The first white marlin of the year have been reported off Ocean City and Virginia Beach, but it's too early to tell how the July-September season will turn out.

Last season was poor; the whites came up with their slowest start since World War II and didn't improve until September. Many latecomers were reported in the areas of the Baltimore and Norfolk canyons and around the "Cigar" off Virginia Beach.

Ocean City proclaims itself the white marlin capital of the world, and usually has been, but last year the "Cigar" was the hot spot.

White marlin are trophy fish that are seldom eaten. Weighing from 60 to 80 pounds, occasionally up to 100, they are spectacular fighters and can take up to 30 minutes to boat. They should not be confused with blue marlin, which run around 300 pounds and rarely come north of Cape Hatteras.

Like their blue cousins, white marlin are not easy to catch. They can be picky.

"Sometimes you see fish tailing on the surface but the critters just won't eat," said Lloyd Lewis of the Talbot Street Pier in Ocean City. About half of his boats are now bringing in at least one marlin, and Lewis expects things to improve.

According to Pat McGhee at the Rudee Inlet Sport Fishing Center in Virginia BeacH, the besty way to tempt white marlin is to troll four lines with a different bait on each. She expects catches of three or four fish per boat by late July.

The most effective baits are squid, eel, ballyhoo and mullet, trolled at three to five knots. Marlin often mouth their prey, so when you get a strike let the fish take the bait and run before setting the hook. Waiting a few moments after the strike is difficult for many anglers, but patience can be the difference between a fish on and a fish gone.

With artificial lures it is important to troll faster (6 to 8 knots) and strike sooner, since marlin will quickly spit out anything that does not taste or feel right.

Marlin fishing is an all-day affair. Charter boats carry six people, go 50 to 70 miles out and usually cost from $300 to $350. The best area off Ocean City is the Baltimore-Washington Canyon. Off Virginia Beach, the best areas are the "Cigar," the Southeast Lumps and 26-Mile Hill.