A Billfish Bonanza: One Boat Catches 102 Marlin In A Single Season!

A Pennsylvania couple enjoyed one of the most incredible offshore fishing seasons ever in 2008. Jim and Sandy McCarthy, along with their friends, aboard Jim’s boat “Covert Mission” out of Cape May, N.J., caught an astonishing 101 white marlin, one blue marlin, and one swordfish!

The mind-boggling 103 billfish is a record for the Cape May Marlin and Tuna Club (Jim and Sandy are members). Sandy, who caught 31 of those billfish, earned the club’s prestigious “Angler of the Year” Award. The McCarthy’s also pocketed nearly $50,000 for winning last year’s Mid-Atlantic 500 and the Ocean City Overnight Billfish Tournament.

White marlin
Tail-walking white marlin were a common sight aboard the “Covert Mission.” (Photo courtesy of Jim McCarthy)

Jim owns McCarthy Engineering in West Lawn, Pa., and he said putting Captain Keith Greenberg at the helm of the Covert Mission last year was critically important to their astounding success. Prior to last year, McCarthy ran his own boat, which included doing all the maintenance and preparation. But now, when Jim and Sandy arrive at Cape May, Captain Greenberg has the boat, tackle and bait ready to go. The McCarthy’s step on board and they’re underway, providing additional fishing time.

Captain Spots Fish Easily

Jim McCarthy said Captain Greenberg has the “best set of eyes and sees fish well before the rest of us.” Greenberg said he does nothing special, other than “stare backwards all day,” study the trolling spread, and stay alert for a splash, flash or anything that looks a little different. He said the ability to quickly spot fish in a spread depends on several factors, including the angle of the sun and the clouds in the sky. There’s no doubt that “seeing fish coming” results in additional hookups.

As a hooked marlin is battled, baits are kept in the water in hopes of additional hookups (they have had as many as five at a time). McCarthy credits Greenberg’s observation and communication skills with enabling anglers to successfully fight several marlin simultaneously without many tangled lines or lost fish. Greenberg directs the show, calling out for certain anglers to back off on the drag, move to their left or right, or to move their rods over or under other rods.

White marlin
A white marlin blasts through the surface in a spirited attempt to throw the hook. (Photo courtesy of Jim McCarthy)

The 103 billfish on the Covert Mission were caught during 22 trips from the end of July to October 2.

“We were stuck on 99 billfish for awhile, and had lost five fish in a row,” before Jim managed to hook, bring to boatside and release the one-hundredth billfish of the season. They use circle hooks exclusively, and all but one billfish (checked in during a tournament) were released.

Their tackle features 7-foot trolling rods, and Shimano TLD 20A reels, spooled with 30-pound Sufix Hi-Vis line. Eighty-pound, 100-pound, or 120-pound mono leaders are used, depending on what Captain Greenberg believes will be most productive given the conditions.

Boat Trolls Five Rods

The Covert Mission trolls five rods, including two flatlines, two long riggers, and one center rigger from the bridge. In the spread are teaser bars, surface teasers, and dredges with ballyhoo or mullet.

McCarthy believes the ballyhoo they use is vital to their success. Greenberg goes to Mexico each year and purchases ballyhoo caught by the locals. It’s somewhat smaller than the Florida-caught ballyhoo that is typically sold in most East Coast bait and tackle shops.

McCarthy also mentioned a “secret weapon” they began using last year. It’s a pink squid spreader bar that is pulled as a teaser. It raises many marlin, and as the billfish close in the teaser is yanked away and a bait is quickly dropped back to the fish.

Greenberg “never leaves the dock blind.” He talks with other captains and uses word-of-mouth information and temperature charts to help develop his game plan for a day of fishing. He said “getting a bite early gives you a spot to fish,” and he’ll thoroughly work a location where fish have shown. Otherwise, he’ll move around, constantly on the lookout for signs of life, baitfish and billfish.

Fishermen holding white marlin
Yet another white marlin caught on the Covert Mission is quickly photographed just prior to its release.

Last year, Greenbeg said, marlin were in closer, in the “60- to 80-mile range,” which resulted in less traveling time and more fishing time. They caught most of their marlin in Poorman’s and Wilmington canyons, and there was also action in Washington and Norfolk canyons.

McCarthy said no goals have been established for the Covert Mission this year.

“It’s hard to believe it can be as good as last year, as for starters, the fish probably won’t be as close,” he said. “We’ll be happy to catch half as many as we did last year.”

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