Top White Marlin Tips

A Mid-Atlantic white marlin pro shares tournament-winning tricks.
Ric Burnley

The excitement of a white marlin bite makes the preparation and search worth every minute. To the outside observer, marlin fishing often looks like a lot of driving around and staring at the sea, with countless hours spent watching the baits swim, searching the sea for birds, slicks or baitballs, and waiting for a sign.

But insiders know that every second of the day is filled with anticipation and excitement. By properly managing every step of the process, marlin pros can often turn a single white marlin bite into a double, triple or quad.


Captain Jimmy Grant has made a career of chasing white marlin from one end of the Atlantic to the other. And each summer the Ocean City, Maryland, native returns to the Mid-Atlantic to resume the hunt. "We have the best white marlin fishing in the world," he says. "I hate to miss one minute."

In late summer, Grant looks for eddies of warmer water to spin down the coast carrying white marlin. "We've caught marlin in water from 69 to over 80 degrees," he says, "the key is to find the water temperature where the fish and bait are congregating." So, if the fish were caught in 78-degree water on one day, it's a good bet that body of water will hold fish for several days. "The water doesn't have to be blue, either," Grant adds. He has found the fish in green and blended water. "But the water should be clear."

After checking satellite water imagery in the morning, Grant heads to a temperature change he suspects will hold fish. "As soon as I see the temperature gauge hit the right temp we start fishing," he says. Then he monitors the radio and keeps an eye out for breaks, bait and birds. "The scenario changes every season," he says, "but once I figure out a pattern to water temperature the fish often stick to it."


When it comes to hooking a white marlin, every second counts. So pulling a simple spread is the key to improving your hook-up ratio.

When fishing for white marlin, Grant keeps his spread limited to four small ballyhoo and three big baits. Small ballyhoo on circle hooks adorn the flat lines and long riggers. He then runs Ilander or Express and large ballyhoo on the short riggers and shotgun. "The big baits will hook a blue marlin but they also bring in a lot of whites," he says.

A pair of squid-chain teasers and two mullet or ballyhoo dredges are key in bringing marlin to the boat. Grant runs the squid-chain teasers with a Hawaiian Eye or Express and horse or select ballyhoo trailer so that they are even with the dredge. The squid chains are placed just behind the dredge. His flat lines swim inside and even with the teaser and the short rigger baits are outside and close behind the teaser. The long riggers swim far enough back to stay in clear water. The shotgun can either be an Express with a select ballyhoo or a small ballyhoo with a chugger head.  Grant also keeps an outfit rigged with a small ballyhoo and another rod armed with a big bait ready to pitch.

Not only does a simple spread make it easy to monitor and manage the baits, but it encourages anglers to invest more time and effort in perfecting their rigs and tactics.


While debate rages around the best method for rigging a ballyhoo with a circle hook, most tournament crews choose to use a small swivel and short length of Monel wire to attach the bait to the hook. While this method requires more time and effort than using floss or a rubber O-ring, the swivel allows the bait to swim freely and seductively. This method also allows the bait to swing free of the hook, which improves the hook-up potential of a circle hook.

Again, simplicity pays off. Be sure that the swivel is inserted through the bill until only the top eye of the swivel shows. Slide a 1/4- to 5/8-ounce egg sinker over the wire and cinch it tight with a wrap behind the gills then two wraps through the eyes in front of the sinker. Finally bring the wire one wrap behind the swivel then wrap the wire around the bill to the end. Since this technique takes longer than other methods, it's important to have plenty of baits ready before the boat leaves the dock. In the height of white marlin season, it's not unreasonable to have 100 ballyhoo ready to fish.

To further maximize your time on the water, rig as many leaders and hooks as you can ahead of time. Again, there is great debate on what hook works best, and there seems to be no agreement among professional crews. In fact, on some boats the mate, captain and anglers can't agree. The key is to find a thin-wire 8/0 to 9/0 circle-hook with remarkable strength. Use a Uni-knot to tie the hook to six-feet of 50 to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader and tie a loop in the other end.

