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August 17, 2012

Billfishing Sizzles Off Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach, the East's hottest billfish battleground

White and Blue Marlin Mania

Yes, they are — and it all gets started as early as April some years, as water temperatures climb into the upper 60s, and straggler white and blue marlin begin to show. The influx of fish gradually increases into May and June as water temps surpass the 70-degree mark. But it’s between July and early October when the truly large clusters of fish move into Virginia, as the water warms into the 72- to 75-degree range.

Captains generally begin their day working the ­shallows for whites in areas like the Cigar, a seamount on the 20-fathom line. Then, they’ll often move into the 20- and 30-fathom Fingers, and eventually push out to the continental shelf and Norfolk and Washington canyons, where the possibility of encountering blues increases.

Most of the top charter boats run out of Rudee Inlet, since it offers a straight shot into the Atlantic. Other captains, like Justin Wilson (757‑639‑1571; jwils057@​gmail​.com), run out of Lynnhaven Inlet. Tucked inside the southern portion of the Chesapeake’s mouth, Lynnhaven requires longer runs to the offshore grounds but convenient inshore access.

Once a productive area is located, the routine is fairly similar for most boats. To bring the marauding whites up to the surface, crews religiously pull two dredges from the stern corners, rigged with fresh mullet, ballyhoo or plastics. Four or five 20- or 30-pound-class rods are positioned in a basic, staggered spread, rigged with small ballyhoos on 7/0 or 8/0 circle hooks and 60-pound leaders. To complete the lineup, a larger outfit — usually with an 80-wide — is baited with either a marlin lure or a horse ballyhoo or mackerel rigged with a Hawaiian Eye (Ilander lure).

“That’s for a blue marlin, should one show,” says Capt. David Wright, who runs High Hopes (757‑286‑3842; high​hopes​sportfishing​.com), a 58-foot Gary Davis.

Almost all charter boats here keep pitch-bait rods at the ready as well, generally a light outfit for whites and a heavier rod for blues. And, of course, each captain employs his own bag of tricks. Wilson likes to pull a slightly more complex spread. In addition to the dredges, he adds two teaser lines with squid daisy chains and a horse ballyhoo or small Spanish mackerel rigged with no hook.

“A large number of the whites will come to the teasers,” he says. “Once we see them on the teaser, we pull it away, and drop a flat line back and feed the fish — or the fish will fall back to either the short or long rigger.”

That can make for some craziness in the cockpit, ­especially in early fall, when the ocean can come alive with whites.

“You can expect to see a dozen per day during that stretch,” says Richardson. “In September, we have days that we see literally uncountable numbers of fish. They come up in wolf packs. You’ll have fish on every rod.”

These hot streaks often last a week or two, and it’s entirely possible for the better boats to catch-and-release 10 or more fish per day at these times.

Then there are the blues.

“Sometimes, we don’t really find them; they find us,” laughs Wright, who holds the state record for four blue marlin catches in one day. “We often fish schools of yellowfin tuna in the same waters that we find the billfish, and sometimes a blue marlin will be among them, either feeding with them or feeding on them.”

The idea is to get the blue to eat the big rod, but it doesn’t always work out that way. “They don’t come in curious like a white marlin,” says Wright. “They come in hot. They’re going to eat.” Sometimes that happens on the big outfit. Other times it doesn’t.

“Twenty of my 26 blues last year were caught on 20s,” says Richardson. “So invariably you’ll lose some fish, because we can get big ones out here. They average 250 to 350 pounds, and the state record is more than 1,000.”