't hesitate to toss a live caballito in the water at the first sign of a billfish that's raised to the lures and isn't hooked immediately. Savvy anglers understand that the ratio of fish caught on bait is usually much higher than those hooked on lures. Plus, a frisky live bait can be casted to a fish tailing on the surface.


For the ultimate adrenaline rush, drag a teaser spread up and down St. Thomas' famed North Drop and spend a few days pitch-baiting blue marlin. It's a guaranteed knee-knocker to watch the man in the blue suit play volleyball with a teaser as you stand in the corner of the cockpit ready to feed a bait back into the fish's zip code. The bite is not only visual but also close to the boat. Drop it down the hatch, wait for the blue marlin to peel off to one side and slide the drag lever to strike. Another top marlin destination is Costa Rica, where Pacific blues, stripeys and occasionally black marlin can all be caught by pitch-baiting.


For reasons known only to the fish, marlin do not seem to hang onto teasers as tenaciously off the Carolinas or in the Gulf of Mexico, so these are perhaps not the best places to practice the bait and switch. Many captains prefer to put hooks in everything in the spread rather than having a marlin crash a teaser and disappear completely from the spread. Know what works in your area and be ready to fish accordingly.

Successfully pitch-baiting a blue marlin represents one of the most thrilling aspects of sport fishing. Watching a big blue take your bait with one explosive bite is what offshore anglers live for.
Most credit Capt. Skip Smith for refining the bait-and-switch technique while chasing world records with Jerry and Deborah Dunaway. With pitch baits, you can choose what tackle to use on the fish that pops up on the teasers.
Mahimahi make excellent pitch-bait targets especially for those learning the finer points of the technique. This airborne bull was taken on light tackle after being pitched a dead ballyhoo off Guatemala.
Pitch-baiting also allows the angler to use lighter tackle than you'd normally troll with. Here, the author battles a Guatemalan sailfish on 6-pound test.
In Mexico, live bait usually gets the nod for the pitch. This striped marlin fell for a live caballito off of East Cape.
A naked ballyhoo rigged with a circle hook on its nose makes a perfect pitch bait for sailfish and white marlin. For bigger game fish like blue marlin, you may want a bigger bait such as a Spanish mackerel, horse ballhoo or a belly strip. Photo by Charlie Levine.
When fighting billfish on light tackle, you can pinch the line with your thumb and forefinger. Resist the urge to hold the line against the rod grip which will cause friction and heat buildup on the fragile fishing line. Photo by Charlie Levine.
Gray Ingram and the Big Oh team go to work on a blue marlin off Cape Verde. Note the 50-wide in the rocket launcher beside the chair with the leader coiled and ready for pitching.
Always keep your eyes on your bait and listen to the skipper. He'll announce when the teaser is pulled out of the water. Finally, try not to freeze up when that angry marlin piles on your pitch bait. Photo by Charlie Levine.
Keep your pitch baits next to the rod in salt water. This custom pitch-bait holder fits into the hole in the covering board used for the stern lines. Very cool. A PVC tube with suction cups makes a handy pitch-bait holder because you can move it around the cockpit. Photo by Charlie Levine.

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