8/10/99 to 8/16/99
John Vallon - El Mackerele
Madeira is on the same latitude as San Diego and Los Angeles, so they have a similar climate minus the smog. Funchal is the capital of Madeira and the marina, Funchal Harbor, is only a short walk from the center of town.
Fishing, or any other European endeavor, doesn't start until after 10:00AM. Also, the nightlife doesn't start before 10:00PM, which explains the late starting every morning. I can just imagine looking out of my bedroom window early in the morning at tuna jumping just a few 1000 feet from shore, with no boats out yet. This will take some getting used to.
8/11/99 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal
Our flight from Lisbon was delayed about an hour so we were late getting into Funchal. Clay Hensley, our friend and captain of Larry Beard's FREED'EM, had arranged for his cab driver, Rui, to pick us up at the airport. We loaded up the Mercedes with our luggage and headed to town to meet Clay and Willi Dixson (the aussie) his mate, where they would join us and take us to our apartment. We would be staying with Willi in his 3-bedroom 6th floor apartment, which was only a 15-minute walk to the marina, and a few blocks from Clay's house. When we arrived at the apartment, we quickly changed clothes and gathered up our gear and headed for the marina.
The boat was "warmed up with all the drags set", so we lost no time getting underway. It was a very windy day, and unusual to have such high winds this time of year Clay told us. Clay's girlfriend, Kimberlee Russell, had packed the lunches for the trip and was coming along to help out as she always does. Also at the boat was the deckhand named Ricardo, a native of Madeira. According to Clay, it is a requirement for a foreign charter boat to include on the payroll, at least one Portuguese resident. Ricardo had completed some schooling and was working on some kind of License.
It wasn't long before Clay pointed the FREED'EM, a 28 foot Express Sportfisherman manufactured by Henriques Yachts, towards the west as we left the harbor. We traveled about a mile from the marina before setting the lures out. Here we are I thought, just a bit more than 3 hours from landing at the airport and we're looking for a grander. 6000 miles from the West Coast of USA, and 50 hours without sleep, we're ready!
After the lures were deployed, Willi took some time to explain the fundamentals of using the chair and harness to me. This would be my first time in the chair, as I have always preferred to use stand-up gear on the smaller billfish that I find in Cabo. Willi explained that there is an important rhythm that needs to be maintained during the fight. "As you rise from the chair, you reel like hell, then using your weight, you simply fall back in the chair to raise the rod tip, then repeat this cycle". The harness is nothing more than a small bucket with a short back, which you sort of have your butt in. It all sounded so simple. Willi made one point abundantly clear: "Keep your line tight Mate! Never give the fish any slack. If you forget everything I told you about pumping the fish, fine, but remember this: don't let the fish have any slack". I knew all this, but it was reassuring to hear Willi reiterate this important point.
Our spread consisted of the standard left and right, long/short rigger, with a stinger down the middle, and finally a teaser on a flat line from the starboard corner. The riggers had the Penn 130's, with a 80-wide Tigara on the stinger loaded with 80# mono. The 130's had about 700 yards of dacron finished with a 130# mono topshot tied to 700# wind-on leaders. One thing that had me thinking was that all the drags were set to 35#'s - this was their strike position. Yuk. Hope they aren't thinking I'm going to pull a rod up with that much drag. I've only seen 24#'s of drag on the 80-wides we use in Cabo. Of course when the wind-on comes back on we crank the drag to "park", but to start off with 35#'s was a bit intimidating.
Shortly before 4:00 PM, Clay had bait marked, and soon we got a dorado hook up. Then another dorado hit just after boating the first. Finally, as we were bringing in the second dorado, another hit the spreader bar Lance brought with him, for the third in less than 5 minutes. All three dorado were in the 20-25 pound range. Catching dorado on 130 pound class gear is boring, but the fillets makes for great table fare.
