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It’s time for the ocean to change again.
It is not a surprise that in a fluid world nothing really ever stands still. The constant pull of the moon, the big summer hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere are equally matched by the massive cyclones of the Southern Hemisphere, and then there are the greatest ocean-movers of all, tide and temperature.
Tide and temperature move more water than all other forces combined. Temperature is subtle, and it can go unnoticed when the top 300 feet of an entire ocean slowly cools and begins to fall. This endless shift of surface water to the depths and deep water upwelling is a timeless tune that all ocean life must dance to.
Knowing this dance is a secret that separates the casual fisherman from the serious sportsman. This dance becomes the calendar for the commercial fisherman, and the bible for all those that make their living from the sea.
February subtly begins this change to spring, but it is March that brings in the noticeable hallmarks of the season's change. The warming trends both in the atmosphere and the water bring new hatching life to bays, river estuaries, flats, and both inshore and off-shore reef structures. Countless species of baitfish, shrimp, crabs and yummy sea creatures have just spawned, or are about to spawn, millions of babies and hatchlings to match the rising temperatures.
Every predator knows it. They have known it for a thousand millennium. Giant whale sharks will swim hundreds of miles (some tagged specimens have been documented to swim thousands) to feed on snapper eggs at the moment of the snapper spawn. They swim to the same reef structures year after year. Most species of fish, predators and prey alike, have predictable cycles like these, making routine behavior in the ocean life cycle something necessary to study.
Springtime is a seemingly never ending supply of “young and dumb”. Predators learn efficiency quickly: frightened hatchlings are easily devoured by the mouthful, so why chase fast and hard to catch adult baitfish? Even larger baitfish species like bonita and skipjack are feeding on the same prey as larger scale predators. Like the fall upwelling, a sort of common predator truce occurs; skipjacks and marlin feeding side by side on easier slower baby-sized prey. These naive little baits are eaten by the metric ton; that’s why nature calls for those eggs to be laid by the trillions. These newborn hatchlings feed an entire ocean ecosystem. It does not happen instantly, though.
Spring transitions at its own pace. Currents begin to move north, and the bait will be found in line with where it hatched and where the current has pulled it. The super-cold winter water begins it’s descent into the deep recesses of the ocean floor and that movement drives the ocean conveyor. The deep water baits, squid, cuttlefish, and deep water shrimp of December and January that rode thermoclines up near the surface are sinking away. The root beer colored squids, the red and black of Ika, the creamscicle pinks of the deep water shrimp, (colors that caught yellowfin 2 months ago), are giving way to millions of little shards of light blue and silver, green and gold. Now we see the ice blue flashes of springtime herring, anchovies, cigar minnows, sardines, mackerels and goggle-eyes. It’s their time now, to live and survive or to become part of the feast that will keep the ocean alive as this year’s cycle continues.
To keep the ocean rich, this transition from winter to spring does not happen all at once, nor does it end in unison. The multitude of species hatch and spawn at their own rate and the periods of spawn are staggered throughout the late winter into spring, continuing through early summer. But March, April and May truly begin a flurry of newly hatched baitfish and crustaceans out of the bays and deltas, up from the reefs and structures and into our offshore waters.
It’s an easy conclusion, once you start thinking about what’s going on underwater: downsizing baits to 6 and 7 inch lures is a winning springtime move.
Bait fish is a generic term that we as Fishermen tend to overuse. What we call 'bait' as a general term really needs to be as specific as we are when we’re ordering lunch on the cafeteria line. We see the selection that’s available that day, make our selection based on what is there, and we don’t tell the server that we want “food”. We specify that want some chicken, or some ribs or whatever … that’s an important concept for successful fisherman.
Let’s talk about colors, and how nature picks them out, and not you and me at the bait store.
These pelagic bait fish are found in the Eastern Pacific from the Gulf of California to Baja, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Peru. These are schooling fish, filter feeders, and travel these spring currents in groups that can be measured in schools as small as a few hundred or major schools counting in the millions.
