‘ Nice tuna,’ he said.
‘Uh uh,’ I replied. ‘ I don’t think so.’
I hardly get the words out of my mouth before Jeff throws the ju-ju sign at the bait on the long corner. Incredulously, within seconds, a long brown shadow appears behind it and like a consummate magician Jeff calmly says, ‘There she is………’
The fish stays behind the Andromeda as Jeff thunders down the ladder into the cockpit, bringing all aboard the boat awake with a bang. I hear shouts down there but watch the fish instead. She disappears in and out of the white water, clearly some distance behind the lure. I speed up on that side for five seconds, and then seeing the fish closing up, throw the engine out of gear. The fish slides up and across the lure, touching it briefly with its bill, tasting it. I put the boat back in gear and accelerate back up to speed. The fish drifts down the line, the Andromeda disappearing ahead of it. I have the mike switched on by now, and call down to Jeff. ‘I think this one’s a no –no. Not hungry, Jeff.’
Jeff is clinging onto the ladder, watching, and he agrees. The fish is too brown, no black in her, and she swims unaggresively as the wake and spread slide past her. I chop and change the speed again. It is still a nice sight after 19 days without a bite, but the excitement is going from me as I recognise just signs of curiosity in a fish which would probably not even eat a live-bait. The thought crosses my mind that the fish is full of 12" mackerel from the tuna boats. I resign myself to a fish seen, but not interested. The boat moves along and the long rigger lure slides past the fish. Five feet, ten feet, the fish fading, and suddenly the lure does something different. Something invisible to humans, but distinctly interesting to a fish full of mackerel. Maybe it twinkled, spat, gurgled, who knows, but suddenly there is a pique of hunger in a brown shape changing colour, darkening as it suddenly spurts back up the line, sidling up alongside the Iduna, leering at it sideways.
I call down to Jeff, ‘ Hey, she's looking at the Iduna, she might eat the long, Jeff……watch out’, and then there is a blur of white water as the fish hits the lure sideways in one of the most violent blows I have ever seen from a fish’s bill, and even as I say more into the microphone the line is out of the clip and the yellow Moimoi stretches away from the boat in a perfect light, an angle going astern and outwards in a perfect movement, the big Penn chattering excitedly. I am afraid that the fish is simply bill-wrapped and say so to the crew as they go through the routine of turning the chair as I turn the boat. 300 yards of line disappear quickly and I call the fish to be better than 400 lbs, maybe more. Jeff has the halyards high in his hand, clearing the line as we go ahead up to the fish which is now jumping violently. The angler cannot keep up with me so I slow down, the fish arcing across the sea in a big circle of white water. I hear Jeff calling up that he is worried too that the fish is bill-wrapped after that sideways swipe, but I respond with a growing certainty that the fish is well-hooked after seeing the hook-hold survive the series of jumps ahead of the boat.
The rigger-loop comes out of the water and I start to back down on the fish. A few yards more and she jumps again and Jeff and I realise we have made a slightly large mistake, and call the fish for 700 lbs. I back steadily, the angler winds, the fish makes several beautiful jumps for the video camera and four minutes after hook-up we have the leader to hand, Jeff hanging on for all he is worth in an attempt to turn the fish and bring her back up alongside. Inexplicably the 650 Extra Hard parts in the middle of the leader as Jeff is turning her. None of us have seen clearly where the hooks are, but we have caught the fish at least, although the Iduna has met its end on its debut ! We are so close to the original commercial boat we were passing earlier that we look up to see them cheering and applauding our efforts. Jeff waves back cheerily.
It is our last blue marlin for the year. A disappointing season in terms of numbers, but the average size for our five fish is over 700 lbs, which is up there with any of the other islands. From the grapevine it seems we have done no worse or better than many of the boats in the north-east Atlantic this year, although our by-catch seems to consist of more spearfish (six) than tuna (one big-eye and two albacore). Skipjacks round out the menu.
Two of the spearfish are catches of note. Well, three are really. The same day we catch our last marlin we hook and land a spearfish on 20 lb line, a vacant class record. Much to the chagrin of the angler, we call the fish about 5 lbs and our derision forces him to put it back to fight another day.
Another fish we hook on the follow-up right at the boat for Jenny on 16 lb - another vacant class. This fish we fight for about 15 minutes, but we are using a small diameter wind-on and cannot get the fish within range of the gaff even though we have most of the leader on the reel. After seeing this fish at close range I realise that it is bill-wrapped and tell the crew to use kid-glove tactics. Alas, three minutes later the fish does a wriggle down deep and the hook comes free. We call it about 45 lbs. It would have fitted the bill admirably, and the wasabi would have been called into play !
Another fish we hook on 16 lb for a male guest angler, and after a fairly uneventful battle of about 10 minutes, we have the fish aboard the boat. It look as if it will go close to the record of 60 lbs, but it fails to make the cut by a pound. The wasabi finally gets used !
