by Capt. Damon Sacco
Orginally published in MARLIN MAGAZINE MAY 2004
A Massachussets marlin... it's kind of strange to think that you can catch a world class billfish off a coast that spends almost half the year blanketed by snow and ice. It gets so cold up in this neck of the woods that most of us northeners haul out and even hibernate for the winter. In Febuary, for instance, we're probably shoveling snow, or playing pond hockey. But as soon as July rolls around, some of us are leaving the docks bright and early, in search of Mr. Bill.
If you're an east coaster, you're probably familiar with the gulf stream, a northerly flow of tropical blue water that passes along the eastern continental shelf. During the summer and fall months, the gulf stream flows within range of sportfishing vessels hailing from ports along the southeastern coast of NewEngland. The offshore canyons situated roughly 75 to 100 miles south of Cape Cod become innundated with life when there is gulf stream water present. Blue and white marlin are a significant part of this traveling tropical ecosystem, as well as several other types of Atlantic gamefish species.
White marlin up here have even been known to roam into cooler water as far north as the 10 fathom curve just southwest of Nantucket island. If you ask one of the participants of the 1998 Nantucket Billfish tournament about statistics, they'll probably talk your ear off about how over 130 whites were caught in just a few days...and just a few miles from shore! The blues can make quite a showing too, but are rarely seen inside the 50 fathom curve. During the 2002 season on the Castafari, we grappled with blue marlin on just about every trip to the canyons.The blues up in this neck of the woods usually average around four to five hundred pounds. Several fish over the 700 mark have been caught and released during the passed few years.The Mass state record is 701 pounds. Though very few marlin have been wieghed in locally, as it is predominantly, a catch and release fishery. The opportunity is here from July through September. To get in the game, you need a boat with good safety and range, a worthy captain and crew, and the right tackle. A little "mojo" in the cockpit helps too.
TEMPERATURE IS KEY
The marlin fishery up here relies heavily on weather and water temperature, and when conditions are right, New England billfishing can be like trolling off the coast of Venezuala. Usually a prolonged southwesterly summer blow is all it takes to make things happen, causing pockets of warm gulf stream water to sandwich against the cooler labador currents flowing in from the north. The result is drastic water temperature changes, some exceeding ten degrees within a few hundred feet. Most of us know what that means. Like anywhere else, when it comes to offshore fishing, water temperature breaks are key. Find them and you'll more than likely find the fish.
I've found a few things to hold true up here when it comes to billfish and temperature. Generally speaking, northeast blue marlin tend to prefer a water temp of at least 72 degrees. However breaks involving a warmer side of 75 degrees and higher seem to be the most productive. I've hooked blues on both the warmer and cooler sides of a break, but most strikes seem to occur while the temp guage is on the rise, and the water temp is above the 74 degree mark. I've also found that blues tend to prefer cleaner blue gulf stream water. Whites, on the other hand, can handle much cooler water temperatures, and can be found in green water as cold as 66 degrees. 68 to 74 degree blue green ocean seems to be optimum for whites. The shipping lanes, just south of the "Dumping Grounds"(shown on the chart) is a safe place to start trolling for whites if there is a favorable temp break present. The Banana Shoals bouy is another great spot to try. Even the northern corner terrotories of the Dumping Grounds hold fish when the water is 68 degrees or higher. On a calm day it's not uncommon to find white marlin basking on the surface in these areas after a good southwesterly blow. Marine biologists speculate that the fish are simply absorbing heat from the hot sun in order to function in the cooler water environments that they've been blown into. Sight fishing for tailing whites with live and dead bait can be a blast, and many fish have been taken on the fly.
OUT AT THE CANYONS
One of my favorite spots to fish is around Hydrographer canyon, a ten mile long half mile wide crack in the ocean floor located roughly 90 miles southeast of Nantucket Island. Water depths here range from 300 feet to 3,000 in just a matter of seconds. Try to imagine the grand canyon... snaking five hundred feet beneath the water's surface. If the gulf stream is in town, this spot can be a marlin convention, both blue and white. There are usually significant temp breaks here during the summer, mainly due to this canyon's exposure to cold water current funneling out of the Great South Channel and warm water eddies spinning counter clockwise off of the gulf stream. I've found that the further south you troll, the cleaner and bluer the water becomes, and that temp breaks along the 500 curve seem to be the most productive for big blues.
One thing to keep in mind however, is that the eastern canyons are further from shore than those toward the west, and fuel capacity is a top priority if you're thinking about making the run. Hydrographer, for instance, is at least a 250 mile round trip and troll journey from most Cape Cod ports. Either way, any of the northeast canyons from The Hudson to Oceanographer will usually be holding marlin when water temps are favorable.. If you can't make it to the edge of the shelf, warm water eddies circulating inside of it around the 40 to 50 fathom curves, are certainly worth hitting as well, especially for whites.
KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED
It's no news, every marlin loves structure. The ocean floor around a canyon usually marks a drastic depth change, and can even create baitholding rips near the surface. Squid, mackeral, small skipjack, half beak ballyhoo, and flying fish are the most commonly found sources of bait at the canyons. Squid and skippies seem to be the most prevelant. A lot of captains will zig zag back and forth while trolling over the edge of a canyon hoping to encounter bait balls and their predators hanging in the upwelling currents.
There's not much to see on the surface out there except a whole lot of ocean and occasional high flyers(lobster bouys). During the summer months, lobsters seek warmer water to molt, and as a result, are found along significant water temperature breaks offshore. Lobstermen take these temp breaks very seriously when setting out their gear. This is key. High flyers can be a sight for sore eyes when you're looking for fishy water, and more importantly, if they've been sitting long enough to have algae growth on them, they're often the home to entire ecosystems of bait and gamefish. Be prepared as you're trolling by one. Almost a third of our white marlin strikes have occured around high flyers.The flip side is you'll more than likely have to contend with packs of mahi ambushing your spread as well.
READY TO ROLL
Before you leave the NewEngland dock, I recommend making one very imortant choice. Try and truly decide on what to fish for. For most boats in the northeast, canyon fishing means tuna fishing, trolling 8 to 12 rods at once with high hopes for multiple simultaneous strikes. This method definitely increases hookups, especially since yellowfin, albacore, and bigeye tuna often travel in tight schools. But most of us have learned that if a big marlin decides to crash the ahi party, things can get demented, and in many cases, expensive. Tackle gets trashed, tuna get whacked in half, crews get overwhelmed, and ultimately defeated. If it's marlin you're after, then the choice is made, and you and your crew should run a typical marlin pattern that you're comfortable with. You can still catch plenty of other gamefish species, just not ten at once. We all know that you don't need a huge spread to gain a marlin's attention. The less baits, the less confusion, for you...and the fish. Besides, the boat and teaser will usually do the work bringing them up, and if there's a subwoofer in the bilge, even better!
THE BOTTOM LINE...IS LINE
On the Castafari when trolling specifically for blue marlin, we employ a four rod spread consisting of 4 Penn 70's, all spooled with Power Pro spectra with a top shot of Momoi 130lb high visibility blue Diamond Line. We keep another 80 wide set up aside, armed and ready with a decent sized pitch bait.(skipjack, horse ballyhoo, or spanish mackeral) All of the fish are fought on stand up. The rods we're using are short 5 foot Biscayne sticks with Stuart bent butts. We insert sleaves in the rod holders to accomodate the shorter butt applications. There are a million different rod and reel combinations to choose from. Every captain has his or her favorite toys. Whether your in the chair or on your feet, the bottom line...is line.
Many fishermen up here are trolling for tuna with 30's and 50's, and wind up lineless and broken hearted after a big blue gets hooked and takes off for Bermuda. A fifty wide WILL work fine for blue marlin if it's loaded up with spectra. I like the Penn 70. It's light in comparison to other reels in it's drag class, and you can pack it with enough backing to sorround Gillette Stadium. The point is, there are a ton of 50 to 150 pound class tuna, wahoo, and white marlin at the canyons, and you or your crew might not be interested in winching them in on 130's. Let's face it, I don't care where you are, you might not even see a blue marlin in several days of fishing! So you might as well enjoy a little excercise slugging it out with some tasty by-catch.
When billfishing, we usually target blues and whites at the same time. That means mixing things up a bit. I usually keep my bigger reels(70's) on the baits run in tight near the teasers, and run my lighter set ups(30's or 50's) in the long rigger position. If you want to add a little sport to the game, and don't mind taking risks, twenty pound class reels, baitcasters, and spinning outfits spooled with 30 to 50 pound test line are suitable for whites, especially for pitch baits. You will always get a lot more shots at whites than you will at blues anyway. Though it's a nasty treat if an angry blue latches on to a spinning rod. So if you have some light stuff in the water or even in the cockpit, keep your eyes peeled, and be prepared to scramble.
Trolling for marlin is a broad subject. We troll for them up here the same way it's done all over the world...all different ways. Most captains up here prefer the high speed troll(7 to 12 knots), deploying four or five rigger baits, and a teaser or two. I prefer high speed trolling to slow trolling bridled livies or swimming dead baits simply because I like to cover ground. There's a lot of ocean to cross when you're 80 miles offshore, and there's usually not a convenient fleet of boats with tight lines to run to. However, if you're fortunate enough to stumble across some billfish, slow trolling naked swimming ballyhoo at 3 to 4 knots is a great way to put a white on the end of your line. If you can pull a dredge while employing this method, even better. Just find the fish first. I always wait for at least a couple of stealth-like boil-less knockdowns(dead give away of a billfish) in a particular area before slowing things down and making the switch to slow trolling.
