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August 17, 2012

Billfishing Sizzles Off Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach, the East's hottest billfish battleground

Virginia Beach is long known for its incredibly diverse inshore and nearshore fisheries associated with the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s been the offshore haunts that have truly been turning heads lately.

Phenomenal summer and fall runs of white and blue marlin have put this humble little town smack dab on the minds of the best offshore crews along the Eastern Seaboard. And with robust swordfish populations, along with occasional sailfish and spearfish in the mix, there’s always the possibility of scoring a billfish slam for those willing to put in the time.

Things have been so good in Virginia Beach lately that you might call it the new Venezuela.

These Are the Good Old Days

Okay, that might be stretching it a bit.

But there’s no denying things have been on fire. Consider the 26 blue marlin caught last year by Capt. Steve Richardson aboard the Backlash. His previous best season tallied 18 — and he’s fished these waters since the 1960s. Then there was the time a couple of years back that Richardson released 41 white marlin in a single day. And don’t forget Capt. Justin Wilson, who scored 11 whites, a blue and a swordfish for an IGFA Billfish Grand Slam during an overnight trip last September on the Just Right. They also lost several other swords and another blue during that same outing.

Yet, for all Virginia Beach’s great offshore fishing, it has always ceded much of the mid-Atlantic spotlight to the larger charter fleets of Maryland’s Ocean City to the north and North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the south.

But that’s okay with most captains here.

“We’ve always been something of a redheaded ­stepchild,” chuckles Richardson (757‑286‑0711; ­backlash​sportfishing​.com), who runs his 53-foot custom Jim Smith out of the Virginia Beach Fishing Center (757‑491‑8000; virginia​fishing​.com) inside Rudee Inlet. “But we’re really a central location. The Hatteras and Ocean City fleets can run to our waters, but we can also run to theirs. And the fact is that the really big billfish days usually occur right here — this is where the fish tend to ­congregate the​ most.”

Not many would disagree.

Just ask Mitchell Roffer, Ph.D., founder of the popular Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service (roffs​.com). Roffer conducted his University of Miami dissertation out of Rudee Inlet in the late 1970s and early ’80s, studying the area’s tuna and billfish populations. Not many know the ins and outs of this region better.

“It’s a phenomenal fishery,” he says. “The numbers of billfish, especially white marlin, that can be caught in a day there are extremely rare for anywhere in the world.”

While a wave of whites annually swim up to Virginian waters from the Outer Banks on the shallow 20- to 30-fathom curves, the majority of the pelagic species — including whites, blues, sails, spears and yellowfin tuna — come via two primary routes, Roffer says. Some swim down from the north, riding in blue, warm-water eddies and filaments that break off the canyons of New York and New Jersey. Other fish move in from the east, out of similar pieces of water that pull off the Gulf Stream.

Then, a beautiful thing happens when these fish arrive off Virginia: They stay put. Even when the plumes of good water depart, the fish remain along the edge of the continental shelf and within the Norfolk and Washington canyons, which range from 55 to 65 miles out.

“There’s a lot of food in these canyons,” explains Roffer. “The marlin will hang around and feed until it gets too cold. You can get great conditions very quickly, particularly if there’s a west wind, which flushes out the Chesapeake Bay and its baitfish. When all that stacks up on a blue-water line, a food chain develops and things can really get going.”

But this has always been the case in Virginia Beach, and it begs the question: Why has the fishing been so good lately?

Good water conditions and a lack of tropical storms certainly have accounted for some of it, and many say the increased use of circle hooks has helped with white marlin mortality. Others point to better management, such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna’s requirement of live white marlin release on commercial boats and an overall reduction in the number of hook-sets in the U.S. coastal pelagic ­longline fishery.

Richardson insists it’s the return of the sardines, which have been absent in these waters for years — and he’s got a theory that the increased longlining of mahimahi up and down the East Coast has actually helped billfish stocks. “Think about it,” he says, “one dolphin on a grass line probably eats more baby billfish in a year than the whole East Coast fleet catches!”

“In reality,” says Dr. John Graves, chair of the Department of Fisheries Science and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, “it’s probably some combination of environmental factors and changes to the fishery. But you can’t argue with the results. These are the good old days!”