An interesting tidbit about Pacific sardines is that they have a pretty long life span. The average age of an adult is about ten years, with an overall length of about 10 inches. Sardines can live up to 25 years and attain a length of 16 inches. So if you are fishing on the California coast it’s good to keep the growth rates of Pacific sardines in mind. In the springtime the fast adults spawn and move north, leaving behind baby sardines that have a really rapid growth rate. These 5 to 6 inch sardines are much easier for predators to catch than adults, and have nowhere near the experience of a 10 year old veteran sardine that knows how not to get caught off guard by a bunch of striped marlin or a big pile of yellowfin. These little sardines have no experience at all, and they are vulnerable to attack. They have blue-blackish dark backs and silvery sides, they flash greenish highlights along the midlines, can flash pink underbellies, and have a row of 7 or 8 dark spots down the lateral line. They like to hang out in big schools and you can see them on the screen at about 120 feet below the surface.
Combinations like grape, black/silver with purple sides over orange/pink really rock in the springtime if you scale it down to a 6 or 7 inch bait. Just remember that it grows by mid-summer (keep the colors but upsize the bait). One of my favorite springtime baits is black/silver with a red stripe over red/black with a yellow stripe: those skirts on a 7 inch BFD Bullet or a 7 inch Tubby will catch everything out there. And as one of our owners discovered a few weeks ago, everything will hit BFD’s Flat Iron Herring or Sardine combination.
In April, there are still millions of sardines out there, they just grow fast, and you need to match what’s happening under the surface. Also be aware that sardines like to cruise with anchovies and mackerel, so if you’re working Bird Piles, your lures such as the black backs for sardines can be complemented by the mackerels, greens and anchovy blues. Size matters: match the hatch and stay with 6 and 7 inch baits in the spring. Remember that elephants eat peanuts too.
As you move into the summer the female sardines, which grow much faster and larger than males, will be spawning again, and though they peak in April and May, they can spawn several times a year. These fat females are nutrient rich. They are heavy with eggs and a vital source of protein for pelagic predators. These pregnant females with their heavy pinkish bellies are sought out by ahi of all sizes and species, from yellowfin to albacore and big eye. Even the giant skip jack will line up for a mouthful of protein-rich, roe-filled sardine. Pink underskirt = heavy pink pregnant sardine.
The spawn kicks off in 60 degree water, and less than 100 miles out on the western continental coast, centralizing along the California coast. The smaller baits will stay closer to shore, 10 to 30 miles out, and the bigger older fish push further out and stack up about 75 miles from shore. This is consistent all the way up past Oregon and Washington.
Every year that a sardine survives it is a bigger, older, stronger, smarter fish. These true adult sardines push even farther north, and by early summer they can go as far north as British Columbia and then back south to Southern California and even further south by the onset of fall.
Mackerel scads have a terrific range and cover all of the oceans of the world. They are versatile and prolific. On the Atlantic side they range from Nova Scotia all the way to southern Brazil, but they tend to stay in the Atlantic and not so much in the Gulf of Mexico. They will go east from the Caribbean, to the west coast of Africa.
On the Pacific Side, they pile up in the Gulf of California all the way down to the coast of Ecuador. They stack up around islands and prefer clear water, choosing to stay away from the moving water of the inter-island channels. They come near the surface at night time, to the top 6 or 7 fathoms, but you will find them on your screen between 50 and 70 fathoms during the day. When they are calm, they tend to “string out” in a longer school unlike the big tight ball of sardines and herring.
Mackerel scads are longer, and average between 9 and 12 inches in length. Young, springtime mackerel scads average 6 to 7 inches in length and have a greenish blue, kind of fluorescent color on their back. As you look down their body, their fins will look yellow, or sometimes will show flashes of green. They have a white belly, but above the belly you will see hints of red and additional flashes of green.
Skirt combinations like Frog, Tree Frog, Glitter Frog and Green Mackerel are all great mackerel combinations. What they have in common is an outer skirt that is green back with either black or blue bars, or squiggles with a white or silver belly. Perfect inner skirts are either red/black with a yellow stripe, purple/pink with a yellow stripe, or of course Gama Glow with a red stripe. Run 7 inch mackerel combinations in March through May and move into 9 and 9+ inch baits by June and July, on up to 12 inch mackerel lures by the end of summer and going into fall.
Big Ahi love mackerel scads, and “Frog” and “Sugar Pop” are favorite combinations on the leeward sides of islands, where the calmer clear water attracts big schools of the zooplankton-eating scads. It makes for a memorable day when the Ahi and the porpoises drive them into balls and push them to the surface in the calm leeward waters in places like Kona and Wai’anae in Hawaii. It makes for easy fishing that the whole family can get in on, and some nice fat Ahi on a calm family trip will be remembered forever.
