Billfish Head North

As water temperatures warm, anglers are pumped to find more marlin in the northeast
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Marlin, like this blue, are being found farther north every year.

Marlin, like this blue, are being found farther north every year.

From the high blue sky, cobalt water and puffy white clouds, one might mistake these fishing grounds for South America or somewhere in the Caribbean. Miles of open ocean are punctuated with high-powered sportfishing boats trolling for white marlin. It’s not unusual to see anglers standing in the cockpits of multimillion-dollar yachts, watching the spread of baits off transoms. These boats often travel the world in search of billfish, but they also troll waters here in the Northeast.

Why are more big-game anglers heading to this part of the world? In recent years, warm water has moved farther up the coast, carrying with it world-class billfish, including marlin. A fleet of boats owned by die-hard, no-holds-barred anglers follow the fish wherever they go, even into New England.

These anglers consider white marlin the ultimate sportfish. One reason is white marlin live in places few anglers can reach. In addition, it takes meticulous rigging and fine-tuned skills to fool the fish. But the best part of white marlin fishing is the incredible bite. Nothing beats the excitement of a white marlin taking the bait.

“We’re seeing more fish moving north,” says Capt. Rich Barrett, who knows crews that chase the fish as far north as Montauk, New York, and even Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Barrett grew up fishing off New Jersey with his father, Pete, a former charter captain and editor at The Fisherman magazine. “In the eighties and nineties, we would catch lots of tuna and occasionally a white or blue marlin,” Barrett says. Today, he runs Shark Byte, a 76-foot Bayliss custom yacht, one of the most powerful and advanced sportfishing boats ever built. With 5,000 hp, almost 3,000 gallons of fuel and every electronic device imaginable, Shark Byte is a marlin-fishing machine. “We have every advantage available; there are no excuses,” Barrett laughs.

Shark Byte’s crew is laser-focused on the serious business of finding, fooling, hooking and then releasing the most exciting fish in the sea. When targeting marlin in the Northeast, anglers can expect long runs in search of the warm water that holds these fish. “I’ve run as far as 225 miles,” Barrett says. “It’s not a day trip but an excursion.” Fishing out of Rumson, New Jersey, he’s covered the coast from New England to the Outer Banks.

Years ago, according to Barrett, the warmest water was 77- to 78-degrees. “Now we’re catching fish in 80-degree water,” he says. With a change in sea water temperatures, Barrett has also noted the fish are changing their behavior and showing up in places they have not been fished for before. Barrett and his crew still fish warm-water eddies and deep canyons. They also find marlin in the Hudson Canyon south of New York City and the Hydrographer Canyon south of Nantucket.

In addition to white and blue marlin, the warm water brings schools of yellowfin tuna, bluefin, big eye, wahoo and even dolphin. Barrett describes it as “a fish bowl with some of the best fishing in the world.”

A mess of rigged mullet

A mess of rigged mullet

Barrett says the fish typically begin to arrive in late May: Tuna show up in early summer and the marlin arrive by late summer. “When the warm-water eddies move into the structure, anything can happen.” For that reason, marlin fishermen in the Northeast must be on their toes. Those who are get big rewards.

“In the eighties we might catch 20 white marlin in a season. Now, releasing 100 marlin in one summer is the new benchmark,” says Capt. Blain Champlin of Canyon Lady, a 63-foot Ricky Scarborough design that was built in Wanchese, North Carolina. “When the water is right, I can catch a 500-pound blue marlin followed by a 250-pound big eye,” he says. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”

To target marlin in the Northeast, Champlin—who is the son of veteran angler Capt. Jay Champlin of Ocean City, Maryland—uses the same tactics popular around the world. “We pull small ballyhoo positioned around dredges and teasers,” he says. Dredges and teasers are designed to lure the fish to the boat. A dredge is a metal framework capable of pulling 30 or more natural and artificial lures with no hooks. The teaser is a chain of rubber squids, also with no hooks. Once the fish is in range, the crew pulls away the teasers and feeds the marlin a hooked bait.

Champlin starts with a three-tier dredge on each side of the boat. “Dredge composition is critical,” he says. Champlin either uses an all-ballyhoo dredge or one with mullet on the outer arms and 9-inch swim shads on the inside. “I like ballyhoo on one side of the boat and mullet on the other,” he adds.

Just outside and slightly behind the dredge, he dangles a squid chain teaser. Champlin goes with 9-inch squids punctuated with a large ballyhoo behind an Ilander head.

The heart of the spread is focused on four small ballyhoo on circle hooks. Champlin runs ballyhoo from the long riggers and the flat lines. He uses a 30-pound rod-and-reel combo spooled with 50-pound braided backing and then filled with 25-pound monofilament. Using an Albright knot, he attaches 25 feet of 80-pound clear monofilament, a swivel, then 5 feet of 60-pound Ande High Catch leader. Champlin rigs the small ballyhoo on a 7/0 Owner SSW circle hook.

Tackle ready for battle  

Tackle ready for battle  

Two more dink baits are held for pitch baits, ready to deploy to a marlin that comes too close. When a big blue marlin shows up, Champlin grabs an 80-pound rod and reel combo and pitches a large ballyhoo behind a chugger or a big squid.

There is one reason these anglers chase marlin around the world: the fight. When a marlin comes into the spread, swinging its bill and slicing the surface with its sickle fin, the crew will pull away the teasers and turn the fish’s attention to one of the baits. Then, as soon as the marlin pounces on the bait, the angler must take the reel out of gear and let the line run.

As the marlin turns the bait and swallows it, the angler lets the fish eat and start to move away from the boat. That’s when the angler slowly pushes the drag to strike, cranks in the excess line and pulls the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth. While the angler is focused on hooking his fish, the captain puts the boat in a tight turn toward the action, continuing to drag baits in hopes of hooking a second marlin.

With one or more fish running for the horizon and the dredges, teasers and baits retrieved, the captain turns the boat and chases the catch. The engines throb and the angler cranks in line as fast as his arms can work. Once the marlin is within reach, the captain spins the boat and backs down. The mate then grabs the leader, takes a wrap and swings a safety knife to cut the line and let the fish swim free.

All the miles and work come down to one thing. As Champlin says, “It’s all we do. We base our lives around marlin fishing.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.

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