Guide Time – A Burst of White
“Right..Now, hahahaha,” snarled Jonny Rotten’s voice from the speakers behind me as the opening chorus of “Anarchy in the UK” got underway. The white marlin separated from me by 75 yards of chartreuse monofilament was evidently a Sex Pistols fan as well, rebelling from the water with a splashy routine of leaps and greyhounds that agitated the sea surface like a London club crowd.
I’ve caught a few billfish before, but combining punk rock and pointy-nosed pelagics was new and immensely enjoyable ground.
Catlin Peele, mate on Capt. Jay Kavanagh’s 51’ “Bite Me,” had just goaded another white into jumping on the leader to secure a quick release for Fish Post Publisher Gary Hurley, and the crew’s attention fell to my fish, who’d descended into the depths in a deeper revolt against the circle hook lodged in its jaw and the taut mono trailing.
Gary’s marlin had actually taken a bait after mine, rising to a teaser and inhaling a naked ballyhoo that Cat was dropping back on my fish’s first run. The publisher’s fish, however, chose to take to the air immediately, fighting it out on the surface near the boat. As is generally the call, Jay and Cat had gone after the close fish first, backing the boat down until Cat was able to put hands on the leader, giving us our third official release of the day.
After taking a few quick wraps of the clear leader material on his hands, the mate leaned on the marlin. The pressure agitated the fish into a pair of quick leaps that parted the short length of leader. The fine-wire circle hooks used in this fishery virtually always land in the corner of the marlins’ jaws and rust or fall out quickly after release, and it’s much faster to tie on a new hook than to attempt to unhook the cagey fish boatside.
Jay knocked the Buddy Canady boat’s big single diesel into forward momentarily to spin the transom to the angle my line took down into the sea, then throttled up in reverse to gain back some of the line I lost while we battled Gary’s fish.
I cranked feverishly to keep a tight line as Jay pursued the fish, and the spool’s diameter increased visibly as the distance between fish and boat narrowed. Some bow in the line is unavoidable as it drags through saltwater between both moving boat and fish, but too much often results in a lost fish. Jay and Cat had done their job finding and hooking this fish, and I was determined not to let that work go to waste in my much more minor role on the reel.
Eventually the line was as taut as the light mono would allow and the “Bite Me” was floating almost directly above the fish, but it remained somewhere in the depths below, unseen since the surface rampage. Most battles with white marlin and their sailfish cousins end fairly quickly, but I wasn’t gaining any ground and the Fish Post crew began wondering aloud whether the fish might be foul-hooked or whether I was just a lousy angler.
Our standoff wore on for long minutes—I’d gain a few cranks on the reel handle (mostly when the boat came down a swell) and the fish would almost immediately peel that much or more line back off the spool. Jay used the throttle to keep us nearly on top of the fish whenever it made a lateral move, but there seemed to be a threshold somewhere beneath the boat that the fish just wouldn’t cross.
The 15 minute mark on the battle was long behind us (though Gary’s snide comments about beating his fish faster weren’t) when the fish finally and grudgingly allowed me to make some progress. With the impasse broken, I was finally able to spy the chartreuse bimini twist and clear leader material below in the blue water under the boat, and worked the junction slowly but steadily toward the rod tip. An upward move allowed me to momentarily crank the leader into the guides to tally our fourth release of the day, but the fish had evidently saved some energy and made another short run on the surface.
While we’d of course seen it jumping early in the battle, a fish away from the boat lacks scale, and our closer look revealed why it had been so tough to beat. It was easily the largest white marlin I’d ever seen and Cat and Jay seemed to agree it would be one to take to the scales if we were fishing a kill tournament like the White Marlin Open. Fortunately for the marlin this was fun fishing, however, and Cat urged me to bump the drag up now that we had the release in order to get the fish to the boat or break the leader and let us get back on the hunt for another bill.
The increased pressure was too much for the fish and put the leader back in Cat’s hands for a few quick wraps, leader parting when the marlin came partially out of the water with a huge headshake.
We’d nabbed both Gary’s and my fish after a long midday lull in the billfish bite, with bailer and smaller dolphin (some not much larger than the baits) the only things harassing the ballyhoo behind the Bite Me’s transom. We added a few of the larger fish to the box for some fresh dinners that week, but none of the Fish Post trio felt like packing and freezing fish in the near future so we began releasing the little dolphin and attempting to furiously crank the baits away when we saw small packs of the golden fish greyhounding towards the spread.
Aside from the ‘phins, a few false alarms and one possible billfish sighting had been it in terms of action since our first hour on the troll. Cat had rigged a spanish mackerel behind a squid daisy chain for our port side teaser, a combo which raised several of our fish but also contributed to the false alarms, as the mackerel’s tail would pop out of the water irregularly, looking even to Cat like a sneaky marlin’s bill emerging to take a whack at the bait.
There was one brief bit of excitement midday, however. While Cat maintained a lookout from the bridge, Gary and I were attempting to maintain focus on the baits trailing the “Bite Me” and noticed an unusual object in the sky behind the boat. Though clearly a flying creature, it didn’t resemble any seabird I’ve ever seen.
“Bat!” we both shouted, realizing what it was simultaneously as it swooped closer to the boat.
Larger than any bat I’ve ever seen, it was also an odd reddish-orange. Seeming to lock onto the boat, the bat flew straight over the cockpit and into the bridge, and Cat came tumbling down the ladder with a shriek. While there’s no doubt in my mind that the mate would happily wrestle a grander blue marlin on the leader, that courage apparently doesn’t extend to flying mammals, and he left Jay on the bridge to deal with this unusual threat alone. We were laughing too hard for me to follow the play-by-play from up top, but I believe the bat left the bridge of its own accord shortly.