Use a Bimini to No-Name knot to add 24 feet of 50- to 80-pound mono to the 30-pound line running off the reel. Then tie a snap swivel to the free end of the mono. Clip the leader onto the snap swivel. Having leaders ready makes it faster to re-rig between bites, but it also insures that the leader is the correct length to appease tournament rules.


Even the tightest spread and most beautiful rigs won't do any good unless the angler sees the marlin before it bites. In order to hook a white with a circle hook, the angler has to beat the fish to the bait. That requires hours staring at the water and searching for a sign.

First of all, don't watch the baits. Instead watch the water below and behind the baits. Watch the dredge and teasers, too. Many times a window-shopper will come into the spread and visit several baits before making a purchase. A high-quality pair of polarized sunglasses is essential. Grey lenses work best in blue water. On a cloudy day, switch out to yellow polarized lenses. As soon as you spot the white one, pull in the big baits and get ready for the bite. If a blue marlin comes into the spread, pull in the small baits and deploy the big pitch bait. Don't change the speed of the boat or move the baits; let the fish make the first move.  

When a white marlin decides to bite, the angler must drop the reel out of gear and allow the bait to free fall - no clicker and no drag. Hold the rod tip low and let the fish eat. "You have to feel the fish on the line," Grant says, "and you can tell if he is eating the bait or dropped it." If the fish drops the bait, take the reel out of gear and let the bait free fall again. "I've seen a marlin throw a bait and then pick it up again," Grant adds. If the nothing happens, crank the bait back to the surface and hope the fish follows. When the marlin eats the bait, wait until the line races off the reel and the fish swims away before pushing the lever drag to strike and cranking in the slack while holding the rod tip low to the water.

DOUBLE DOWN                            

With one marlin on the hook, pros will often try to turn a single into a double or triple. "I fish defensively," Grant says, "while always thinking ahead to where the next bite will come." During the insanity of the hook-up, the captain keeps the boat going straight. As soon as the fish is hooked and running, the captain turns the boat in the direction the fish is heading and the crew continues to fish. "If the bite comes on the left flat line," Grant says, "then I'm looking at the right short and long as they pass through the same water behind the left flat." While one crew member clears the inside dredge and teaser, the rest of the team gets ready for a follow-up bite.

Once the marlin is hooked and the lines are cleared, it's time to get the fish. The captain turns the boat parallel to the direction the fish is going and chases down the marlin. The key is to keep tension on the line while closing the distance. Only when the fish is within a few yards of the stern will the captain turn the boat and start backing down.

"If you can keep the fish on the surface and use light drag you can catch it before it dives deep," Grant says. "I've caught blue marlin on 30 pound tackle faster than using 80s. As long as the fish doesn't feel heavy drag pressure, it will stay on the surface long enough for the captain to get the release. As soon as I get the leader in my hand, I have the angler push the drag to full and I break the line." Then it's a race to get the teasers set, the baits back out and the boat on course for the next bite.

The Mid-Atlantic coast offers up some of the best white marlin marlin fishing in the world. The top captains look for temperature breaks and run a simple, proven spread.
White marlin love to put on aerial displays and are a blast to catch on light tackle. The trick to winning one of the big East Coast tournaments, however, is catching doubles and even triples. Don't just reel in all the baits because you got a hook up. Start a turn and look for more fish.
Light 30-pound outfits (forward) are a perfect match for white marlin. The blue marlin that often travel with them will require heavier, 80-pound gear (back).
Capt. Jimmy Grant runs a large skirted ballyhoo down the center of the spread as a potential blue marlin bait that will also tease in white marlin.
Small ballyhoo rigged on a circle hook (top) or behind a chugger head (bottom) will fool whitey into biting.
To make commotion and bring in the bites, a squid chain teaser punctuated by a Spanish mackerel and Express gets the attention of just about any hungry billfish.
A dredge armed with ballyhoo or mullet is a must when targeting white marlin. No other teaser will draw in both white and blue marlin to the baits like a dredge.
With one white on the hook, marlin pros will keep an eye out for more marlin before going after the hooked fish.

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