Saturday, 16th. Nigel and Jenny are aboard in the midst of a steady blue marlin bite. We have gone 7 for 11 in the previous week, and two of the fish that came off should have been ours too. One disappeared after dragging a Penn 130 around behind a fender in the midst of an uncontrollable double-header, the other a foul-hooked fish who left us after a dour 30 minute struggle with 55lbs of final drag. C’est la vie. Aboard we have Sylvia, the local bank manager who manages Nigel’s apartment. Her husband Angel is also up top with me.
The fleet hears Javier hook-up at 10.32, excitable Spanish voices on air and we leave the big 54 Bertram rocking slowly behind us as we go around the corner to where the bite has been hot in previous days. An hour passes, and Javier reports his Filipino crewman is having difficulty in the chair. We imagine a small hunched-up person, struggling with an empty spool, softly cursing his boss. Through binoculars we see the tower of the boat swing slowly, stationary far behind us and I envisage a fish down deep in the darkness, slowly going brown in the cold water. No one else has seen anything and so we continue doing the La Gomera stroll, crossing the 600’ line with monotonous regularity, CEPHEUS dancing with her cohorts - Matthias’ little 34 Riveria, Manolo aboard the HEDONIST, and the familiar shape of OMEGA, a 43 Riviera from Tenerife that lives in San Sebastien all summer. Above, gulls watch the intricate ballet we weave as we work the electric blue water, alive with bait, turtles and other life. We stay alert as the fish are here, we know.
An hour and a half later Javier calls in a release, a nice fish of 750. The congratulations crackle over the VHF. Still no one has seen anything else and we plow on and up the coast. Restless mutterings can be heard. Patience, patience I say to myself and turn the boat back to cover the ground already trodden.
At 2.15 I am below talking to Nigel about our forthcoming trip to Ireland and bluefin when there is a thump on the roof and a shout. Jenny spins towards the doorway (her 20lb outfit is out at the back with a small spearfish lure) but I beat her through it and hear a clip open - and look up to see white water behind the short bait. Jonno is already down the ladder and I fly up. Jeff relinquishes the helm and slides below too. Even I hear and feel the long left clip bang open too. The fish has gone back and eaten the Merlin out there without a pause. Controlled panic, teasers in, mike on, lures flying across the water. There is a fish jumping far out to the left, Nigel is buckling up and the top-shot has already gone. The fish does not look big and I am surprised with the speed at which the dacron is leaving the reel. We run around the belly and start to chase the fish, jumping noisily far ahead of us. I call down the cockpit and Jonno says we have half a spool out. Bloody hell, and I gun the boat a little harder. Slowly Nigel eats away at the belly and the reel fills.
The fish could have been caught quickly, but manages to stay away from us before finally going down. A little pushing and shoving and we finally lift the fish as I consciously attempt not to lead it. I have no idea why, but I do so. Slowly the fish comes to the boat as we carve slow wide turns, gently sliding towards the fish minute by minute. Finally Jeff has the leader and takes a few wraps, easing the fish up. Angel and Sylvia chatter excitedly as they see their first marlin. Suddenly Jeff straightens and pulls the lure in hand over hand as the fish sinks away. Bill-wrapped, but a nice release. We call her 500 and as the guys get the gear out, I call Manolo on the phone and tell him. We cross back into the shallows and start working again. I go back downstairs to finish my sandwich and finish my conversation with Nigel. The boat is up in the shallows, 550’ of water.
The same thing happens at 2.45. Jenny is in the cockpit and screams at Nigel as the thumping and shouting start up top again. I burst through the doorway to see a fish behind the short bait again. I run up the ladder and hear the engine on that side go out of gear. The clip opens, the reel shrills briefly as I reach the bridge and Jeff slides past me to the ladder. Jonno is on the wheel, cursing. I reach the helm, Jonno vanishes and I push the engine back into gear. I look round and see the fish sliding up behind the Merlin. A repeat scenario. I have time to call down before the fish swirls, eats as I bump out of gear, and then the ratchet starts wailing.
This is a different fish. Hard and fast, and we are too - for a change this fish has gone down-sea and CEPHEUS is responsive to everything. It amazes me the boat can change so much according to sea-conditions. We stay close, run the fish down quickly in 6 mins and Jonno has the leader at the first attempt. He and Jeff wrestle with the fish, the snooter flicked high into the air, the hooks come out manually and the marlin is gone in a blur of white water, relatively unscathed and angry. Damage control ensues in the cockpit and untouched tackle goes back into the water. The boys are still changing wind-ons and hook-sets and I have just told Manolo about the second fish when the short-bait is eaten again in a blur of white water at 3.04. No one sees the fish and so Jenny reluctantly lets Nigel get back into the chair, his shirt still wet from the last encounter. We are all working on auto-pilot now. Lures in, Nigel has the rod under control and within 30 seconds the fish is slow, the reel stops turning. I tell Nigel to wind. He does so, and a small fish comes straight back to the boat, sulking as best as its 200 lb frame can do. I know what has happened, and so do Jonno and Jeff. The top hook is through the bill just in front of the eyes. It has stunned the fish and even as Jeff gingerly takes his first slow wrap after 90 seconds I just know there is going to be trouble.