It was about 5:30 PM now, and we had decided to troll back to the area where the first bait was marked. I was alone in the cockpit with Ricardo, watching the lures as I usually do. While talking to Ricardo, he casually said in a plain voice "marlin", while pointing to the right short corner lure. At first, I thought, yeah, a marlin coming up the spread. Not a big deal, as I had seen this so many times just a few weeks ago in Cabo. "Marlin" I yelled, as the fish effortlessly inhaled the Grand Master lure. This was a different site than with a small blues or stripers, which display a lot of gyrations as they attack. I had no trouble hearing the Penn sing the song of hook-up. The top-shot was almost gone by the time Willi and Lance got down from the tower, which couldn't have been more than a few seconds. The remaining rods were cleared in short order when Willi pulled the rod from the holder and handed it to me while I was waiting in the Chair. Clay yelled down "are you ready to take some line back John?" "Ready", I replied, and the diesels came to life as we backed down hard on the fleeing fish. I've never cranked so fast and so hard before, remembering what Willi told me about the slack line. Then I got terrified: the line was going slack yet I couldn't reel any faster. Just then I saw the belly of the line off the port corner with the fish making its first jump parallel to me. Clay guns the boat forward and the line goes tight again. Reeling like mad, the green top-shot comes back on, but not before I first feel the strength of the fish starting its run.
Soon the Pesca Grossa arrives, captained by Kevin Nakamaru, whom I had just met not more than three hours ago. Lance gets the OK from Kevin to go aboard the Pesca Grossa to video from there. Willi is beside me with Ricardo steering the chair. After a bit more coaching from Willi, I begin to get the hang of this chair and harness. Kimi gives me a vote of confidence: "you're doing a good job John". Soon the dacron starts coming back on at a more regular pace, then the top-shot. Willi sees the top-shot and readies the tag stick and puts on his gloves. It was 6:08 now, with only the short glimpse of the fish, we are thinking maybe 600 to 700 pounds, but I don't ask, as it's a cardinal sin. Lance is back aboard now and is getting some good footage as he squats down in the corner of the transom. Lance has asked Clay not to back down too aggressively because he didn't want the camera to get exposed to the salt-water spray. Besides, had the fish been leadered so soon, Willi would have had a real job in front of him, but not one that he couldn't handle, having leadered many such large hot fish in the past.
My mouth was beginning to get dry and my legs where starting to ache. Actually, I was aching all over. I asked for water, but they poured it on the reel instead. Now, with each cycle of up/down/reel, I could sense my legs starting to waver. Fine time to discover that one leg is weaker than the other. My rhythm was now being upset by the constant decline in my strength while the fish kept taking line, now almost uninhibited. More reassurances from the peanut gallery were appreciated, but the pain was getting to be too much. Pour some water on my legs I asked. To my astonishment, Willi casually grabs the drag lever and says we are going to 55#'s. Oh shit! I felt the increase immediately. I thought the fish would surely pull me over the transom. I'm leaning back on the fish so far that I can't even reach the reel handle anymore. "You can do it John", I hear, but so oblivious to the outside world that I don't even know who said it.
Line is still going out faster than I can get it in. Willi says we'll loose the fish if we don't go up on the drag. Before I could reply with my whining and whimpering, the drag was on the 65# mark. Now this is getting to be way too much. I feel the fish is beating me. Dam, the fish is beating me! Still the line is going out. "Only about 200 yards left", Willi yells at Clay. Willi has the grim duty to tell me its park it time, then moves the drag lever as far as it would go (to the "park" position). "Gota have at least 85#'s of drag now", he says. "Damn man, I've got to sit down, I'm nothing but a rubber band". Thing is, you can't sit down. Willi got underneath the rod while sitting on the transom, rested the rod on his shoulder, then I could sit down and take the weight off my body for a minute or two. That immediately disqualified the fish from consideration under IGFA rules. The rest was welcomed, but getting back up proved to be impossible. More whining lead to Lance actually helping me turn the reel handle as Willi lifted the rod in the air. A few cranks at most and maybe two feet of line. Back to the rest position already.
Willi is now holding the spool with his thumbs to prevent anymore line from going out. Essentially, the only drag now was the stretch built into the Dacron and the monofilament leader. This is no drag at all. We repeated this scenario a few times then I announced "I've had it! Get me out of this harness. There is no way that I'm going to last another 5 more minutes, much less, another hour or two", I said. I think Willi knew I was hurting bad, and agreed that we needed some fresh muscle. He said OK, loosened the drag down to 30#'s and let me up. It was almost 7:00 PM now.
