There are dolphins, both bottlenose and common, pilot whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales and some more cetaceans yet, seen far away, their watery blows arcing into the sky against a cold and arid landscape. Of course, no tuna. No bait. Shearwaters circle aimlessly and gulls wait patiently in small forlorn flocks. Below in the saloon, Nigel and Jenny doze, whiling away two weeks of boredom.
66.6 degrees of slate-grey water on our seventh day of monotony. We are making our way into the land, crossing the 500’ line when there is a movement behind the Andromeda on the long corner. I watch bemused, uncertain. Jeff says later he too saw it but also said nothing. Seconds pass and suddenly there is a marlin on its side behind the left rigger lure, an Iduna which caught our last fish a season ago. The fish pauses, disappears, then flies at the small lure again in a blur of white water. I see a dorsal clearly, then the bill and the head rearing up. I knock back the starboard engine, the clip opens, put the engine back in gear, the line comes tight and we have on our first fish of the year. Not a big-eye tuna, but a welcome surprise and amazingly all the routine comes flooding back. The fish is obviously not itself in the cold water, and for 12 minutes wallows down deep. Finally Nigel brings it to Jeff’s hands, and halfway down the wire the hooks pull. A big fish, and she goes in the book at 700. Later in the day we also catch a skipjack, and for days afterwards joke that we caught both the one bait and the one fish that was there to eat it.
The month passes. The water warms slowly and we wait patiently for tunas, ears to the ground for rumours of fish here and there. Marlin do not stray far from our thoughts though, and so when the small spear-fish lure far back on the centre-rigger is engulfed at 4.30 one afternoon ten fishless days later, the huge boil of water and roiling wave instinctively lead me to yell ‘Marlin’ into the microphone as I struggle to clip it on, stab at the event button, start the timer, unselect the auto-pilot and do the several other million things that need to be done at such times. The 50lb outfit in the rocket-launcher screams for ten seconds then falls silent. The boat still has forward movement, and suddenly the rod bows again and line slices through a sunlit sky. Nigel’s son, Jamie, struggles with a butt-pad. Astern of us there is a small tuna boat and I see a puff of smoke from her stern as she swings smartly towards us and I worry for the line.
‘Turning to port,’ I say into the mike and bring CEPHEUS round to head off the interloper. Line is still screaming off the reel and rounding out the turn I start to chase the line down. Jamie winds frantically. I get beyond the fish and stop so Jamie can wind tight and as he does so, we find we have a fish down deep, the rod assuming a full curvature, and a young Englishman coming to terms with a big-fish on standup gear with slippery hands and burnt shoulders. Within five minutes we put him into the chair and sit above the fish, unable to move because of the short rod. Stalemate. The small tuna boat is alongside us throwing bait and it seems our marlin has turned into a tuna.
The rod nods, line trickles of the spool. Jamie sweats. Jonno and Jeff look up at me, and I nod without saying anything. They tell Jamie to go up on the drag and suddenly the rod is very heavy, the reel stops turning at 28lbs of drag. A minute passes, everything solid. The rod straightens noticeably, Jamie winds a little, the line comes faster and slowly the angle changes. With the mono dead astern I can bump the boat astern happily to help. The angle changes again, shallowing rapidly and I start to back down in earnest, a froth of water at CEPHEUS’ waist like an apron string as she bustles busily after the fish. Jonno and Jeff look up at me as we really start to move.
‘Looks like someone else may have come to dinner after all’ Jeff says loudly. We agree in unison as we start to back down at warp-marlin speed. The rigger loop appears and comes hurtling onto the reel as Jamie winds like a whirling dervish, Jonno and Jeff egging him on, aware that we will have one shot at this fish with a 150lb wind-on slowly chafing through. I finally see colour, an indistinct brown shape down deep, and I throw the boat backwards with abandon. Twice the fish is close, the tuna boat far behind, bemused fishermen watching our manoeuvres with some trepidation. Jonno suddenly has a good look at the fish and screams out ‘BIG EYE !’ It is indeed. The best imitation of a marlin I have seen. Leader appears, gaffs shoot into the sun and I drop down the ladder to help bring the 125 lb fish aboard and bleed it quickly. Within 5 minutes it is in the cooler on ice and we wash down. Wasabe, soy, lime, coriander and other things spring to mind……we wonder what size the first fish must have been, somewhat glad that a smaller fish won the race to the lure underwater at the second attempt.
