- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
The various billfish species represent the ultimate in saltwater sportfishing challenges in the minds of most anglers. Giant bluefin tuna fight harder, but can’t match the leaping ability of a sailfish. Tarpon can jump with the best of them, but do not attain the size and strength of a huge blue or black marlin. Billfish are often associated with exotic tropical locations and megabucks sportfishing yachts, but sailfish and most of the marlin species can be found off the three coasts of our own country.
The warm currents of summer 2001 have pulled blue marlin and other species normally found to the south as far north as New York. In some cases, they are practical targets for small boat anglers to pursue. While big blue marlin are best left to experienced crews with heavy tackle and the proper equipment, striped marlin, white marlin, and sailfish can be taken on much lighter gear. Swordfish are found in U.S. waters, but they are usually rare and their numbers have been so decimated by both commercial and recreational fishing pressure that I would not encourage specifically targeting them. Black marlin only exist in U.S. waters off Hawaii. Striped marlin can be taken off California. Because nearly all of my billfishing experience has come in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas and Louisiana, this article will focus on the three species of billfish most commonly encountered there – sailfish, white marlin, and blue marlin.
Hefty dolphinfish are a welcome bycatch to any billfishing trip.
Sailfish are the smallest of the billfish. Many people think of all billfish as "big game," but in Gulf waters, the average sail will weigh around 50 pounds, and a 90-pounder is a trophy. Sailfish are also a shallow water reef fish through most of their range. Sails are caught far from shore in Texas waters, but usually around oil production platforms that create an artificial reef system. Many more of these fish are closer to shore than most fishermen realize. In Florida, especially on the east coast and in the Keys, sailfish are a prime target, and the focus of many tournaments aimed exclusively at these fish. In the Gulf, sails are usually incidental catches, either caught by an angler targeting king mackerel, or a boat pulling big baits for marlin.
Fishermen wishing to catch a sailfish should hunt in water from 50 to 200 feet deep, over underwater structure and around oil rigs and shrimp boats, or along weedlines. They will often hit a lure being trolled for kingfish – usually a jig with a natural bait trailer, but smaller billfish lures are usually a better bet. Natural baits like mullet and ballyhoo rigged for trolling are also good for sails.
As for rod and reel tackle, sailfish are a 20# class fish. Rods designed for this line strength and reels with a smooth drag and a capacity of 400 yards of line or more are fine. Monofilament leaders are normally used for all billfish, and sails require nothing heavier than 80#, with hooks of 10/0 or so.
White marlin range from under 100 pounds to nearly 200, and their range normally swings closer to shore than their big blue brothers. Off Freeport, Texas, I have hooked whites 30 miles out, in 120 feet of water. Just about all whites will be caught while trolling for blue marlin, and large whites are often misidentified as small blues. Whites are very acrobatic fish, and will put on a wild aerial display right at the boat. White marlin are perfect fish for 30# tackle, but most are caught on heavier gear designed for blues. Any lure or bait that is successful on blue marlin in the Gulf will work for whites, although if I were targeting these smaller fish, I’d use smaller baits.
Kings Of The Sea
Blue marlin can attain enormous proportions.
Blue marlin are the top of the food chain for recreational fishermen, and definitely a force to be reckoned with. Blues are normally found at or beyond the 100-fathom curve, which corresponds to the edge of the continental shelf. When I crewed on a charter boat running billfish trips out of Freeport, we fished 50# class tackle unless in a tournament, then 80# and 130# gear was brought out. A big blue can be too much for 50#, however, as my friend Gary Long of New Orleans found out last June off the mouth of the Mississippi River by getting "spooled" (having a fish clear your reel) by a 500-pound plus fish. Big marlin feed on tuna and dolphinfish—oftentimes, big ones. Just last summer, I saw a 50-pound bull dolphin with a chunk whacked out of its side by a marlin bill. Hence, the most effective lures are those that throw a long bubble trail, which gives the appearance of a fish much larger than the actual lure. Some fishermen use live bait – mostly small tuna, bonito, or large blue runners.
Prime blue marlin habitat is around deepwater oil production platforms, over natural bottom structure surrounded by deep water, or along weedlines and current changes. Of course, if a school of blackfin tuna is spotted working bait on the surface, a big marlin could be very likely to be in the vicinity. When fishing oil rigs, more attention is often paid to the big mooring buoys around the platform than to the rig itself.
Most billfishing these days is catch and release only, and even the big money tournaments kill very few fish. Still, working a big marlin to boatside for a release can be a dangerous task. A skilled "wireman" is needed to pull the 15- to 30-foot heavy monofilament leader in to get the fish close enough to tag and set free. Novices would do well to try this only from a charter boat with an experienced captain and crew.
On the Texas coast, we have a run of 50 to 65 miles from the beach before hitting the marlin grounds, and the Florida panhandle and Florida west coast are in much the same situation. Off the mouth of the Mississippi River, however, the 100-fathom curve is a scant 7 miles from the jetties! I was able to fish this area last June and was amazed at the water depths. Shell’s Cognac oil platform is 11 miles out, in 1,100 feet of water, and a semi-submersible rig we fished 32 miles out was in 4,400 feet! When the blue water is in, marlin can be taken 7 miles from shore, and big marlin at that. The record blue for the Gulf of Mexico is now a 1,047-pound monster caught this summer out of Pensacola, Fla., which bested a 1,018-pound fish taken out of Port Eads, La., in the 1970s. For the small boat skipper wishing to tangle with big marlin, this is heaven on earth. Port Eads at South Pass is 20 miles down river from the nearest town (or road), Venice, but less than a mile from the Gulf.
Properly equipped, twin engine outboard boats are very capable of making the voyage to marlin water from other Gulf ports, as long as the operator is careful about watching the weather and his fuel consumption. A better plan would be to stay in closer and hunt for sailfish.