The bread flake hookbait drifted slowly down into the depths, sometimes hiding itself amongst the free samples. I twitched the line to ensure I was watching the correct piece of white dust. I was. From the corner of my eye I watched the mullet shoal come in, voraciously savaging the tiny particles, racing each other to consume the most. My bait vanished from sight so I struck, instantly. Nothing.
Jeff's Floridian accent softly spoke beside my left ear. "Y'know, my Granny had a bite like that last time she came fishin' with me".
Distracted, I fell into the trap. "Oh, yeah. What happened?"
Nodding his head he said "She missed it as well".
Damn. He'd got me again. Behind him I saw Roddys face struggle not to smile. He does that a lot.
I had been on this previously unknown Canary island of La Gomera for four days now and had still not unwound. A mixture of big-city stress had mixed with the new adrenaline of marlin trolling to have me running off at the mouth at every turn. Opinions on things I had no knowledge of. Asking questions which sounded dumb even to me. Finding that these men who fished for the billfish monsters were as alike, and yet as different as it were possible to be, to each other and to myself. Individuals from totally disparate backgrounds all linked by a common cause. What Jeff calls… fishin'.
Well, to steal a few words from Dr McCoy… It is fishing Jim, but not as we know it.
The deafening roar of the diesels overlay the colours of the ocean and the stark rock beauty of the island looms. The foaming wake stretching out behind us, the intense heat of the sun camouflaged by the cool breeze that trolling at 8 knots produces. Vivid yellows of the fluorescent monofil clash, or compliment?, the gold finish on the reels. Yeah, those reels. Reels the size of my head "and almost as stupid". I'll get that in before someone else does.
Overheard: Jeff and Richard talking.
"…So this tuna is alongside at last and he's ready with the gaff, right? And this tuna is, I dunno, three hundred pounds maybe. And he's waiting there with the gaff all ready y'know? And then up comes this big blue marlin. And it just opens its mouth and it just eats it. The tuna. It just eats the tuna in one bite. Now that was a really big fish….".
We were… fishin'. Yep. It's fishin' Jim but not as we know it. It's a hammerhead horror show - waiting for a reel or an angler, it doesn't matter which, to start screaming.
I know this might sound strange but in my short time here I had found similarities between these big game anglers and the European match anglers with their roachpoles - they too fish for bites. Just one bite is all they look for. One would be enough. Just one. Please. Or like the European carp anglers. The big game boats set their traps then wait, and wait. For hours and days, uncomplaining. Knowing that the boredom of the waiting could be shattered at any second by the ohmygodadrenalinerush of a fish taking. Because that's what angling is all about when all is said and done. In the end. That rush. We are all junkies.
So here we are, leaning against the transom of a 44 foot gigantic fishing machine, fully loaded with every known aid to angling that has ever been invented. I will never snigger at a bulging bivvy again. Or smile at the sight of a matchman's trolly. Behind and above me was a tuna tower, outriggers, route-plotters, fish-finders, depth sounders, hooks and lures by the zillion, and rods and reels from Mars. Or they might as well have been, so alien were they to my untrained eyes. Beneath my feet, giant Detroit diesels waited in silence, almost tapping their mechanical feet, glancing at their watches, eager to GO!!! In short, we were aboard a millionaires plaything just a few hundred yards from drop-offs patrolled by 1000lb blue marlin. And we were hand-lining for four inch mullet. And nobody wanted to stop.
We were fishin'.
Three captains, one craft: Richard Porter, normally skipper of the Cornish shark-boat "Energy" out of Looe. As the most junior member on this trip, his role is supposedly the most menial. In reality, the more senior crewman, Capt. Jeff Thomas shares with him all the deckhand chores. Jeff is qualified and licensed to captain 100 ton craft in the USA. Instead, he'd rather be where he is, assisting the skipper of the Cepheus. The 'Old Man'. The Boss. Roddy Hays. The loyalty on this craft is astounding, all three men spend a lot of time pounding my ears with praise for the other two, when they are out of each others hearing range anyway. Aboard, when the 'Ol man' calls down a request from his eyrie in the tuna-tower, he is answered with speed of action befitting a Napoleonic Naval frigate. Close your eyes and think of Hornblower. That's it.
