• Published:July 24, 2018
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White marlin are one of the most valuable species of fish on the East Coast.

With events like the Mid-Atlantic and White Marlin Open cutting seven-figure checks for the top white marlin, you want to make every bite count.
Here are five tactics top white marlin captains use to get those billfish biting:


Captains targeting white marlin fish small naked or “dink” ballyhoo as their main offering. They will also have skirted baits in the spread and sometimes a rigged squid or a Green Machine will get the bites, but as a general rule nothing beats a small naked ballyhoo. Rigged dead baits commonly make up between half and all of the offerings in a dedicated white marlin spread, and are religiously used as the pitch bait when a fish comes up on a teaser or attacks the dredge.

Another important detail regarding those dinks: don’t put out too many of them. Sharpies limit the offering to a half-dozen lines, and some only put out four or five. Thicker spreads can seem to confuse the fish at times, and you’ll see them swerve off of one bait to check out another. Having too many lines out can also make it difficult to place a pitch bait exactly where you want it. And with a limited number of baits in the water it’ll be easier to identify which line offers you the best shot at a bite, so you can get the rod in-hand quickly and feed that fish.


If you set your spread then sit down and watch the baits all day, you’re missing countless potential bites. People who have dragged dredge cams know that a huge number of billfish come up under a dredge and never get spotted by the crew before they swim away without being offered a bait. Savvy captains post an angler with a pitch bait by the dredge, and have him or her go “prospecting” by dropping it back next to and behind the dredge every few minutes. If an unseen white is lurking below, it may be tempted into attacking. 

Set up a pitch bait with a heavier chin weight than normal, specifically for this purpose. You want to make sure it sinks at least as deep as the dredge, since the deeper marlin are the ones you’re least likely to see in the first place.


We’re talking about spreader bars. While most anglers think of spreader bars as tuna fodder, they also make excellent white marlin teasers. If you want to target whites to the exclusion of all else, remove the hook bait from a spreader bar and use the rig strictly as a teaser. Keep it closer to the boat than you normally would so it’s easier to spot marlin swiping at it with their bill and offer any marlin that appear behind it a pitch bait. 

Most captains start the day with “psycho squid” multi-color spreader bars, and these do work quite well. Sharpies, however, also keep a bar rigged with purple or dark blue squid. On cloudy, overcast days dark colors will perform better. Pink will also do the job best for no identifiable rhyme or reason, and on other occasions chartreuse turns out to be the winner. It pays to have options. 


Whites don’t travel in huge schools, but they aren’t complete loners, either. Turning a single fish into multiple hook-ups is what separates the high-liners from the wannabes. The first rule for accomplishing this is to steer the boat in a circle immediately after a fish is hooked. 

Always turn in the direction of the fish. For example, if the fish strikes on the port side of the spread, initiate a turn to port. Maintain your trolling speed to keep the baits swimming and closely eyeball the dredges for approaching fish. Extra hands onboard should stand by with a pitch bait, ready to feed any additional marlin that suddenly appear. 


If you try to come tight on a marlin, feel some tension, then feel the fish get off, don’t curse your luck and call it a miss. If the fish felt the sting of the hook you’d know it thanks to the tugging and jumping, and usually when a bait rigged on a circle hook pulls out of a white marlin’s mouth, the fish hadn’t completely eaten it yet. (You are using circle hooks, right? If not, we need to back up for a sec. Read How to Make a Circle Hook Swimming Ballyhoo Rig and toss all the J hooks you’ve been using for marlin fishing into the trash. Properly fished circle hooks will out-catch them, each and every time.) 

There are two possibilities: either the fish has partially chewed and stripped the ‘hoo on the hook, or the bait is still in fishable shape and you can offer it to the marlin a second time. To figure out what the deal is, the moment you feel the fish pull free you need to raise your rod tip and crank on the reel. This will bring the bait up to the surface and make it skip once or twice, so you can see if it’s still useable. If it looks good, immediately go back to free spool and drop the bait back again. If it doesn’t look good swap it out with another pitch bait ASAP. If your crew is serious and on top of its game, someone else will already have that second pitch bait in-hand, ready to deploy, as what’s left of the first one gets cleared. In this scenario, a white marlin will usually hit at least twice and may even take a third or fourth shot, just as long as you can quickly and smoothly offer it a bait that looks lively.