They are very competent people and we can manage without a deckhand. Beyond the drop-off I slow the Margarita, put the spread out and relax. The weather is hazy with a slow, long, oily swell from the west ; water 72.6°. Jonno is inshore with Angullla, unhappily day-tripping for barracudas along the coast.
At 10.55am I am down below on the phone. Daniel has phoned to talk about his estimated 1200 pounder from the week before. I have my eyes level with the saloon floor, but I can still occasionally glimpse the wake and lures through the saloon door. Daniel is still talking about his fish when a fin appears behind the right rigger lure, and, in slow motion, slides away. I yell, drop the phone and run for the fly-bridge, knocking down two clients by the door, and then, gibbering, almost pushing over another sitting on the ladder. I can almost sense the fish surging after the lure behind me. I pray we don't hook-up before I can reach the controls. I reach the helm where Keith is happily driving, push him out of way, and turn round.
Unbelievably, no one else has seen the fish yet and everyone stares forward, assuming there is something off the bow. Looking astern, I see the fish appear yet again behind the same lure. Down in the cockpit Nigel and Jeremy realise where I am looking and they too, glance back at the wake, see the fish popping its nose out and they both simultaneously scream ‘FISH !!’ Everyone else bundles down the ladder to stand by their rods, leaving just myself and Mike's wife alone on the fly-bridge. The fish surges again at the lure, but still it does not knock it out of the clip. Everyone is shouting, the fish is very big, the dorsal maybe 30 inches high, and it stands out proud against the calm grey water. The marlin disappears from sight.
A collective moan can be heard and I swear loudly. Out of sight, the fish decides to change tactics and suddenly reappears, engulfing the lure from behind with barely a ripple on the flat water. The rigger bows heavily, the pin snaps open, and I gun the boat briefly. The fish stays in the wake, head and shoulders out of the water, thrashing slowly. Black smoke obscures everything, and the other lures start to come in quickly. When the smoke clears and I throttle back, Keith is standing by the rod looking up at me. Line is leaving the reel at a ponderous rate, the rod pinned heavily in the holder. I run down the ladder and put the engines in neutral. By now all the lures are all in, and Keith is waiting for me to give him the go-ahead to transfer the rod to the chair. I put the boat astern slowly, and finally the rod-tip eases up fractionally and Keith wrestles the rod out of the holder and staggers across the cockpit, the weight of the fish finally becoming apparent.
A moment of panic then ensues as we adjust the foot-rest for him and then everything is going according to plan - except that the fish is not taking line. We have maybe 150 yards of 130 monofilament on top of the dacron, and some it is still on the reel. I call to Nigel, the most experienced of the clients, to bring the riggers up. He has fished with me before and knows roughly what to do. Keith is comfortable in the chair, but looking concerned at this new experience of being bodily attached to a heavy, moving weight. It is his first marlin. The fish takes no more line, but swims in a large arc across the wake. I tell Keith to put the reel in low-speed and wind steadily. He does so, and gently leads the fish to a position 50 yards off the starboard quarter. We can see the bimini knot out of the water, and silently I am praying for the fish to do something. The idea of a green large fish alongside the boat with no deckhand does not appeal at all.
Suddenly the fish seems to realise that it is hooked, and without warning takes off towards the bow of the boat, the spool of the reel becoming a blur under Keith's hands, the weight of the fish turning the chair completely round. I ease the boat ahead - from the cockpit controls on the starboard side I have the line running out within a foot of my head, and I can see it clearly. The wheel is not centred though, and I run through to the lower helm position, quickly centre it, and run out again. Nigel is standing by the outrigger halyards, keeping the dacron from touching the wire stays. With no exterior helm, I use the controls to try and keep the boat parallel with the line. Keith yells ‘Half-spool !’ and I increase speed to keep up with the thin rooster-tail that is running two feet off the boat's side in the calm water.
