The chase for billfish

October 29, 2014

From Hemingway to today, marlin, sailfish, and the like have captivated us as the ultimate blue water fishing challenge. This sport of champions had led to trophy fish gracing the walls of some of the best establishments and such enduring tales as “The Old Man and the Sea.” These immense billfish are the holy grail of man card stamps, but are still out there if you know where to look.

What are they?
Among the fastest pelagic fish in the sea, sailfish, spearfish, swordfish and marlin are all well-equipped for offensive operations with long, sharp top beaks that are used to stun prey at high speeds. Migratory, they roam the deep blue water of the earth as an apex predator in many instances, being too fast to prove prey for sharks in many cases. The smaller sailfish and spearfish can run upwards of 100 pounds while marlin and swords can grow much larger. Record sizes for blue marlin, the largest of these heavily armed underwater bruisers, can touch a half ton.

Ernest “Papa” Hemingway wrote his classic novel, “The Old Man and the Sea” after spending years haunting the waters between Havana and Bermuda for prized billfish, with the large marlin being his favorite. A man of insatiable appetites, Hemingway single-handedly caught no less than 52 of these beasts during a single summer before World War II. It was an experience in which he had a giant blue “apple-cored,” with the center of the fish stripped clean by a swarm of sharks he fought off in vain with a tommy gun that led to the heart-wrenching story of Santiago.

Today you don’t have to be Hemingway but you do have to invest time and effort into searching for these famous fish.

Gotta get offshore
Since these monsters of the deep are blue-water only, you can rule out near shore fishing. For any chance of a billfish, this means offshore capable boats of at least 30-feet or more in length. Built to take on sea monsters, these big boys go out to federal and even international waters looking for that hundred-foot curve where water depths reach 600-feet or more.  They typically fish both fish wrecks and reefs for grouper, snapper and amberjack, or run outriggers trolling for large pelagic fish like tuna, wahoo, and dolphin.  It is in these trolls that they entice the big marlin and the smaller but no less majestic sailfish.

Large trolling lures, typically the size of a decent size loaf of French bread, are most often used but occasionally live baits consisting of smaller sport fish like mackerel or barracuda work well especially if working the ridges between seamounts.

What’s it run?
These large offshore boats have more amenities than the near-shore charters such as air-condition, satellite television, full-size lavatories, and dining areas with sinks and refrigerators. This is often because longer trips, such as 2-3 day charters, bring the best results.  Hemingway spent 86 days in a row bobbing off Bimini in the Bahama without a single bite before landing an immense 14-foot long blue marlin in 1935. These boats, by their nature, are large and expensive to operate so the day trip costs run from $700-1800 on smaller boats leaving from U.S. ports and several times that amount on larger craft, per day, but it’s worth it.

Larger charter boats, those running 70-feet or more, can begin at $3000 and often reach the $10-K mark for four-day events. However, if broken down between you and your closest fishing buddies, it can become manageable enough when you consider it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see one of these billfish dance on the end of your line.

And you don’t have to have a tommy gun these days.



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