Dimpled by thousands of years of volcanic activity, the rugged and barren face of Punta Pitt looms as a mirage in the fine haze that surrounds Isla San Cristobal, the easternmost isle of the Galapagos archipelago. Early Spaniards called the Galapagos "Las Islas Encantadas" (The Enchanted Isles) because they first found them bathed in fog. Thanks to the pioneering work of Sola and a handful of other Ecuadorian big-game fishermen, the few anglers fortunate enough to fish here call the islands enchanted because the offshore banks are quite literally bathed in marlin.
Catching 28 marlin in two days sounds impressive enough, but consider this: We only fished six hours on each day. We fished artificials using no sophisticated bait-and-switch techniques, and managed less than a one-in-three hookup ratio. At one point, in fact, we lost nine fish in a row, and often out of exhaustion left a single angler in the cockpit to fend off up to four marlin at a time.
Chalo Reyes, skipper of the Sea Baby 2, seemed content to let the fish and angler fight for themselves, backing down at an absolute minimum. Since many hookups came in doubles, he could have done little to speed up the fight if he wanted to. And when you consider that it took an average of 15 minutes to bring each fish to the boat on the Penn 16s and 30s, you'll realize we spent better than half our time hooked up, with lures out of the water.
Obviously, we were not fishing for numbers, but we accumulated them nonetheless. We estimate that we baited at least 80 marlin over the two days, but that doesn't include the uncountable free-jumpers - so many that we hardly paid them any attention after a while. Nor does it include the numerous fish that would follow the teasers to the boat while two anglers were already busy fighting a doubleheader. And finally, it does not include the packs of marlin that would simply swim under the boat or circle it as it sat motionless during a fight.
Quite simply, we saw hundreds of marlin.
The Numbers Tell the Tale
The fishing we experienced was anything but a fluke, said Sola, opening his ship's log books to reveal page after page of meticulously recorded fishing memories dating back to the 1980s, when Sola first began billfishing off Salinas and Manta on Ecuador's mainland.
Though this is only the fourth year that Sola and a few fellow fishermen have made the 600-mile trek across the Pacific to the Galapagos, they have produced consistently each year. In 1993, on Sola's exploratory trip to the islands, his boat caught 38 striped marlin, three blues and a black in only five days. Business kept Sola on the mainland in 1994, but in 1995 he resumed his exploration and in eight days caught three blues and 26 striped marlin (from 140 strikes). In 1996, he encountered nearly 250 strikes and released 69 striped marlin and one blue in only nine days.
But without a doubt, spring of 1997 was Sola's best trip yet to the Galapagos. He managed to get in 10 fishing days, during which he recorded more than 400 strikes and 140 releases -- an average of 14 marlin releases per day. On the Sea Baby 2's best day, anglers baited at least 90 marlin, resulting in 31 releases. On its worst day, 20 strikes led to seven releases. (These numbers are all the more impressive when you realize that Sola usually fishes no more than four or five hours each day, again due to his potassium deficiency.)
One other stat of note: Over the weekend of April 19 and 20 of this year, five boats were fishing the Cristobal Bank. In just two days, those five boats tallied an estimated 450 strikes and released 162 striped marlin.
Un Momento, Por Favor
The statistics themselves only scratch the surface of this fishery. I must admit that when Capt. Reyes pulled the throttles back to signal the start of fishing on our first morning, all the impressive numbers in Sola's log book meant little more to me than the binary code of a computer program. All too often I've heard how I should have been here last week, and even in the face of such overwhelming evidence, the pessimist inside of me began to shout at the top of his lungs when the baits went into the water and did not entice an immediate hit.
But then Larrea glanced out beyond the bow of the boat, turned to me and said something that drowned out even the loudest of my worries. "Un momento, por favor," he said, the smile on his face speaking much more than his words. And then, as if on cue, shouts from the bridge announced the first of many attacks on our lures.