Margarita's cockpit is nearly 15 feet long, so we have plenty of room to play with. Jockeying the throttles, we chase after the fish, the bow of the boat going from side to side with alternate bursts of power on each engine. Nigel has taken control of the chair and shouts that there is little line left. Keith cannot speak, and looking back, I realise why - the weight of the fish and the increased drag has pulled him completely forward in the chair, collapsing his legs, and his face is red with the effort of taking all of the weight of the fish on his arms. He looks scared - we all do. It is no joke to be spooled by a fish in 90 seconds.
I yell at Keith to back off on the drag, some 200 yards of line left, and jamming the throttles to the wall, put Margarita on the plane - for thirty seconds we fly alongside the line at 18 knots, and then it slowly slides towards the stern. Easing the throttles back, I look forwards and see the fish jump once some 800 yards away from us, and I realise that there is a huge bow of line going directly downwards from the rod, and then back up to the surface in a large arc. I glance at the reel, and the sight of it terrifies me. There is maybe twenty turns of line left on the spool, but thankfully it has stopped turning, even as the boat loses way. Nigel has turned the chair with the line, and the soft South African rod is bent in a dreadful curve directly downwards. Keith is still pinned against the footrest, hunched up in a horrible position. Slowly though, the rod tip starts to straighten and Keith is able to sit back, using his legs at last. He starts the endless task of recovering line. The fish has finally slowed. I turn the boat and we slowly start to go astern on the fish. Panic slightly over.
Within half an hour, it is obvious that the fish is getting the better of Keith, but we all scream at him and he sets to again, using small pumps and the low gear. For a man unused to this physical activity, it is a prodigious feat. Nigel is clearly concerned - the day before he has been in the same chair for nearly four hours on an 800 lb class fish on 80, only for the hooks to fall out with the fish 50 yards away - he understands the pain and softly gives Keith advice and encouragement. At 12.10 we have the fish finally near the boat, and she shows herself in a series of surges. Keith suddenly takes on a renewed lease of life and works harder, confident that he has taken the worst. Mike has a boat back home in the UK, so he is given charge of the cockpit controls as I don gloves. Several times the fish shows itself again, too exhausted and heavy to jump clear of the water, but still making an impressive sight as its head and shoulders surge along the surface, ripping line off the reel in heavy bursts. Mike's wife is filming on the fly-bridge, but unfortunately much of the footage comes out 'Anneka Rice' style. At 12.25 I touch the leader, but cannot hold the fish as it steadily swims away from us as we back after it - I feel it is too heavy to wrap and hold with just Mike at the controls. Even if we do not tag the fish though, it is at least a release, and we all breathe a sigh of relief.
Three more times I leader the fish, but cannot hold it without using excessive force. Eventually the fish is below the boat, sulking at 50 feet. Everything so far has looked solid, so I tell Keith to clamp down hard and really pull. He does so, and the fish starts to come up. With Mike gently easing the boat ahead, I stand at the stern and wait for the fish. She is surfacing belly-up, obviously exhausted as she rises, and I feel that this is a really good chance to finish the encounter. The leader appears, and I take two wraps and lift. She is impossibly heavy. My back creaks. Her tail is still going hard though and I yell at Mike to go ahead harder. He is not used to the sensitivity of the throttles and Margarita suddenly shoots forward and I am nearly dragged over the transom. Yelling at him to go out of gear, the fish starts to plane up and suddenly she slides under the boat. I yell at Mike to go ahead on the port engine, but he mistakenly puts the starboard engine in gear instead. There is a horrible clunking sound from under the boat and I fear we have mutilated the fish. As the boat goes out of gear again and drifts ahead, the marlin suddenly reappears from underneath the hull. Thankfully we see the propeller has simply scraped the bill, and she is unscathed and huge !