For the next few days we live in hope of a repeat performance, but the small pod of tuna has gone, and we resign ourselves to the monotony of a slowly warming sea. People come and go and by the 25th of May we are thinking of the long slow season of last year.
John Gill’s partner in business is on board. Jonathan Kinread, a salmon-fisherman with no experience of any blue-water fish and we are uncertain of what will happen if we encounter another big fish. The water warms and one day we find ourselves with bait on the sounder at last, and a suspicion of a change, skipjacks beginning to scatter the small dormant flocks of birds.
May 25th – May 28th. BLITZKRIEG. Smoke on the water, scorched drags, burnt fingers, chafed line, bent hooks. At last we are in the right place at the right time.
Blue water and a huddle of optimistic faces in the sounder. Blue blue water, as high as 76 degrees. Mackerel gleam red and yellow on the screen. Dolphins slide past with purpose. Gulls glint white in the sun.
10.40 am and the bottom shallows as we go over the drop inshore again. Jonno is looking astern and screams ‘FISH !!’ in my ear twelve inches away. Head reverberating, I look astern as people stampede down the ladder. A big fish is after the Merlin on the left rigger and later Jonno tells me the lure had a little airtime for 20 feet on the first attack run. There is a heavy swirl behind the lure, a dorsal appears, and then a bill. Knock the engine out of gear, clip opens, continue with all the usual routine and we are tight into a big fish and Jonathan is in the chair; Jonno and Jeff winding frantically.
The fish makes an underwater beeline for Tenerife, 25 miles away on the horizon, and I turn the boat and chase hard, spilling the belly away from the stern so Jonathan need not worry about keeping the line tight. Things go to plan, and a little huff and puff and some serious backing down gets us onto the fish fast, and I involuntarily bless the calm conditions. We have the fish on the surface and Jonno gets his hands on the leader within nine minutes. Three heavy jumps, we yell with excitement. One more minute of Jonathan and a reel against weight, and Jonno has the leader again, swinging the fish around the stern, the marlin bright blue with excitement and fear. He wraps tight as the fish lunges, half jumps, and then the Merlin is in the air, high above the hard-top and it bangs on the roof above me. We all whoop with approbation, and the fish is gone.
Flushed faces look up at me as I climb up to get the lure. The hookset is gone, the loop bitten through - 2.86 Moimoi not up to the task of winning against an aquatic enraged elephant. Jonno, who has been worried about breaking the 650, now understands that any mono will break. I ponder Peter Wright’s and Barkey’s use of mono for their hooksets……hmm. The fish goes in the book at 850 lbs.
A day of optimism. By late afternoon we have still seen nothing, but the atmosphere on board is good, charged by the unending swarms of bait on the sounder and the bright blue water we go through. No one says anything about NOT catching a fish.
Patience is strong and at 5.05 we are rewarded with a fish on the long corner, chasing our champion purple Andromeda. Two lunges, engine out of gear, a swirl, clip open and again we are tight to a fish. I secretly cannot believe our good fortune. The fish bites in 510 feet of water, shallow again, and heads out for the deep. From the bite it did not appear to be a big fish, but as time goes by and the fish stays deep, we turn the angles, line slipping off the reel. Bit by bit we increase the drag, determined not to let the fish get deep. Twice she breaks out of the angle and slides away, each time I bring the boat round again over her. More drag, 20 minutes pass and finally Jonathan, who has kept up the pressure, is rewarded as the rod finally earns its money, lifting the fish up. After 26 minutes we have the fish at hand, slowly swimming away from us and I call down that the fish is foul-hooked, about 550 lbs. Jonno has the snooter on her quickly and the fish co-operates, lying tired as we remove the hooks and revive her. We tow her for five minutes and slip her loose. She disappears instantly, none the worse for wear, the hook-hold slight with little damage. We all exchange congratulations and later at night I sleep fitfully, aware the bite is here and the dawn promises blue water again.
The small-boat fleet lies bobbing on the drop-off outside Playa del Santiago, straw-hatted Sunday fishermen out in force feeding their families. The water has kept its colour overnight and the bait is again out in abundance. On the eastern side of the edge we see mackerel pitting the surface.
Jonathan has his wife on board today and she rides up top with me, eager to see dolphins. I make turns among the small boats, right up in 500’ of water. I sense something is afoot, and as we head back out I see a huge splash across the surface 100 yards away on the bow. I have an impression of a slick black back with no dorsal, an image of potent vitality, a creature on the hunt - not the delphin grace of a cetacean. I call to Jonno, and as I study the remnants of the splash I observe out loud that finally we might have some big tunas here amongst the mackerel.
