Billfish Primer

Where and when should you try to catch an Atlantic billfish off the N.C. coast? Here’s the advice of some of the state’s expert captains.

Six billfishes swim in North Carolina waters — Atlantic sailfish, white marlin, Atlantic blue marlin, shortbill spearfish, longbill spearfish, and swordfish.

Our most common species are sailfish and white marlin.

Blue marlin are larger, fewer and harder to catch. Marlins are associated with high-profile deep structure, particular types of water or current (or lack of current) and method.

Just going out into the ocean and running around isn’t the way to catch marlin.

Swordfish are even more specialized, and few skippers target them.


Most billfishing is with big (35- to 70-feet long) charterboats because few guys on my block or yours have anything bigger than 24 feet, and it’s usually rigged for water-skis.

Costs of a charter range from $1,000 to $1,500 for a day offshore for up to six anglers. And don’t forget another 20 percent tip for the mate.

The hard part is getting checks from your five friends before you use your credit card for the 50-percent deposit.

Many marinas accommodate walk-ins with make-up charters, asking that you come to the office, leave a deposit, and show up the next morning.

Best Places

The best locations are submarine features where the Gulf Stream crosses massive structures and mixes waters with nutrients from the bottom.

Due east of Virginia Beach, the Norfolk Canyon is a cleft of an ancient river that drained the middle Atlantic seaboard millions of years ago.

The steep old river banks plummet thousands of feet and proliferate with sponges, corals, and other life you’d expect to find at a coral reef.

The next-best spot is The Point east of Oregon Inlet, where the Continental Shelf makes a bend parallel to the shorelines of North Carolina and Virginia, and the southward rushing Labrador Current crashes into the warm water Gulf Stream.

Like the Norfolk Canyon, currents sweep nutrients upward to nourish plankton blooms and bring predators.

Farther south, the major feature east of Morehead City is the Big Rock, a flat-topped plateau that’s the most northward of the Bahamas Banks (or at least a cousin). Even farther south is the Charleston Bump, a bigger plateau at the edge of the shelf, so large it extends almost the entire length of the South Carolina coast and is almost 17 miles wide in the middle.

Best Temps/Depths

Sailfish like hotter water and come closer to shore than other billfish.

Their peak is summer in North Carolina when there’s no temperature difference between the Gulf Stream and coastal waters. Sails will chase bait in 20 feet of water, which means they’re occasionally hooked from fishing piers.

They become less common at lower temperatures, so better places are ports in the Wilmington, Morehead and Hatteras areas.

Virginia Beach, Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Inlet ports produce lots of white marlin, mostly during late August or early September when all the whites in the middle Atlantic Bight come together prior to their non-stop dash to South Florida and beyond.

White marlin prefer deeper water than sails, with 50 fathoms a good starting point to look for them.

Blue marlin range everywhere but usually at 100 fathoms or deeper. Blues are most common in May and August as they migrate north and south with the seasons. They follow prey like other fish and are capable of eating dolphins and small tunas.

Generally the average Atlantic Coast sailfish weighs 35 pounds, the average white marlin 75 pounds, and the average blue marlin 300 pounds, although blues get larger than 1,000 pounds.

Tackle is matched to the fish.

Tackling Billfish

Charley Pereira skippers the Sushi out of Pirates Cove Fishing Center (252-216-6291) and fishes out of Ocean City during its Aug. 6-10 White Marlin Open tournament.

The tournament rules say boats must fish within 100 miles of the sea buoy. Pereira often fishes south of the Norfolk Canyon and north of Oregon Inlet.

“The best time for whites is the first full moon in August for Hatteras and Oregon inlets,“ he said.

He usually fishes for blue marlin at the 100-fathom curve but may work anywhere from 50 to 500 fathoms, and he has found whites as shallow as 20 or 30 fathoms.

Pereira pulls high-speed plugs at 1400 rpm (8 to 10 knots) during blue marlin tournaments, favoring Hawaiian Black Bart chuggers and angle-faced plugs and custom-made plugs called Pittsburgh Steelers (yellow and black) and Baby Yellowfin (on which he’s had three blue marlin so far).

He runs slower with small meat baits for white marlin, mixing dink and guacamole circle-hook ballyhoo rigs with 80- to 130-pound-test leader with 6/0 or 7/0 hooks or 7/0 or 8/0 black circle hooks with the swivel at the top of the baitfish head (guacamole) and 16 to 18 inches of single-strand rigging wire and favors a girdle to a barrel swivel.

A jumping sailfish is one of the delights of offshore fishing. Some days boats will get a dozen bites from billfish ranging from white to blue marlins to sailfish.

Pereira generally pulls two blue marlin and four or five white marlin baits.

“The best locations out of Oregon Inlet,” he said, “are ‘The Point’ to the Triple Zeros (55 to 60 miles northeast), the Rockpile (60 miles southeast), and almost anywhere from 35 to 45 miles out where it’s 100 fathoms to start.”

Pereira said he finds bigeye tuna from The Point to the 800 or 850 line and at the Norfolk Canyon any time of year.

Jay Cavanagh of the Bite Me out of Hatteras Harbor Marina encourages stand-up light tackle with TLD 25s loaded with 30-pound line.

“They’re good for whites and sails,” he said, “rigged with small naked ballyhoos.”

Cavanagh uses J and circle hooks (he has no preference) but rigs them differently since you can’t kneed a circle hook through a bally’s belly.

Maybe some people can handle a 300-pound fish with stand-up tackle (it’s been done with tuna), but blue marlin aren’t tuna, don’t do a simple tug of war and require a fighting chair for a fighting chance.

