Jeff and I clink glasses (water in mine as I have a car to drive at the other end) and we toast a reasonable summer so far. It is Friday, July 19th, and Cepheus lies fully-laden on her pontoon in La Gomera. With 3200 litres of fuel on board, her riggers bound up, the chair dismantled, she lies waiting for a break in the weather so her delivery skipper can begin the long trek northwards to our next destination - Donegal, far away at the northern most tip of Eire, further north than some parts of N. Ireland. Goodbye blue marlin, hello bluefin tunas…………….here we come !!
Amazingly, after the smoke and fireworks of June, we catch no fish in July. We fish until the 15th, see one nice fish in the spread, a couple of jumpers and a few fish hooked by the increasingly large fleet which assemble to fish the World Cup on July 4th (and a local tournament for two days afterwards). Nearly 30 boats plough up and down, some doing the stroll, some doing rather more what I call a long waltz - a five mile offshore tack up to the wind-line and then an inshore tack up into 100’ of water. Some, privately-owned boats, even stop for lunch - I kid you not!
It is a great tournament, fun to fish, no big prizes (rods and reels), it has a tag & release division, and copious amounts of nectar are consumed by those who want to - one of the sponsors is a local brewery! Only three fish are caught (and released), which is a shame after the tantalising numbers of fish seen in June. C’est la vie !
So, what thoughts arose on Cepheus this year ? What items of interest………hmm. Firstly, and I say this with some authority and reluctant first-hand experience, it is NOT a good idea to INTENTIONALLY hook big-eyes on 20lb gear. Er, no. Particularly when the fish are over 200lbs in weight.
Incidentally, for the second year running we saw no small bait-fish off shore. Stuff I call tuna food. Trumpeteiro, boarfish, anything small enough to be balled up and eaten at leisure. Rather, it seemed to be the same scenario as last year. There were lots of mackerel and reasonable numbers of tuna at times, which you would see busting on the surface as they ran through the odd pack of bait. For this reason I think both the tunas and the birds (mainly Cory’s shearwaters) had a hard time and I suspect that the tunas we saw were always moving through.
Another thought that surfaced was that when the tunas were up and feeding on the mackerel (all ten seconds of it) it didn’t matter whether you were there or not. You would not get a bite. It was as if they were moving through a zone in which they had already identified a target and that was it. However, if you managed to be above the tuna BEFORE they came up and were thinking of eating, then you might be lucky enough to have one of your lures identified as THE target. This reasoning seemed to be born out by the amount of tunas that were seen and how many were caught - just a handful.
Surprisingly, when the marlin first arrived we would see jumpers, run over to them and get a bite nine times out of ten. It really was that simple, and we went through a stage where we would deliberately not watch the spread, but instead all three of us would look for splashes. However, as June progressed and obviously as the marlin became fixated on mackerel, the bites from jumpers dried up as did the fishing in general. The fish were there, all the boats would see them, but they were not interested in lures. Oh, and neither were they interested in live mackerel either! I simply think it was a case of fish becoming wary of the increasing traffic and becoming stale, rather like salmon in a pool.
To go along with this theory was the fact that Cepheus, the Champion of May and June, became an old dinosaur - unable to raise anything by the time July came around. Interestingly enough, many of the other loud boats out there did the same. It was the small, quiet boats that started to see fish amongst their baits, and this reminded me of 1999 when I ran Shanghai, a 44’ Hatteras in Faial, alongside Cepheus which had Ted Legg at the helm.
Shanghai had a pair of C series Cummins in her and was a stealthy boat with almost no noise. To start with, we had trouble raising fish whilst Ted was hooking up left right and centre. This state of affairs lasted for about six weeks, and then when it seemed as though the fish were settled on the banks, Ted’s catch rate started to drop right off, and we started to catch fish on the ‘Ghost’ , as Jeff and I came to call it. By the end of the season, Cepheus had almost dried up as a fish-catching machine and Shanghai was always the one backing-down in a cloud of smoke. As an additional bonus, we also caught over 30 whites that season. I think Cepheus caught about half a dozen or so.
It really did seem that there was some correlation between boat noise and the state of the fish. Could there be a trend here to building boats with twin exhaust systems ? One system straight with no mufflers, and the other as noiseless as possible ? And before you scoff, two of the greatest fisheries in the world, the bluefin tuna fishery off NE USA and the salmon fishery of Scotland, both have fish which react in just this way as a season progresses. Points to ponder, especially if I tell you that the early fish we caught almost always ate the short baits, but by the time all the fleet were having trouble the fish were long, looking at rigger baits or just following the wash. And the moon didn’t make a jot of difference either. We had a three fish day on the new in June, and a four fish day on the full. I can just imagine a big lever set in the deck on the flybridge, one direction marked ‘FULL NOISE’ and the other direction labelled ‘QUIET’.
What else? Well, it was quite apparent this year that the current we wanted was the one from the south! In late May and most of June, the blue water was pushing up from the south onto the SW corner of the island and then splitting up, one stream running eastwards along the south coast and the other carrying on up the west side to the north.
Even though the water was blue and warm with miniature temperature breaks, it was obviously bereft of the bait we wanted, as I said earlier. Sure there were some big-eyes, and there were some skippies, but there were no glowing balls of bait on the sounder and as a result I think we missed the real show again.
