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Big Fish!

Big Fish!

One of the great things about fishing offshore is that you are never sure when the fish of a lifetime may just pass you by. We could be fishing for cod and Pollock in the English Channel when a monster porbeagle decides to take one of your fish for lunch. Equally you could be 20 miles offshore in the Indian Ocean when a black marlin of immense proportions shows up in your spread of lures……….I am sure that all of us have had such experiences when out at sea.

So when I came across these jottings  by former Alderney, Madeira and Global charter captain Roddy Hays I thought that I would share them with you.

I have been fortunate enough to have fished and travelled with Roddy on many occasions and have listened to the encounters he writes about first-hand. Roddy has a record of giant blue marlin from Madeira that is second to none. When he gets excited about the size of a fish you can be sure that it is a big one!

Big Fish I Have Known by Roddy Hays

When one spends a lot of time at sea over a multitude of years and seasons, it is easy to become blasé about what one sees and what one does. Included among the memories of good and bad times, of ferocious weather and rosy golden sunsets, are those moments filled with fish and cetaceans. Some are memorable, some are frightening and some are purely pleasurable, but all of them are moments to reminisce over as one gets older. Here’s two special memories from my travels.

At Midway Atoll, some 1200 miles NW of Honolulu, the lagoon inside the reef becomes a sinister turquoise shadow of doom for many young Laysan albatrosses as they fledge during June and July. As the chicks leave their nests for the first time, tiger sharks of all sizes gather yearly to take advantage of the bonanza offered to them by miniature albatrosses whose downy feathers become water-logged during saltwater emergency landings. Here, in water sometimes less than 10’ deep, and driven by genetic impulses incomprehensible to modern humans, some of the world’s largest carnivores fin out during the height of this particular season. Onshore, signs exclaiming " DANGER, NO SWIMMING ! ” are stuck into pink sugary sand to temporarily warn on-island workers and visitors not to enter the water.

July 26th, 1996. I’m busy ferrying some of the atoll’s resident US Fish & Wildlife officers across the lagoon to a deserted stretch of sand to count eggs. On board the 22’ Glacier Bay are also two of the very first eco-tourists. Since the jetty at our destination is dilapidated and stands in 4’ of water we’re on one of the 22’ Glacier Bay catamarans, overloaded and over-crowded, but hey – it’s only 200 yards across the lagoon and it’s flat calm.

It’s early morning, and the glassy calm ahead of the puttering boat is broken by a splash and a large disturbance of water. There’s white water in it, but immediately I notice the distinctive bulge of a huge turtle in the melee, and know that one of the island’s giant green turtles is there, probably mating with another. The water parts again, and the turtle bobs clear of the water like an up-turned dinghy. The beast must be at least six feet long, one of the largest I have ever seen. There are appreciative noises from the nature people and some oohs and aahs form the camera-clicking tourists. I slow the boat as we get closer so all aboard can see the creature at close range. The water seems strangely dark around the turtle.

Seconds later I become hideously aware that we have stumbled into the lion’s den. The turtle is not mating, but is in the process of being eaten alive before our eyes. A huge red stain is creeping outwards from the stricken animal, and as we all gasp, a fin over 4’ high broaches clean through the middle of the blood and surges towards the turtle. As the mottled brown and black shark comes into clear sight there is a scream from one of the tourists and I swallow hard. The beast is larger than the Glacier Bay, easily 5000lbs or more, and even as we all digest that fact, the shark closes in on the turtle, opens a massive maw of serrated teeth, clasps the 6’ long creature around the middle and drags it down into the blood and water. There is much thrashing and white water, and the turtle bobs to the surface alongside the boat, it’s face seemingly driven into a jaw-stopping rictus of agony as it breaks the water head-first. Then the head sinks down, the shell tips and we all see that the shark has bitten it clean in half, a great semi-circular bite destroying in a few seconds what a century’s worth of life has created.

The boat shudders in the aftermath of the attack, and as there is little to be done for the turtle but much to be done for white-faced humans, I put the engines into gear and we head to our destination. I am numbed by what we have seen, and one of the tourists, a young woman, starts crying. Even the hardened Fish and Wildlife officers seem stunned by the scene they have all witnessed, a scene far removed from the typical shark-meets-prey scenario typically encountered in Midway’s tranquil lagoon.

I encounter a tiger shark of equal size (maybe the same fish ?) some days later fishing at anchor outside the reef while onboard the same 22’ boat. When it appears on the scene, 400lb bronze whalers scatter from the chum line like delinquents being chased from a parking lot. My two Italian anglers offer completely different responses. The late Guiseppe Colnaghi excitedly asks if we can catch it, but his companion Elio, mindful of his teenage daughter being stranded on a desert island in the likely event of his demise, demands that we take the boat home. We do neither, but feed the creature berley for 10 minutes, simply awe-struck by the size and grace of the huge fish.

