Fishing for Mid-Atlantic Billfish

A sailfish shows off its trademark move: a spectacular leap.
Harry Hindmarsh

The best billfishers know that every season brings new challenges, demanding flexibility and fine-tuning of strategies and techniques. In past summers, mid-Atlantic anglers fishing live bait hit big on white marlin. Other years, it seemed the whites got selective, turning their bills up at anything that wasn’t a dead tinker mackerel. Then, in some scenarios, when white marlin were scattered and catches were few and far between, anglers saw a surge in both blue marlin and sailfish catches. It’s anyone’s guess what the next season will bring, but anglers willing to experiment stand the best chance of breaking the code on any given year.

Marlin Fishing with Faster Trolling Speeds

“If last year white marlin fishing was tough,” says Capt. Jeremy Blunt of Ocean City, Maryland. “Then the next year will probably be better,” he says, only half joking. Turning serious, Blunt notes that the local marlin fishing seems to follow an on-and-off pattern.

As for the difficult seasons, Blunt points to a lack of bait. “We don’t always have the schools of mackerel and squid,” he says. That abundance of bait is the most important factor in finding catchable numbers of marlin, even more important than water conditions. Blue-green to blue water is the most promising, Blunt says, but “if I find bait in greener water, I know I have a chance of finding the fish.”

Blunt most often found the conditions he was looking for in Washington and Poor Man’s canyons. “The fish are spread out, from 50 fathoms out to 500,” he says. With both the bait and billfish scarce, Blunt adjusted his tactics to cover more water and boost his odds of running into marlin.

To locate fish when they’re spread out, Blunt employs a high-speed spread that includes artificial lures. He runs larger Black Bart Breakfast and Brazilliano lures [1] on the short riggers just behind his squid teasers [2], and occasionally he runs a Pakula Original Sprocket [3] down the center. For white marlin that come into the spread, he runs small ballyhoo [4] on the flat lines, just ahead of a three-tiered dredge [5].
Steve Sanford

“Some years we will try 10-knot trolling,” he says. Instead of pulling the traditional spread of ballyhoo at 5½ knots, he bumped up his speed to 10 knots for greater water coverage. Besides covering more water, Blunt says high-speed trolling fires up the fish he is able to find.

To accommodate faster trolling speeds, Blunt adjusted his spread. “We put out three plugs and two dink baits,” he says. He runs artificial lures on the short riggers and center line, with dink (small) ballyhoo, rigged on a circle hook on 30-pound outfits on the flat lines, off the transom. Running the artificial lures attracted both blue and white marlin, and it saved natural bait, which washes out quickly at higher speed.

Blunt rigs his lures with a single hook on 530-pound Momoi X-Hard leader. “I hook more fish with one hook than two,” he explains. The large lure is perfect for blue marlin, but should a white come up on one, Blunt drops back one of the ballyhoo rigs and tries to tease it off the lure. Blunt finds that when fast-trolling brings up the fish, they usually mean business. Large lures moving at high speed excites them. “When a marlin comes into the spread, it isn’t window-shopping,” he says. “The fish attack aggressively, and everyone has to stay on their toes and be ready.”

Live Bait Fishing for Marlin

Live bait produces the greatest numbers of white and blue (pictured) marlin.
Mark Going/Columbia Sportswear

There is no argument live bait produces the greatest numbers of marlin. Capt. Randy Butler, who charters out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, says his best season was 437 white marlin. There is no secret to his success; he slow-trolls live tinker mackerel and drives white marlin mad.

But just because live bait catches the most marlin, it doesn’t mean fishing is always easy. Butler’s fortunes rise and fall on the availability of the small, bullet-shaped mackerel. “Some years I didn’t see as much bait,” Butler admits, but adapting his techniques to the challenge, he still enjoys great years on blue marlin, finding them in the 50- to 500-fathom range.

Butler says the 2019 year was unprecedented for blue marlin in his local waters, from the Washington Canyon to south of the North Carolina border. “We caught 38 blues, the most ever out of Virginia Beach,” he says. In just four trips, he tallied 12 blue marlin catches. 

To slow-troll live baits, Capt. Randy Butler keeps his spread swimming tightly around his three-tiered dredges [1] and plastic squid teasers [2], which he runs slightly behind and outside the dredges. He pulls four live baits: two on short rigger lines, 20 feet behind the teasers [3], and two on long rigger lines, 30 feet behind the shorts [4]. He keeps pitch baits staged in tuna tubes for marlin that move in close [5].
Steve Sanford

To start his day, Butler searches for schools of tinker mackerel on the bottom, then drops a Sabiki rig with five long-shank hooks dressed in red rubber tubing into the school. Butler keeps his live baits in two 50-gallon baitwells plumbed into his deck, but weekend anglers can keep dozens of tinker mackerel alive in a 55-gallon drum with a high-speed pump and large overflow.

Once he has a few dozen baits, he rigs them by bridling through the nose with floss twisted onto an 8/0 Owner inline circle hook. He sets them out and trolls slowly, moving along at 3 to 4 knots. To draw marlin to the spread, Butler uses a three-tiered dredge and squid-chain teasers. Since he’s trolling slowly, his teasers are rigged with 10 large squid punctuated with a naked tinker mackerel. The dredge carries two tiers of Sebile lures and a tier of rigged mullet.

Fast-trolling hooked lures and teasers brings up aggressive billfish intent on eating.
Harry Hindmarsh

Hooking a marlin with a circle hook is never easy, and slow-trolling live bait makes it even harder. Marlin that come into the spread are usually less aggressive and moving slower than when they attack artificials towed at faster speeds. In addition, the large live bait offers more opportunity to miss the setup and pull the hook.

To seal the deal, Butler gives the fish a longer drop-back, taking the reel out of gear and giving the fish plenty of time to eat. When he’s sure the fish has taken the bait solidly, he tightens the drag and cranks in the slack. With the line tight, Butler puts his thumb on the spool and gives the rod three strong jerks to set the hook. “Jamming the hook before the fish jumps increases the hookup ratio,” he says.

The post Fishing for Mid-Atlantic Billfish appeared first on Salt Water Sportsman.

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