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October 26, 2001

White Marlin Fever

White Marlin Fever

Drive south down Highway 12 from Whalebone Junction at Nags Head, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, until you start to see marsh and then a lighthouse. You'll cross a long bridge over a big inlet. If you happen to be on the bridge around 5 o'clock in the evening in late August or September, you'll most likely see a fleet of sport-fishing boats running home with a lot of release flags on their outriggers.
The inlet is Oregon Inlet. Most of those release flags, sometimes as many as eight or 10 per boat during recent years, will be for white marlin. Throw in the chance at a big blue marlin, maybe even one in the 800- to 1,000-pound range, and you have a pretty interesting place to fish.
As with anywhere else, you have good years and bad years. And the last two years proved better than any since the early 1980s. So, if you like white marlin and can't go to Morocco, Brazil or Venezuela this fall, read on.

The Good Old Days Revisited
After an early-1990s decline in white marlin numbers, the last two seasons (August through mid-September) at Oregon Inlet have been as good as the banner years of the early 1980s. Unfortunately, 1995's season was cut short by a hurricane near-miss the day before the Pirate's Cove Tournament, but anglers posted significant numbers both years. Last year's total for the month of August was an incredible 2,060 billfish, mostly white marlin. The 1996 Pirate's Cove Billfish Tournament saw 294 billfish released in four days of fishing, with the vast majority again white marlin.
"Our white marlin fishing has really been on the comeback trail," says noted Oregon Inlet charter Capt. Bull Tolson, skipper of the Sea Toy. "There has been a really good sign of fish for the last three years, and we spotted more fish last year than we have seen since the early 1980s. I feel like there may have been more fish around down deep the year before [1995], but last year there seemed to be no limit to the white marlin you could see on the surface and on bait. My best day produced 15 releases; Arch [Pelican skipper Arch Bracher] twice caught 15. On the day we caught 15, we had seven fish hooked at the same time."
All of this good fishing means that during the late summer you'll find a very limited amount of transient space, even with the spacious docks at Pirate's Cove and the slip space available at the town of Manteo. Even without the benefit of a formal survey, it's safe to say that just about anyone who fishes Oregon Inlet and other areas will recognize Pirate's Cove as one of offshore fishing's finest facilities. Logically, dockage here is definitely a seller's market, while Manteo and the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center remain heavily booked by local boats. Trailering a large center-console is an option, but I would advise against fishing the marlin grounds in anything less than 40 feet.

The Northeast
Whether you're on a charter or fishing out of a private boat, if you are white marlin fishing at Oregon Inlet in August and September, you need to be on the grounds known as "The Northeast."
The area is around 50 miles northeast of the inlet and its north-south boundary is located between loran lines 40850 and 41200. The inshore-offshore boundaries are determined by what makes Oregon Inlet's white marlin fishing so good in the first place - the location of 80-degree bodies of water (eddies) that have spun off the Gulf Stream. This water is blended blue-green, lies out of the Stream and has very little current. If you can find this water on the Northeast grounds in August and September, the odds are pretty good that you'll find plenty of white marlin there.
"If we don't have that water, we still have some fish," Tolson says. "But you won't find them concentrated and in the vast numbers we can have if the water is there. A good indicator of whether or not we'll get the right conditions in August is how cold the water gets during winter and how cold it stays during spring. If the water is too warm too early, those pockets and the bait end up north of Ocean City, and the fish will be scattered out well north of there. If we have a cold spring and we do get the water spinning off, we will usually have excellent white marlin fishing."

Tactics and Tackle
I started fishing at Oregon Inlet in the mid-1980s. I took my first trip with a crowd as green to white marlin fishing as I was. We went out in Page Robertson's 31-foot Bertram and, fishing in 1,000 fathoms with the charter fleet of 50-foot Carolina-designed custom boats, raised eight fish to the baits - all at one time.
Despite lots of scrambling, yelling and yanking, we hooked no fish. Then a big, nasty squall blew up and it looked for a while like we wouldn't make it back. We hung in there and the whites kept biting, but we missed four more before finally catching a sailfish. (I should also point out that we were using what is by today's standards some pretty unwieldy tackle.)
The conventional wisdom at Oregon Inlet in those days was that you fished for white marlin with 50-pound and 30-pound tackle, 10/0 or 9/0 hooks and #10 wire. No one used mono leaders and no one used small hooks, primarily because there was a better-than-average chance of seeing those big blue marlin and the crews figured better to miss a few whites than lose a big blue due to light tackle.
The overriding factor in the tackle decision was an annual hookup percentage for an experienced charter mate of around 50 percent with the heavy gear. On the other hand, the hookup percentage for an inexperienced angler trying to rod-tip a white marlin on #10 wire was about nil, proven every year as private boats attempted to compete with the charter fleet in the annual Oregon Inlet Fishing Center tournament during the 1970s and 1980s.
Things began to change in 1987 when Capt. Steve Daniels and the famous Omie Tillett-built Sportsman Temptation won the Fishing Center Tournament using 100-pound mono leaders. The next summer, I went fishing again with Robertson, then mating for Capt. Brynner Parks, and found the top crews using light tackle, light mono leaders and small hooks. That trend has spread by now to the entire fleet.
"I believe that sailfishing down in Mexico during the spring had a major impact on the way we fish for white marlin," says Tolson. "We get more bites on the lighter gear and the parties enjoy it more. I starting mating when I was 13 and we were pretty good with that heavy tackle, but you definitely need a good sense of timing to fish the way we used to. With the light gear, a fish is going to hold on to it a lot longer, and an inexperienced angler has a much better shot at hooking the fish."
Another noteworthy local tactic: the use of teasers. One of the first things I learned at Oregon Inlet was to put teasers far enough back in the wake for them to be effective, particularly if whites are the primary target. Fish for them for a couple of days and you'll quickly find that a white marlin revved up coming off a teaser is a whole lot easier to hook than one that is pecking at your long-rigger bait.
"We see most of our white marlin come to our teasers and flat lines," says veteran Oregon Inlet deckhand John Davis. "I like the Hawaiian Eye [Iland Lures] daisy-chain teaser with a ballyhoo, and we'll also use natural bait for teasers and maybe a lure from time to time. Having the fish on my teaser or my flat line is exciting, but you can also see the fish better and feel what it is doing [during the drop-back]."
Teaser configurations vary from boat to boat, and aside from the ubiquitous Hawaiian Eye daisy chain, you'll see several different setups, and crews will vary their teasers far more than they will switch baits. To my knowledge, Capt. Chip Shaffer on the Temptress was responsible for the adoption of natural-bait spreader-bar teasers. At the very least, he was the first person to tell me about them.
I made a ballyhoo bar by modifying one of the plastic squid bars sold by Pacific Blue Water and saw several fish come to it in very limited duty. Rumor has it that Pacific Bluewater may offer this spreader bar specifically rigged for ballyhoo in the near future.
For white marlin baits at Oregon Inlet, skippers pull plain ballyhoo, rigged to fit sea conditions and fish behavior. "Matching the hatch" takes considerable experience as a fisherman and skill as a bait-rigger, but the visiting crew could do worse than use plain ballyhoo with some rigged to skip and some to swim.
The result is that white marlin fishing at Oregon Inlet is very technical fishing with light tackle, natural bait teasers and natural baits. You are also taking part in one of this country's most tradition-honored fisheries, complete with its own custom-designed boats, Outer Banks lighthouses, dedicated fishermen and, best of all, chances of double-digit white marlin releases.