White Marlin - The Complete Guide | Great Days Outdoors

White Marlin – The Complete Guide

While the majority of my experience fishing for white marlin comes from trolling, I have caught a few live baiting and one of the most memorable catches from my time on the deck, was while live bait fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. We were fishing a beautiful weed line in cobalt blue water, but unfortunately the current fell out of it so the weed line busted up. It was slick as glass and perfect to pull an 8 knot spread but the scattered grass was really bad so we were not able to troll very efficiently, but there was a ton of bait in the area, and we had seen a billfish on top of the water chasing bait a few times in the same area. We had just reeled in our trolling spread from battling with the grass, and decided that we were going to throw a few live baits out on the riggers and just give it a few minutes and see what happens.

As I got my live bait leader ready, on the 50 wide, Shimano Tiagra, I was straddling the gunnel, facing the stern of the boat, with the rod and reel between my legs, and a foot dangling over the outside of the boat (safely, of course). I grabbed the Hardtail out of the live well and tossed the live bait and leader right beside my foot in the water. I was still holding the leader, reaching for the clip because I was about to run it up the rigger. Two seconds after the bait hits the water a very large white marlin comes out from under the boat, annihilated that hard tail and I instinctively put the reel in free spool for a few seconds to let him eat it for an ample amount of time, slid the drag up and it was game on. What a cool fish! In this article we will learn everything you need to know about white marlin and how to catch them! 

What Is A White Marlin?

The white marlin (Kajikia albida) is a species of billfish, closely related to the larger blue marlin, and is native to the Atlantic Ocean. They are primarily found in the epipelagic or surface layer of the ocean in both tropical and subtropical waters. Known for their speed and agility, white marlins have long, slender bodies and a pointed bill, or “rostrum”, which they use to slash through schools of small fish, their primary prey.

White marlin are a highly sought-after species among recreational fishermen for several reasons. Firstly, they are renowned for their strength and acrobatic fights when hooked, often leaping and diving, providing a challenging and thrilling experience for anglers. Secondly, they are a highly migratory species and can be found across a wide geographic range, making them accessible to many fishing communities. Finally, their streamlined bodies and beautiful coloration – with a blue-green (I have seen them be so dark blue they look purple on their pectoral fins and the upper back) upper body fading into a silvery white underside – add to their allure.

white marlin
White marlin provide a thrilling and challenging experience for anglers.

However, white marlin are not only sportfish. They are also of considerable scientific interest. Their migratory patterns and life cycle, which includes a larval stage drifting with ocean currents before growing into a powerful predator, are still not completely understood and are the subject of ongoing research.


White marlins typically reach up to around 9 feet in length and can weigh up to 180 pounds, although most caught in sportfishing tend to be much smaller. They are believed to live up to 20 years.

White Marlin Facts and State Of The Fishery

White marlin are most commonly targeted by trolling, which involves pulling lures or baited hooks behind a slow-moving boat. Anglers often use brightly colored lures or fresh baitfish to attract white marlin. When hooked, they are known for their dramatic leaps and deep dives, providing a thrilling and challenging experience for anglers. White marlin are migratory fish, with peak fishing seasons varying by region. In the North Atlantic, including off the East Coast of the U.S., the peak season is typically from late summer to early fall. They primarily feed on a diet of small fish and squid, which anglers try to mimic using specific baits and lures. Due to concerns about their population, many white marlin caught by sport fishermen are released back into the ocean. The use of circle hooks, which reduce harm to the fish, is common in recreational white marlin fishing.  The species has been severely impacted by commercial longline fishing, often being caught unintentionally as bycatch when fisheries are targeting other species such as tuna and swordfish.

In an effort to protect and recover the white marlin population, fisheries management bodies have introduced measures such as size limits, bag limits, and gear restrictions. Catch and release is also highly encouraged, particularly in recreational fisheries. Additionally, there is ongoing research and monitoring efforts to better understand their biology and population trends.

