Mid-Atlantic Marlin

Mid-Atlantic Marlin

Ric Burnley

Published in Salt Water Sportsman


Plugging Away:

Mid Atlantic anglers are becoming believers in using artificial lures and circle hook baits offshore.

After trolling the edge of the Gulf Stream all morning without a bite, I was beginning to worry about the lures that we were dragging behind the boat.  Instead of the traditional spread of ballyhoo and skirts common along the Mid Atlantic, I was watching a half dozen big plugs smoke and spurt across the surface of the water.  This was my first experience pulling artificial lures offshore and so far I wasn’t a believer. 

I mean, it was late May and we were fishing the Swansboro Bluewater Tournament off Hatteras  – so we were definitely in the right place at the right time.  Captain Rom Whitaker was at the helm of his 50 foot Carolina built Release, so there was no question about the boat or crew.  Still, after covering miles of ocean we hadn’t seen a single fish.  The problem had to be the lures. 

While my confidence was waning, Rom’s was resolute.  “These plugs will work,” he assured me, “we just have to drive over a fish.” 

Plugged in

Ever since the National Marine Fisheries Service instituted rules requiring the use of non-offset circle hooks with natural baits in all marlin tournaments, Mid Atlantic anglers have had to abandon their beloved spread of dink baits and Ilanders in favor of circle hooks and artificial plugs.  While the move was initially met with cynicism, captains and crews have learned to live with – maybe even love – the new face of offshore fishing. 

“For blue marlin,” Whitaker responded to my doubts, “I think plugs are the way to go.”    In fact, he became a believer in their effectiveness long before the circle hook policy took effect.

Whitaker pointed out several advantages to using artificial lures over natural baits.  “It’s simpler,” he started out, “You just dump them out, get them running right, and you’re fishing.” 

Since he can pull his plugs faster, he covers more ground – a definite advantage off North Carolina where blue marlin bites can be few and far between.

Ok, so plugs work for bluemarlin, but what about other species like whites, sails, dolphin, wahoo, and tuna? 

That question was answered when a psycho dolphin rocketed out of the water with one of Whitaker’s smaller plugs stuck fast in the corner of its mouth.  After short fight and a quick gaff job, the green and gold fish was writhing on the deck of the boat. 

Even though offshore anglers were initially reluctant to change tactics, the switch to artificial lures .  Not only are anglers catching blue marlin, but whites, sails, spears, dolphin, wahoo, and tuna, too.  While some teams have turned to trolling artificial lures, other crews have taken to rigging natural baits with circle hooks.   

Dinks and Circles

While white marlin, sails, and spears will strike an artificial plug, anglers targeting these fish usually use a circle hook lashed to the nose of a small ballyhoo. 

I first started using circle hooks to target white marlin when I started fishing with Dr. Ken Neill, one of Virginia’s Master Anglers and a long-time advocate of the technique. 

Neill, in turn, first used circle hooks while fishing in Venezuela with Dr. John Graves, a researcher working for the National Marine Fisheries Service.  “John was sticking satellite tags in white marlin and he needed an angler,” Neill remembers, “so I volunteered.” 

When Neill returned to Virginia, he brought what he learned about circle hooks with him.  By the time Graves’ research led to the circle hook rules (see sidebar) Neill and his crew were already ahead of the curve. 

“Using circle hooks for white marlin takes some getting used to,” Neill admits, “but I think it actually increases the number of fish that we catch.”  The way he figures it, anglers using circle hooks might miss opportunities at “lucky” hook-ups on fish that swipe at a bait without eating it, but once a billfish is hooked on a circle hook, he says, he has a better shot at keeping the fish tight all the way to the boat. 

“Fishing with circle hooks is technique sensitive,” Neill says, explaining that getting the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth is the hardest part of the process.  “First, you have to beat the fish to the bait,” Neill says, stressing that an angler has to constantly watch the spread for any sign of a billfish. 

When a marlin does arrive behind a bait, Neill grabs the rod, keeping the tip high, and waits for the fish to strike. At the first bump, he drops the rod tip towards the fish, dumps the reel into freespool, and lets the fish eat.  “Leave the clicker off and don’t even put your thumb on the spool,” he says, “the bait has to fall freely without any tension.”  

While, the fish is crushing the bait, turning it, and swallowing it, Ken counts to five and continues to let out line.  When he feels like the marlin has had a chance to eat, he slowly pushes the drag lever forward and lets the line come tight.  Finally, keeping the rod tip low, he cranks in line while sweeping the rod forward to drive the hook home. 

Neill points out that the advantages to using circle hooks extend to the fish.  “Research shows that circle hooks prevent deep hooking and post release mortality,” he says, “so it’s good for the fish, too.” 

Blue Waters

For most Mid Atlantic anglers, the sticking point of the circle hook rule came when they had to abandon their Ilanders and horse ballyhoo.  Before the rules, the typical offshore arsenal consisted of dink baits for whites, sails, spears, or dolphin, and Ilander/Ballyhoo combos for blue marlin, wahoo, and tuna. 

While rigging a dink bait with a circle hook is easy, rigging an Ilander with a circle hook is not.  That’s because a circle hook is most effective when it is completely exposed not buried in the belly of a bait. 

Another problem is the nature of the beast.  Unlike white marlin, which tend to play with their food first, blue marlin don’t mess around.  “They come in and eat,” Neill says, leaving an angler little time to react.

 In tournaments like the Swansboro Open and other events in North Carolina’s Governor’s Cup, blue marlin are top bill and plugs are the top producer.  But in other tournaments, such as the Ocean City White Marlin Open and Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament, teams are aiming at multiple targets and need to use a mixed spread. 

To solve this problem, marlin anglers have tried various techniques from rigging Ilanders with artificial ballyhoo, pulling artificial plugs alongside dink baits, or relying on a pitch bait to throw at a big target. 

Neill and his team have gone to rigging a horse ballyhoo behind a Moldcraft chugger.  “We’ve caught blue marlin on a naked ballyhoo and a circle hook” he says, “but they usually like something with a little more splash.”  

Neill explains that using bigger baits also allows him to use bigger tackle.  “We like to use 50s and 80s to target blue marlin, tuna, and wahoo,” he says. 

That’s because when Mid Atlantic anglers deploy their baits they don’t know whether they will encounter a bailer dolphin or a grander blue marlin.  Luckily, if they are using artificial lures or natural baits rigged with circle hooks then they are ready for anything. 


Circle Hook Studies

The circle hook controversy traces its roots back to research conducted by Dr. John Graves of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.  Between 2002 and 2009 Graves and his researchers caught 272 white marlin, 132 sails, and 123 blues using circle hooks and J-hooks.  While circle hooks showed a dramatic benefit in preventing post-release mortality in whites and sails, the same couldn’t be said for blues.  Even though a significant percentage of the whites and sails hooked with J-hooks died after they were released, only two of the 31 blue marlin that ate a J-hook did not survive.  None the less, Graves and his team concluded that the benefits to using circle hooks for blue marlin out weigh the risk of losing any more of these precious fish.