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Catching Big Blue Marlin in the Amazing Azores

Big blues and relatively calm seas — what more could you ask for?

September 18, 2014
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fishing in the Azores
The Azores, a group of islands in the North Atlantic, offer up a tremendous blue marlin bite during the summer — and they aren’t all itty-bitty either! John Ashley

One thing’s for sure, you didn’t need to check the depth recorder or the GPS to know we had reached Condor Bank. Fifteen nautical miles to the south of Horta harbor flocks of shearwaters glided over the calm blue ocean surface, dipping occasionally to pick up a tasty morsel left by schools of spotted dolphins carving up the baitfish. With a warm 79-degree current pushing to the southeast, the place looked fishier than I had ever imagined.

Capt. Olaf Grimkowski, who runs the 36-foot Hatteras Xacara, suddenly pulled the throttles back and called to his mate Marty Bates, “bait ball right under the boat.” The experienced Bates quickly dropped a string of sabiki jigs over the transom, which resulted in a full house of big, slimy mackerel. Just two drops loaded up the baitwell with the perfect size baits to switch with once a big blue marlin came up on the teasers.

Bates rigged up two mackerel on circle hooks in just minutes and put them in specially made bait tubes, ready for action. After trolling for just 20 minutes, a small white marlin tried to eat the long rigger and escaped. Immediately after, a nice size blue appeared on the short teaser and began piling all over the big green Super Plunger.

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Grimkowski hit the button on the bridge reel, and the marlin chased the teaser closer to the boat. Bates quickly made the switch with a live bait, and it barely kicked its tail before the blue exploded on it, delivering a classic bite on the 80-pound chair rod. “It’s a no-brainer using these big livies,” Bates says. “They smash them every time.”

As the angler increased the drag pressure, a magnificent 650-pounder felt the hook and came barreling out of the water, showering spray in all directions. The tail-walking sprint led to a long, blistering run, like only blue marlin know how to do, turning the Penn’s gold spool into an absolute blur. Angler Rhett Spencer enjoyed the rampaging fight and had the trace in reach in just 20 minutes. The still-lively blue gave Bates a bit of a stretch as it jumped away, but safe hands hung on, and the fish came to the boat rather quickly. Bates removed the hook, and the nice, solid marlin swam free. What a start to a three-week stint, I thought to myself. Welcome to the Azores.

My plans to visit the Azores, Portugal, started last year in Cape Verde when I met up with Capt. Zak Conde and he invited me to come visit. Conde makes his home in the Azores, and although he fishes all over the Atlantic, he loves to get back home for the short, but prolific, blue marlin season.

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The weather out in the middle of the Atlantic settles down a bit throughout the summer months, and from August to early October, the waters are relatively calm, even though you might fish 20 to 25 miles offshore. Over the past two decades, the Faial Island has become very popular for sport fishermen, and Horta harbor is now home to dozens of serious charter and private game boats.

Azores sights
The port town of Horta on Faial Island hosts most of the big-game action in the Azores, which belong to Portugal. John Ashley

My arrival to the Azores unfortunately coincided with Conde getting a 10-day cancellation, which absolutely rocked him, since that’s a big slice out of a very short season. To get me out on the water, he introduced me to Capt. Les Gallagher and Louis Sougne, who operate Brasilia Fishing Charters, the biggest charter operation on the island. These guys welcomed me with open arms when they found out I’d traveled from Australia to witness the fishing in the Azores. They told me I was welcome to ride along on any one of the four vessels they run any day I liked.

My first day out was an amazing introduction to these very fishy grounds. Not only did I see my first Azorean blue marlin captured and released on Xacara, I also witnessed several more blues released from other boats around us. The captains here are quite happy to run by any hooked-up vessels to allow their anglers -— or guys like me — the opportunity to shoot some photos. I got to witness some amazing captures, including one on the 30-foot Merry Fisher Makaira skippered by Capt. Marco Canu. They hooked up right near us and caught a nice solid 700-pounder.

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blue marlin jump off the Azores
During the late summer months, the Azores enjoy a large influx of blue marlin in the 400- to 500-pound range, with a few bigger ones as well. John Ashley

The big blue ate the short flat-line lure and came out of the water like a Scud missile, jumping across two other lines. In the melee, the big marlin cut off both of the other lures, but the crew sorted out the tangled mess quickly, so they could pursue the fight.

On the Condor Bank and on the Azores Bank a little further to the southeast, the fleet released several blue marlin every day. On some days, we would get a couple of bites and score one or two releases, and on other days, it seemed like we were trolling around them and not getting a bite. That’s pretty much blue marlin fishing anywhere in the world.

The interesting thing about the Azores, however, is that the average size of the blues here is around 450 to 500 pounds. Combine that with the pleasant conditions during the summer, and the Azores are ideal for everyone, including the record hunters. Over the years, this place has contributed to many world records on light to medium tackle, but guys like Conde and Gallagher have weighed granders here on heavy tackle as well.

