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Ready To Battle A Billfish

Even if you're a dedicated freshwater angler, treat yourself to a fish battle like you've never experienced. Here's our guide for novice anglers looking to land their first billfish.

Releasing blue marlin catch

First mate Tyler Valles wires then releases a 250-plus pound blue marlin aboard the 75-foot Weaver Sodium off the North Drop in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Photo: Richard Gibson)

You can blame Ernest Hemingway for igniting the general public's fascination with billfish. In his post-World War II novel, The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway vividly captured the power and beauty of a marlin as he describes the long battle between an old captain, Santiago, and a great beast. The imagery Hemingway used to describe this mythical fish captured the attention of both readers who already loved to fish, as well as those who had never held a fishing rod.

Soon after its publication, the sport of big-game fishing saw an influx of adventurous anglers looking to test their mettle against giant fish. The draw of battling a billfish still represents the North Star target for many saltwater anglers. The good news is that anyone can do it. You don't need to be a linebacker or capable of bench pressing more than 200 pounds to land a billfish of your own. I've seen 7-year-olds safely catch billfish, and more women are competing in billfish tournaments (and winning) than ever before. The sport is not only doable, it's a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding.

Unlike Santiago, who used a handline to land his billfish, today's anglers rely on modern tackle and advanced boats. You can literally catch a billfish in just a few minutes — if all goes according to plan.

In the continental United States, anglers in search of a billfish can choose from sailfish, white marlin, blue marlin, striped marlin (Pacific), and swordfish. Add Hawaii to the mix, and you can include black marlin in that list.

Fishing techniques vary depending on the species and location. Each area tends to do things a bit differently, and outfitting your own boat for billfish action is a major investment. Not only do you need a vessel capable of reaching the warm bluewater that billfish prefer, you also need a mix of rods and reels, teasers, outriggers, bait tanks, and a suite of electronics that's up to the task. You also need rigging expertise that can take years to master. For this reason, if you're new to the sport, it's best to consider booking a charter with a reputable operation. (See "Be A Charter Champ" below.) But before you plop down a deposit on a charter, you might want to consider which species of billfish makes the most sense for you.

Be A Charter Champ

When booking a billfish charter, here are a few things to consider. First, weather is always a factor, so be prepared if your trip gets canceled or postponed. Second, you're going to have to put down a deposit on your trip. This is most always refundable should you end up canceling with proper notice. Third, cost can vary somewhat, but expect to pay $1,200 to $2,500-plus for a full day fishing offshore. It might sound expensive, but you can bring up to six customers and split the cost with buddies. Lastly, it's customary to tip your crew 15% to 20%. These guys put in long hours, and most of their income is dependent on tips.

The best time to target blue and white marlin on the East Coast are the late summer months from July into September. The Florida sailfish bite, on the other hand, is more of a wintertime fishery. You can catch sails all year, but November through March are prime.

When it comes time to pick a boat, do a little research. Consider the size of the boat, especially if you want to bring youngsters or folks who are prone to seasickness. Make phone calls and ask a lot of questions. Look for reviews on TripAdvisor.com, and don't be afraid to ask for references or testimonials. The International Game Fish Association maintains a list of accredited guides.

Finally, fishing is supposed to be fun. Don't put a lot of pressure on yourself or the crew. The boat that has the most fun almost always catches the most fish.

We should note that there is also the option of targeting swordfish, but this is a more technical style of fishing with specialized gear and fishing off the bottom in water 1,000 feet deep or more. That's not for everyone, and most folks begin their offshore career trolling lures or baits with the hopes of finding a sailfish or marlin.

Snatching Sailfish

In the Southeast, and especially Florida, many anglers count sailfish as their first billfish catch. Unlike marlin, which are found offshore along the continental shelf, sailfish thrive on the reef edges in shallower water that's often within sight of land. Atlantic sailfish do not grow as large as marlin. Sails range from 40 to 80 pounds and often are targeted with lighter 20-pound conventional tackle and spinning rods. This light tackle is much easier to manage and more comfortable for youngsters if you're looking to plan a family outing.

While sailfish may be small, they make up for their lack of size with energetic, aerial displays as they backflip behind the boat, waving their tall sail-like dorsal fin around like a super hero's cape.

Because they thrive closer to shore, you don't need a big boat to catch sails. A 25-foot-plus center-console is perfect for this fishery. But to be successful, you need a lot of tackle, experience, and in many cases, live bait, which can take hours to catch.

There are two techniques used to catch sailfish in Florida: trolling naked ballyhoo rigged on circle hooks, and fishing with live bait. In Stuart and Fort Pierce, most crews prefer to pull dead baits. In South Florida and the Florida Keys, fishing live baits, often with the help of kites, is the preferred method. If you get bored easily, trolling might not be your best bet. There's a saying that trolling for billfish equates to hours of boredom for a few minutes of the most insane fishing of your life. Kite-fishing, on the other hand, involves constant adjustments so you're always doing something. The crew will set out one or two kites and use clips to attach fishing lines to the kite lines. This way they can stagger their live baits away from the boat and fish six or more baits at one time. When a sailfish takes a bait, the line pops out of the clip and falls away from the kite. It's very visual, and there are few things as cool as seeing a bright-blue sailfish pounce on a bait.