As a baitfish, the Mahi Mahi is the quintessential spring time necessity. I grew up calling this fish Mahi Mahi, or just plain Mahi. People the world over recognize the adult as a prized gamefish called Mahi Mahi or Dorado. In the Hawaiian language, Mahi Mahi means “Strong”, and in Spanish “Dorado” means golden. What… Mahi as a baitfish?
Mahi’s life span is between 4-5 years, but what we are concerned with in this post are the smaller 10 inch Mahi that hang out under the Sargasso weed lines, foam lines and flotsam devouring any small baitfish associated with floating debris. The flashy Yellowish Green blue speckled flashes of lightning fast nutrition provide many of the larger predators with the fat and protein they need to survive. Baby Mahi is an oily fish, and they are hunted down by predators for their rich value as a food fish over other forms of bait that don’t rank as high in the nutrition chain.
They have a wide array of dazzling colors: yellow and gold down their length, with luminescent Blues and Blue Dots on their shoulders and down the sides of their backs. They can be fluorescent Green and Blue one minute and Bright Yellow the next.
These Baby Mahi, Schoolies, Cane Knife, Silver Bullets, are some of the ocean’s fastest growing fish and are voracious feeders. It is not unusual to see a 12 inch Mahi trying to eat a 10 inch Mackerel. Baby Mahi are on the menu for all pelagic predators.
Anywhere you have water temperatures of 84-87 degrees you will have Mahi Mahi spawn in the water. The strong spring tides push extra water and strong outgoing tides will drive tons of newly developed bait that have no strength to fight its flow.
Combinations that are made to imitate these baby Mahi like BFD’s Mahi combo work terrific in the Spring time in 7 and 9 inch lures, by Mid-Summer, you will be using full size 12 and 14 inch plungers to imitate the Mahi Mahi as it matures and gets larger. Ever wonder what Luminous and Green/Chartreuse combinations resemble? – Baby Mahi.
Fluorescent baits, Luminescent Lure Heads, and baits that “Glow” hammer spring time predators. My own theory is that the fluorescent qualities of Luminescent heads and skirts imitate life and the Sardines and Mackerel and baby Mahi that use fluorescing colors to communicate the communal signals to conduct their life’s work, breeding, fleeing, and danger.
It is the clockwork of the ocean, and all life in the ocean is aware of its rhythm. Predictably, migratory species of heavy predators will show up exactly where they are supposed to if you understand and follow the baitfish cycles.
Later in Spring – Flying Fish
As Springtime May comes into June, you will see plenty of flying fish, which are maturing and get harder for predators to catch, as they get a little longer, bite for bite they aren't the easy meal they were when they were 4 or 5 inches long.
The months of May into June you will still see Blues or Sails corralling up a school of 20 or 30 three to four inch baby fliers and chasing them around a bit. Big Marlin get bigger in May, June and July, when the hatchlings have had time to grow so they present a more protein packed snack.
By the middle of June the flying fish will be a little bigger. They understand how to get out of Dodge when chased by a billfish, so YOU see them flying around but the Blue's will tend to leave them alone. So what you see on the surface is escaping Flying fish but underneath but you will have Goggle Eye, Spanish Sardines, and Mackerel Scads that will still ball up down below so that the predators can still have an organized and easy feed.
The Spanish Sardine spawn in the Gulf of Mexico is really important and off of Louisiana all the way through the panhandle of Florida things really get started in early June. There will be giant balls of Spanish sardines. They tend to come in a bit shallower and they like to come from the depths up cliff faces and canyons. Working the ledges is a good place to pick up predators following the Spanish Sardine spawn.
The Spanish Sardines have a huge range and their spawn is a big deal, Marlin especially big females will dive deep to gorge on them. The sardines hang out in tight balls down deep in the daytime, you can see them on the screen from 130 to 200 fathoms, if it gets cloudy or later in the day you will see them loosen up spread out and move higher up to 40 to 80 fathoms.
The moral of the story is on sunny days, big marlin feed deep on these tight balls and come up all fat and happy to warm up and digest, that's one of the reasons you see basking marlin near the surface in June and July, sunning their fat bellies after a trip 200 fathoms down to get a fat healthy meal....they are NOT interested in racing after a flying fish and will leave the skinny flying fish to the striped marlin and Mahi Mahi that have metabolisms like hummingbirds.
