Don’t forget to check out more Cape Verde photos in the gallery above.
For many years, I’d heard the stories of the incredible numbers of Atlantic blue marlin caught around the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. About four years ago, I touched base with Capt. Zak Conde, a legend around these islands, who has fished there for more than eight years. He offered me the great privilege of fishing with him, but unfortunately something came up that year and I never made it.
Ever since then, these islands have been on my “must go to” list, and when my good buddy Capt. Glen “Johnno” Johnson from Cairns invited me to join him in Cape Verde aboard fly-fishing specialist Fouad Sahiaoui’s magnificent 50-foot G&S, Gladius, I couldn’t resist. I organized the flights to get there right away, and from Australia, that’s not as easy as it sounds!
I arrived on the island of São Vicente, where a half-dozen local charter boats work, just before the full moon in May 2012. I was weary after two days of flying from the other side of the world, but I managed to get to the Mindelo Mariner waterfront bar to catch up with Johnson and any other captains who might be around. I met up with my old friend Capt. James “Chuey” Roberts, who was skippering Hooker at the time. He immediately filled me in on a recent day where Hooker raised more than 25 blues, hooked 16 and released 10 — including fish up to 700 pounds.
Johnson’s report rang familiar as he told me about the heaps of blue marlin raised and of Sahiaoui’s efforts to land four — 300- to 400-pounders on fly gear — only to jump or bust them all off. Talking to a bunch of other guys, including Kiwi Capt. Marty Bates, it certainly appeared that I had chanced upon an extremely hot bite. Exciting stories and boats on the dock with riggers lined with tag flags fluttering in the breeze foretold an awesome start to an amazing two-week stint.
My first day out on Gladius, I witnessed the heartbreak that dedicated saltwater fly-fishermen go through. Sahiaoui had fished in Cape Verde for a month before my arrival, breaking both the 20- and 16-pound-tippet blue-marlin world records. The blue on 20-pound, weighing 221 pounds, beat the old record by 13 pounds, and the one on 16-pound, weighing 269 pounds, smashed the old record by 61 pounds.
Because the one on 16-pound was a lot bigger than his 20-pound record, Sahiaoui planned to try and break his own pending 20-pound record.
We left the dock early and headed for the grounds off the unusual-looking Ponta Machado lighthouse, perched up high on the island’s barren, rugged southwest headland. At first glance, the lighthouse looks more like a church.
As we reached the 50-fathom line, Jimmy Kinniburgh, Johnson’s experienced deckie from Cairns, and Elmostafa Gallae, Sahiaoui’s longtime gaff man, put out a spread of three teasers. Sahiaoui readied his two fly rods and put them in the rack. After only 20 minutes of trolling, three blues ambushed the teasers at once.
A solid 600-pounder jumped on the long rigger teaser, but she quickly disappeared from sight. The other two blues, in the perfect 250- to 300-pound class, were hot to trot, attacking the softhead on the short teaser in angry bursts. As the captain brought the teasers closer to the transom, the marlin started bumping each other out of the way to get at the softhead. Sahiaoui made a couple of casts, and one of the hungry blues finally piled on his fly.
When the blue felt the hook, it started leaping away in a burst of spray with its head and shoulders out of the water. This gave us all a good look at the size, and it was indeed the one Sahiaoui was after. The excited Kinniburgh yelled, “It’s considerably bigger than the one on 20-pound the other day!”
In typical blue-marlin fashion, the fish took off like a scalded cat, and the fly line whistled through the guides, turning the fly reel into a spinning blur. Catching blues on conventional light tackle is hard enough, but on fly gear it’s amazing how it all stays together. Sahiaoui’s years of experience kept the light tippet from parting, and the very skilled captain on the wheel kept them in the game. The chase, on a very maneuverable boat with two deckies harnessed up with safety ropes ready for a gaff shot, thrilled me to the bone and proved awesome to watch.
After an hour of high-speed backing and spinning around, we finally got the first chance with the gaffs. However, Kinniburgh, the taller of the two deckies, found that his long reach was still not enough to set the gaff. Naturally, all the commotion on deck spooked the blue into another blistering run, and the fight went on for several more hours before we got another shot. Every time the boat got close, the lively marlin would peel off 200 yards of line, and after seven hours, the tippet finally parted.
Sahiaoui headed home the next day, and a couple of his friends came in to fish for the next 10 days. I had a free day, so I caught up with another old friend, Warren Keinath, the owner of the magnificent 78 Garlington Dreamin On. Warren and his two brothers, Steve and David, had experienced the excitement of Cape Verde a couple of years ago, and the great fishing was enough to get the boat back out in the Atlantic for another season.
