The beautiful islands scattered throughout the South Pacific Ocean are fascinating places to fish, and during all my years as a photographer and journalist I’ve been lucky enough to visit most of them. About eight years ago, while fishing in Vanuatu, I met a young American captain by the name of Chris Donato who, at the time, ran the 43-foot Cabo Southern Destiny.
Donato had brought the Cabo across to Port Vila from Samoa to compare the two areas, with the idea of setting up a new charter business. We chatted about Samoa, and I told him of my one and only trip there a few years earlier. These remote Samoan islands certainly have huge game-fishing potential. Judging by his excitement during our conversation, I felt that’s where he’d end up.
A few months later, Donato sent me an email saying he finally decided to go back to Samoa and planned to build a small fishing and surfing lodge on the Salani coast. This particular area lies on the southern side of the massive island of Upolu, one of only two major populated islands in the Samoan group. He chose this part of the island for one simple reason: It’s only a few minutes from the marlin grounds, where plenty of blues are known to be caught. It didn’t take Donato long to start catching them either. In 2011, he managed Samoa’s first grander blue — weighing a solid 1,025 pounds — on conventional tackle.
Hard at Work
The Adventure Awaits
Donato recently emailed me again to say he got hold of his dream boat, a 37-foot Merritt on the market in the United States. The previous owner shipped the vessel in 2005 from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Gamefisherman in Stuart, Florida, for a full restore and refit. After some serious negotiating, Donato purchased the Merritt and had it shipped to Samoa. As if the grander blue wasn’t tempting enough, after reading this particular message I thought, Enough is enough. It was time to revisit Samoa.
Formerly known as Western Samoa, these islands lie just to the south of the equator and approximately halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand. From the east coast of Australia, it’s easy to get there these days; a couple of carriers even have direct flights from Sydney and Brisbane. With memories of my previous trip to these grounds for big yellowfin tuna, wahoo and mahimahi, I quickly jumped online to book tickets for myself and two of my angler mates, Ross Newton and Peter McNally. The plan was to have them take turns in the fighting chair, catching billfish — or anything else, for that matter.
Before I knew it, we were heading to Samoa. The direct nighttime flight was quite relaxing. We managed to get a little sleep so we’d be somewhat fresh to fish the same day we arrived. Donato greeted us at Faleolo International Airport in the island’s capital of Apia around 7 a.m. The drive across the island took an hour or so, but time passed quickly as we chatted about Donato’s Merritt and, of course, the previous week’s fishing. He told us the bite just picked up with the making moon and things looked good for our five days on the water.
The Salani Surf Resort is a quaint little complex of 10 neat bungalows with a large meeting and bar area situated right near the mouth of the Fagatoloa River. After a quick bite to eat and a change of clothes, we were soon aboard the Merritt, moored at a small dock just minutes away. Leilani, named after Donato’s lovely Polynesian wife, is a pretty vessel equipped with all the right tackle to handle whatever comes along. We quickly made the decision to fish with the heavy gear because the chance of hooking a beast was a real possibility. December is the start of summer in this part of the world, and we were in prime time for big blue marlin leading up to a full moon.
Before leaving the dock, Donato briefed us on the safety gear and explained the opening in the reef we would navigate. This natural channel between two long sections of shallow reef is the perfect access to the open Pacific. We edged closer to the opening and saw the beautifully formed swells pushing up on the exposed reefs and understood why the area is also very popular for surfing. We hardly had a wave to contend with while idling out through the opening, which was actually quite deep and very safe.
Nearby Fishing Grounds
With the breaking reef hardly out of sight, I watched the depth recorder quickly indicate 200 fathoms before plummeting over a 500-fathom edge. Donato was right when he said the marlin grounds were very close. He soon pulled back on the throttles to a steady 9-knot trolling speed. The crew went to work setting up a spread of large lures comprising four cut-faced heads and one jet head set way back on the shotgun. We cracked the jackpot with the weather; the 5-knot breeze ruffled the surface of the calm, flat ocean.
The plan was to head to the southwest to a local fish aggregating device (FAD). Along the way, we saw plenty of seabirds working over patches of skipjack tuna busting along the current lines. I commented on how fishy it looked, and I hardly got the words out before the sound of a screaming reel rang out. This was really no surprise considering the bait schools all around us. We all jumped with excitement even though our first bite wasn’t a billfish. Newton said, “Crikey, we were in Sydney only nine hours ago, and now we have a big wahoo to battle with off Samoa.”