There is another splash to our right, smaller and slicker, the animal heading away from us and I still cannot identify the cause. Jonno agrees it looks like tunas. I am about to make a turn back, the two of us still looking for further splashes when without warning the short bait, riding behind the Big Herbie teaser, is smacked hard and instantly we are into a fish. No one has seen the bite, and there is no boil or splash to mark the event, just 130 lb Moimoi stretching out straight down the wake, a reel screaming. It is 10.40am. I groan at the thought of a big bluefin - a different animal on the rod for Jonathan. The Andromeda has worked again.
The line stays level though, and even as the other lures are cleared I see a marlin jump once in a long low leap directly down the wake. I call that down to the guys below and Jono and Jeff breathe in relief. I turn the boat and we simply run down the line at an even pace and turn into the fish as we get nearer. It goes down and changes direction and heads out to sea, no more than fifty yards of stretching down into the deep blue. We go through the routine of adding a touch more drag and the rod lifts. The fish feels the pressure but still heads out deep, and we back down noisily past a small boat with two hand-liners watching us with interest. To complicate matters a fish-trap buoy is nearby, but the fish continues straight. Finally the angle changes and we charge back down for the kill, Jonno grabbing the leader and hanging on as the fish lunges out of the water and then turns. CEPHEUS turns with her, pivoting her corner at the fish and Jonno wraps more, sensing he can hold the fish. Jeff lunges with the snooter and she is alongside and Jonno straightens with the hookset in his hand. The fish is still blue; Jeff lets go immediately and the fish is gone quickly into the growing morning light. Backslaps all round. Into the book at 650 lbs.
Three hours later Jeff yells from the cockpit. I have my face in the GPS. We are just outside the 1000’ line and I look up to see a fish sidling alongside the same short bait. It flails again and the lure shoots across the wake ten feet. It plops back into the water and I kill the engine on that side as the fish slides in again and eats it easily. Snap from the clip, bump into gear again and we are tight to another. Holy smoke !!
This fish is different. No jumps and it heads downwards. Ten minutes of bump and grind, playing the angles, and the rod lifts. Fifty yards from the boat and then something changes below. I sense the fish has been wrapped and is now clean. The fight changes, more purposeful, and I sigh with relief. The same routine with the added drag, the angle changes and up comes the fish as we charge down the last few yards to it. Each time we get near it goes down again 30 feet. Twice, three times, and then on the fourth its spirit is gone and Jeff has the leader. This fish is more purposeful on the wire and I swing the boat to keep Jeff in the leader, the fish arcing around to the bow and I gun the outside engine to keep pace. Jeff wraps steadily, foot by foot and she comes cleanly to the side.
Jonno lunges with the snooter, but he is behind Jeff and there is a moment of confusion as they change sides. With the pressure off the snooter, the fish wags its bill once and Jonno’s hat flies off, his hand keeping the handle of the snooter from his face enough that it only whacks him in the lip. He says later he just felt the smallest touch on his teeth. Jeff thinks Jonno is going down and grabs him but Jonno simply grits his teeth, tasting blood, and takes two turns on the snooter rope and the fish finally quietens. Jeff leans down, eases the hook out and we release that one too, quickly. I hop down to look at Jonno’s face, but he has a grin and assures me he is fine. Another fish of 650, a twin to the first. As Jim Carey would say, ‘Smokiiiinnnng !’
The day is different. Overcast and wind of a sort from the south and east. As the morning passes, the sea slowly flattens and the light becomes better. The warm water of the past few days has finally mixed with the cold, and instead of continuous temperature breaks we have a consistent 71 to 72 degrees of water.
Manuel is out on HEDONIST, his first visit for the year, and he works the shallows constantly, his favourite place. I too go in there, but so many skipjacks are dimpling the surface I return to the deep outside, believing the fish will be out, cruising. The morning is one never-ending ritual of avoidance and plastic cleaning. The sea is littered by a constant stream of garbage. In amongst it, I see a purple phalarope, flitting from one patch to another. It is the first I have seen in La Gomera, and then the small wader surprises me by settling on the water.