The Dream Continues
I rode along on Dreamin On for the day and was blown away at the speed of this huge vessel and how it lapped up the sloppy seas as if they weren’t even there. Capt. Randy Hodgekiss headed to the Big Rock grounds down past the lighthouse, where the guys had experienced great fishing during their previous trip. They released more than 150 blues that season; many were over 500 pounds, and they went right up to the magic grander mark. They were keen to weigh a big blue if the right one came along.
As soon as the spread of lures went out, the wait for a bite was similar to my previous day — not long. A lively 300-pounder flashed into the spread and grabbed the right flat line. The fight on heavy tackle proved a short one, and the fish was soon tagged and on its way. The next bite came half an hour later, and (as is typical of these grounds), while the crew cleared the gear, another blue jumped on a lure.
Although a 400-pounder was still stripping off line, our attention quickly turned to the animal that took the lure only 30 yards off the transom. When its head and shoulders appeared, somebody screamed, “Oh, man, look at that thing!”
It all happened so quickly that it was hard to tell exactly how big the blue actually was, but the gaffs came out just in case. The big mother took off to the north, while the smaller one headed south. As if it was meant to happen, the hook came out of the smaller blue, and Hodgekiss was able to concentrate on the big girl. The way this beast was running, they probably would have ended up cutting the smaller fish off anyway.
The big blue stripped off an incredible amount of line, and Hodgekiss had the Garlington backing down in hot pursuit. Spray was flying in sheets, and the water in the cockpit was soon up to my knees. There was no stopping the line coming off the 130 Tiagra reel, and Hodgekiss had no choice but to turn the boat and run the fish down.
I quickly had to find a handrail to hang on to as the enormous power plants blasted the boat to 30 knots through the choppy seas. The tight line furrowed through the waves with a good angle, out and away from the boat. The near-empty spool was starting to look healthy again, when suddenly the line parted. The big blue had changed direction again, and the huge belly in the line had created so much pressure that the line simply let go. Ah, big blues. They can break 130-pound-test and break your heart at the same time!
Where We Fished
The next week, the fishing remained red-hot, and Sahiaoui’s friends Laurent Sahyoun and his girlfriend, Sandrine Fleury, and Christian Benazeth and his daughter, Johanna, were also fascinated by the number of blues in these waters. The grounds we mostly fished when the wind was pumping out of the north were down the southern end of the island, where at least you could get out of the swell. Occasionally, bullets of wind would whistle off the island and create a sharp, steep chop, but it was still very fishable.
To the north of the island lies another very productive ground called the Pedro Bank, and the charter fleet usually only ventured up there when the wind dropped below 25 knots. Things were much tougher there, as you had to contend with the breeze as well as the swell. Some days were not for the fainthearted, but with so many bites you really didn’t have time to worry about the conditions. It reminded me of the Great Barrier Reef back home when the trade winds are pumping out of the southeast.
The other strange feature here is the color of the sky, and some days you don’t see the sun at all. The winds from Africa that sweep across the Sahara Desert carry a brown, dusty haze for hundreds of miles. The dull conditions often made the gin-clear Atlantic water gray, and it can take the edge off the photography most days. In the two weeks I was there, I only saw blue skies and bright sunshine on two occasions!
Big Ones Too
During the second week, we were on the Big Rock grounds, and it was Johanna’s turn to catch a marlin. When the bite happened, she took the heavy 130-pound outfit from the rod holder to the chair, as she had done on previous days with precision. The line was screaming off the reel, and when it angled up, the blue that jumped was a real nice one. First call from Johnson indicated an 800-pounder, and wow — were we all in for a treat!
Johanna eased the drag pressure as the big blue screamed off again, and Johnno had the G&S in hot pursuit. The fish stayed on the surface, tail-walking and jumping at an incredible speed that only blue marlin seem to manage. When the run slowed, Johanna put the brakes back on, and the pressure had her standing up on the footrest. This young lady had fished heavy tackle before with her father, and he had taught her well. There was no panicking or instructions taken; she did it all herself.
After half an hour, Kinniburgh got his first opportunity to grab the leader, and the extra weight sent the big blue into orbit. For the next half-hour, Johanna battled the big blue and eventually wore the fish down to the point where Kinniburgh was able to hang onto the trace and remove the hook. She was a solid fish up close and easily would have weighed around 850 pounds — an awesome capture.