Lure box

For novice anglers, lures are a much easier method to hook a fish because they do most of the work for you. (Photo: Charlie Levine)

When billfish are excited, they flash vibrant blues, purples, and silver on their flanks and fins. When you hear someone say that a fish is "lit up," they're referring to the fish's neon colors that are hard to miss. Often times, sailfish hunt in groups and you can hook four or more fish at the same time, making for some chaotic, adrenaline-inducing action that you won't soon forget.

Sailfish hot spots include Florida's Treasure Coast, South Florida and the Florida Keys. Sails are also common throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Carolinas. The Florida bite is best from November through March, but they're found year-round.

Wrangle White Marlin

The white marlin is a wily fish that will test the skill of any angler. They're slight, fast, and tend to hunt in hungry packs. When a group of whites shows up behind the boat, they sometimes zigzag from bait to bait before attacking one. Like sailfish, they're small in stature, typically running from 50 to 70 pounds, but they're one of the most gorgeous fish you'll encounter on the rip. And when you locate them, you can put up impressive numbers. Twenty white marlin releases in one day is not uncommon.

White marlin begin to show up in numbers off the Mid-Atlantic coast in July, with August and September being prime time. Crews target white marlin along the continental shelf, where depths fall off into the thousands. The deep-water canyons off of New Jersey, Maryland, and the Carolinas mark the best spots to try your luck. Because you're running 40- to 60-plus miles, watch the weather carefully and expect a hefty fuel bill.

This is a trolling fishery. Crews pull large teasers known as dredges that carry up to 100 baits and look like large bait balls following the boat around. The dredges attract the marlin or "tease them up." Once you spot a white marlin behind the boat, the trick is to get the fish to turn on a hook bait. The best part about this fishery is seeing the bite. Hooking your own fish is always a thrill, but it takes some time to learn. Tell the captain that you're new to the game and ask for pointers. All crews like to put an angler on his or her first billfish and see the joy it brings. Ask them to show you the best way to hold the rod and slide the drag lever into position to set the hook. And most importantly, listen to their instructions. These guys fish day in and day out. They're the best coaches on the water.

White marlin hot spots include Ocean City, Maryland, aka the ‘White Marlin Capital of the World;' Cape May, New Jersey; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Oregon Inlet, North Carolina.

Bribing Blue Marlin

If you really want to test your mettle and experience the true power of a billfish, then put the blue marlin on your bucket list. The Atlantic world-record blue weighed 1,402 pounds. Now you probably don't want to yank on that fish as your first-ever blue, but 1,000-pounders are out there. The blue marlin doesn't show up in the same numbers as whites or sails. However, if you book a white marlin or tuna charter anywhere on the East Coast or Gulf Coast, you may get lucky and spot a blue. Having five or more shots at blue marlin in one day is good fishing.

Whenever trolling offshore, whether it's for mahi mahi or tuna, top crews keep a big pitch bait rigged and ready should they see the airplane-like pec fins of a big blue marlin appear behind a lure. Big-game crews usually use a large "horse" ballyhoo, split-tail mullet, or Spanish mackerel for a pitch. These baits are sometimes combined with a chugger-style lure head and rigged on a hefty 12/0 hook. Pitch-baiting big fish takes practice and steel nerves, but this is what deckhands live for. Watch and learn, and get ready to jump into the fighting chair.

Tip

What’s a fighting chair? It's the opposite of a love seat. The fighting chair is bolted to the deck of the cockpit and has a footrest that you plant your feet against so you can use all of your body weight to pull against a big fish.

Blue marlin will happily strike a big trolling lure as it leaves a bubble trail on the surface of the ocean. For novice anglers, lures are a much easier method to hook a fish. The lures do most of the work for you. Just wait for a line to slam out of the outrigger clip and be ready to grab the rod. However, lure fishing doesn't always provide for the best hook-up percentage. An excited marlin may take a swipe at a lure with its bill and never come tight. Pitch-baiting, when done properly, is a more effective method to hook marlin. And the thrill of dropping a bait down the gullet of a blue marlin will make your knees knock.

A fight with a blue marlin may be 15 minutes or three hours, depending on the captain, the boat, and how the fish is hooked. Either way, you'll be treated to a personal show from one of the ocean's most impressive predators. Try to keep your jaw from hitting the deck as the fish blasts off like a ballistic missile. You'll want someone on camera duty to document all of the jumps, tail slaps, and shouts of joy.

Seduce Sstripes And Blacks

If you live on the West Coast, striped marlin are a newbie's best bet. Marlin fishing off California is fickle. It varies from year to year, and because the bite doesn't happen at the exact time each year, it makes it very tough to plan a trip and there aren't many charters to be found. This is mostly a private-boat fishery where you have to be able to get up and go when someone calls and says, "They're biting! Get here tomorrow." For that reason, many West Coast billfish hunters prefer to fish in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, or Kona, Hawaii — both locations offering top-shelf guides who will put you on fish.

The bottom line with billfish is you don't need to be an expert angler to tackle one. However, you do want to be out there with a knowledgeable crew to show you the ropes. Some things are best left to the pros, and once you get bit by the billfish bug, you may just end up investing in a bigger boat and some heavier tackle.

Author

Charles Levine

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Charlie Levine is a lifelong angler and boater turned marine journalist with multiple publications. He is currently the editor and publisher of fishtrack.com, a website that provides anglers with tools they need to help them catch fish. He is now grooming his sons Maxon and Cooper to be his angling buddies.