There is. Five minutes of crashing and banging on the wire, a small demented marlin finally coming to life, the snooter in a totally useless situation as it flies away from the small bill, arcs across the cockpit and hits Jonno on the head. The boys cut the hooks with the boltcutters, leaving just the point in the mouth of each hook and the fish is gone. Sylvia and Angel sit in stunned silence beside me, their mouths open. We have caught three fish in under an hour and I am somewhat shell-shocked too. Jonno and Jeff complain good-naturedly and Nigel calls up that Jenny is taking the next fish, no matter what. Hmm……fat chance of that. I have come so close so many times to taking four fish in a day that I never think I will do so.
The Hedonist comes alongside and Manolo’s voice booms through on the VHF inquiringly. I apologise for catching a third fish and he laughs, tells me it is my birthday and says I have time for a fourth. I laugh too and hang up. Matthias burst through in Spanish to Manolo, asking the question. He has no VHF on the bridge but has finally realised that maybe a fish has been caught. When Manolo tells him we have caught three there is a muffled reply from him and a distinct click as he signs off. He is unhappy, and later I find out why. He has Dieter Haselhorst on board, fresh from Ghana, and there are mutterings in his cockpit. No one else has seen anything and I bless our good fortune with a smile.
We have raised our three fish in a small area and I work it again, following the bait inshore on the sounder and turning out again as I reach the fish-trap buoys. Again and again I do it as everyone else comes in, does it just once and then turn out to sea again. The third circuit, 4.25 and 340’ of water - I am alone on the bridge as the long corner is gone in a boom of white roiling water. CRACK goes the clip and a reel shrieks in the cockpit. I am struggling with the mike to tell everyone that maybe this could be a big fish when I see Jenny manhandling the rod to the chair. Oh well.
There is a fish trap marker just out to port and I suddenly think the fish is beyond it and going behind it. The guys are still bringing in lures. I shout into the mike for Nigel to take the chair and yell that I have to run back. Everyone realises the situation quickly and Jenny backs off the drag as I spin on the spot and scream back down our wake, the Detroits complaining noisily. The buoy and the line converge, the rooster tail cutting through the water and thankfully I realise the fish is on the same side as us of the marker. I slow down, Jenny winds and we come tight, do a circle around the marker and back out to sea again. Vaguely I hear Manolo cursing happily on the VHF and I look up to see him 200 yards away, sidling in towards us. I run the fish down straight past him and then back into it. Jenny winds manfully. Across the shallows we go, the fish close enough that I do not have to turn the boat and then we go out into the deep water. The sea bangs against the transom and we trot back. The fish pulls deeper, and we tell Jenny to go up on the drag. I turn once and try to lead the fish but it simply goes deeper again.
Reluctantly we increase the drag again until Jenny has 45lbs of heat on the fish and it finally starts to come up. 31 minutes and Jonno has the wire on a nice fish of 700, slowly pulling it to the boat, back-wrap by back-wrap. Painful, hard work. The fish will not budge from its attitude no matter what I do with the boat. Jonno grunts happily and finally brings the fish within range of the snooter. The fish does not like the wire around its nose and flails once angrily. The snooter gets thrown across the cockpit and out come the boltcutters. The fish has been wrapped, a clear line cutting under the pectoral and out the dorsal. We had managed to unwrap her. Snip, snip, gone. The fish is black and high-tails it down into the dark dark sea. High fives all round, jubilation rings in my head. Sylvia and Angle grin with delight. Social life in La Gomera will never be the same for them again. What tales they have to tell !!
I tell Manolo we are going home and he politely asks if he can ride in our wake as we seem to be raising everything. I say he can, of course, and to stay close, and he laughs and turns back into the late afternoon sunlight to find a fish for himself, so he is some way astern of us when we have ANOTHER damned bite on the long corner again at 5.30, seconds away from lines in. Holy mackerel !!!! This fish turns, heads for the sun at warp speed and as I turn the boat I see it faraway, jumping in low arcs towards the Hedonist. The fish has a lot of line out which we recover quickly before I turn CEPHEUS into her for the final stretch after 6 minutes. Typically, and maybe as a just reminder, the marlin then comes off. There are no curses, no mutterings from the cockpit, just incredibility and happiness at getting another bite. Five fish might have made us insufferable, anyway, so we run for home in a gleam of white teeth and grins.
