During my short time in Ghana, I experienced amazing blue marlin fishing. I was lucky enough to catch my biggest blue when I released a solid 900-pounder. Every day, good numbers of blues between 300 pounds and 900 pounds were released among the three charter boats working; it seemed the fishery was viable and strong. Two years later, though, as quick as Ghana came on the marlin scene, the fishing declined. Hooker left for Cape Verde and old Duyfken ended up on a hard stand. The last I heard, it’s still just sitting there, rotting away. I believe the marlin fishery crashed when several huge, foreign, commercial purse-seine boats turned up and depleted the mackerel stocks. There haven’t been any marlin reports from Ghana for many years.
My quest to explore the Atlantic took me north to blustery Cape Verde. These islands are difficult to get to, but it was worth every hour of air travel and all of the long delays. These mostly barren, dust-blown islands are a big part of the Atlantic blue marlin migration. At times, you get so many bites in a day that it’s beyond belief. Getting two dozen bites and catching anywhere between five and a dozen in a day is not out of the ordinary. The fish range from 300 pounds to 600 pounds, with the chance for the bigger one showing up at any time.
Capt. Glen Johnson started working these islands after the fishing in Ghana dried up. The year I went, he was skippering the beautiful 50-foot G&S Gladius for well-known saltwater fly-fisherman Fouad Sahiaoui. The week before I got there, Sahiaoui broke two world records on blues: one on 16-pound tippet and the other on 20-pound. My first day out with him, he spent seven hours on a blue on 20-pound that would have smashed his previous record had the tippet not parted. Sahiaoui had four of his friends come in for two weeks of heavy-tackle fishing and the action every day was amazing. On our best day, we lost count of how many blues were raised. We hooked 17 and tagged and released 10, the biggest running 750 pounds. We came back to the dock thinking we might have been top dog for the day until the 76-foot Garlington Dreamin On came in with 17 tag flags fluttering in the wind.
Farther north again lies the stunning Portuguese island of Madeira. Anyone who has been involved in blue marlin fishing over the past couple of decades knows only too well what happened there in the mid-90s. The place busted loose in ’94 with many personal bests achieved and world records broken. Campbell, on Chunda, became the first angler in the world to catch two grander Atlantic blues and young Laurent Richard, fishing on French Look, became the first junior angler to boat a grander blue. Shelby Rogers on Tysons Pride broke the ladies world record on 80-pound-test with a 1,059‑pound blue and Tracy Melton caught a 1,083-pounder on stand-up 80-pound tackle. In ’95, Campbell smashed the world record on 30-pound-test with an 872-pounder and his wife broke the ladies world record on 30-pound tackle with a 708-pounder during the following season.
By early ’97, the tiny harbor in Madeira’s Funchal was crammed full of foreign sport-fishing vessels eager to get into the action, but all were disappointed. Anglers fished for months for maybe a bite from a white marlin or a tuna. Aussie Capt. Peter Bristow had moved to the United Kingdom when the big bite was happening in Madeira. By the time he purchased a boat and modified it to catch granders, he missed the bite as well. When I got there to fish with Bristow in 2004, things had picked up again, but it was nothing like the run they had in the ’90s. According to a number of local fishermen, like brothers Jo and Reberto Riberia — whose father, Antonio, caught the first grander in Madeira on rod and reel in the ’70s — these hot and cold seasons were nothing new. During El Niño years, the warm currents often miss the island and the bait doesn’t show up either.
The beautiful Azores off Portugal spread out over nine islands. Horta Harbor, on the island of Faial, is home to a charter fleet of eight vessels. Capt. Zak Conde was born in the Azores and after I got to know him in Cape Verde, he invited me to check out his home waters. These islands are also well known for giant blues. Conde and Gallagher were running the 36-foot Hatteras Xacara back in 1997 when they caught the largest blue ever taken in the Azores, a massive 1,307-pounder. Two huge seamounts close to Faial called the Condor and Azores banks are where the action is found. Many blues are tagged and released there annually. These two banks rise out of 1,000 fathoms and have to be the fishiest grounds I have ever seen. Every day, they were alive with all kinds of sea life, feeding on huge columns of mackerel.
We averaged three to four bites a day from blue or white marlin, with the odd big yellowfin tuna and mahimahi thrown in. The best day came on Conde’s 31-foot Blackwatch Boca Raton when we paid a visit to the Azores Bank, a little farther out from the Condor Bank. It was certainly a good move as we had our first bite on a solid blue within minutes of putting the lures out. The hookup was perfect, and the 130 Shimano Tiagra had 600 yards of line vanish before the marlin started jumping and tail-walking at incredible speed. Plenty of rod work was needed to win the battle on this 750-pounder before we released it boat-side.
For many years, I’d heard and read the stories of all the big marlin caught around these islands, many of them caught by Capt. Alan Card. He and I had been in contact for some time, and I finally got to meet and fish with him last year in the prime-time month of July when the famous Triple Crown Tournaments take place. Over the past 10 years, these three tournaments have grown considerably, and many visiting vessels from the U.S. mainland now make the 600-mile journey to Bermuda to participate.
Ever since Card’s son Lan was able to climb into the boat, he has helped on the deck and has become a very skilled mate. The two of them are a formidable team, winning many tournaments in the Triple Crown as well as catching the biggest marlin in the history of the popular Blue Marlin World Cup, a massive 1,195-pounder. Their spread to attract these big blues includes only four armed lures and two giant teasers. I’ve never seen teasers so big, but when you think about these giant blues, capable of devouring a 100-pound tuna like a jelly bean, 3-foot teasers certainly look like fair game. These giants turn up here because the shallow outer reef drops away quickly into the deep Atlantic and then rises again only 10 miles to the southwest of the island. Two massive banks each spread out over 20 square miles and are only a few miles apart, attracting bait, big tuna and wahoo, which in turn attract the giant blues.