White Marlin

Charlie Levine

It's hard to miss a white marlin in the spread. Although the are one of the smallest billfish out there, they flash some of the most incredible colors when they pop up behind a teaser. Their pectoral fins flash deep cobalt blues that can appear nearly purple. The sides of the fish light up with bright banded stripes. They're fast, agile and tough to hook. For these reasons, they are one of the most beloved game fish on the East Coast.  

The white marlin (Tetrapturus albidus) is found throughout the Atlantic Ocean and it's adjoining bodies of water, including the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and to a lesser extent the Mediterranean Sea. The highly migratory billfish is a member of the member of the Istiophoridae family and can be found from latitudes of 35 degrees south to 45 degrees north. A few specimens have been recorded outside of this range, but odds are those fish strayed because of a warm-water event of some sort such as El Niño.

White marlin typically stay above the thermocline, but thrive in the same waters you would often find blue marlin as well. They usually ride the currents along deep-water edges. White marlin thrive in sea-surface temps from 65 degrees to 80 degrees F, with the mid-70s being an ideal temperature.

The shape of the white marlin's dorsal and pectoral fins are the easiest way to determine the species. Unlike other marlin that have a pointed dorsal fin, the white marlin's dorsal fin and first anal fin are rounded off, almost paddle shaped. Although, some are more pointed than others. The pectoral fins are also rounded at the tips. The dorsal fin is also very tall, almost as tall as a striped marlin's dorsal. However, striped marlin only live in the Pacific and white marlin only live in the Atlantic. So, unless you forget what ocean you're fishing in, you should not confuse these two species of billfish.

The coloring of a white marlin is also similar to the striped marlin. Whitey will flash neon blue stripes down its sides when pursuing lures or making an aerobatic leap behind the boat. You will often see a spattering of dark-blue spots on the white marlin's dorsal fin and anal fin.

Size is also a determining factor for white marlin. These fish rarely top the 100-pound mark. They are most often found in the 50- to 80-pound range, and most crews use 20- to 30-pound tackle when targeting them. The IGFA all-tackle world record was a whopping 181-pound, 14-ounce fish caught in 1979 off of Vitoria, Brazil, on 30-pound tackle. Nearly all of the white marlin world records were landed off of Brazil, which leads one to believe that these larger females are spawning in this area.

Crews often target white marlin trolling a spread of naked ballyhoo and a mix of teasers. The dredge is a great tool to raise white marlin. Perhaps the best location for white marlin over the last few years is the Mid-Atlantic coast from Cape May, New Jersey to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The bite along this stretch of water, including Wilmington Canyon, Norfolk Canyon, Washington Canyon and Baltimore Canyon, can produce days of 20 or more releases for the boats out of Ocean City, Virginia Beach and Oregon Inlet. This bite begins to heat up in July and can last well into September. On August 30, 2010, the white marlin bite went richter. Several boats tallied more than 20 releases each, but none of them came close to the Billfisher, captained by John Duffie, which released 57 white marlin in a single day! A few days later the Cerveza, a Maryland-based boat, caught 67 white marlin and two sailfish on an overnight trip.

What makes these numbers even more amazing is that just a few years prior, the white marlin was being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A switch to circle hooks has helped the species rebound immensely. Dr. John Graves found that nearly all white marlin caught on circle hooks survive while only 37 percent of fish caught on J-hooks make it. Thanks to a law requiring tournament participants to fish with circle hooks, just about all the crews along the East Coast have made the switch.

Other white marlin hot spots include the Dominican Republic, Brazil, the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela, Bermuda, Cancun, Morocco, the Azores and Madeira.


For many years, a subspecies called the "hatchet marlin" was believed to exist. This fish bared a striking resemblance to the white marlin, but its dorsal fin appeared straight on the top, like someone had chopped off the point with a hatchet... After much debate, the scientific community has basically ruled out the existence of the hatchet marlin. But the confusion didn't end there.

In 2006, researchers identified a species that so closely resembles white marlin that it's nearly impossible to tell the difference with the naked eye. This newly identified species, the Roundscale Spearfish, has made managing white marlin stocks much more difficult. White marlin tournaments also rewrote their rules to allow both white marlin and the roundscale spearfish. The only way to tell the difference with any diffinity is to look at fish's skin under a microscope.

"The problem is that because the existence of the roundscale spearfish was unrecognized until recently, its inadvertent misidentification as white marlin for decades makes past assessments of white marlin population sizes - which are based on fisheries catch data - inaccurate," says Dr. Mahmood Shivji from Nova Southeastern University. "Basically, what used to be called the 'white marlin' was actually a mixture of two species!"

The white marlin supports a large recreational fishing industry up and down the US East Coast and if the species ends up on the Endangered Species List, it could shut down this fishery. Scientists need to reassess the population of white marlin and protect them from destructive fisheries such as longline gear. Anglers can do their part by tagging and releasing any white marlin they catch and reporting the catch to groups such as The Billfish Foundation.

* Trolling Dead Bait
* Bait-and-Switch (link to Bait and Switch article) off Dredges
* Trolling Lures and Feather Jigs

The shape of the white marlin's dorsal is curved rather than pointed like other billfish. The pec fins and anal fin also have an almost paddle-like shape to them, though some fish exhibit more pointed fins than others. These rounded fins are the most defining characteristic of the white marlin. Illustration by www.careychen.com
When a lit-up white marlin shows up in the spread behind the boat, their electric blue fins and flanks make them easy to spot. Although it's called a "white marlin," this species is actually among the most colorful of all the billfish.
White marlin are found throughout the Atlantic Ocean and it's adjoining seas, including the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Mediterranean. The IGFA all-tackle world record white marlin, an 181-pound, 14-ounce monster, was landed off of Brazil. Most white marlin range between 50 and 80 pounds.
When targeting white marlin, most crews will use a dredge armed with split-tail mullet, ballyhoo or artificial baits to get whitey's attention.
In 2006 scientists discovered a new species, the roundscale spearfish, which looks pretty much identical to the white marlin. Can you tell which fish in this photo is the white marlin? It's nearly impossible to distinguish them with the naked eye, but the fish on the top is the white marlin. Photo courtesy of the Guy Harvey Research Institute.
Because of their diminutive size, most crews target white marlin with 20- to 30-pound tackle. But just because they are one of the smallest billfish, don't count them out. These wily fish are expert hook-throwers.
In the last few years, the Mid-Atlantic coast from New Jersey to North Carolina has enjoyed an epic bite. In 2010, the crew on Billfisher released 57 whites in a single day!

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