Lance quickly changed places with me. We lost about 200 yards of line during the transition. I think they wanted me to stay in that chair until I passed out. It is said by many that if you get up on a fish like this you will never forget it. I can live with that, but being called a wimp for doing it will be what's really tough to live with. It wasn't long before Lance would feel the pain too. He started out pumping like a greased machine. Muscles bulging, smooth motions, line coming back on like there was no fish there, but still with nearly 100#'s of drag. An hour has gone by, and Lance is beginning to show the distinctive shaky legs.
Lance went through the same scenario with Willi that I did. Then the fish suddenly began to plane up. Within a short 15 minutes the fish appeared on the surface tail wrapped, roughly 3 hours after the initial bite. Lance thinks the fish is at least 800#'s. Clay and Willi tie off the fish then Lance opens the transom door to try and guide the fish in. Within moments it becomes clear that this fish isn't going to fit in the doorway. I'm back in the tower running the video and having trouble getting the fish in the viewfinder! It was enormous.
The cockpit is now flooded with water from trying to get the fish in, and we are listing to the port side. The fish is now stuck in the doorway and we're getting a little nervous about the bilge filling up with water from the open transom door, which is now below the water line. It is decided to tie the fish along the port side and head in dead slow. The next problem was getting the fishes mouth shut. This proved to be impossible, because every time Willi tried to get close to the fish, we would take water over the port rail from all the weight. Clay made a couple of calls on the VHF to get a truck with a boom and tackle lined up, and a set of digital scales.
There is no real weigh-in station at Madeira, so we took the fish to the commercial dock, after taking a few videos of the boat coming in. By now it was nearly 9:30 PM. We used the boat cockpit lights and a spare spotlight to shine light on the fish while it was being hoisted out. I spotted an area on the dock, which had a garage like structure that had a high ceiling and was equipped with halogen lights suspended from the ceiling. We moved the truck with the fish still on the boom into this room, and set up the scales. It took a few tries to get the fish properly connected to the rope and scale sensor. By now there were about 25 to 30 people standing around looking at the monster fish with flash bulbs going off all around me.
The truck operator raised the boom and we all watched and waited for the fish to swing freely so that the digital display could tell us the weight of the fish. The truck operator yelled out "500 kilos", as a guess by looking at how his truck was leaning over to one side. I hoped he was right. We were now thinking 1000 maybe 1100 pounds. I brought the video in close to catch the readout as it climbed through the numbers. It passed 1000 and never went back, settling at 1004. We changed the scale to kilos, perhaps because we didn't believe what we were seeing. 455.5 kilos the scale read. Suddenly it was like midnight, New Year's eve.
A chat with Captain Clay Hensley, after returning from our trip.
After fishing aboard Clay Hensley's "Freed'Em", I took some time to ask Clay about the rise and fall of the marlin fishery in Madeira and what he thinks the future prospects for the fishery might be. Also, since this was my first exposure to fishing abroad, I was interested in how his girl friend fit in on the charters. On our trip, she had taken care of all our lunches, making them herself, and serving them up with a great smile. In previous e-mails with Clay, he had told me that they are working together on setting a new woman's record on big eye tuna, which roam the area in the summer months.
"Clay, does Kimmi go out with you on all of your charters?"
"Kimmi fishes with us all of the time. She is more of a second mate. She helps in the galley, but also helps with tackle, tagging fish, gaffing fish, and taking pictures etc. "
"That sounds great. I'm sure your clients would always welcome such a talented young girl on their trip too. She supplied a lot of moral support to me while I was struggling with my fish. And her pasta salad was the best."
"Clay, I did quite a bit of research about the marlin fishing in Madeira before I left. I must admit, that what I read was not too encouraging. In short, most of what I read indicated that the fishery was very young, but reached a peak several years' back. Can you tell us a little about its history, and where you think its going?"
