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Billfish - White Marlin, Blue Marlin And Swordfish

Virginia is known for its billfishing, including white marlin, blue marlin and swordfish. These three magnificent fish are found in practically the same areas and it's even possible to catch all three fish on the same trip, although triple headers of billfish are rare events.

White marlin tend to weigh around 30-60 pounds and feed on a variety of smaller baits. They are very intelligent fish. When hunting prey, white marlin display neon colors and change to an aggressive posture. A hungry or agitated marlin will charge and bat its bill at a baitfish or trolled lure.

Blue marlin are much larger, up to 1000 lbs, feeding on larger baits. Blue marlin are brightly colored and are known for their dramatic leaps and deep runs. Most local blue marlin are over 100 pounds and feed on fish such as small yellowfin tuna, false albacore, mahi mahi and other fish. A sign of potential for blue marlin fishing are pods of skipjack tuna. Skipjack tuna are the smallest of the Virginia tuna, ranging from about 3 to 18 pounds. The fish are sought after by fishermen because they are among the favorite prey of blue marlin.

Marlin migrate into Virginia waters in early summer with peak fishing usually occurring in late summer through early fall. The fish may be widely scattered but when conditions are right, marlin congregate around sources of food. Ideal conditions occur when Gulf stream water moves into the area, bringing weedlines, temperature breaks and pods of small fish on which marlin feed.

Virginia anglers fish out of Chincoteague Island, Wachapreague, Oyster, Norfolk or Virginia Beach. Chincoteague Island charter boats may travel about 40-70 nautical miles to reach marlin, While boats from more distant ports may travel as far as 100 miles to reach the fish. Anglers search for marlin and swordfish in deepwater areas such as the Baltimore, Poor Man's, Washington or Norfolk Canyons.

These structures have amazing features which produce conditions that attract several types of fish and other ocean life. West of the canyon walls are shallower but still productive areas. Near the canyon walls, the bottom becomes steeper and rockier. Fish congregate along the dropoffs to catch food that is caught in the hard running current. Along the edges are lobster traps which are marked by orange buoys or "lobster balls". The buoys attract mahi-mahi, also known as dolphin fish. Not only are the mahi-mahi excellent fish to catch, but they also attract the larger marlin which feed on them heavily. A trip by a buoy can be uneventful, or one or more lines might be attacked by mahi mahi, tuna, marlin or other fish.

Swordfish complete the trio of billfish that swim off the coast of Virginia. These fish have tremendous strength and stamina, testing the limits of the most experienced anglers. Swordfish may vary from perhaps 4-10 feet in length, reaching weights of several hundred pounds and rarely exceeding 1000 pounds. Swordfish are found in the deeper offshore waters, feeding in extreme depths during the day and coming near the surface at night. Like marlin, swordfish move with temperature changes, becoming most common in late summer and fall.

One of the only predators of swordfish are large mako sharks. Several cases of shark attacks on swordfish have been documented of the Virginia coast. Makos seem to be skilled at catching swordfish basking on the surface. The shark attacks from behind, biting off the tail which leaves the swordfish disabled. The shark then eats its fill and leaves the rest of the fish to scavengers.

Swordfish are caught mostly at night, in the deeper areas of the Virginia offshore canyons. On overnight trips, anglers typically set one or more lines at various depths. Nighttime swordfish rigs usually consist of a large circle or Southern tuna hook on a cable leader. Swordfish baits include whole squid, mackerel or other small fish. A glow stick is added to the leader a few feet above the bait. Inline weights may also be added on the line to control the depth of the bait.

Anglers fishing the waters off the coast of Virginia almost always release both blue and white marlin. In fact in some areas the arrival of a dead marlin to the dock is considered highly offensive. As for swordfish, the decision to kill or release a legal sized swordfish is usually a matter of personal preference. The American swordfish fishery is one of the few fishery management success stories, with a recent comeback of the fish after their stocks plummeted due to overfishing. Hopefully future harvests will remain within reason and Virginia will enjoy good fishing for all 3 species of billfish.

Submitted by:

John C. Banks

For more on Virginia offshore fishing, visit Tools of the Trade Charters, Shammy Sportfishing and Chincoteague Island Virginia.




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