No one forgets his first white marlin. Mine came 50 miles off Virginia Beach, Virginia.
We were trolling naked ballyhoo on my buddy Ken Neill’s boat. Wind-whipped cobalt water danced toward a pale blue horizon. I was standing next to the right flat line when a pair of iridescent pectoral fins appeared behind the bait.
The world went into Matrix slow motion. I picked up the rod. The marlin batted the bait. I put the reel in free spool and let the fish eat. With line disappearing, I felt the whole crew watching. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. I counted until I felt the unaware fish move off with the bait.
“Hook ’em!” Neill yelled from the bridge. I pushed the lever drag to strike, held the rod tip low and cranked the reel hard.
When the line came tight, a silver and blue missile launched. The reel screamed as the guys cleared the teasers and lines. The marlin put on an air show, jumping, flipping and surging for its freedom. By the time someone told Neill to “go get ’em,” my reel was half empty.
The boat turned toward the fish, and I started to crank. As we gained speed, I turned the reel handle as fast as I could. “Faster!” someone yelled. I tried to find another gear.
By the time the reel was full of line, my arm felt like Jell-O. The fish wasn’t done fighting. Neill kicked the throttles to spin the boat 180 degrees. The marlin reacted by greyhounding with a half-dozen spastic lunges from the starboard to the port side of the boat. Neill chased in reverse, throwing buckets of water over the stern, soaking me to the skin.
That’s when the marlin took the fight deep, pulling streams of line and bending the rod double. Slowly, I pumped the rod and brought the 5-foot fish toward the surface. As the leader reached the rod tip, I got my first good look at the white marlin: long, lean and mean, with a silver mirror belly and midnight blue shoulders.
The marlin’s huge eye looked at me, sizing me up. A foot off the back of the boat, the fish made a spastic jump, shaking its saber in my face, and broke the line.
I stood with the rod in my hand, the tag end of the line waving like a victory flag.
Back at the dock, I was putting a line on a cleat when one of the guys asked if he could clean my sunglasses. “Uh, OK,” I said and handed him my shades. Out of nowhere, someone rushed up and pushed me into the water. I’d been “creeked,” a rite of passage reserved for an angler’s first billfish.
No matter how many marlin I catch, I’ll never forget the first. The excitement, challenge and beauty make white marlin fishing the sport of kings. People who have the means to chase any fish, anywhere, spend millions of dollars to chase marlin. Billfish tournaments are some of the richest in the world. Catching one marlin can pay out seven figures. And the Mid-Atlantic is where anglers get a shot at the world’s best white marlin fishing.
White Marlin Epicenter
Each summer, schools of white marlin ride warm-water eddies along the continental shelf. Ocean City, Maryland, is the historical hometown of Mid-Atlantic white marlin fishing. After a hurricane cut an inlet to Assawoman Bay in 1933, local anglers discovered marlin fishing offshore. A few years later, President Franklin Roosevelt returned from a fishing trip and dubbed the resort “White Marlin Capital of the World.” More than 80 years ago, the Ocean City Marlin Club formed to promote the area’s fishing and protect the resource for future generations.
One member of those future generation is Capt. Jon Duffie, the poster boy of Ocean City marlin fishing. With 57 releases in one day (the Ocean City record) and numerous tournament wins, Duffie and his family are fixtures in the community.
After catching thousands of white marlin, Duffie still remembers his first. “I was 8 or 10 years old,” recalls Duffie, who fishes the Spencer 62 Billfisher. Young Duffie was fishing on his parents’ 25-foot Bertram when they scored a white. “We killed the fish,” he says, “and my job was to keep wet towels on it.”
That fish stuck a bill in Duffie’s heart. Each summer, white marlin fever brings the best anglers in the world to town, and though he’s traveled the world fishing for billfish and winning tournaments, nothing compares to the one in his own backyard.
The White Marlin Open, held each August, is one of the highest-paying tournaments in the world. Last year, the five-day event pulled in 358 boats and paid out more than $5 million. The crew that caught the largest white marlin took home more than $1 million.
The tournament’s popularity is owed to its format. Many marlin tournaments award the crew that releases the most marlin, forcing anglers to focus on hooking, fighting and releasing as many fish as possible. The White Marlin Open is a kill tournament, paying out for the biggest white marlin to hit the scales. This is a one-fish race, creating a frenzy that turns the resort town into a marlin mecca.
Right in the middle of marlin central, Virginia Beach is within fishing distance of Ocean City canyons and North Carolina sea mounts. Some of the best fishing is 50 miles to the east, in Norfolk Canyon.
Though the self-proclaimed “Largest Resort City in the World” is close to the marlin bite, its fishing fleet is smaller than the ones in Ocean City or Oregon Inlet, North Carolina. To draw anglers, skippers must innovate to produce impressive numbers.
