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Blue Marlin in Madeira – Report

Just back from three days in Madeira, fishing for specimen blue marlin. I’d never been out before apart from a short trip in Antigua)so was not too optimistic, given that you can go days without a bite in this kind of fishing.


As a fly fisher I had always assumed that the real skill in this kind of fishing belonged to the boatmen and that’s true; but it’s a real team affair and the one in the chair has to do his part too. It’s easy to fluff things taking the rod to the chair and, when the people around you are working so hard for your enjoyment,you need to listen to what they’re saying.

In the event we didn’t have to wait long, the boat was barely out of Funchal when a dorado snatched at the furthest lure. There was a bit of a commotion but it didn’t seize
the big squid-like artificial bait which is a bit big for these fish.

But the commotion was obviously enough to interest something else as barely 30 seconds later I could see a fin moving up on one of the starboard lures. I don’t have the combination of letters to describe the boatman’s scream. There was a lunge and the fish dropped back but Nick Bayntun, who runs the back of the boat, was already working the lure and when the fish came again he let loose the drag momentarily, popping the bait in to its face and I could see it all, the take, the turn, the
run, everything.

My task was to lift the rod out of its side-holster and position it in the seating in front of the chair, while settling myself and clipping the seat chains on to the reel. Then up with the feet on to the board and ready to go, all as the fish is running out. When all this is happening it’s as if time has slowed down as your senses capture every detail of the moment.

The line was dipping down about 20 yards behind the boat, so it was surprising to
see the fish break the surface some 200 yards behind the boat. Then it was pumping and winding, but not pumping the handle. You don’t hold the rod at all, just work the chair with your body, winding with the right hand and guiding the line with your left hand on the spool. Meanwhile the skipper is making life easier by reversing the boat.

It didn’t take too long, maybe 15 to 20 minutes to bring a beautiful blue marlin (pictured above)to the boat. How big? The skipper thought 400lb. Nick thought maybe 350lb. Naturally I went with the skipper! Oh, the joy of catch and release!

Ten yards from the boat the action wasn’t over. A fish like this isn’t caught until someone has touched the leader or “grabbed the wire”. You need to be really careful
grabbing that wire as Stewart Campbell, one of the world’s most experienced marlin fishers discovered here.

Those last few yards had the boys on deck sweating a bit but they held on and she was ours. What a beautiful fish she was too and very healthy, quickly released to grow, hopefully, in to one of those “granders”, the 1000lb+ blue marlin for which Madeira is famed. How did I know she was female? All the blue marlins caught here are female.

There was so much of the day ahead and we felt optimistic for another as I handed over the chair to my host, Jonathan Fletcher, part of the Blandy Madeira family, and owner of the boat, Balancal.
But it wasn’t to be. We saw fin back whales, we saw dolphins, we even saw a huge leatherback turtle, and what a sight that was, but no more takes.

Mission accomplished, we dropped plans for a second day out but I had the chance to go along with a second boat where an 11-year-old boy, Curtis de Silva, was trying to capture the “small fry” IGFA Blue Marlin record that today stands at 448lb. The day I caught my fish he had lost one in the 800lb class. It helps that his dad, an experienced Trinidadian skipper “Frothy” de Silva, is at the helm.

Frothy pulled the baits three times through surface-feeding big eyed tuna, but didn’t get a bite. The conditions looked great with plenty of mackerel shoals (or bait balls) near the surface, showing up on the fish-finder, but the bites weren’t coming. As we made for the harbour in calm water at the end of the day I was staring down in to the depths from the platform and saw what I thought was a dolphin just ahead of the boat.
But no, there was the bill and the fin. We were moving up on a cruising blue marlin. With a kick of its tail it was gone before I could take a picture, but that image of this most majestic of fish at one with its environment will stay with me for the rest of my life.

It was real privilege to meet some of the world’s best known big game fishers and skippers – people like James Roberts, Peter Bristow and Anibal Fernandes. Bristow probably has more 1000lb+ black marlin to his name than any other skipper, once coming across a shoal of maybe 50 fish north of Cairns in the 1990s. “We got among them and hooked 30 fish, caught 20 that day. I’ve never seen anything like it before or
since,” he says. Watch out for my full report on this in a forthcoming (October 2009) issue of The Field.

This article from Richard Donkin, UK –
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