White Marlin Size

The average white marlin is smaller than some might think. The typical size is between 5 and 8 feet in length, and they usually weigh between 60 to 80 pounds. However, larger whites can reach lengths of over 9 feet and can weigh up to 180 pounds.  I would say the white marlin is a medium sized billfish. The Black marlin is the largest, then the Blue (I would put swordfish right here with the Blues), then the whites, sails stripe and the spearfish are your smallest billfish. 

These measurements can vary based on several factors, including the fish’s age, sex, diet, and the health of its environment. It’s worth noting that due to concerns over the species’ population, many white marlin are released as healthy as possible which allows more fish the opportunity to reach these larger sizes.

White Marlin World Record

Evandro Coser is the current all tackle world record holder with his 181-pound, 14-ounce white marlin caught Dec. 8, 1979 off Vitoria, Brazil. Evandro’s fish was 107.5 inches long with a 37-inch girth. He caught the record on a Magnaflex rod with a Penn International 30 spooled with 30-pound Ande line. He caught the white marlin world record while he was trolling a baitfish.


White Marlin Vs Blue Marlin: White Marlin Identification

While white marlin and blue marlin are related species, there are several physical characteristics that can help distinguish between the two: Blue marlin are generally much larger than white marlin. While a large white marlin might reach up to 9 feet in length and weigh up to 180 pounds, blue marlin can grow up to 14 feet and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. While both species have a darker coloration on their backs and lighter bellies, blue marlin are typically a more vibrant cobalt blue while the whites tend to be a paler, more greenish-blue color. The dorsal fins of the two species are also different. The dorsal fin of a blue marlin is pointed and the dorsal of a white marlin is rounded. White marlin have a more slender, elongated body shape compared to the thicker, heavier body of the blue marlin. The white marlin’s anal fin is rounded, while the blue marlin’s is pointed.

white marlin
White marlin tend to be a paler, more silverish-blue color and have a rounded dorsal fin.

These differences should help you to identify whether you’re looking at a white or a blue marlin.

White Marlin Fishing

On an episode of the Alabama Saltwater Fishing Report, I interviewed Captain Nick Millsap, a professional captain that runs a Hatteras 65 GT “The Rascal” and he fishes for billfish all over the world. They fish in the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the Gulf Of Mexico. Capt. Nick and his crew have had a lot of experience trolling and pitch baiting for billfish, white marlin in particular, to say the least! Capt. Nick and his crew had just won the White Marlin Shootout out of Pensacola as well as the Labor Day Tournament. Capt. Nick said that after his winter fishing in the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas his crew had a lot of practice for the Gulf of Mexico tournament season. Capt. Nick and his crew have mastered the art of pitch baiting for white marlin. 

White Marlin Trolling Spread

Q: What should be the cockpit setup when you are trolling for white marlin?

A: So whenever we’re getting ready to start whitey fishing we will have two dredges, one’s gonna be a double tiered Mudflap dredge and on the other side I will run the exact same replica of that dredge on the other side. Then we’ll pull two squid chains off each side from the bridge teaser reels, that is the meat and potatoes of it. Then we’ll take two flat lines, put it in the gunnel clip kind of right on top of the dredge, kind of in front of it and that’s essentially going to be your pitch bait that’s already halfway to the fish. That way when the fish comes up you can get that bait to the fish quickly instead of dropping one all the way back from the boat. 

Then we run two rigger baits with the smallest ballyhoo we can find and put just a little Moldcraft chugger head or squid nation chugger head with a 8/0 circle hook about two waves behind our squid chain. And essentially, that’s all we’re pulling in the water, we don’t pull a center rigger. That’s it. And we have four more pitch baits in the boat ready to go. So whenever the fish comes up, we put the boat in a slow gradual turn towards the fish, or into the side of the boat that the fish comes up to. What this does is when you turn the boat towards the fish, it puts your bait in to clean water and out of the prop wash. It cleans it up and brings the teaser kind of in line with the corner of the boat at that point. If you go straight and you have your teaser up the rigger, the fish is focused on that teaser, and you’re in the cockpit you can’t get your bait over there. So as soon as you go into a turn, it kind of makes everything line up for you.

White Marlin Bait

Q: What is your favorite pitch bait?

