Of all the insatiable hopes of the big-game fisherman, perhaps the greatest hope lies in the countless untapped seas left to be explored in the world. Just a cursory look at a world atlas confirms that decades of work remains before completing even a sketchy picture of the world's billfishing grounds.
One spot on the atlas that is only now receiving attention from the traveling angler is Mozambique, a nation on the east coast of Africa bounded by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean - waters which hold a tremendous population of giant marlin and exotic blue-water game fish. Yet the area is seldom fished with international-class rod and reels. Of course, it's easy to understand why, given the country's location: more than halfway around the world from the U.S.
For the big-game angler, Bazaruto Island stands as the gleaming jewel of this African country. With more than 5,000 miles of coastline scattered with hundreds of coral-reefed islands, the Bazaruto Archipelago is an angler's dream. Yet for the past quarter-century, Bazaruto has been closed to recreational fishing; natives in dugout canoes, heavy planked row boats and single-sail dhows stand as the only fishing pressure here. Only two years ago, big-game anglers were invited for the first time to taste the bounty of the undeveloped and untapped waters off this beautiful subtropical island.
Along with a contingent of international big-game fishermen from Durban, South Africa, I traveled to Bazaruto Island to participate in the Ricky Jacobs Friendship Marlin Tournament that took place in November 1995. The quest of each angler in the party was to be the first fisherman to catch a 1,000-pound black marlin off the east coast of Africa.
Though none of us achieved that goal, what we found there was more than impressive enough to give us reason to return to try again.
This Is No Movie
We landed on the natural-grass airstrip at Bazaruto Island aboard a 20-passenger twin turbo-propped aircraft, one that bears an uncanny resemblance to the plane featured in Indiana Jones movies. The charter flight over the dry southern desert of Mozambique was a bit rough, but once the plane reached the coastline, with crystal-clear water and hundreds of white coral islands in view, any concerns were quickly overshadowed by the excellent prospects of a wonderful fishing experience and the opportunity of catching giant black marlin.
The turbo-propped plane landed softly on the grass field and made a turn into the disembarking area, where the staff of Bazaruto Lodge was waiting in a Land Rover to load and transfer our party to the lodge located on the wind-protected bay. Louis and Paulien Erasmus are the wonderful hosts of this island fishing resort that should have at least an international three-star rating. Anglers couldn't ask for much more: comfortable, thatched-roofed cottages with modern amenities, outstanding native cuisine, fresh seafood every day, huge bar, friendly staff and some of the world's least-fished big-game waters.
Marlin fishing is new to Bazaruto's native captains, though several world-class anglers from South Africa, such as John Kelly and Ricky Jacobs, have taken the local skippers under their wings and are teaching them how to bait, hook, fight, catch-and-release and in some cases even boat 1,000-pound black marlin while fishing from one of the island's 22-foot "skiboats." Each of these vessels, which are especially designed to fish the often rough waters of the Indian Ocean, is outfitted with a fighting chair to battle huge billfish.
As in most black marlin locales, live-bait fishing serves as the preferred technique, though lures are catching on. Each morning, after navigating the narrow opening between the sand spits that lead to the open seas of the Indian Ocean, mates set out small tuna feathers, Rapalas or chrome spoons over rocky reefs on the front side of the island. In these fertile waters, it doesn't take long to catch a couple of small king mackerel for skip baits. Crews also fish for oceanic bonito, small yellowfin and skipjacks, which are immediately bridled and trolled live a few miles offshore, where black marlin abound in the deep blue water.
Fishing such large live baits off these small open boats is indeed a unique experience. Baits are hand-held off the stern of the twin outboards or run short in outriggers - so close, in fact, that angler and crew witness most marlin strikes as a thick bill comes up and engulfs the bait less than 20 feet off the stern.
Scratching the Surface
Having fished in some of the best waters of the world, and after spending countless hours on the water hoping to land a big marlin, I can report that the potential of the unspoiled big-game fishery around Bazaruto Island equals that of any other fishing mecca.
During the Ricky Jacobs Friendship Marlin Tournament, two anglers (sometimes three) were assigned to fish each boat for a total of six days of competition. Jacobs fished aboard our skiboat and handled most of the deck chores, including restricting our boat by allowing only one rod in the water at any time. Jacobs' reasoning was plain and simple: "If a marlin comes up to eat the bait, I don't want it to have a choice of two or more baits, or worse yet, have the fish cross over a flat line or fowl in an outrigger. We might only have one go at a grander and I don't want to mess up the chance of landing a big black marlin."
On the first day of the tournament, David Brandsma from Durban had five black marlin strikes on his rotation, including one shot at that fish of a lifetime. That fish happened to hit as I was standing near the stern of the skiboat taking photos of terns diving on a school of feeding skipjack. Looking down into the clear blue water, I could see a dark shadow appear from under the transom. The first thing to emerge from the calm sea was an erect dorsal fin, then up came a huge bill, followed by a wide-open mouth and half a shoulder as an 850-pound (estimated) black marlin engulfed Brandsma's live bonito. The marlin ran off over 250 yards of Ande line as it railroaded out to deeper water. Brandsma strained to keep the fish in control and was already well harnessed in the fighting chair when the hook pulled.
Back at the lodge, the day's fishing reports were added up. Anglers hooked six black marlin, landed two (including a 497-pounder), and South Africa's Leon Marais tagged and released one small marlin.
The second day of fishing produced three hooked black marlin. On Days 3 and 4, a southwesterly blew hard and kept all but one skiboat on the beach. Anglers landed two blacks on the fifth day, including my own 350-pounder. The final day of competition had hooks pulled out of two black marlin with estimated weights of both billfish in excess of 600 pounds. Totals for the event: Anglers aboard the handful of boats produced 22 marlin strikes, three black marlin landed, and two fish tagged and released.
It Can Only Get Better
While the anglers fishing the Ricky Jacobs tournament didn't exactly set any records in their hookup ratios, the fish certainly cooperated. In fact, on Day 1 of the event, I saw more big black marlin in a single day than I had seen in over a quarter-century of big-game fishing.
The black marlin season off Bazaruto Island peaks between September and December. Will the 1,000-pound black marlin that eluded us in 1995 be caught this season? It's very possible. Jacobs reports that a client landed a 727-pound black marlin in December, and a few years ago several 1,000-plus pound black marlin were weighed in at Santa Carolina (Paradise Island ) that lies a couple of kilometers west of Bazaruto Island.
Clearly, the small boats, inadequate tackle and lack of experience on the part of the crews weigh heavily in the fish's favor should an angler be lucky enough to encounter that 1,000-pounder. However, the angler who visits Bazaruto equipped with knowledge, quality tackle and a little luck could succeed in putting this uncharted territory on the map of black marlin angling.