Our pause in the bite coincided with many of the boats around us, who were hooking up with some regularity early in the morning as the fleet trolled in fairly tight quarters around the same area to the northeast of Oregon Inlet. Hooked up boats were easily identified, as they’d have pairs of dredge and daisy chain teasers reeled tight to their outriggers to facilitate tight maneuvers to keep up with their fish, backing and spinning as puffs of black smoke rose from the transoms.
The smoke and hanging teasers had diminished significantly by late morning, and Jay decided to move away from the pack and try to find some bait balls or fish that would be seeing a few less baits and boats. A tight fleet, the captains stayed in regular radio contact in the event a hot bite materialized somewhere, but hookup reports remained extremely sporadic through the late morning and early afternoon hours.
Jay hadn’t found much life outside the area where Gary and Fish Post Sales Manager Josh Alexander had each released a marlin early in the day amongst the fleet, and we began working our way back to the earlier hotspot as the afternoon wore on. A few boats were still plying the area, but the crowd had spread out remarkably when we returned to the scene of our morning action.
“We’ve been on a two-a-day program,” Cat had explained as we left that morning. “Seems like we’ve caught two just about every trip this year.”
With a slower-than-usual billfish bite for much of the Oregon Inlet fleet in 2015, averaging two fish a day was pretty solid, but I know mate, captain, and our trio were hoping the early morning fish wouldn’t be responsible for the only flags waving from the outriggers upon our return.
As we began hunting for bait marks or surface activity, Jay suddenly became animated again and we heard a very positive shout from the bridge.
“Cutters!” he belted from the topside while putting the boat into a tight turn around a pair of marlin he’d spotted slashing their bills at baitfish on the surface. One of the fish came into the spread almost immediately, but darted from the teasers to the flatline baits and finally the outrigger lines before Cat finally convinced it to eat one of the flatlines after it returned for another knock at the mackerel daisy chain. I was holding on while the fish ran, glancing to my right to see Cat passing another bucking rod to Gary just as the ‘Pistols began cranking out the power chords.
Preoccupied with my fish, I didn’t get to see Gary’s bite, but all our fish that day seemed bent on putting on a show. I’ve often puzzled with how much better Jay, Cat, and other dialed-in captains and mates are at spotting fish in the spread than I am (possibly the fact that they see more in a good week during the season than I have in my life has something to do with it), but both our earlier fish and the one I was fighting had been hamming it up on the bite. Bills wagging, fins out of the water, and sides lit with electric blue and white as they chased and slashed at the teasers and our hooked baits, Mr. Magoo would have even had a chance at seeing these fish come into the spread.
The show didn’t end on the bite, as all four of the fish we released were natural acrobats, all but my big one fighting it out on top and spending nearly as much time in the air as water. The brash whites had some excellent timing, as the Fish Post crew was sporting some new camera equipment for the trip to document the aerial action.
We always strive to get the best pictures we can during a trip, but it can be hard to remember to get on the camera when the bite is on, and our old Nikon SLR had a bit of a shutter lag that made trying to capture a jumping fish a game of little more than luck. Getting video was also a goal in the past, but the GoPro that’s now been given to a friend of the paper out of lack of use is a testament to how well that mission went.
For this trip, we were sporting a new Nikon with a longer zoom lens and “burst mode” that enabled rapid-fire shooting. The new gear and cooperative fish led to so many good pictures of leaping marlin that we struggled to choose between dozens for the few spots available alongside this article.
Trips aboard the “Bite Me” have become a yearly tradition for the paper gang, and it didn’t take long to notice that the boat had some upgrades from past seasons as well. Jay and Cat have had their billfish game together for quite a while, and we’ve released multiple sailfish, white marlin, and a blue marlin while dancing around the boat’s cockpit, but they’re always striving to improve their odds and efficiency, and I noticed the Penn downriggers they’d used to pull and retrieve their heavy dredge teasers had been replaced by a pair of Elec-tra-mate Brute commercial electric reels. The new and much more powerful reels allow the dredges to be cranked from the water to fighting position on outriggers with greater speed and without dramatically slowing the boat down.
While I’m inclined to think our camera upgrade offered more in the way of measurable performance gains and the new reels surely didn’t convince any of our feisty whites to inhale a bait, they make the “Bite Me” billfishing routine that much more efficient and smooth, proof that this crew is constantly trying to refine an already solid system.
We managed to hook one more white after the punk rock double, but the fish was able to double back and put a significant bow in the line while Josh tried to keep up, shaking the hook in the process.
Another fish briefly checked out the spread, but we’d stayed out past many of the other boats and it was soon time to bring in the baits and head back for Oregon Inlet. As if wanting to leave us a farewell image, we spied a final free-jumping marlin between the “Bite Me” and another boat that had also just throttled up a few moments into the ride.
While they still charter every day possible and work perhaps harder than on a typical charter, the August/September billfish bite out of Oregon Inlet is something of a busman’s holiday for the “Bite Me” crew. They’re easily as excited as their anglers to see, hook, and release fish and the enthusiasm is palpable and infectious.
The rest of the year, Jay and Cat stay busy filling clients’ coolers with tuna, dolphin, and wahoo out of Hatteras Inlet, with significant sailfish and blue marlin action on the side. Fishing with the pair is not only usually successful, they’re also a blast to share a boat with.
To learn more or schedule you own trip on the “Bite Me,” check out www.fishbiteme.com or give Capt. Jay Kavanagh a call at (252) 996-0295.