We also catch two albacore this month. One a nice fish of 50 lbs on 16 lb for a visiting airline pilot, and the other a fish of about 30 lbs for Richard’s mother. A good catch on 16 lb, especially when it is her first fish. Both fish go to good use, feeding us and our friends in the marina.
Late in the month, the water starts to lose its colour and grow colder. Reluctantly we give up the season for an early ending on Sept 22 and head back to Tenerife to clean and tidy up the boat before leaving it in the water at a small marina there - for sale - the idea being a bigger boat with more range for next year. Gibraltar, the Azores, Madeira, Morocco, Algeria, the Cape Verdes, and maybe even Ghana and Bom Bom. That is what the owners want. Whether I go with them is undecided……who knows ?
Of course, once home, all the debates begin again concerning the whereabouts of the fish. Madeira had its best year since 1997 but was still well down on the mid ‘90’s, the Azores were appalling compared to better years, La Gomera had a good start then faded - as did the Cape Verdes, Graciosa had no fish, Grand Canaria seemed to have lots of fish until you counted the boats, no news from the Portuguese mainland or Morocco, Ghana finished early, and from all reports Bom Bom was lack-lustre. What happens ?
Well, here (for what it is worth) is my theory. Current thinking seems to believe that there are two populations of blue marlin in the Atlantic, each centred upon distribution points respectively believed to be in the Caribbean/Mexican Gulf in the western part of the ocean, and the other in the Gulf of Guinea in the east. I personally think this is correct, and there is interaction between the two populations. However, to me it makes no sense to have an animal migrating from the equator northwards in one part of the year, and then to have migrate southwards in another part of the year. So, respectfully, I see at least four separate populations of fish - both a north-migrating tribe and a south-migrating tribe in the east, and the same in the west.
For example, if a thousand pound female off the west coast of Ireland arrives there in the summer (yes, they do get up that far !!), then she will filter back down as the autumn arrives, in all probability passing through the Canaries sometime in late September, arriving in Ghanaian waters some time in late October (and fat with it), and spawns in the Gulf of Guinea in January, or so. Research has shown that a marlin travels at about 3 knots during migration at a depth of no more than 130 feet. Over a 24 hour period that marlin may make 60 miles. In a month, that adds up to over 2000 miles, notwithstanding any current she may encounter. So, after spawning, I think this fish will regress again northwards - passing through Ghana in February or March (very thin, as is born out by catches then), and heads up north again. A fish from the southern hemisphere has just started her pilgrimage north at that time of year because it is her autumn. She may well spawn in the Gulf sometime in July. So, are the fish that Bom Bom sees in July and August the over-wintering fish from the south ? Is that why they are fit and fat ? I think the same happens on the opposite side of the Atlantic too. Those fish which drift north in the gulf-stream have already spawned and make the circuit as do their eastern counterparts. In Brazil, the hot time is March and April. Which fish are these ? Is this the 'southern' population coming northwards to spawn, fat and fit ?
Anyway, if you imagine (I'm counting on the fact that you're still with me at this stage and haven't gone to visit some other sordid site ! ) these two populations on each side of the Atlantic going south and north in their subdivisions, it becomes apparent that they are following a depth contour along which they will find bait. They probably do not know that inshore there is a coast-line, but they sense the depth is correct for food and that is why they follow the contours orientated along the continental shelf. So, why stop there. Why not have a central Atlantic population doing exactly the same along the central mid-Atlantic ridge ? Azores marks the top, San Paulo and San Pedro (Brazil) mark the middle, and passing southwards through Ascension and St. Helena, the islands of Tristan da Cunha and Gough mark the southern limits, at least as far as marlin food goes anyway. Yes, they catch tunas off Tristan da Cunha in their summer. Coincidentally, the Brazilian mid-Atlantic islands of San Paulo and San Pedro are situated in the most convenient place for populations to intermingle, and it is an area teeming with marlin if any of the first-hand reports I have heard are true. It is here that I suspect many of the trans-atlantic fish meet and go different ways.
In theory, it makes sense to me. Good years in Madeira in the mid-nineties were invariably good years in the Canaries. The Azores never seemed to be on the same wavelength, and I think this is the reason why. Their fish come from two directions - some from the gulfstream, the rest from their own mid-Atlantic population. I find it hard to believe that no fish tagged in the Azores have been recaptured - but maybe that is because along the ridge in the mid-Atlantic there is no one fishing there who wants to return the tags ?!! I personally believe that the fish which come up from the Gulf of Guinea in a European summer pass through Ghana and the Ivory coast, linger in the Cape Verdes (where I suspect some of the bigger fish may remain all summer and most of the small males do), surge northwards through the Canaries, then Madeira, and continue along the continental shelf past Spain and Portugal and thence up the west coast of Ireland, feeding predominantly on juvenile tunas as they go further north, especially skipjack and albacores in the colder water. Trevor Housby stated that he saw an 800 lb blue marlin in the fish-market in Dublin sometime in the mid 1980's when the Spanish and French gill-netters were hard at work off the Porcupine bank, south-west of Ireland. Apparently it was not the only marlin ever caught there !! Put a dozen pelagic long-line vessels to work along the continental shelf at the western end of the English Channel in mid-summer ( I shudder at the thought) and I think you would be very surprised at the results. Unfortunately it is out of the realms of a sport-fishing boat due to the distance.