Later that night I find Manolo in a bar and he and his entire crew kneel on the floor as I laugh. I also learn that OMEGA had a spearfish of 113lbs on 80 - a new pending men’s record.
Sunday 17th. A slow day and as time passes and our sore heads recover, we become incredulous at the lack of fish after the previous day’s marlin-fest. No one sees anything until late in the afternoon when Matthias finally catches a 350 on 50lb stand-up. We work diligently, doing the stroll. At 4.15pm, in front of the old tuna factory, some birds finally begin to work in 1000’ of water. We head towards them as they fly in small circles. There is no indication of what they might be following and as we reach them there is a huge splash behind the Merlin on the short rigger again. BOOM ! Shouts all round as we wait for the clip to come open and there is another huge splash far behind us in the wake. BOOM ! We suddenly realise the Jenny’s spearfish lure is way back there too and even as we think the thought the clip opens and there is a hole where the small lure has been. 4.31pm and Jenny struggles into her belt and starts to wind frantically as I turn the boat slowly and head back down the wake. We do this steadily but quickly, aware that even though we think it might be a tuna, there is a possibility that we have a marlin on the little bait.
Everything comes tight and we lead the fish, no more than 100 yards of line out. Slide into the fish, and it goes across the other way. Go that way and she slides back again. We wallow out to sea, and twice I turn and let the fish slide away from us. It simply goes deeper, each time taking a little more line until finally we have a third of the spool out. The fish seems to come better when we lead her, so each time we do so, getting some line back. After an hour we have left the drop a long way behind and Jenny has the harness on. We turn the boat again in an attempt to see if we can raise the fish with the changed angle. Finally, we persuade Jenny to go up on the drag and 10lbs of pressure starts to make its mark. Unfortunately, the mark it makes is not what we want and the fish takes off on a fast downward run, emptying the spool steadily. Nigel is beside me on the ladder, banned from taking photos or using the video. We are still unsure of whether the fish is a marlin or tuna. A part of me wants it to be a tuna so if it breaks off, as it will surely do so, I will not feel quite so guilty as I would have done if it had been a billfish. We head steadily out to sea in the darkening late afternoon light. I worry about fuel, food, the wind-line out to sea, and I worry for the 20lb line. Jenny can take the pressure - she laughs and jokes with Jonno and Jeff as the fish takes the situation far down into the spool. I keep up with the angle, nudging the boat astern. Nigel is beside me on the bridge and keeps repeating the figures for the big-eye and marlin records on 20. We know them off by heart anyway, have done ever since the small bait hit the water two weeks ago.
With over 2000’ of line out, angling downwards into the endless depths, the fish finally slows. Stalemate. A minute passes, then another. Slowly, the rod straightens and Jenny winds a little. She is in low gear, and works the rod as we get a little line back. Ten minutes later and it is obvious the fish has decided to come up a little. Jeff calls up to me that we must have only now experienced the first run, a humorous fellow ! Jenny winds steadily, and now the fish is definitely coming up. The spool fills, and amazingly we have the rigger mark out of the water and back on the reel another ten minutes later. The line is stretched out tight on the surface into the setting sun and Nigel asks again if we are sure the fish is a tuna. I remind him that his son’s big-eye did the same some weeks ago. Inside though, I am not sure, and secretly think it might, just might, be a small blue. The gaffs are out and tied off.
An hour and half into the battle and we are pounding astern at warp speed again, cavitating loudly, the fish a brown shadow just out of sight. I am aware of the 220 leader, the small hook, the whitened main-line in the water stretching out to the fish. I am determined to keep up, gearboxes or not…….
Finally the fish turns and circles down deep and I turn with her, the outside engine burning off ahead, the other astern hard. Jonno is looking keenly through the white water and finally yells out that it is a tuna. CEPHEUS belches white smoke as we turn. I swing the wheel hard round too, assured the fish will keep to this direction as a typical tuna does and we edge closer. Each leg into the sun the fish takes line, but the other way we get more. Jenny winds steadily when she can. ‘Patience,’ I call down, ‘as long as we carry on we’ll get the fish.’