Even though the ‘real’ current is the Canaries current (which pushes down from the north-east), my theory of ‘drift’ and the seasonal push northwards of blue-water from the south (earth’s rotation and gravitational pull and all that big stuff) seemed to be borne out this year. Especially when the Chunda stuck some pop-up tags into five fish off Ghana and the first one to come back indicated that the fish had done exactly the opposite of scientific thinking and headed west and north against the current. To my mind, that indicates that they follow the ‘drift’ north and then south again according to the seasons.
Anyway, what is clear is simply that the ‘drift’ has an edge to it every year, and in this narrow band are concentrated bait, tunas and marlin. Also sharks and mantas, whales and dolphins and a host of other things. When the edge of the drift comes through, fishing can be good, even if there is no bait in quantity. Once the edge has gone through, then fishing dies down, the odd fish coming through later or maybe staying. I sincerely believe that some marlin do indeed go to particular places and stay there for the duration. If we had been the only boat in La Gomera in July for example, we would have said the fish had gone. But they hadn’t - they’d just got bored of our noise.
Of course, when the edge of the ‘drift’ is huge, and has all the nice stuff in it like lots of plankton, tons of trumpeteiro (or other similar oceanic baitfish) and acres of skippies, then the fishing can remain good. The belief I have is that it is the location of the RICH part of the drift that is the clue, and this in turn is affected by currents (both with it and against it) and it is this which causes the cycles of good fishing and poor. Sure, marlin and tunas are going down in numbers, but when Ghana goes off like it did this year, there are obviously fish out there, but where did they go ? The Cape Verdes was deader than normal this year, so was the ‘drift’ to the west of the islands ? Was it inshore, running up alongside Gambia and Mauritania ? Or did it all stop somewhere down south, keeping the main body of fish with it ?
We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that a marlin is a large animal, quite capable of travelling for long distances without feeding (indeed, I think they have to sometimes - which is why the first fish of the year can be extraordinarily explosive on the bite) as compared to tunas, and I believe their migratory instincts can lead them to cover barren water in the hope of discovering food in ancient pastures. This is the reason why all the NE Atlantic islands still get the odd fish in the midst of a totally fishless spell.
So, if you’ve read this far, you probably know that blue marlin were first caught in the Azores in 1984. Sure, there were one or two beforehand, but the real fishing started around then. Likewise, and this may be a shock, so did Madeira. In the 70’s for example, apart from tunas, Madeira was the scene of some phenomenal white marlin fishing (there were no blue marlin apart from one or two). And there were white marlin in the Azores too, if people had really concentrated on them.
Anyway, so both blue marlin fisheries developed and peaked at about the same time, although Faial still seems to have the better of Madeira at present. But, here’s the question - were there less blue marlin pre-1984 ? Of course not, I think it was simply that the water that the fish were in wasn’t near the islands then. Just the same as the North Atlantic drift is cyclic, so is the movement of all water, and I firmly believe this is one of the reasons why the Japanese, for example, change their fishing areas on a regular basis - it is not solely to allow stocks to renew. If we ever manage to find the rich part of the drift every year, we’d have great fishing. Unfortunately, when it’s 400 miles west of the Canaries on the edge of the Ridge, it’s er, slightly out of reach !
Lure colours - we had great success this year on the short bait with an Andromeda rigged as a juvenile big-eye. Brown and gold under, and black and silver over. A bit different but it worked well - actually, I think we caught about 45% of our fish on it.
Hookrigs - Jeff, in particular, has been playing around with the cable over the past two years in an attempt to eliminate the swum-off back hook. I made a suggestion last year to him about trying chafe-tube as a flexible aid in between the hooks and we seem to have come up with a rig now that doesn’t swim off and yet is durable enough to go two or three fish. We use 1200 lb stainless dinghy cable from a local chandlers (cheaper than Melton’s stuff and nicer), and slip a length of chafe tube over it in between the hooks, crimping and shrink-tubing the whole affair into place. It seems fiddly, but with practice it is not. And oh boy, it seems to work. I’ll try and get some photos together of this rig for next month’s piece - that is, if we aren’t nose-deep in bluefins, of course.
The snooter - always useful on big tired fish, but sometimes a pain in the arse when used on frisky little guys who toss it around all over the place. We developed a cunning plan this year whereby we cut lengthwise a piece of hose-pipe to fit the wire noose, and taped off one end of it onto the snooter. We then put the wire into the hose-pipe to make it easy to slide the loop on and off the bill. When you come tight, of course, the wire simply pulls out of the hose-pipe.
All of this went slightly by the wayside when I then suggested we simply have two or three snooters set up and ready to go in the cockpit. They cost nothing to make and it is far easier to grab a ‘loaded’ snooter after a mishap than it is to re-load the one in your hand. After all, you have more than one gaff on board, so why not two or more snooters ? This simple measure also, er , worked well.
For the ultimate in simplicity, we also developed a fail-safe method of dealing with the tag end of a finished bimini. Simply leave it long, about an inch or so, and then melt it with a lighter. As it bubbles, slide it between two wet fingers and it will turn into a feathery sort of affair with no sharp edges to cut fingers or wind-ons, although it will still be long enough for you, the angler, to keep an eye on it and see when it is slipping (I still have to see one slip in 130, I might add). Unconventional but highly effective and simple. It might look slightly messy, but then again, I always find whippings that come undone look messy too
NEXT MONTH : explosive blue-fin tuna fishing in Donegal
ALTERNATIVELY, NEXT MONTH : how to catch dog-fish and pout in Donegal