The synergy of the situation could not have been more perfect if it had been choreographed from day one. Almost 20 years ago to the day, I fished Mambrui Ledge off Malindi, Kenya, aboard Snowgoose with Capt. Rob Hellier, and that day’s events still remain indelibly etched in my memory. It was the day that I caught my first billfish — a sailfish, or suli-suli, to the Swahili-speaking crew.
Two decades later, once again, Hellier stood at the helm, and we were fishing aboard his current boat, Un-Reel, a 33-foot Blackfin. We had worked our spread of strip baits off Mambrui for an hour when suddenly an aggressive sail appeared, slashing at the baited lure fished off the starboard rigger. The clip snapped open, the bait was briefly dropped back into the eager fish’s gaping maw, and she was hooked. After a brief fight, the fish was tagged, and my son Luke got a picture (above) with his first-ever billfish!
Over the years and during more than 20 trips to the Kenyan coast, I have developed a deep passion for Kenya — a passion for the outstanding game fishing, the amazing wildlife of her parks and reserves, and the warmth and friendliness of her people. In 2012, I retired after serving 30 years as a firefighter and offered to take my son on a guys’ trip to pretty much anywhere he wanted to go. When Luke said he’d like to go to Kenya to fish and safari, I could not have been happier.
The timing of our trip coincided with an invitation to visit the opening of a new development at Watamu, Medina Palms, which features a full range of accommodations. Perfectly located adjacent to the sport-boat moorings at Watamu, Medina’s world-class facilities and sumptuous standards of accommodation quickly attracted the attention of the many visiting fishermen that come here each season.
When the Wind Blows
Fishing off the coast of Kenya is governed by the twin monsoons, the Kusi and the Kaskazi. The Kusi, or southeast monsoon, blows from late March until November. The Kaskazi typically starts mid-December, when the winds change to the northeast, creating warmer, calmer conditions.
Most visiting anglers target sailfish in Kenya, and while an occasional sailfish can be caught more or less at any time of the year, the period between September and January marks the peak season. Almost the entire coast produces good numbers of sailfish — the area off Malindi, just north of Watamu, is one of the very best.
Of the three species of marlin caught in East Africa, blacks are by far the most abundant. Like sailfish, an occasional black marlin can be caught at any time of the year, but July through September can be especially productive. Prime season for Kenyan marlin is January through March. The average black here is usually in the 100- to 300-pound range, but there are certainly much bigger fish around. Slow-trolling a bridle-rigged live frigate mackerel around the Banks, the Rips and an area known as the Boiling Pot off Watamu catches the most blacks.
By Christmas, striped marlin start to arrive, with their numbers peaking between January and March. The deep blue water offshore around the Rips and the underwater mountains off Watamu mark the hottest spots, with most stripes caught trolling lures or large strip baits. Reasonable numbers of blues are often mixed in with the striped marlin — again, mostly fish in the 100- to 300-pound range. The Kenyan blue-marlin record, 1,248 pounds, was caught back in March 1995 aboard the Kingfisher boat Neptune, fishing off Watamu.
Kenya is also a productive destination for anglers pursuing broadbill swordfish. Night fishing produces phenomenal catches of swords, with as many as 11 fish caught in one night. Mostly these are small fish, 40 to 120 pounds, but much bigger fish are frequently hooked. The world’s first broadbill on fly was caught here.
Some Kenyan skippers have started fishing for swordfish during the day, deep-dropping Venezuelan-style, and results have been both consistent and impressive. Several fantasy slams have been recorded off Kenya, the most recent by Capt. Hellier aboard Un-Reel on Feb. 11, 2009. All the usual blue-water pelagic species of game fish are also caught in these waters.
Luke and I fished two days aboard Un-Reel. On the first day, we focused exclusively on marlin out on the Rips, and right off the bat a lively striped marlin smashed a lure, ripping perhaps 50 yards of line from the Tiagra before throwing the lure. Not long after, a second brilliantly lit-up fish scorched into the spread, and then, to our surprise, simply faded away. We raised a couple of other fish that simply would not eat, and we watched as other boats fishing alongside us caught a couple of striped marlin and a decent black.
Later, while savoring a couple of cold Tusker beers, we learned that the sailfish bite up off Malindi had been red-hot, which was later confirmed when boats that had fished there started to return, flying up to a dozen red sailfish flags. So the following morning, we headed for Malindi, and it wasn’t long before we spotted the first sails finning on the surface and occasionally slashing at thick shoals of bait.
At first, the fish were difficult to tease, and we guessed there was such an abundance of food that they were not hungry. We persevered, and eventually Luke got that first sailfish and, following its release, he quickly added a second. By midmorning, the radio chatter confirmed that the marlin bite out on the Rips had been good as well, with boats releasing as many as three fish, so that’s where we headed next. By the time we reached the area, the bite had slowed, and we only managed to raise one fish — but that’s fishing. For me, the fact that I had earlier watched my son get his first sailfish simply could not be topped. The fact that it happened in Kenya, one of my favorite places in the world, was just a bonus.
Most travelers first arrive in Kenya at Nairobi, via daily flights that are available from most European capital cities and South Africa. Getting to Watamu involves a short one-hour flight to either Mombassa, a two-hour drive to the south, or Malindi, just 20 minutes north. Several local airlines facilitate this route.
A fishing/safari combo is very popular with many who visit Kenya, and the famous Masai Mara offers unsurpassed game viewing. I always stay at Little Governors Camp (governorscamp.com), where the service, food, tented accommodation and close proximity to game are, in my experience, unbeatable.
Depending on your nationality, visas can be obtained on arrival. Several vaccinations and prophylactic medications are recommended, so check with your physician before traveling.
Medina Palms Luxury Ocean Residences (medinapalms.com) feature exclusive beachfront residences, which have been designed in a contemporary style with features and fittings for today’s sophisticated homeowner and traveler. The development is located within a secure gated community with private access to the protected waters of Watamu National Marine Park, where in addition to world-class offshore fishing, the warm turquoise water of the Indian Ocean offers scuba diving, kitesurfing and many other exciting water sports.
Recently voted the best development in Kenya, Medina Palms is a groundbreaking new destination that is setting exceptional standards for boutique-style luxury accommodation, unparalleled on the Kenyan coast.
During the peak season in Kenya, early inquiries are essential to confirm bookings with the very best skippers. Contact Capt. Rob Hellier ([email protected]) to charter Un-Reel, a well-equipped boat with quality tackle by Shimano and Fox, along with the latest Simrad electronics. Hellier is working closely with Medina Palms to help develop sport fishing at the property.