Another huge fish that lives long in the memory is a giant blue marlin from Madeira. It was the third marlin I hooked there, in the summer of 1990, aboard the single-screw ANGUILLA – a typical UK charter boat with a forward wheelhouse that I took to the middle of the Atlantic a year earlier to chase the island’s tunas and sharks. We knew there were marlin there, but had no idea of size, quantity or occurrence.


Fishing Madeira – Anguila and the crew prepare to release a very big blue in September 1993

September, 1990. Crewman Robert Larbalestier and I have over-nighted in the anchorage west of the Desertas Isles, some 20 miles SE of Madeira. On board we have a Mr Bob Culver as our charter, of some senior indeterminate age, but a good fella. The previous day’s fishing has been slow, with only a 60lb wahoo to our credit. We breakfast early, as I have spent the much of the night awake listing to the surf crashing on the rocky shore as my two companions snored happily below decks. At 7.30 am I have dived through 20 feet of murky water to free the snagged anchor, aware of the reputation the islands have for being the last bastion of the Mediterranean Monk seal and their possible seasonal predators with large teeth.

We wend our way home, and after mid-day we are up by the west edge of the top island, hugging the 800 foot mark. We’re running a mixed spread of two big 14/0 Senators loaded for bear, and some 80’s with smaller wahoo gear and a tuna offering on the riggers. I am below, frying wahoo for lunch on the small gas stove next to the two v-berth bunks, when Robert shouts there is a fish in the lures. Mr Culver is raising the remains of his wahoo sandwich to his mouth as I thunder past him, reach the door and then the deck, and then look astern into a calm sea broken only by the contoured regular wave pattern of ANGUILLA’s marvellous deep V induced wake. I recall some hours later that I had the foresight to turn out the flame on the stove as I ran for the fore-peak stairs……

There is a fish behind the long corner lure. It is a marlin, but no ordinary marlin. Even though we have only caught two other blue marlin since our arrival, we have already been obliterated by a dozen more that long halcyon summer, and some of those had been large enough to raise eyebrows. But this THING, this beast behind the Proteus Squat lure is simply huge. It lunges at the lure again.

What follows is from the log, which is a mix of annotated notes during the day, a dicta-phone recording, and the author’s memories when written up that night or the next.

Friday 8th Sept. 1.5 litres of oil. No water

8.32 west of Bugio, 1.25 miles off. 77.1 F water temp. Left rigger red/black Striker YAP, Short corner Murray Bros No 2, long corner Proteus Black Squat, right rigger green and orange YAP. Small skippie lure. 1975 revs, breeze more to the N. 77.0 F. birds everywhere. Big tuna boats way down south. Flat calm, sunny.

10.10, 78.3 F. 4.5 miles off. 77.7 F at 2.25 miles. Heading back south to the point. 10.30, strike right rigger, skippy of 4lbs. 11.20, 4.25 miles off, 78.4 F, turtles. Cloudy. 12.08, 3 miles off, 77.8 F. 78.6 F at 2.15pm, heading northwards to Mare de Maio.

1.46pm off top of Bugio, crossing gap. Weather overcast. 1.53 pm, fish up on long corner, hook-up 1.55pm, 78.6 F, 42 miles on log. Fish ran under boat. Fish alongside after 50 minutes, still no idea of true size. A couple of splashes and surges. 2.35 still no idea of size, double line in sight. 3 more jumps. 2.50, fish continuously going round stern… Double-line out of water again at 3.30. Breeze increasing from the north.

4.15, gaff straightened out. Leadered once or twice more. Chafed line under boat. at 4.25.

4.45, 2 more jumps, fish estimated “Very big”(not written verbatim!). Fish keeps ahead of boat, does she want us to run the line over ? 5.20, third time we avoid the fish running back up to her. Clever “Very big fish” (not written verbatim). Big white wound in shoulder.

6.20 still on fish. Had fish up alongside again but couldn’t reach over Rob’s shoulder with other gaff. 6.35 fish sounded. 6.45 line round rudder, rod out of chair, and gimbal snapped off.

6.55 four more jumps and fish lands on leader breaking it !!!!! 53 miles on log. Packed up by 7.15 and headed home.

8.30 16 miles off, 78.7 F. Course 330 into Funchal. (85 miles). 10.30 back in.

Those are the bare facts, which make sure we do not lie. What my log does not say is that the gaff we straighten is a 22” Lees, that the leader is commercial 600 kg longline, that the fish takes us over 11 miles, and also that when I gaff the fish I am halfway along a 33’ boat with a scupper dead amidships thru which the tag line is lying and that the fish’s eye is level with that scupper and its tail is way beyond the transom. We also do not know that we will be selling the Senators, buying bent-butts, and adjusting our strategies over the next few years as we become adept at catching the Madeiran monsters.

It also does not mention the angler’s tears, Robert’s incessant headaches and an empty bottle on a table at midnight.

Have you ever gaffed an 18’ long bill-fish with a girth like an Angus bull ? I have……… once.

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