Hot Wheels

Blue and white marlin, along with sailfish, are classified as pelagic species because they spend the majority of their time in open ocean waters near the surface. They also have powerful tails and fins, so they don’t hang around in any one location for very long. Which leads to the dilemma for the teams competing this week in the 40th Annual Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament—find the fish and catch them faster than the rest of the fleet. Do that, rack up the numbers and chances are extremely good those teams will be on the awards stage come Friday night.

From reports by boats fishing the Alice Kelly Memorial Ladies Only tournament on Sunday, the water off the Outer Banks isn’t exactly teeming with life lately. Bait is scattered and the weed lines, which tend to concentrate bait, are scarce. So crews often turn to satellite forecasting services to pinpoint other oceanic features that billfish find favorable.

“Despite the hysteria earlier in the year about massive mats of sargassum weed floating ashore, there is very little of it north of the Caribbean,” says Capt. Tom Hilton, president of Hilton’s Realtime Navigator, a forecasting service used by professional crews across the sport. “There’s hardly any sargassum moving up the Gulf Stream so bait isn’t too thick. There are other features that are favorable, however.” Hilton uses satellite imagery to identify conditions like surface temperature breaks, color changes and currents to predict where billfish are likely to be found.

“There are some nice back-flow eddies present that are bringing the warmer, bluer Gulf Stream water inshore in a counterclockwise current,” Hilton says. “That looks to be where the bite has been the last few days. Since it’s only about 33 nautical miles to the shelf in addition to the proximity of the Gulf Stream and its associated eddies, that’s a big reason why the North Carolina fishery is so good!”

Hilton added the seas and winds are expected to be elevated on Tuesday, with calmer conditions predicted on Wednesday and Thursday. That coincides with a new moon Wednesday night, with pronounced tides and daytime feeding activity.

Teams fish three of four days this week, after choosing one mandatory lay day. That day off typically occurs when seas are sloppy, but it also comes with a risk of a few boats getting off to hot starts or the bite turning off later in the week. So lay day decisions are not made lightly.

Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament uses a modified release format. Only trophy-size blue marlin are eligible in the billfish weight division while the majority of the points come from white marlin, sailfish and small blues being released on light tackle—typically 20- and 30-pound test line. When pods of fish are located, it’s not unusual for double and even triple hook ups to happen simultaneously. During a hot bite, double-digit releases per boat per day are common. It is fast-paced action and the lead can change quickly.

So after Monday’s final registration, the field is now set. Eighty-eight boats will compete for more than $1.2 million in cash prizes in this 40th annual contest on the Outer Banks. The majority will be laying on Tuesday due to the seas. Come Wednesday morning, though, those big bronze propellers will be turning in a three-day race to capture the ultimate trophy.

Credits: Hilton’s Real Time Navigator, Capt. Tony Lombardi