The Wrong Species
A member of the razor gang smashed the jet-head lure attached to the 80-pound shotgun outfit. Although both of these guys had fished off Cairns, Australia, before and experienced plenty of wahoo chopping off their marlin baits, neither had actually caught one — until now. To make the trip even more interesting, neither angler had ever caught a blue marlin either. We hoped that would change on this trip as well.
As quick as a flash, McNally was in the chair, fighting the 40-pound wahoo to a standstill. He was filled with excitement and wanted a photo with his wahoo the moment it hit the deck. The crew quickly set up the spread of lures again, and the search was on for something much bigger and, hopefully, with a bill. We experienced our first billfish bite about the time we reached the FAD about 10 miles along the island. A lively lit-up blue about 400 pounds smashed the lure on the long rigger and immediately jumped, tossing the hook in a shower of head-shaking spray. Donato circled around the area for a couple of hours, and at one point, as we passed a little closer to the FAD, the shotgun burst to life again. This time, a 20-pound mahimahi busted loose from the calm surface, and within a couple of minutes, we had dinner kicking about in the cockpit. That was pretty much our action for a relatively short first day, but what we saw gave us plenty of confidence the rest of the trip was going to be even better.
Bring on the Blues
Conditions the following day were again magic, with calm seas and schools of skipjack tuna splashing around along the current lines. As I sat back and watched the lures smoke and fizz, I felt it was only a matter of time before we’d find marlin action. The anticipation of hooking just one blue is exciting enough, but no one in their wildest dreams would have predicted what happened next — a tripleheader.
Chaos erupted, and the noise of screaming reels was deafening. Three 400- to 500-pound blues were hooked and going berserk in every direction behind the boat. One jumped off after stripping 300 yards of line, which was probably a good thing because it eased the congestion in the cockpit as the anglers struggled with the two bent-butt 80-pound outfits, trying to sort out the crossed lines. After the two marlin finally separated, Newton got into the chair and McNally fought his blue from rod holder on the covering board. The fight was exciting, an amazing initiation for two guys trying to catch their first blue marlin.
With at least 600 yards of line out on both fish, it was almost impossible for Donato to maneuver the boat to assist either angler. We thought we could get Newton’s fish first, but after he applied more drag pressure and the fish jumped, it appeared to be much bigger than the other one. McNally gained the most line despite having to alternate from one side of the boat to the other, responding to the fish changing directions. When the leader finally came to hand on McNally’s blue, Donato yelled from the bridge to the two mates, Mike and Reddy, “Hang on to it, don’t let it go. Make sure you get the tag in!”
The anticipation of hooking just one blue is exciting enough, but no one in their wildest dreams would have predicted what happened next — a tripleheader.
Rivaling Hot Spot
Turn and Run
All went well with the first release, and with one out of the way Donato cranked up the Merritt and ran the other one down. This wasn’t as easy as it seemed though. By the time we started to gain line, the blue descended into the depths. The last 400 yards was damn hard work, and he pushed the drag on the Tiagra 80 to the limit. Donato instructed Newton to ease off the drag quickly if the blue came back to the surface and started jumping or running again. Newton pulled on the solid 500-pounder for the next 20 minutes; after plenty of sweat and toil, the tag went in. The boys revived it, and it swam back to the depths in great condition.
Over the next three days we caught more wahoo and mahimahi. The blue marlin bite was steady, and we released one each day. Quite tame compared to the experience of a multiple hookup; I’d have to say a tripleheader on blues doesn’t happen very often. In all my years of chasing them around the world, it has only ever happened to me once before. That, of course, was in the blue marlin hot spot of Cape Verde, where doubles and triples are fairly common practice. To have this happen in Samoa says a lot about the potential of this fishery.
Even more interesting, not only do these islands produce blues all year, but other billfish species are common as well. Black marlin, sailfish and shortbill spearfish are possible during the cooler months of the year from May to September. I saw one of the biggest sailfish in my life while in Samoa, and sails wandering through the South Pacific islands are often caught in excess of 200 pounds. There are plenty of other game fish to catch here as well: big dogtooth and yellowfin tuna, wahoo, giant trevally and mahimahi. The place is quite the up-and-coming hot spot.