"The fishery here was actually discovered by a local doctor, Dr. Antonio Ribero, 30 years ago. He built a local boat named the "Espatim Azul" which means Blue Marlin in Portuguese. His two sons, Roberto and Antonio Jose Ribero still fish that boat every day. They kept the place a secret until about 15 years ago when a man by the name of Phil Williams from Kenya tried to set up an operation here. He had fabulous fishing but ran into too much red tape so he pulled out. About 10 years later, he gave his data to Roddy Hayes, of England, who came over in 1991. Roddy was persistent enough, and with the formation of the EU, was able to set up a charter operation. He did not know anything about marlin fishing, but the fish were plentiful and big and he stumbled his way through it and became quite competent. He submitted a report to marlin Magazine in 1992 or 1993 about catching four blues over a thousand pounds. Most people were skeptical but a few came over to inspect his rumors. In 1994 Stewart Campbell's "Chunda" and the "French Look" showed up. They experienced fabulous fishing with the "French Look" weighing in five fish over a thousand pounds and releasing seven others that big. The next year Melton International's "Pesca Grossa" arrived as well as several traveling American boats. The somewhat detailed records began in 1991 with Roddy Hays. Fishing was fantastic from 1991 to 1996. 1997 was the El Nino year, and it seemed to effect fishing worldwide. Weather that effected fishing here we will never know. Some of the locals speak of slow fishing in the past, but I do not think that enough effort went into marlin fishing to show correctly. 1997, 1998, and 1999 have been extremely slow. I fished here in 1996. In 33 days I went 26 for 54 on blue marlin with the average fish around 650 pounds. In 1997 we fished 54 days and went 5 for 12, catching three granders and one of those around 1200 pounds. 1998 we fished 45 days and only had one bite. This year we have fished 42 days. We are 2 for 3, catching two granders and missing one considerably bigger than the first two. Hopefully the trend is swinging back to better fishing. In 1997 the mackerel began to disappear. In 1998 there was none, and in 1999 they are beginning to show back in large quantities. I think this is the key to fishing here. There is no reef structure to hold fish, so if there is no bait, there is no reason for the fish to hang around. Still in the three worst years of fishing on record, we have caught 5 Blue Marlin over 1000 pounds and missed a couple of possible all tackle world records. In the last four years that I have fished here, I have averaged catching a 1000-pound marlin every 20 days of fishing. Not bad for what everyone has called "Shitty Fishing". And on top of the blues, we also catch world class bigeye tuna and record spearfish, as well as whites, dorado, wahoo."
"Wow. That was quite a story. It's clear that you are well versed on the fishing in Madeira and its history. I think that if I had known all this before, the grander would have meant a lot more to me at the time. I'm just glad that my luck had some effect on your catch data. Can you tell us how the fishing has been this year and since I returned to Seattle?"
"Sure. We had a shot at a monster fish yesterday. It exploded on the long rigger and bit through the 650-pound leader three seconds into the fight. I have never seen anything like that before. There have actually been about 15 blue marlin caught by the fleet so far this year and probably another 35 to 40 seen. The "Pesca Grossa" had a shot at a fish three days ago that was estimated at 1200+ pounds and our fish yesterday was one of the biggest I have ever seen."
"While fishing, I noticed that you rig your lures with single hooks as opposed to using double hooks that we see so often in Cabo. What's the purpose of that?"
"We use single hooks, because we have improved our hook up ratio with our new system. We are fising heavy strike drags with stiff single hooks way back in the skirt. We also use mainly slant headed lures. This is due to the extremely calm sea conditions as well as the fact that we stiff rig our lures with the hook up and heavy drag, we get mainly inside-out hookups. It also makes life much easier and safer to remove the hooks. If we have to leave the hooks in, it is also much easier on the fish."
"Clay, I want to take this time to thank you, your crew, and especially Larry Beard, for a most memorable trip, and also for the time you took for this very infromative chat about Madeira's fishing history. I can't say enough about how well Larry's boat is rigged and maintained. Fishing with Willi Dixson (the aussie) as a Mate was also a highlight of the trip. You all certainly take fishing very seriously, and as a result, have done very well. I wish you all the luck in the future, and look forward to coming back next year."
Last fooled with 03/27/04