A few years ago, Capt. Randy Butler started experimenting with fishing live bait for white marlin. Granted, enticing billfish with live bait is nothing new. The tactic is popular around the world, and skippers in Virginia Beach have caught big numbers using live bait.
But Butler was the first Mid-Atlantic charter captain to turn his full attention to live-baiting, fishing primarily with tinker mackerel. He installed high-powered live wells and developed his business around the technique.
The results speak for themselves. Butler consistently releases more than 300 white marlin each summer. He’s had days with more than 50 fish. A good trip ends with more than 20 releases. “That compares to a half-dozen releases on a good day of trolling traditional dead bait,” he says.
It’s not just the numbers that bring business back. Butler says his customers like watching the bite. “The boat is moving slower than dead-bait fishing,” he says. “It’s easier to see the marlin strike the bait.” Watching an alpha predator attack its prey is the highlight of the experience; it’s like seeing a lion chase down a gazelle, like watching Wild Kingdom 20 feet off the back of the boat. “They come in lit up like a Christmas tree, buzzing like a bee,” he says.
After 40 years spent catching white marlin, Butler still remembers his first.
“My grandfather had a boat in Oregon Inlet back when the harbor was a ditch with an old restaurant called the Drafty Tavern,” he says. “You have to work to hook a white marlin. That gets people jacked up.”
The waters off Oregon Inlet are famous for excellent fishing and horrible sea conditions. The latter produces the former.
About 30 miles off Hatteras Island, the Gulf Stream collides with the Labrador Current. This intersection brings cold water from the north crashing into warm water flowing from the south. As white marlin travel along the continental shelf, they group and gorge off Oregon Inlet before swirling out into the open abyss.
The fishing grounds are closest to shore in the Mid-Atlantic, but getting to them is the hard part. Oregon Inlet is a natural breach in a barrier island. The passage has been left wild to shallow shoals and breaking waves. Fortunately, summer is the best time of year to fish, with warm, halcyon days and the marching migration of white marlin.
The combination of great fishing and challenging weather attracts some of the toughest anglers in the world. Capt. Arch Bracher is a Virginia Beach native who has been fishing out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center since the late ’80s.
“Oregon Inlet is a year-round fishing destination,” he says. From April through June, Bracher targets tuna and dolphin. When the marlin show up in July, he focuses on his favorite species for the next three months. In the winter, he travels to Mexico to continue the hunt for billfish.
Bracher’s marlin passion started when he was 10 years old. He caught his first white marlin fishing with his family out of Jensen Beach, Florida. “I still remember watching the marlin cutting through sargassum grass,” he says.
Perhaps it’s better to say, the marlin caught Bracher. When he was a teenager, he worked as a mate in Virginia Beach, then moved to the fertile waters off Oregon Inlet to work for Capt. Chip Shafer on the Temptress. “We spent the summer fishing off Oregon Inlet and Hatteras and then went to Fort Pierce, Florida, in the winter,” Bracher says, adding that the job was the best education for a marlin fisherman.
Today, Bracher fishes with some of the best marlin anglers in the world. These guys return to the dock each day flying flags for each marlin they release. The skippers must work together to find the fish, but at the end of the day, each crew works hard to fly the most marlin flags. “If anyone has a bad day, it’s not from lack of effort,” Bracher says. “People get off the boat already counting the days until their next trip.”
The competition hits a fever pitch during marlin season. As fish gather on the edge of the shelf, the big challenge is predicting where they will show up. “I like to go on a search-and-destroy mission,” Bracher says with a laugh. “What’s fun for me is getting multiple marlin to bite.”
He searches for schools of fish where he can elicit two or three marlin to attack. “You can get into an area where there is a lot of action,” he says. “They come close to the boat, swimming into the teasers, chasing the baits on the flat lines.” Marlin get so aggressive, their colors glow.
Bracher says anyone can reel in a white marlin. “We’re using light tackle and 5½ pounds of drag,” he says, making it easy for inexperienced anglers to get in on the fun. Light tackle also makes it possible for experienced anglers to catch multiple white marlin in a day.
When the bite is on and wolf packs of marlin are attacking the teasers, and the crew is firing on all cylinders — luring, hooking and chasing — fishing becomes an ethereal experience. “It’s hard for me to sink my teeth into anything else,” Bracher says.
Even anglers who fish every day can’t get enough. “On the way home from a marlin trip, I’m already excited about the next day,” Duffie says.
Randy Butler in Virginia Beach compares the challenge and excitement to bow hunting for deer. “The most seasoned anglers, guys who have caught everything, become white marlin fishermen.” And from late summer to early fall, the Mid-Atlantic is the best place to get a taste of the action. Be warned: You might be ruined for anything else.