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Capt. Les Gallagher
Capt. Les Gallagher runs Brasilia, a 40-foot Australian-built Black Watch out of Horta harbor. Gallagher spent many years fishing the Atlantic from Ghana, Cape Verde and Ascension Island, but when he visited the Azores in 1987, he fell in love with the place, and it’s now his home. His passion for fishing is legendary here, and he was the captain on Xacara the day he and Zak Conde caught the biggest blue marlin ever captured in the Azores, a massive 1,310-pounder. John Ashley

While I was in Horta, American light-tackle anglers Sherrell and Gary Carter turned up for a stint of record fishing. On their first day out on Xacara, Sherrell Carter broke the ladies world record for an Atlantic blue marlin on 16-pound test with a 532-pound blue. If acknowledged, that catch will smash the old record by almost 200 pounds.

The following day, Carter went close to breaking the 12-pound record after hooking an estimated 450-pounder. She battled the marlin for 14½ hours, and the fight went into the wee hours of the following day before the line parted. Bates had the fish on the leader a few times, but every time he applied the extra pressure, the blue went crazy and bolted.

After pacing the dock for a week, Conde had his friend Thomas Peterson, along with his son and father, make the trip over from Amsterdam for a week of fishing, so I finally got out on the 31-foot Black Watch Boca Raton.

blue marlin fishing off the Azores
For some reason, during certain years the Azores get both numbers and size, becoming a perfect place for record fishing. John Ashley

We headed to Conde’s favorite spot on the Azores Bank, and what a great decision that turned out to be. We experienced a truly memorable day, and just two hours into trolling a spread of four rigged lures and two teasers, a big fat blue grabbed the short flat line. She exploded on the lure from below and came hurtling out of the white water in one magnificent motion. By the time I lifted the camera to my eye, she was gone.

She then cleared the water in a series of tail-walking jumps, taking out more than 700 yards of line pretty quickly. Conde, one of the most experienced marlin captains in the world, spun the very quick and maneuverable Black Watch like a top and gave chase. Peterson had some winding to do as Conde ran the fish down. Once we had gained our line back and closed on the fish, Conde spun the little Black Watch again and backed down hard. We repeated this scenario many times before the magnificent blue popped up on the surface, just out of reach.

I got so excited during the fight on the estimated 800-pounder that I was shaking in my deck shoes, but I was still poised for a shot, hoping the big girl was going to jump. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and when Andrew Kennedy, Conde’s mate from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, got hold of the leader, the big blue was all but spent. Some nice boat-side shots were about all I could manage, but what a beautiful sight. We released her in magnificent condition, fat and glowing in gorgeous silver and gold.

After the handshakes and backslapping, the crew put out the lures, and we headed back to the edge of the bank. We trolled back to almost the same area we first hooked up, when suddenly, there was another blue on the short teaser. The marlin crushed the left teaser before swimming right up to the transom as if she were checking out the props. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a big, free-swimming blue marlin, and it blew me away.

In a split second, however, she turned back to attack the same teaser again, and by that time, our switched-on mate had wound the short left flat-line lure right in close. The inquisitive blue didn’t hesitate at the new-looking bait and crashed it like it was her last feed. The hookup was perfect, and this time, Peterson’s dad, Torsten, was in the chair to do battle as the marlin went nuts. Again, the Black Watch was in hot pursuit, and Conde was able to stay close, giving me the chance for some awesome shots. I got to experience the aggression of Conde at work on the controls, and the pair of diesels absolutely screamed as we moved on the fish. The blue stayed on the surface, and the leader stayed just out of reach for what seemed like an eternity.

On Kennedy’s first attempt to grab the leader, he got stretched out and dragged across the cockpit. She was one angry mother of a marlin, and she powered away every time we got near. After almost half an hour, Kennedy finally got a wrap and grimly hung on. The fish turned and shook her head looking right at us just off the transom as the hook came free — a perfect release on another solid blue that we estimated at 700 pounds or better.

fishing for blue marlin with lures
Most of the fish here are caught on lures, but crews also chuck out a live bait when finicky fish enter the spread. John Ashley

During my stint in the Azores, I got to meet some great guys and experience some amazing fishing, including the capture of two jumbo yellowfin tuna well over 200 pounds. The locals here are all quite friendly, and there are some interesting things to see and do apart from fishing. Horta is a very safe place to walk around, even at night, and I got to drive around the island with Conde and see some magnificent landscapes. The lush, green mountainous slopes are in complete contrast to the rugged black, basalt coastal cliffs, born from the lava of prehistoric volcano eruptions. It’s hard to believe how blue the Atlantic Ocean can be as it laps up against the dark shoreline. Three weeks on this island was nowhere near enough for me, but as the Azoreans say, “It takes a lifetime to get to know the Azores, and even then, that may not be enough.”

blue marlin splash on bait
Most of the fish here are caught on lures, but crews also chuck out a live bait when finicky fish enter the spread. John Ashley
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