Other vessels working the same ground had success with various sizes, but there were definitely a few bigger fish showing up. Our next day fishing, Johnson spotted a huge blue from the tower and yelled out, but all we could see from the cockpit was a massive shape. At first I thought it was a small whale, but the excited screams over the PA system told a much different story. Johnson was still shaking an hour later, and he reckoned it was the biggest marlin he’d ever seen — and he’s weighed plenty of granders, both black and blue!
Every day there were amazing stories from other anglers at the mariner bar, and one guy I caught up with who was fishing with Zak Conde on Amelia reckons that he had the best fishing trip of his life. Michael Viljoen from South Africa had chartered Conde for 12 days and released 54 blues up to 800 pounds. After his stint with Conde, he had an extra day before returning home, so he rode along with Capt. Brad Phillips, who had come in to run Hooker. They released eight blues, including a big, fat mother that they managed to get some rough measurements from — the tape put her way over the magic grander mark.
I came away from São Vicente with a head full of memories and a camera card full of amazing shots of wild, leaping blue marlin and spectacular harsh landscapes. The whole atmosphere of this distant, out-of-this-world fishery blew me away. I have never experienced blue-marlin fishing like it anywhere else!
329 Blue Marlin in One Year
Capt. Ezequiel Conde, or “Zak,” as his friends call him, was born in the Azores off Portugal in 1972 and has fished all the Atlantic blue-marlin hot spots from Ghana to Ascension Island since 1990. When he first started fishing the Cape Verde Islands more than a decade ago, Conde soon discovered that these grounds not only had the potential for huge blues, but incredible numbers as well. Raising 20 or more blues a day is common!
In 2012, I finally caught up with Conde on São Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands, where he runs Amelia, a 35-foot Bertram, one of only nine charter boats working out of Mindelo Harbour. Over a long and interesting dinner one night, the stories of his amazing season unfolded. He’d been there since March, and by early May, he’d racked up an incredible 180 blues. This prompted me to ask, “Did you set out to break any records, and do you know how many blues you would need?” “No,” he said. “It wasn’t until a friend of mine, John Tierny, told me the other day that Capt. Dave Noling held the Atlantic record with 297.”
Conde went on to tell me that April and May had been extremely productive, and many of his fish had been caught on natural baits around São Nicolau Island. “During one 12-day charter there, we released 54 blues,” he said. This really boosted his numbers, and the Cape Verde record of 241 blues released in a season was certainly well and truly in his sights!
Apart from his success on baits, I noticed on his boat one day a huge selection of lures that had been battered from plenty of strikes. Some of the lures were unfamiliar to me, so I asked him about his lure preferences. “I like to run these dark-colored Andy Hayes and Makaira lures, and they catch the most fish. I run two rigged lures long out of the outriggers, and three teasers, like Mold Craft SuperChuggers and Big Trucks, up short,” Conde said.
Before I departed Cape Verde at the end of May, Conde was still racking up good numbers, and I was able to catch up with him again for dinner. I asked how he was able to divide his fishing time and what dictates the switch from one place to another. “I fish in Cape Verde for five months, and at the end of July, I like to go home to the Azores. The blue-marlin fishing there is really good in August and September,” he said.
Conde said that one of his favorite places to fish in Cape Verde was on the Pedro Bank to the northwest of Mindelo Harbour. “But you can’t fish there most of the time, because of the wind,” he said. “Back home in the Azores, I like the Condor Bank. But when the weather is nice, I’ll do the long run to the Princess Alice Bank.”
Conde left Cape Verde at the end of July, after releasing 287 blues to set a new record for the islands. Back home in the Azores, he released another 49 blues to bring his tally for the year to 329 releases and a new record. It also earned Conde the distinction of Top Atlantic Blue Marlin Captain, awarded to him by The Billfish Foundation for the fourth time.
My last contact with Conde was in April 2013, and the Cape Verde season was well under way. I asked him how it compared to the start of last year, and he said that it’s been a lot quieter. They have experienced strong currents, patches of dirty water and very little bait. Naturally, he’s hoping that things will improve.
Capt. Zak Conde — Amelia; marlincapeverde.com
Capt. James Roberts — Hooker; [email protected]
Capt. Brad Phillips — Hooker; [email protected]
Capt. Martin Bates — La Onda; fishing-capeverde.com
Capt. Miguel Gamito — Dona Pi; biggamefishingcapeverde.com
Capt. Berno Niebuhr — Happy Hooker; capeverde-fishing.com
Capt. Matthias Henningsen — Smoker; atlanticfishingcharter.com
Capt. Marco Canu — Nha Cretcheu; [email protected]