The close proximity of the Gulf Stream and the edge of the continental shelf creates a productive combination of current, bluewater, and ocean temperature that attracts a wide variety of gamefish - including blue marlin. This area of deep blue sea and sheer cliff bottom is located within 45 miles to the entrance of Winyah Bay.
Within easy reach of Winyah Bay, anglers have access to Gulf Stream waters and fish-attracting structure such as the "Georgetown Hole," a steep canyon-like set of contours where the bottom drops away from 140 to more than 700 feet in a span of a few hundred yards. Other productive areas include the "Georgetown Scarp," the "Southwest Banks," the "Sanctuary" and "Bubble Rock." These locations attract fish all the way up the food chain from baitfish to blue marlin and many species of gamefish in-between including yellowfin tuna, blackfin tuna, wahoo, dolphin, white marlin and sailfish.
Ed Keelin of Full Pull Charters sets up shop at Georgetown Landing Marina. Keelin has fished offshore for almost 20 years, first as a mate, and since 1998 as a captain. He has fished the offshore waters of both North Carolina and South Carolina, along with Florida and the Bahamas.
Keelin concentrates on blue marlin in May, preparing for the 42nd Annual Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament, which will be held May 27-30 out of Georgetown Landing. The tournament is the second of the season in the Governor's Cup Billfish Series.
Marlin fishing this time of year means trolling a variety of baits, from strictly artificial lures to natural-rigged baits to a combination of the two. Blue marlin are monsters when compared to "meat fish" - dolphin, tuna, and wahoo - and they even dwarf other billfish such as sailfish and white marlin.
"Believe it or not, marlin fishing requires less finesse than trolling for sailfish," Keelin said. "A sail will come up and eye-ball a bait and even swat at it with its bill. It's nothing for a blue marlin to charge out of 100 feet of water and have the rod bent double before you're aware you got a bite."
Blue marlin are aggressive fish that respond well to the splash, bubble trail, and action of a well-presented artificial lure. Offshore captains debate specific rigging and use of hooks, but the key is a natural presentation as the bait skips along behind the boat.
"I prefer a Mold Craft bait rigged on a stiff rig with a single hook," Keelin said, "This early in the season, we don't see a lot of sails, so it's the marlin bite we're after."
A typical marlin lure is seven to 14 inches long and has a molded-plastic head and a skirt. The design of the head defines the lure's action when trolled. Actions range from a wobbling, swimming pattern to pushing water aggressively on the surface to tracking along in a straight line with a regular surface pop and smoky bubble trail. Experienced anglers will fine-tune their lures, often with subtle variations to yield the desired action.
"There is no set standard in how you rig or how you present baits," said Keelin. "It's the attention to detail that will make a difference. Every time I walk down the dock, I'm learning something new by seeing how other captains have their baits rigged or have their spreads set up."
Artificial lures are normally fished at speeds between 7½ to 11 knots; slower speeds in the 5- to 7-knot range are used less-frequently - primarily by boats fishing big natural baits.
"One reason I prefer artificials is you can cover more water by trolling at a faster speed," Keelin said. "A big natural bait like a horse ballyhoo or a Spanish mackeral won't tolerate being pulled that fast, and it's harder to properly hook a bigger bait with the circle hooks that are now required when used for any combination using a natural bait."
These speeds allow substantial areas to be effectively worked in a day's fishing. A pattern of four or more lures is trolled at varying distances behind the boat. Lures may be fished either straight from the rod tip, a tactic commonly referred to as flat-lining, or from outriggers, long extention poles that help pull baits out to the side of the boat.
"We'll run five to six lures in a normal spread - an outrigger on each side of the boat, a flatline off each gunnel and one in the center of the spread," Keelin said. "The distance back depends on the condition of the seas. The outriggers will be set in the sixth and seventh waves coming off the boat, while the flat lines will be between the third and fourth waves. The center bait will be closer - just outside the prop wash."
Surface commotion is important in drawing strikes. Keelin indicated that the boat provides the most commotion, stirring things up and setting into motion a chain of events.
"We'll use a teaser, most often a squid chain of five to six Mold Craft rubber squid with no hooks," said Keelin. "These will make a lot of splash and commotion just inside the flat lines and hopefully makes it appear that the rigged baits are a pod of little tunas or peanut dolphin chasing the squid."
The Georgetown Hole is always near the top of the list when captains discuss the best billfish locations. It encompasses a variety of edges that makes everything work. While "The Hole" is high on the list, it's not the only location where Georgetown captains like to troll.
"The unique thing about Georgetown Hole is there's an area where the 30-fathom curve and the 100-fathom curve come within 200 yards of each other," he said. "The warm water current pushes straight up and brings with it nutrients from the bottom which attracts tons of baitfish. I have been out there on a slick day and have personally witnessed a 3-foot upwelling of current at the surface. It's like fishing at the mouth of a river."
Other destinations on Keelin's favorites list are the Georgetown Scarp and the Southwest Banks. He may work his way across one spot all day from various directions, or he may try to cover as much water as possible and troll from one area to the other on others.
"There are little bumps and cuts all along the curve that produce for different anglers," he said. "The ledge twists and turns, and then when you factor in temperature curves, wind direction and tidal currents, it's easy to understand how big an area it is. Through it all, we're dragging around, looking for bites."