Ken Neill, III
published in Angler Magazine
Cabo San Lucas, the Great Barrier Reef, and La Guaira Bank are some of the best marlin fishing locations in the world. Another is right here. The offshore waters of Virginia offer some of the best marlin fishing on the planet and it is right in our own backyard.
It is the white marlin that makes the mid-Atlantic a fantastic marlin destination. When the bite is on, double-digit releases are fairly common and boats returning with over 20 or even occasionally, over 40 release flags flying from their riggers are a beautiful sight seen each season. Good numbers of big blue marlin also hunt our waters making every marlin trip a big game adventure. Our other billfish: sailfish, swordfish, roundscale spearfish, and the rare longbill spearfish make grand slams of various combinations a real possibility each time we leave the dock.
Our marlin fishing season begins in May and heats up as the summer progresses. The prime months for the hot white marlin bite are August and September. The bite cools down in October and by the end of that month, it is pretty much over off of Virginia. The prime marlin fishing time also coincides with our most active tropical storm season so an active weather watch is important when planning your marlin fishing adventure.
Where the marlin are will vary with where the good water and bait is. You may find good concentrations of fish just over the 20 fathom curve. Other times, you may have to run out over 1000 fathoms. The bite will vary north to south also. Keeping track of what the boats are doing up and down the line will give you an idea of what to expect. There are times you will find boats from North Carolina all the way to New Jersey fishing together in a particularly productive area. It is a big ocean out there and the sport fishing fleets of the mid-Atlantic do a good job of sharing information with each other. This is a fishery where the various satellite sea-surface temperature services can help point you in a direction to try. As a general starting point for our area, the 100-fathom curve is typically a good depth to find billfish. From the Washington Canyon to the Norfolk Canyon and on down to the Triple 0s area (41000 LORAN line) are our normal stomping grounds while fishing for marlin when we run out of Virginia Beach.
There are a lot of different techniques used to catch marlin. White marlin are our primary target so that fish is what determines the technique we use. White marlin fishing can be very simple. The bait of choice is a smaller ballyhoo rigged to troll on a 7/0 circle hook. Light trolling gear is used, 20-30 pound class with a leader weight of 80 to 100 pound test. We pull one in each long rigger position and two in the flat line positions. That is it, very simple. While the trolling spread is very simple, white marlin fishing is much more demanding of the angler than trolling for fish like tuna, dolphin, and wahoo. This is not a fishery where you can put out some baits, go into a half-snooze and wait for something to hook itself. You will hook some white marlin that way but you are not going to come in flying 20 flags. Anglers need to be alert and “beat the fish to the rod”. The chance of a hook-up goes way up if the angler has the rod in hand, prepared to make smooth, drag-free drop back of the ballyhoo the instant the marlin touches the bait. If the fish beats you to the rod, you are playing catch-up and your odds of success go way down.
When you have a white marlin in your spread, it is likely there are others there also. While one angler is trying to hook the white marlin that you know about, the other anglers should be watching the other baits and be prepared to drop back to that next fish that is going to pop up. When you get the first fish hooked up, keep fishing. Make a big turn to the side of the boat the hooked fish is on and try to hook up some more fish.
In addition to our white marlin baits, we will pull a blue marlin bait in each short rigger position. These will be something like a horse ballyhoo behind an Ilander or a Spanish mackerel rigged behind an Express. In addition to being the bait the big blue marlin will usually go to, these baits also work as good white marlin teasers.
While our marlin trolling spread is very simple, we spice it up with a variety of teasers. There are a lot of marlin teasers out there and each boat will have their favorites. Off of each rigger, we pull a rubber squid daisy chain being chased by a big ballyhoo/Express lure combination. Those teasers are making a commotion on the surface. Under the surface, we pull a dredge or two, off of the sides of the transom, to mimic bait balls.
When you get a billfish on one of your teasers, take the teaser away from it and your very alert angler feeds it the pitch-bait that is rigged and waiting just for this situation. If that does not get your heart rate up, I do not know what will.