At 12.30 I see a brown shape behind the long rigger and tell the other two beside me on the bridge. Jeff jumps down into the cockpit, while Jonno perches on the ladder to see better. The shape materialises closer but never gets near to the lure. I sense the fish is not going to eat, and so do the others. We watch it with almost curious distraction, commenting on its progress as we head east. The marlin stays behind the lure for three minutes, fading away and then coming back, but clearly just curious. I slow down once, speed up once, but nothing changes. We do not even bother to go through the routine of teasing the fish closer to the boat. It is as if we understand that this is simply a reconnaissance, and that the real thing will come later.
Manuel has a white up behind his Bertram almost to the minute, doing exactly the same thing, and I tell him not to worry - feeding time will be along soon. Turtles everywhere. We confer and reckon the fish might have been better than 800. Hmm.
The afternoon becomes overcast and at 1.30 I work down current, heading around the 1000’ mark to the west of the island. I feel the fish is there somewhere, but when at 2.10 a dorsal pops up behind the Andromeda on the long corner, I see the fish is smaller than our earlier visitor. Jeff has his head in a 50 lb outfit, sewing a bait for it (Manuel has seen two whites) and he cannot understand what I am shouting. I grab the mike, turn it on and still have time to repeat what I want to say before the fish makes another move at the lure.
The ritual begins again. See the bill, the wag, some white water and I kill the engine. The clip opens and as if in a dream, the cockpit comes into life with lures being cleared and Jonathan struggling into the chair with yet another fish. This marlin has different ideas though and immediately starts jumping, huge splashes on its side and Manuel, some distance away, comes to life on the VHF, thinking the fish is huge. The fish comes back across the wake, the lure flying around its head, and charges across the still disappearing line. I cringe, curse openly on the mike and the fish slides down to the right disappearing. It is taking line at a prodigious rate, the spool a blur, and as soon as I see Jeff has the other lure in we turn immediately and I jam the throttles forward to make the belly and overtake the fish.
It is jumping violently, way out there again and I turn CEPHEUS towards the splashes. I sense this could be a really quick fish. Jeff hollers up to me and I see from his face we are going too fast for Jonathan’s limited reel-speed. Reluctantly we slow and as the rigger loop appears I turn into the belly, the angle still good and we back down. Four minutes and counting. I can see the fish, but for once CEPHEUS fails me and cannot back down into the small remaining chop as well as she does in flat water. I call down to the guys and apologise, putting the boat back around to run the last few yards down, the rigger loop disappearing again as the fish senses us and goes deep. As we do this, the angle on the line is already changing and so I turn the boat again. The fish is now up and down and the rod is bent powerfully, the reel slipping slowly. I fear the worst - a jumping fish often wraps itself up.
I wait two minutes, Jeff and Jonno looking up at me plaintively. I am not happy about the drag - I do not want to pull the hooks on what I suspect is not a wrapped fish. Time passes, Jonathan shakes out his hand as line trickles off the spool.
‘Okay, let’s put it up’ I finally say, and Jonathan puts heat to the fish. It almost immediately changes from a sullen sinking marlin into a beast with life down there. The rod bucks, head shaking, and Jonno howls with the passion of it all. Jonathan winds slowly, low speed, the angle changes slowly. The fish pauses down there again, more head shakes and then the rod lifts quickly, Jonathan struggling to change gears. Up comes the line, quickly, bump the boat astern, quicker, then quicker again, the fish seemingly about to go vertical and then the double is coming up. CEPHEUS backs the other way down-sea with ease, no faltering, and in 30 seconds we have gone from a problem fish to a fish on the leader. Jonno wraps, an uneventful slow turn of the boat into a very tired fish and Jeff leans over with the snooter again. Hooks come out, and the fish lies behind the boat, one pectoral raised aloft in meek surrender. We tow her for ten minutes, her back goes black, the brown slowly evaporates and her tail wags. Off with the wire and she slides away, righting immediately and slowly sinking out of sight. Jeff and Jonno look at me. ‘Well ?’ I call down. They reply, ‘What do you think ?’
I laugh. ‘Hell, I’d love to say something different like 600 or 700, but er, it looks remarkably like another 650’. They too laugh in unison and agreement and so fish number six for the year duly goes in the book at 650.
Back at the dock I visit Manuel when he returns. He calls me a cheat and a thief and then hands me a rum on ice. It tastes sweet and I know Jeff is somewhere drinking a beer with a huge grin on his face, banishing the memories of last season’s slow painful progress. I silently salute the Andromeda and the fish who love to eat it.