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October 26, 2001

Making Whitey Bite

Heavy-handed tactics rarely bring success; a delicate approach will help you hook more white marlin.

For many anglers, white marlin rank as the ideal billfish. Averaging 50 to 70 pounds, they combine perfect light-tackle size with a penchant for acrobatic, aerial combat. And their social habits mean whites usually roam in packs, offering multiple shots in a day's fishing. You gotta love whitey.
But a loving relationship also involves respect. Ask anybody who has dropped back to fish coming on hot and heavy, then reeled in one sancocho after another: Although white marlin enjoy flirting with baits, they aren't an easy score. Heavy-handed tactics rarely bring success; a delicate approach will help you hook more whites.

Lightning Rods
"You can catch white marlin on any gear, heavy or light, but hookup ratios improve when you use the right tackle," says Lee Green of Stalker Outfitters in Westhampton Beach, New York. According to Green, one word, "graphite," holds the secret to success for anglers who consistently target and tame white lightning.
"Today's die-hard white marlin anglers use graphite-spool reels," he says. "They believe that heavier, metal spools don't turn as easily, and that little bit of resistance is enough to spook a white. The most popular white marlin reel among our customers is the Shimano TLD-30 two-speed, mainly because of its incredible free-spool. The light graphite spool moves so smoothly that it generates very little tension when dropping back."
Whitey's devout pursuers also take advantage of graphite's lightness in their favorite sticks. "Graphite rods, especially those made by Cape Fear, have become very popular because of their extreme sensitivity. That helps anglers feel exactly what a white is doing with the bait," explains Green. "They're also using 6- and 6 1/2-foot models - slightly longer than conventional stand-up rods."
Scott Bowers, an avid angler from North Carolina, who frequently fishes off the Outer Banks names as his favorite white marlin outfit a Shimano TLD 20 or 25 mounted on a 6-foot Star rod rated for 20- to 40-pound line. "That rod has a limber tip, but enough backbone to provide lift when needed," he says. Both Bowers and Green pack their reels full of 30-pound mono tipped with 80-pound wind-on leaders.
A cockpit full of featherlight rods and silky-smooth reels does little good if no fish appear off the transom. A no-nonsense trolling pattern of two teasers and four baits usually suffices to attract whites, but experts rely on a not-so-secret weapon to raise fish. "When you go for whites, drag a dredge," says Capt. Dave Noling, a Texas charter skipper who now spends most of his time in Venezuela, where anglers may get 30 or more shots a day during the fall white marlin run. "Put out a mullet or ballyhoo dredge on one side, and on the other, a squid chain with a Hawaiian Eye [Ilander] at the end. That's a great white marlin teaser."
Green and Bowers also believe in the dredge's power to attract whites. "Many Northeast anglers rig dredges with artificial ballyhoo on the inside and naturals on the outside. It reduces rigging time and keeps the natural baits, which some crews feel are better attractors, where they're most visible to fish," says Green. "But because dredges run several feet under the surface, they have a drawback: If you're not paying close attention, you may not see hot fish swimming behind them. That's why I recommend pulling a dredge on one side and a spreader-bar teaser on the other. When marlin come up on the spreader bar, you can't miss them."

Bite-Sized Baits
  Where blue and white marlin occur in the same area, tailor your spread to allow an even chance at both species. "Place larger baits such as horse ballyhoo or mackerel on heavy tackle in the long-rigger positions," Green suggests. "White marlin rarely bother those baits, preferring small ballyhoo run close to the teasers. On the other hand, a customer told me he recently caught a white marlin on a Mold Craft Super Chugger, so there's an exception to every rule."
Bowers and his teammates on Hammer Time usually deploy a dredge and squid chain as teasers, then complete the spread with two baits on flat lines and two in short-rigger positions. "We almost always use naked ballyhoo, but may put a Sea Witch or rubber skirt on one of the rigger baits to spice things up," says Bowers. "All four baits run close to the teasers in case a white pops up around the dredge." Emphatically endorsing downsized baits, he adds, "Use small ballyhoo, not medium. Small ballyhoo seem to be the favorite on the dinner table for these guys."
Adding some pizzazz to ballyhoo may help coax or goad fish into eating. "Sometimes white marlin zip into a spread and don't notice naked ballyhoo, or they flash from bait to bait to bait without making up their minds," says Green. "Putting a lure over the bait helps it stand out. A chrome jet head will attract fish and draw strikes, but whites may drop a hard, heavy lure once they feel it." Soft lures such as Mold Crafts or Stalker Baitheads work better because fish can squeeze them. Chugger heads like these seem to raise more fish and draw more strikes because they generate smoke trails while keeping baits under the surface. But the fish can still feel them, so getting solid hookups can be tough.
Preferring naked ballyhoo, Bowers and Noling have no trouble getting white marlin to notice their baits, but they both use the same rigging secret. "For white marlin, I use the ol' swimmin' jimmy: a split-bill ballyhoo," says Noling. Ballyhoo rigged in this fashion troll like lipped plugs, running under the surface instead of splashing over the waves.
"We use split-bill ballyhoo to keep baits in the water rather than skipping. Whites don't have any problem finding them," says Bowers. "On rough days we may add 1/4-ounce chin weights to keep the baits down."

