Find the billfish with these tips
For saltwater fishermen who visit the Outer Banks regularly, September is a magical time. People from all over the world elbow their way to our docks, fill the motels, and mostly fill all the available boats.
The reason? A silvery-blue billfish that rarely reaches the 100-pound mark and is known by the name “white” marlin.
Appearing in the spring, white marlin spread out from Cape Cod to Cape Fear; in the fall, they all come back together in vast numbers off the Outer Banks. Here, they fatten on baitfish for about three weeks just before their October migration toward Florida. At the end of that peninsula, the split into two groups, one turning westward to overwinter in the Gulf of Mexico, and the other staying a southward course to overwinter off Venezuela.
White marlin are most abundant from mid-August through September from Rudee Inlet, Va., to Oregon Inlet. The greatest number of those caught and released are by boats that pass through Oregon Inlet, with more from Hatteras, Ocracoke, and Morehead City.
Oregon Inlet passage to the fishing grounds is used by three important marinas, the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center (at the Herbert C. Bonner bridge), Pirates Cove Fishing Center (in Manteo), and Broad Creek Marina (in Wanchese).
To the south, Hatteras Inlet provides the shortest run to deep, offshore waters and the Gulf Stream, but boats from Oregon Inlet seldom round Cape Hatteras to fish. Hatteras Inlet is used by the charter fleet based at Hatteras Harbor Marina, Teach’s Lair Marina, and other docks all adjacent in the small hamlet of Hatteras. This time of year, the Hatteras boats get some white marlin, but their portion of the bluewater is known more for a surge in sailfish.
Capt. Jesse Granitzki of the Bi-Op-Sea out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center attributes the great September white marlin action to the result of a proliferation of eddies peeling off the Gulf Stream and ambling slowly to the south. The eddies can be large or small, inshore or offshore, from 35 to 1,500 fathoms, but they have clear water. White marlin, like their bigger cousins, blue marlin, prefer clear, slow-drifting eddies and stay inside them, so he heads for an eddy without regard to structure or depth, although 100 fathoms is about the minimum for outstanding white marlin action.
He had a big day last Sept. 21, when he boated 28 white marlin and sailfish. He said finding “birds over the fish” was the key factor in the catch.
Predicting the white marlin peak is hindered by seasonal storms that keep boats in port and skew the data, but Oregon Inlet Fishing Center’s loges from last September indicate that the fleet averaged five to seven white marlin per boat from Sept. 5 to Sept. 17. The day after a four-day weather blow, Sept. 21, the fleet logged more than 300 releases, led by Qualifier with 28 billfish, Pelican and High Return each had 17, Legasea and Skirt Chaser 13 each, Trophy Hunter 11 and Fightin’ Lady with 10. The next day, the fleet recorded more than 200 releases, and the catches didn’t taper off much. That’s just one marina and doesn’t include the releases by boats from Pirates Cove and Broad Creek marinas that fish the same grounds and see the same action.
Capt. Fin Gaddy of the Qualfier out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center uses light, stand-up tackle for white marlin, and he keeps it simple. Gaddy likes Biscayne Legacy standup rods with Shimano Talica 20 or 25 TAC reels loaded with 50- to 65-pound braided backing Uni-knotted to 30-pound Sufix line that ends with an 80-pound leader. He likes the TAC’s five feet of retrieve per revolution, faster than the TLD and about the same as the Fin Nor, and it can be crammed with 600 yards of braid and mono, enough even for blue marlin.
Gaddy sets out only four rods, two flat lines and two long lines from each side, each carrying a small ,skirtless ballyhoo with a quarter-ounce chin weight on a 2004 Eagle Claw 7/0 circle hook, with the strike set at twelve pounds. He pulls two pink or green dredges, one with a and the other a squid chain, and he runs a single Hawaiian eye with a bonito (false albacore) strip. That’s not too many lines to track and speeds up the response time.
There is no best bottom, depth and place. It’s about good clear water and locating masses of baitfish first by birds and then confirmed by sonar. Birds are Gaddy’s best indicators, so they’re his first target area.
Even if the birds are gone after he arrives, the bait might still be there, but deeper. He uses a Furano 1150 bottom machine with 250, wide-beam CH transducer.
“The biggest cone is at 30 fathoms, but I can track everything from 22 to 50 fathoms,” he said.
He looks for bait in the top 30 fathoms and can pick out individual billfish stalking them. He recently marked a billfish by its big blue slash at 21 fathoms before it hit one of his baits. The bottom machine lights up anything and how deep it is, so he can go round and round to stay with the bait and stalk a billfish that comes into view. Deeper billfish need to be teased up to hit, and without sonar, you could run past a billfish below. If he spots one deep, he “might circle two or three times to sink the baits and get the mark to enter the spread,” he said.
For how long? Gaddy will stay with a big-bait aggregation all day if he can. He’d rather stay with the bait than chug off looking for a different bait mass. He bets that billfish will eventually find the bait, and that’s where he needs to be. On his best days, he said, “I cover the smallest area.”
Farther south at Teach’s Lair in Hatteras, Capt.Randy Turner, who runs the Legasea, said, “We get most whites from the first half of September into October,” but not in double digits. Hatteras boats get an upsurge in sailfish under the same conditions and in the same areas as they get white marlin in September and into October. Turner runs from Diamond Shoals Tower southwest to the 900 line, starting at the 100-fathom curve. It gets deeper fast. He also looks for birds and down to his depth sounder.
Turner prefers light stand-up tackle, favoring Shimano reels, and baits up with small, unskirted ballyhoo off six or seven lines. His reels are typically loaded with 20-pound line, a 60- to 80-pound leader, and the weighted ballyhoo is tied to a 7/0 circle hook. It’s overall: 20-pound class tackle that doesn’t tire the fisherman or kill the fish.
Capt. David Wilson of the Godspeed, fishing out of Hatteras Harbor Marina, said sailfish are the major billfish in September. A lot of people come for wahoo action, but you have to concentrate on one or the other.
“We’ve never caught double-digit white marlin,” he said, but double-digit sailfish are common. “Trouble is, it’s hard to fish for billfish and wahoo simultaneously, and people want both.”
He attributed the better numbers sailfishing and fewer white marlin to the strong currents and fewer eddies off Hatteras. White and blue marlin avoid currents, maybe because they don’t like chasing bait and would rather it come to them. “The water south of the Cape is also warmer,” he said, but it is currents and clarity rather than temperature that affected billfish aggregations.
“White marlin fishing is better above Cape Hatteras because of the frequency of long-lasting eddies coming down through cooler water shoreward of the Gulf Stream,” said Wilson, who sees September fishing as a continuation of summer rather than the start of fall because of the sailfish and wahoo numbers,
“Some years, sailfish ball bait here, just like in Mexico,” he said.
The same trips can produce dolphin and, if you’re using wire leader, lots of wahoo. He normally fishes mostly surface rigs and just one planer, but he gets wahoo on all of them.
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