Larrea's simple statement of expectancy embodies the fishing at Galapagos, where catching doubleheaders of marlin is no more difficult than punching in the numbers on a chart plotter.
It turns out that what Larrea looked out and saw - the vision that gave him such confidence -- was a dense cloud of boobies diving like machine-gun fire into the huge shoals of sardines that are always present over these banks. Find the birds, find the fish - it's that simple. The only thing difficult about this process in the Galapagos is choosing which dense cloud of birds and bait you'll troll through first, and then keeping the birds from getting tangled in your lines.
So What's the Catch?
If you're one of those people who believes the anticipation is half the fun, you're going to love the Galapagos. Because for now, at least, there are no options available for visitors to partake in this incredible fishing. The few settlements that do exist in the Galapagos offer no charter boats, and even if they did, the local residents would be of no help when you asked them to point the way to Cristobal Bank.
Not only are the people of the Galapagos completely unaware of the vast potential that lies just off their shoreline, says Sola, but "even if you ask one of the professional guides from the national park, they'll say 'No, there are no marlin in the Galapagos - only sailfish.' "
Motherships such as Jerry Dunaway's Madam/Hooker operation aren't really the answer either. The Ecuadorian government requires special permits for foreign vessels visiting the Galapagos, and even if those permits are approved, the vessels are allowed to stay no more than one or two weeks. Though Dunaway and others would likely love to circle the Galapagos exploring for new marlin spots, they cannot do that in one or two weeks.
Currently, though, a possibility exists that just might open up this incredible fishery within the near future. Sola and nine other Ecuadorian fishermen, who operate as a group under the title "Brotherhood of the Coast," have applied for permission from the government to build a small fishing lodge on 10 acres of land the Brotherhood owns on Isla San Cristobal.
The reason the Brotherhood's application stands a good chance of being approved where others before it have failed is two-fold. First, the group already owns the land - which is vital since the government froze land sales on most islands once the chain was declared a national park in 1959. Also, the proposed fishing lodge would be declared a nonprofit operation, with all proceeds, fees and donations going back into the San Cristobal national park system.
The plan includes 15 bungalows hidden among the rocky shoreline and cactus-ridden landscape. A fuel dock, sun deck and lounging area will be centered between two sand beaches which face the island's main anchorage, where 10 sport-fishers in the 30-foot range are to reside. The lodge will sit only five minutes from San Cristobal's airport, and 34 miles away from Cristobal Bank - a pretty good run even for the fast boats Sola plans to purchase as soon as the permits are approved.
If you're wondering why Sola and his Brotherhood would be so generous to donate the proceeds from the lodge back into the national park system, you're correct to assume that other motives are at work. But if the Brotherhood has ulterior motives, at least they are commendable ones.
With the lodge first comes the opportunity to fish the islands year-round without the expense of taking boats across the 600 miles of open ocean. But more important, with the monetary generosity comes leverage, leverage that the Brotherhood hopes to use to stop the large-scale commercial fishing that found its way to the Galapagos just three years ago.
"Commercial fishing is invading the islands, not only the banks offshore," Sola says. "They are destroying everything. They are killing sea lions to use them as bait for sharks. They are killing sharks just to take their fins. They are setting nets for tuna, but killing sea lions, birds, sharks and many other species. Now you can see longlines set 50 yards from the rocks when the law says the marine reserve is 15 miles outside the outer islands."
Indeed, on my visit to the Galapagos, a single longliner was at work and had set three lines near the Cristobal Bank.
At press time, the Ecuadorian government was fully embroiled in the political games that come when agendas such as these come to the surface. Sola is currently bombarding his government with information on sport fishing. "We are not only trying to keep sport fishing alive, but make sport fishing the only vehicle that will generate additional income for the national park through a fee applicable to visiting anglers," Sola says. "Also, by having boats going out on a daily basis, the park will automatically acquire a fleet of 'watchdogs' that will report all longline boats that are not supposed to be there."