Mahi don't tend to go deep and work the Spanish sardines although they would love to. They just don't want to be eaten by the big marlin that would feel like the Mahi's were trespassing on their meal. (By the way big marlin eat the hell out of Mahi, even big Mahi are not safe...a 400 pound marlin will eat a 20 pound Mahi with no problem.)
Back to Sardines - picture a fat girl Marlin 400 to 700 pounds lazing around at 10 to 20 feet under the surface...well fed, happy, feeling good, full of Sardines, sun feels great....nice day...that's your target. You need primo bait; she won’t blink for a flying fish even if it hit her in the ass. It’s not worth her effort and that boney little fish has no appeal.
She will respond to 3 things.
The first thing would be a deluxe gourmet meal easily taken with minimal effort that has a big payoff in terms of calories. Moving out of June and into July she will move on a big fat skip jack, hopefully on your short corner, a Super Plunger or BFD Ultra-Swimmer, or an Apollo dressed Aku, or a medium plunger dressed Superman, Top-Gun, some False-Tunny colors Black/Silver and all of these should run over pink or red because we are trying to signal our marlin that our skipjack has a big fat pink belly full of bait and can’t run very fast...marlin sees maximum calories for least effort, and with a few flicks of the tail she rolls on the lure and you have hook up with no fanfare.
Don’t expect a lot of bill whacking, she doesn’t need bill work to determine what she’s going to hit. She hits in an instant strike because her brain said "eat it" and she did. If she misses the strike, she will seldom hit again if the smaller secondary baits that follow are not fat ass skipjacks, Mahi's or Yellow Fins, and short rigger, long rigger baits, slide right by with no hit...its ok, try another pass, focus on her position with the skip jack bait, you have one more shot, if it doesn't hit on the second pass, move on.
Your second choice from above is a Mahi Mahi bait, yellows, blue dots, greens...a cruising Mahi will wake a lazy marlin right up especially if the Mahi is sporting a fat belly (some pink inside). Remember, whatever you are using to wake your marlin up you should trail another one farther back, so a June spread should not look like Walt Disney designed your spread. A skipjack combo on a Super Plunger or BFD Rockstar on the short corner, an Apollo in skipjack or BFD Deceiver on long corner, Mahi or frog on short rigger and 9 inch Mahi or frog on long rigger. Running a single hook on a swivel will work just fine. Running double hooks is no problem either.
The third thing that will get that lazy marlin in June to hit is to appeal to its territorial instincts. When your lure is trespassing a Marlin can become aggressive. Dark purples, black and orange, high contrast with dark colors, high silhouette, noisy and obnoxious. A black/purple, a black/silver over mavis, a Black Beauty Straight runner dressed Purple/Silver (grape) over Orange/White (sunrise) can get her going and remember that she is hitting not to eat but to kill. You will see some bill whacking, sometimes lots of bill whacking, sometimes movement from one lure to another...hitting everything, slashing, aggressive, demonstrations of strength, so run this lure on double hooks, she’s not eating per se, so make a mouthful of steel the option of choice.
Coming out of spring and early summer (mid-July) the sardines scatter and Marlin have to work for a living again. So you may as well go right with them to water with depth. So color up the spread and head for the abyss
The strong spring tides push extra water and strong outgoing tides drive tons of newly developed bait that do not have the strength to fight its flow. It is the clockwork of the ocean, and all life in the ocean is aware of its rhythm. Predictably, migratory species of heavy predators will show up exactly where they are supposed to if you understand and follow the baitfish cycles
Early spring has good fishing for big onos (wahoo) and white & younger marlin, but the seasonal migration of ahi, (yellowfin, big eye and bluefin tuna), along with blue, white, and striped marlin, is kicked off by the little silver flashes of green, blue and silver of spring. These fish make their living working over schools of this year’s hatchlings.
The big marlin show up in May, June and July, when the hatchlings have had a bit of time to grow so they present a more protein-worthy snack. Summer has its own changes. Things grow up, young fish mature, and as they do many will change to the colors of the adults of their species. The water temperatures change, the currents change, and all of that will make our summer article a worthwhile read. Come back and take a look.
Note: this article was originally written by Eric White for BFD, and has been edited, added to, and recently updated by me. Credit where credit is due :)