A: We do a small ballyhoo with a circle hook and chugger head in front of it. We will pull a weighted ballyhoo, and this works for us pretty well. If we are going along and the bite is slow, we will use a tactic where periodically a crew member will pick up that chin weighted swimming ballyhoo and drop it back to the dredge and reel it up 4 or 5 times and you would be surprised how many times this will tease up a white marlin. 

Q: Have you guys found a fool proof technique to hook that billfish that is lit up on your teaser or a swimming ballyhoo and seems to be committed to eating that bait? 

A: I would say that this is very much a feeling. As a rule of thumb I would say I let them eat it for 5 to 8 seconds. These fish are coming up and eating the meat baits but sometimes they will grab that bait and swim towards the boat. This is where communication between the bridge and the cockpit is huge. Each circumstance is different. The captain watching the fish eat and what that fish does after the bite will determine what the angler with the rod in his hand needs to do next. 

Q: If you miss a fish on a circle hook, I assume that fish is back there swimming around still hungry, if you miss a fish are you able to go back and catch that fish?

A: A lot of people get one fish on, they pull all the lines on and put the boat in reverse. Typically, when you get one white marlin bite there will be 2, 3, 4 or more in that area. So what we are doing is, when we get a fish on, the boat is already going in a circle, we will clear the outside lines and put the baits back out on the other side of the boat on the inside of that turn in the clean water, dredges, squid chains and everything. We will make a huge circle around that fish and after we make a big circle on it, we will keep tightening the circle, we may circle a fish 5 times and get right on top of it before we actually set up and catch that fish

Q: How much drag pressure are you running on your reels when you are deploying this circle tactic?

A: 6.5 to 7 pounds. When you make that big turn, you may lose a lot of line, which is fine because when you start tightening up you are going to gain line really quickly and that fish still has no idea what is really going on and you are picking up any other fish in the area in the meantime. 

Q: You mentioned when the fish initially comes up and you are trying to get it hooked up, you like to let them eat it for 5 to 8 seconds depending on what you see or feel. On the angler side, as they are trying to hook this fish, are they keeping the rod pointed at the fish, holding the rod up or down? 

A: Once the fish comes up, they hold the rod in the air and when the fish eats, they drop the rod tip towards the fish, with enough slack to free spool but not enough to backlash the reel. Once they start easing the drag up, depending which way the fish swims, they will then raise the rod tip up to set the hook, or raise it the the side if the fish swims sideways. 

Q: Do you crimp your hooks on or do you use a snell? 

A: We snell everything.

Q: What size leader?

A: We will use 60 pound test sometimes, but most of the time we will use 80 pound unless the water is really clear and the conditions are very calm. 

Where To Catch White Marlin

Q: When you are trying to locate white marlin, what kind of places are you looking for, what are you looking for on the surface of the water and also what are you looking for on your electronics?

A: We will start with the bottom machine, I have two display units, I will run one screen on high chirp at around 300 feet and the other on low chirp and that one is reading the bottom. I have noticed there is some stuff down on the bottom, like 50 feet off the bottom, that looks like bait. I have found when we find this, we will ding multiple white marlin.  I will start circling that area. I will have the sonar scanning out about 1500 feet and I will fan the water column with Sonar. As I see a fish and start getting closer and start zooming in on that fish, sometimes I will see multiple fish and tell my guys in the cockpit to get ready. 

Q: How deep of water do you think is the sweet spot for white marlin to be fishing in?

A: I have caught them in as little as 300 feet of water, but it seems that 900 feet to 1500 feet, it really all depends where the bait is. 

Where White Marlin Hang Out

White marlin tend to also hang out around any kind of large floating debris. Pallets, big logs and they certainly love made up grass mats as well as scattered grass that is holding bait. The new FADs off of the coast of Northwest Florida also hold a lot of bait and can always be good for a white marlin or two if the conditions are right. The floating oil platforms South and Southwest of Dauphin Island also always hold a lot of bait if the altimetry and the chlorophyll is right and this is always a good place for a white marlin to be hanging around. 