I take triple wraps simply to hold the weight of her by the boat as Nigel sticks the first tag in, but suddenly and without warning the hooks are free and the fish is drifting astern of the boat, still belly-up. Without righting herself she slowly disappears from sight. Keith sags back in the chair, content and beaming. Nigel asks me how much the fish would have weighed. I hesitate, and mention 900 to 1000 lbs. Mike asks if she will be all right. I reply that she has thousands of feet of water to recover in, and there is no threat from sharks on the south coast of Madeira. I explain that tracking off Hawaii has shown that even 'dead' marlin have been shown to recover within 200 feet. Jeremy, the other client who has had little to do, is sitting on the ladder, bemoaning a lack of photographs. We start to congratulate Keith.
I look astern of the boat, and suddenly see the fish back on the surface, 50 feet away, one long pectoral fin waving weakly in the air. I yell at Nigel to grab a small hand-gaff and I run to the cockpit controls. We quickly back down on the fish and ten feet away I put the boat in neutral and take the gaff from Nigel, telling Mike to go slowly ahead when I say. The fish is turning in a slow circle, and unbelievably I am able to slip the small hook into her jaw and scream at Mike to go ahead on one engine. Within seconds, Nigel has put his height and strength to advantage and he has grabbed the bill. I drop the gaff on deck and push down on a pectoral. The fish rolls slowly over and I can reach the dorsal. Within seconds we have the fish upright and slowly swimming by the boat. We all yell with excitement as now we have a chance to resuscitate the fish properly, and also have all the time in the world for photos and measurements. The second tag goes in, and then I hand over the dorsal fin to Mike and Keith. Running inside, I grab the tape-measure. After some seconds fumbling, we have the tape round her completely - 82" girth. I drop the tape-measure and grab the measuring stick - an old beach-caster blank marked off in inches. Fork-length 138". By now I realise that the fish is very big indeed. I scramble for the calculator, and the formula gives us a figure of 1159 lbs. I cannot believe it, so I quickly do the measurements again. They are correct. The other four guys, hanging over the side with the fish, look up at me expectantly. I tell them, and the air turns blue with excited language. Jeremy lets go of his bit of fish and starts scrambling all over the boat, five cameras in his hands.
I slow down, breathless, and call Jonno on the VHF. I tell him we have a fish alongside that goes 1150 on the formula, and he simply says, 'Wow, very nice ! ". Twenty uneventful minutes later, the fish has plenty of colour back and her tail is starting to paddle strongly. All of us are exhausted with the effort of holding her steady alongside the boat and collectively decide she is fit to release. I put the boat in neutral and we slowly watch the fish sink away, but this time upright and moving slowly, a rhythmical beat to that huge tail. Nigel and I shake hands and look at Keith. He is pink with exertion and excitement. He cannot believe what he has done, although he does recognise the significance, and so, having caught his first blue marlin, he refuses to fish again that week, content to sit on the fly-bridge for three days and do nothing.
Incredibly, we have three more fish that afternoon but fail to hook-up with any of them. None of them are less than 600 lbs, and the last one is quite possibly another grander. As we enter the marina at 8.00pm that evening, Keith is unceremoniously tossed overboard for the traditional ducking. Jonno is waiting on the pontoon with a wry grin and a bag of cold beers. For the second time in a week he calls me a ‘Jammy git’with some feeling.
Obviously things get done quite differently now, nearly 10 years on and several hundred fish later, but sometimes it is both entertaining and educational to look back down a learning curve. I still use power-gum loops, still yell with excitement, but I no longer consider the measuring of fish of great importance if they can be released quickly without stress. In addition, I am still fortunate enough to fish with many pleasant people who still have no inclination to kill a fish, no matter how big it is. You will also never hear or read this, but I believe that the current trend in releasing such large blue marlin was largely due in no small part to the UK anglers who came to Madeira in the early 1990’s. They really did set the ball rolling in an era when it was still considered unusual to release any blue marlin over 600lbs, anywhere in the world, with the occasional exception of St. Thomas. Hats off to all of them…………….