Closer and closer, each circle smaller and smaller, the fish tantilisingly almost within reach. Jeff stands solidly, gloves on, right in the corner. Each time we go round, away from the sun, we can see every detail of the fish down there, finlets stark, tail wagging. We circle again, heat to the motors, Jeff reaches, 12 inches too far. The next circle the fish is three inches closer. Still not enough, and now the line is almost straight up and down and I really have to concentrate hard, very aware of the light line and the hard chine of the hull. The fourth circle with the double out of the water and Jenny steps backwards finally. Jeff has the leader pinched and pulls slowly. The fish feels the pressure and slides away to the other side of the boat for the first time, Jeff reaching far over the gunwale and I slow both engines. Jonno follows him quickly across the deck with the long wooden gaff. Nigel stands ready with another. The fish sits two feet down and and Jonno leans over. Jeff pulls slowly and Jonno leans out further with the gaff, out and down and suddenly the fish is done, pops up and the gaff sinks home. There is a shout for Nigel and he too leans over and pins the fish to the boat with the bigger gaff through the gills. I yell down for them to hang on, slide down the ladder, grab the third gaff and reach over the side and put it through both jaws. The big-eye is large, large enough. The three of us pull in unison, up onto the gunwale and then lower it gently to the deck.
‘How big ?’ asks everyone in unison. I think hard and look at the fish, Madeiran memories flooding back. Without any hesitation I say ‘180, maybe 170 lbs.’ A shout of joy from all, congratulations, handshakes and the big fish lies still, tired beyond belief, its lifeblood draining away through the scupper.
The woman’s record stands 118, a fish from Hout Bay in South Africa. I pause, and think again. ‘It’s definitely 150, anyway.’
We clean the deck and start for home. Jenny is exhausted, sweat glistens on her chest as she rides up top with me. She hugs me and I grin back at her. All the while we have been pulling the little plug we have been aware of the possibility of a big-eye crashing the bait and everything ending in tears - thankfully we have escaped unscathed. Not so the fish It formulas out at 154 and eventually weighs in at 173lbs. The tiny Gamagatzu hook is lodged tight around a gill-raker. Luck.
Quelle grande fluke !!
Monday, 18th. No sore heads. A quiet night and early bed means everyone is alert. The day is bright and sunny, and the spearfish lure is out again. If we hook another big-eye, Nigel will take the rod. We do the stroll along the edge and around into the bite - hopefully ! We assume Matthias is the only boat out with us until we see the BLUEFIN, a big 50 Bertram from Lanzarote joining us. All three of us cover the blue water in search of the day’s first bite.
Jeff is driving at 12.50, crossing the 600’ line as I sit beside him in the companion helm chair. There is a fish, without warning, behind the short corner. I make some startled noise, and Jeff and Jonno know the symptom well enough that they bolt down the ladder. In fact I push Jeff off the controls and hover over the lever. The head, the bill, the wag and out of gear goes the engine. BANG goes the clip and the fish is moving off astern, the reel making its noise down there and everything going to plan. By the time we have the lures in the fish has stopped and Nigel winds down. There is nothing there. I move ahead a little, the line stretching astern. Nothing, Nigel winds fast, and I go ahead more. The line is limp astern of us and we all assume the fish has gone. There is no weight and Nigel winds away for 100 yards. I yell down for Jonno to reel in the lure when suddenly the rod leans over sharply and Nigel cries out that the fish is still attached. It is indeed, and it lets us know it very quickly.
Thankfully the fish stays up and in the calm water we get the leader within five minutes, but Jonno cannot hold her and she goes down. Nigel immediately puts the drag way up and is promptly lifted out of the chair. We’re having some fun here and within ten minutes we have the fish back alongside and the hooks come out quickly. She goes in the book at 600. Matthias has a 250 shortly after and we carry on looking for more fish.
Nothing happens until 3.30 when we see a splash and run over to it. We circle the area steadily and then suddenly there are more splashes and birds working - more big-eye and we move towards them. Jonno is up on the bridge with me and we discuss the situation. We agree to pull in the 20lb outfit and Jonno gets halfway down the ladder before we both see a bright slash at the little lure. A white, completely lit up, slides alongside it and with a bolt of electric blue eats it noisily. Jenny has the harness on in seconds and we slowly turn the boat and ease back to the fish, the rest of the gear coming in quickly. A bit more line comes onto the reel and we turn into it to back down. The fish is not far. Jeff utters out loud he has never seen a white lit up like that before and as he speaks the fish comes catapulting out of the water, shaking its head violently. Whoa, we all go. A spearfish - good grief, just what Jenny has been waiting for. Without preamble, the gaffs come out, the gloves go on and 15 minutes later Jeff has the wire again, slowly turning the fish towards Jonno who leans over and pegs it. Slowly the fish is laid in the boat and we all whoop in unison. Goddamn - a second record in two days !! The fish looks about 45lbs, but eventually weighs in at 54. This is the fish we have been waiting for and Jenny is almost more pleased than with the big-eye. Who cares ?
Jenny and Nigel fly out the next day, 13 blues and two world records under their belts. Memories are made of this, indeed - three days in June to remember for ever.