What Do White Marlin Eat

White marlin are carnivorous and primarily feed on a variety of small fish and squid. Their diet can include species such as mackerel, flying fish, mullet, small tuna, bonito, as well as various species of squid. As a fast and agile predator, the white marlin uses its bill to stun or injure its prey, slashing at schools of small fish, and then returns to eat the injured or stunned animals. This hunting strategy allows them to feed effectively even within large schools of fish. Their preferred food sources can vary depending on their geographic location and the time of year. The availability of these food sources can also influence their migratory patterns and distribution.

Best White Marlin Lures

According to Captain Nick Millsap, he likes to run dredges to attract the white marlin, then he uses the smallest ballyhoo he can find rigged and tucked behind a chugger head. I also have had great success while trolling with a soft chugger head rigged with a ballyhoo. Pink and white is a favorite color of mine as well as blue and white. These chugger heads have a cup head design that allows the ballyhoo to swim really well behind it and that chugger head has great action as it pops the surface of the water.  

soft chugger head

How To Live Bait White Marlin

One of the effective ways to catch them is to use live bait. Here’s how you can go about it: The most commonly used live baits for white marlin include mackerel, mullet, hardtails, and ballyhoo. The bait you choose should be lively and healthy to attract the attention of the marlin. There are various ways to rig the bait; the method you choose will depend on the type of bait you’re using. Here’s one common method for a ballyhoo: Insert the hook through the bottom jaw of the ballyhoo and bring it out through the top of its skull. Use a copper wire to secure the beak of the ballyhoo to the shank of the hook. Make sure the hook is properly exposed so that it can penetrate the marlin’s mouth when it strikes.

When fishing for white marlin, set your bait at different depths. They often feed near the surface, but can also dive deeper to hunt. Use outriggers to cover a wider area and increase your chances of getting a bite. Slow troll your live bait, if you are in an area that looks fishy, just bump your boat in and out of gear. Be sure to keep your lines far enough apart to prevent tangling, this is where your outriggers will come in handy. When the marlin strikes, don’t set the hook immediately. Allow the fish to turn and run with the bait for a few seconds before coming tight and setting the hook in the fishes mouth. This will ensure that the bait is well inside the marlin’s mouth and will provide a better hook-up ratio. Once you’ve set the hook, keep the line tight and apply steady pressure. White marlin are known for their acrobatic jumps and high-speed runs, so be prepared for a fight.

White Marlin Season

The best season for catching white marlin can vary depending on the geographical location:

  1. Mid-Atlantic, U.S.: The peak season in this region is usually in the summer months, particularly August and September.
  2. Gulf of Mexico, U.S.: In the Gulf, the season generally starts in April and goes through to July, but catches can be made throughout the year.
  3. Caribbean Sea: The peak season for in the Caribbean is from February to April.
  4. Brazil: In Brazil, the season generally spans from November to March.

These times coincide with migrations, spawning, and the presence of abundant baitfish.

The White Marlin Open – Clash Of The Titans

The White Marlin Open was started 49-years ago and is a deep sea fishing tournament held every year in Ocean City, Maryland. This tournament is deemed the “World’s Largest Billfishing Tournament,” this tournamnet has awarded over $95 million! The first tournament 49 years ago had 57 boats participate with 150 anglers, and paid out $20,000 to the winners. The 2022 White marlin Open had 408 boats participate with over 3,500 contestants and $8.6 million dollars in prize money was awarded to the winners, including the top boat of $4.53 million dollars which established a new world record payout for a fishing tournament! 

Final Thoughts On White Marlin Fishing

I have had the pleasure of being a part of many many white marlin catches, all of them being released happy and healthy. I have also been on the rod and reel catching them and what a cool fish and an awesome experience. I hope that this article will be helpful in your own pursuits of the white marlin. They are notorious for following a trolling bait for a long time and taking many swats at a bait before either committing to the bait or fading back in to the prop wash never to be seen again. Stick with it and do not get too frustrated, there will be more opportunities! Once you get the feel for what it takes to actually feel that bite and successfully feed the bait to the fish, come tight and hear the drag screaming as that white marlin is tail walking on the horizon, you will be forever hooked on pursuing billfish! 

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