In every offshore fishing destination, there are certain magic skirt colors that seem to work better than others. NewEngland is no exception. Black/purple, green/chartreuse, blue/white, black/silver, and white/pink combinations are some of my favorites. Ilanders , Mold Crafts, and Sea Witches skirting ballyhoo of all sizes are safe bets to run from any of the riggers. Cone skirted spanish mackeral run as skip baits off the short riggers work too. Then there's artificials. Every captain has his or her own colorful collection of expensive "eye toys". Some of us have art galleries of them. I won't even go there. Marlin are just as aggressive up here as they are anywhere. Build it and they will come. Don't be afraid to run a mammoth sized plastic behind the transom either...with hooks! My Bart Brazilianno that I ran as a teaser was assaulted and hauled away by a big blue last season while fishing Atlantis canyon. I watched the whole thing from my tower, helpless and even a bit afraid.
THE OLD BAIT AND SWITCH
No matter where you are, nothing is more effective for enticing a marlin to eat than the old bait and switch method. It's necessary if you want to keep your "batting average" above 500. Up here, billfish knockdowns are precious, and when they come, the excitement can sometimes fade rather quickly. Every experienced billfishermen knows that hooking white marlin on the troll can be a trying proposition. Some captains think trolling plastics for whites is simply a waste of time. Lures with single hooks, tandem rigs with 180 and 90 degree configurations, hooks placed behind the skirt, in the skirt, loose drags, tight clips, stiff rigs, stiffs think they have all the answers, it never ends. Luck plays an integral role no matter what we try. The old bait and switch, if done correctly, can remove a lot of that luck dependency out of the equation. It means more work and less nap time for you and your crew, but nothing beats playing cat and mouse with a hungry billfish.
Whites will eat just about anything fresh that you throw at them. They'll eat american eels, scup, jouvenile bluefish, mackeral, mullet, strip baits, ballyhoo, and a lot of other small ocean dwellers. The trick is to have one of these baits hooked and ready to go before you put a line in the water. Live bait is great, if you have the time and oxygen, but well brined small dead ballyhoo are just as effective. Trolled strip baits made from the bellies of bonita, false albacore, and skipjack are also useful in gaining a whites attention. I learned this from my mate Antonio while fishing in Panama for sailfish. We usually run a strip bait skirted behind a blue/white Ilander which is then run behind a bird in the center position. Whites will almost always come up on this bait first. The great thing about a strip bait is it's durability. If a fish comes up for a whack, a strip bait will usually stay in tact, and allow you to drop it back and bait the fish.
For blues, horse ballyhoo, spanish mackeral, and skipjack are solid bets for pitch baits. If you have the luxury of a tuna tube on board, try keeping a live skipjack or small bluefish ready to go if you're familiar with bridling. Dragging a bridled dead skipjack or bonita from up high on the center rigger so that it slides sideways across the water's surface like a sled, is another deadly bait tactic for attracting big blues. Ben Tribken, a retired Cape Cod charter captain/sportfishing writer hooked a fish he said was every bit of a thousand pounds, while skipping a bridled bluefish behind the transom out at Lydonia Canyon. I've spoken with several captains who claim to have squared off with blues out there big enough to eat a 200 pound bigeye! Keep this in mind the next time you have the opportunity to put some small tuna in the boat.
Hooks are another debate all together. I prefer J hooks to circles in most pitch bait and trolled bait applications. I think since we're usually trolling at high speeds, 7 to 10 knots, the pressure, when coming tight on a fish, is far too great to allow a circle hook to work effectively. I have had good luck slow trolling with circle hooks, especially with live and naked dead baits. The well known wire twist rig used for sailfish is a quick and easy way to rig a slow trolled ballyhoo. A circle hook works well in this application. For rigging baits for a high speed troll, I usually run a single hook rig run out the belly. Some captains prefer the double hook set up in the baits. If you decide to run a couple of hooks, I suggest going light if you want your baits to swim correctly, especially ballyhoo. Mustad 7751s hooks are very light, and to boot, they're virtually indestructable.
All in all, I think the trick up here when it comes to marlin fishing is to believe it exists. Be ready. Even if you're in tuna mode, the blues and whites around here are overly aggresive and will eat just about anything. I've hooked blue marlin on 8 dollar cedar plugs and green machines. I met one gentlemen that had a big blue repeatedly whack his fender teaser, before eating tossed chunks of butterfish in the wash like a domesticated aquarium pet. This went on for five minutes while the crew reeled frantically to clear the 14 rod spread. Two and a half hours later, the fish was caught and released...hooked on a home-made jimmy rigged lure that they constructed out of electrical tape and the inside coil of a toilet paper roll...true story! You certainly don't need to be a pro to bring these fish up around here.
Hopefully you've gained an increased appreciation for the "great white north" marlin fishery. NewEngland marlin enthusiasts don't need a plane ticket in the summertime. At least not since the technological revolution of diesel engines came into effect. There's certainly a boatride involved. I'm not denying that. Though there is something truly enchanting about being transormed from codfish laden green water to sparkling blue marlin country where it looks, feels, and even smells like the Bahamas....all in a matter of a few hours! It is without a doubt, an adventure worth taking if you have the boat, common sense, and the desire to fish where two mysterious offshore worlds collide.