Bill of Whites
The smallest members of the marlin clan often put on a spectacular prebite performance when they dash into a spread, pecs glowing neon-blue under the baits, but they also carry a sinister reputation as hard-to-hook, finicky feeders. Trying to induce whitey to bite can be an exercise in frustration, and when he finally eats, hookups come only through angling skill and experience. Or divine intervention. "White marlin are so unpredictable, I'd say most hookups come by the grace of God," admits Bowers.
When white marlin dart in to inspect the spread, try these tactics to swing the odds of a hookup in your favor (and it never hurts to mumble a prayer while picking up the rod).
Sometimes whites become entranced by a teaser, ignoring everything else in the pattern and following the lure as if it were a bubbly Pied Piper. Should a single-minded marlin begin tracking a dredge or teaser, try to get the fish's attention by manipulating the nearest bait. Skip the ballyhoo forward and drop it back. "At times a bait free-spooled past the teaser catches a marlin's eye, prompting it to turn and eat," says Green. "That's when a Baithead/bally combination plays an important role. The extra commotion from the lure attracts more attention than a naked bait."
If jumping a bait ahead or dropping it back fails to provoke an attack, Green and Bowers advise yanking the teaser out of the water to force the infatuated marlin to find other targets. The fish usually switches over quickly to a nearby ballyhoo.
"Marlin see better to the sides than straight ahead. Crank the bait in until it's right beside the fish's eye," coaches Bowers. "Keep the rod pointed straight up with the reel in free-spool, clicker off and your thumb on the spool. When a fish takes the bait, immediately give line by pointing the rod at the fish. That's why longer rods have become more popular: You get a better drop-back."

Hook Me Up
Knowing exactly when to strike back on a white represents a fine art. Although Bowers recommends feeding the fish for a count of six or seven, Noling believes each fish should receive individual treatment. "When whites decide to take a bait, they eat pretty quickly. I don't like long drop-backs; I don't like short ones, either. I like the right drop-back, and that changes every day, depending on the angler, fish and sea conditions," he says.
For example, Noling recommends shorter drop-backs in rough seas because waves slap the line as it pays out. "Whites are very sensitive," he says. "They'll feel that disturbance, and you'll reel in a ballyhoo head. Wind can also create a nasty belly in the line, keeping you from tightening up quickly enough as you wind down on a fish. The marlin feels the line gradually coming tight and spits the bait."
The value of graphite rods and reels becomes especially obvious during the drop-back, says Green. "Sensitivity is very important because whites are so finicky. The angler must feel the difference between a solid run and a fish just smacking or mouthing the bait. Keep the reel in free-spool, with just enough thumb pressure to prevent backlash. When the fish makes a solid run, you should lock up, wind down and lift the rod tip."
The ability to maintain composure when bolts of white lightning crackle behind the boat separates success from failure. "Be patient because it's easy to overreact during a white marlin bite. Don't jerk the bait out of the fish's mouth. Let him have it for seven seconds or so before you even try to set the hook - and don't jerk the rod! Just push the drag lever up and start cranking the reel," counsels Bowers.
Whiffing the hook-set doesn't mean you've lost the battle. "Whites often come back for a second shot," says Bowers. "If you strike but don't hook up, point your rod skyward, quickly crank the bait back to the surface and watch for a fish behind it. If he's not there, put the reel in free-spool. Many times, whites take the bait as it sinks."
Another of Bowers' bait-prepping tricks increases the possibility of nailing second-striking whites. "When rigging baits, we remove the eyes and take about six wraps of wire through the eye sockets and around the hook shank," he says. "We've missed strikes, then had fish come back and eat baits that had nothing but a head wired to the hook."
When in white marlin territory, keep at least one extra 30-pound outfit rigged with a small ballyhoo, ready to go as a pitch bait in case feeding fish unceremoniously strip the hooks of one or more anglers. The pitch rod gets a fresh bait in the water quickly, while hungry marlin remain within striking distance.

Team Approach
Though he may occasionally snub your baits or seem to enjoy returning them as disembodied sancochos, forget about going after whitey with a personal vengeance. Anglers and crews who learn to work together as a finely tuned team will see their success rate improve.
A group of competent anglers stands a better chance for multiple hookups when several whites blitz the baits. "I love having four anglers in the cockpit who know how to drop back and hook fish," says Noling. "As soon as we raise a fish, whether it's on the teaser, dredge or long rigger, each angler picks up a rod and has the reel in free-spool. By holding the rods, they're ready to drop back or clear lines quickly. It's deadly. If we hook a fish, the angler backs off the drag and lets it run. It may take out a lot of line, but in the meantime we might hook another white."
Bowers places faith in the man upstairs, in this case, Capt. Ken Kramer, on the Hammer Time flybridge. "The skipper has a better view from the bridge. He can spot fish and instruct anglers on where to place baits. We may not even see the fish, but we do what the captain tells us."
Every angler on Hammer Time also follows the drill of picking up a rod when fish are raised. "When one man hooks up, he backs off the drag, using just enough to keep a bend in the rod, and lets the fish take line," Bowers explains. "The other anglers stay in free-spool and let their baits sink as the boat moves forward. This trick gives you time to try to hook additional fish. It works well when you have several hot whites in the spread. If the hooked fish runs toward starboard, we clear lines on that side first since we'll be turning in that direction to begin pursuit. It's not worth leaving those baits out in hopes of another hookup if it could cost us a solidly hooked fish by crossing lines."
Several marauding marlin in the spread present an opportunity for level-headed anglers to take advantage of the fishes' competitive nature and score multiple hookups. "White marlin tend to run in groups," says Green. "If you raise more than one, don't panic. Try to look at and bait each fish individually."
Put into practice the tips shared by Green, Bowers and Noling, and you'll be ready next time a bolt of white lightning flashes under your baits. The more time you spend chasing whitey, the more you learn to love and respect him.