The mid-Atlantic population (if you are following my theory - you certainly don't have to !) is split into those who go north to the Azores, and those who go south through Ascension and St. Helena. The latter island unfortunately has no airport. The only way to go there is on the S.S. St Helena, a three-week trip which leaves you stranded on the island for six weeks at a time. There, the commercial fishermen patiently wait every year for the annual migrations of albacore, skipjack, yellowfin, big-eye and bluefin. And yes, there are whites and blues there too, along with good numbers of wahooo and yellowtail. No coincidence then that the St. Helena government has for years licenced Japanese long-liners to fish its waters. Alas, there are no charter-boats there either, although South Africans have been visiting there for years and catching tunas on rod and line from the same commercial boats.
So, where does all this lead ? Well, any year has its fluctuations in current, weather and ocean drift. To a marlin or tuna, heading off on its annual migration, the first thing it looks for is food, probably tunas, sometimes (depending on location) mackerel or other species of small fish that can be balled up and eaten easily. These smaller fish, in turn, look for their own food, and the same situation goes on down the line until you get to the plankton. And this is where the story starts. Each year, every migration of every pelagic fish depends on where the plankton is and this is purely down to drift and current. Find the water pushing north (or south) which has plankton in it, and therefore balls of bait, and you will find the rest (another of my theories !).
If, as happened this year in La Gomera, there is no pelagic bait, then there will be little else. Sure, the odd blue marlin will come through, and yes, there may be some tunas around (prime examples are the resident shoals of big-eye on the Condor Bank off Faial, the fish off Cabo Girao in Madeira, and the permanently over-fished group of 200 lb fish we saw this year along the south-west point of La Gomera) but they will be few and far between. Whites come and go, and being of greater number and more opportunistic than blues may appear in sufficient numbers to give an impression of good fishing. But, for all of us who chase the big girls, we need to have the feed there for them, and for me that means 5 - 20 lb tunas, maybe even bigger. There may well be occasions where there is sufficient mackerel for a marlin to linger and stay in an area, but in truth I feel a blue prefers to eat schooling tunas than mackerel.
Unless, of course, it has the opportunity to eat a spearfish, which is why when there are spearfish about in numbers I do not really expect to see many blue marlin. Those little 'chuckers' are not stupid! But, a blue marlin is also just as happy rounding up a big ball of 'trumpetero' or boarfish, just like a tuna or sail, and guzzles on them too. They just eat them quicker because that mouth is larger ! This is one of the reasons why marlin can differ in body shape so much - the travellers out on the high seas chasing tunas become long and lean like sprinters, while those who find a prime source of small balling bait get fat like a couch-potato.
So, in answer to any question as to where the blues are, I normally reply - 'Where the drift takes the plankton.' No fish does not simply mean there are no fish anywhere. They may be 100 miles away. They can be 500 miles away. In La Gomera this year, and therefore Madeira and northwards, I believe that the drift of warm water was well out to the west of us - a view corroborated by the satellite images during the summer. Those same images also showed cold water pouring southwards out of the Mediterranean during June and July which could have been the reason for the lack of fish in the eastern islands of the Canaries at that time. As I write this, it would appear that Faial is seeing numbers of fish finally, yet the fishing along the eastern sea-board of the USA was consistent all summer. So are the fish in the Azores now the mid-Atlantic population, finally arriving a little late ?
Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. I am sure you have an opinion or a theory too. It is not just over-fishing that makes a season a bad one. The Cape Verdes seemed to have had their typically fertile beginning when the fishing died off. But, the fish did not appear to come north in numbers as normal. Did they head out north-west, following the drift ? Was that the reason we all experienced a dismal summer in the north-east again ? When the drift is like this do the fish transcend their normal routes, meet in different places, take a curve out of the routine and cross over ? Time and some more satellite tags will tell. Except, will we get the benefit if the results ? Or will the facility being built in the Cape Verdes at present (for 400 Chinese long-liners) be our sport-fishing nemesis ? At present the danger comes from the bait-catching boats for that fleet. When they have cleaned out the bait-holding plateau, where will the passing fish go for their food ? We all know the outcome - clean out one step in the food-chain, and strange things happen. (Ed: how about getting rid of the west-Channel winter mackerel pair-fleet, cherish and nourish all them mackerels, and then put up a line of signs back down as far as Madeira saying "Free mackerel - this way. Only 1500 miles till the next service station. Easy parking. Guaranteed no Chinese or Japanese long-liners allowed. Open 24 hours a day. All tags on the house.")
Let me know your thoughts - an open forum of exchanged views. I am willing to be pointed in different directions, no problem. Also thanks to those of you who have gone abroad, fished and got back to me with advice and tips for fellow travellers. Next month will be an article a lot of people have talked to me about - 'Big boat or Little Boat', and all the arguments that entails !……………….hmmm.