Billfish rarely are so thoroughly hooked they can’t jump off a slack line.

For blue marlin, Kavanagh pulls two Shimano Tiagra 50W outfits rigged with 300 yards of 80-pound overlaying and 600 yards of Power Pro braided 100-pound-test line.

The bait will be a horse ballyhoo dressed with an Ilander or other skirt to brush weeds and debris away and add pizzazz to a bait or artificial plug pulled faster.

“You need to make noise to bring them up,” Kavanagh said.

He sets out plastic squid daisy chains to slap the top of the water and a subsurface teaser (dredge) held 2-feet down off a down-rigger with 5 pounds of lead. The dredge might be an umbrella rig of plastic split-tail mullet, but he mixes equipment to make a commotion.

He also has a couple of stand-by baited outfits, one big and one small, to pitch at billfish inspecting the noise at the boat.

“We’ll often see packs of whites, so it’s important to be ready to throw another bait to a fish’s buddy,” he said.

Kavanagh listens to the radio.

“We all share information,” he said.

But he starts at the 100-fathom curve, watching for marks (birds, splashing bait, debris), of reduced or no current for blue marlin. He likes stand-up tackle for whites and sails, but nothing beats a blue marlin any way you can get it.

Rom Whitaker of the Release out of Hatteras Harbor Marina (252-216-6106) said July and August are tops for sails, whites, and blue marlin from Hatteras Inlet. Although blue marlin favor deep water, his last blue marlin was in 14 fathoms “because the bait was 14 to 20 fathoms,” he said.

Whitaker works the Triple Zeros (39,800 or 39,900 out to the 40,400 line) or goes to the 280 Rocks at the tower or along the 100-fathom curve. He looks for cigar minnows, squid or small mackerel that bring bigger predators.

“Blue marlin will eat dolphin, bonito and squid,” he said, so if he spots them, he pays close attention to the big outfits.

He uses 20- or 30-pound stand-up tackle for whites and sails. The drags are set at 5 or 6 pounds, and the baits trail 80-pound leaders to withstand chafing. He’ll pull three or four small baits attached to light outfits and two big baits with heavy gear for blue marlin.

He uses dink baits (small ballyhoo without wire tags) and naked or pink-skirted ballyhoo.

Circle hooks require different rigging. The hooks are laid against the head of the bait (not through it) or wired in front with a bridle holding the baitfish.

For blue marlin, Whitaker pulls a horse ballyhoo cloaked by an Ilander or Sea Witch to force aside debris and a J-hook using No. 12 wire or 400-pound monofilament wrapping leader.

He has several 80-pound Penn Internationals loaded with 100- to 130-pound-test line. It’s sit-down fishing, as big blues are too scarce for fooling around.

Whitaker hasn’t seen any decline in white marlin.

“Marlin fishing has been excellent the last three or four years,” he said, “with opportunities for a grand slam in July and August. Some days we get ten or a dozen bites of mixed billfish.”

All 20 offshore charter boats at this marina get dolphin, wahoo and some tuna in mid-summer, so it’s not all awaiting billfish.

Whitaker said the peak is about a month earlier than at Oregon Inlet, and the ride out only an hour and a quarter to 100 fathoms, making Hatteras Inlet the closest port to the Gulf Stream. Whitaker said,

“About 20 percent of the trips here are make-ups,” he said, so a boat is not hard to find.

Down south at Wilmington, the Gulf Stream is farther offshore, but in mid-summer sailfish enter coastal hot water almost to the beach. Brant McMullen at the Ocean Isle Fishing Center said August had lots of sailfish well into September.

“We usually troll 35 miles out in 100 to 200 feet of water where there’s structure,” he said.

He puts out a blunt teasers to make a commotion at the surface and plastic squid daisy chains with a hookless ballyhoo at the end. He trolls them about 30 yards behind the stern.

“Teasers and daisy chains bring sails right up to the boat,” he said, “and we have a couple of pitch-bait rigged outfits ready for them.”

McMullen has 30-pound class spinning and conventional pitch outfits at the ready, rigged with naked ballyhoo on a 5/0 hook and 50-pound leader.

Most trips he loads up on wahoo, dolphin, and king mackerel, but sails are everywhere in August.

He makes blue marlin trips, but they’re few and scattered, and he has to run to the 100-fathom line to find them. The Gulf Stream about 55 miles away and the best place for all billfish.

He fishes big Mold Craft plugs or a rigged Spanish mackerel for blues and runs them deep.


This year on Second to None’s (Morehead City, 252-422-0066) third trip of its first season targeting swordfish, Capt. Shane Brafford’s happy party had four bites, got two to the boat, lost one at the gaff, and boated a nice one. He and everyone else were happy as clams, as swords are hard to hook and easy to lose.

Brafford leaves in late morning to find bait and fish daytime fish, and sets out his swordfish rigs after dark some 60 miles out in 300 fathoms.

“We drift with four rods using balloon floats and whole squid baits down at different depths from 50 to 250 feet and light up with water-activated light sticks or strobe lights,” he said.

The excitement of four hits during the last trip was terrific, and the captain, crew and anglers got one back to the dock. At dawn it was time to go home.

He thought four guys fishing was optimal, but you might talk him into more.

Swordfish get any size they want, and at night almost anything can find your bait, so every trip is different. Like blue marlin, there are no guarantees and the weather has the final word.

Brafford may be the only skipper offering swordfish charters in North Carolina.

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