I have done a little bit of this kind of stuff before. (Sorry. Talking to Americans always gets me thinking in accents, so if I start drifting into "y'all be good now y'hear" type talk, have a little patience. I'll be better soon). I have on several occasions been the man holding the rod on big-game boats and my experiences have not been completely wasted. I have managed to pick up enough over the years to realise that the 'angler' is probably the weakest link in the chain, with the captain being the driving force in more ways than one. The poor sod in that fighting chair gets the arm-ache and the kudos but trust me, without the captain (and/or crew) he is dead meat before the hook is even set. Once in Cairns, I saw a 1,100lb marlin 'caught' by a Frenchman. It was the first time he had ever been fishing and this was the first fish he had ever caught. I rest my case.
Out at sea, a calm sea, a flat calm sea with no chance of sea-sickness (therefor the sea of my dreams, such a poor sailor am I) I was made to feel as if I was lottery winner. Richard and Jeff answered every dumb question until I felt that I almost understood what was going on. We trolled a zig-zag course along a drop-off, the deep water hitting 150 fathoms. This is where the marlin would show up. And the tuna. And the whales. I have been told that lots of whales are showing up in this area, including some quite rare ones. I was fortunate that one day whilst I was aboard, a Sei whale showed itself and allowed us to get quite close before sounding. I managed to get off a couple of photos but a zoom lens would have made a lot of difference. (You reading this boss?). I know it was a Sei whale because Jeff told me, astounding me with his immense knowledge of all things marine. This admiration didn't change even after I discovered the illustrated volume entitled 'Whales of the Canary Islands' beside the fishfinder at his right hand. But I would watch him a little more closely in future. (Not closely enough, he had me in a drunken haze night after night!).
Techniques for catching a marlin? Roddy explained the main one to me, the sense behind trolling lures at eight knots. "You cover more ground. Imagine walking swiftly through a huge room holding a tray aloft calling, 'hamburgers, free hamburgers'. Eventually someone hungry enough is going to grab a plate from you as you whiz by. Only after they have actually taken the plate will they realise the food is just made of plastic. By then it's too late". He almost smiled again, his eyes far away, reliving some epic battle of the past. Or perhaps just scanning the wake, watching the lures surface and dive, leaving their perfect easy smoketrails. Screaming 'hamburgers' at a crowded ocean.
Except of course that the ocean is not quite so crowded any more. At least not with fish. Plenty of Spanish fishing boats though. We weaved and jinxed our way through them, leaving a herringbone pattern written in the waves. Rod has caught very many marlin. For me to argue whether trolling is the best method of marlin fishing will have to wait until I have caught a few myself. And it's probably going to be a long wait. But I have understood this much. If I knew a tenth as much about the stock market as Rod Hays and Jeff Thomas know about giant blue marlin fishing, they would be working for me 'cause I would be really rich!
Of course I had brought some tackle of my own along. My host had requested that I bring a 'couple of carp rods' in case he could sort out some good rock fishing. As it turned out, he had found no good shore fishing at all but I was not to know that at the time. I had packed the requested couple of carp rods plus some old reels to match and as an afterthought I had added a couple of 5lb TC catfish rods as well. We kept a couple of those hard-to-hit mullet from the harbour alive and that evening set off to fish the harbour mouth from the rock wall. It was going to be a full moon and a high tide. I had some plans to catch a predator, we had seen a near 20lb barracuda there earlier
As the sun began to set I cast a popped up livebait into the deep channel at the harbour mouth. A two foot length of 20lb 7strand steel trace is likely to cope with most barracuda, isn't it Rod? Oh? There are big stingrays there too, eh. Hmm. Okay. Well, I'll take my chances.
It happened after a half hour or so. The line started to tickle out through my fingers and the baitrunner began to click. I tightened up and set the hooks, a pair of 1/0 Owner SSW's rigged Pennel style with a cork-ball on the trace swivel. This set-up has caught some huge catfish in the past, not likely that I'll encounter anything of quite that size fishing off a rock wall is there? I mean, it's only a hundred yards from the beach where the sunbathers waste their lives. So I was rather surprised when the fish I had hooked refused to be cranked in straight away. Or even at all. The powerful catfish rod took on an impressive curve, I couldn't hold the hooked beast so we slowly followed it for 100 yards down the rock wall and…
"That fish don't even know it's been hooked. What line are you using?".
"… Tut. What leader?"
"NO leader!" (Incredulous at the stupidity of some people) "I'll give it 5 minutes then".
He was wrong. In fact it went on for at least six minutes. With no pad, the rod-butt had raised my voice an octave and the clutch on the old reel was beginning to stick badly when the huge ray turned for the open ocean. Then, as we all expected, the line parted. I had hooked and lost a fish that felt to be the size of a small country, but in reality was probably no bigger than Essex. Oh well. Next time maybe.