Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Marlin fishing in Madeira

The possibility of landing a monster over 1,000lb lures Sebastian Hope to the deep, menacing waters off this Atlantic isle.

October 06 2009
Sebastian Hope

Madeira is not a place one associates with fishing – old trout maybe, but blue marlin? Yet every year between May and October these most sought-after saltwater game fish follow the cruise ships into the waters around Funchal. And they are almost as big.

“It’s not a numbers fishery,” Jonathan Fletcher, director of Palheiro Estate, told me over the phone. “You won’t catch lots of fish in the 200lb to 300lb range, as you can in some parts of the Caribbean, but if you catch a marlin in Madeira, the average weight is about 700lb.” Say that again? “Our boat, the Balancal, took a fish of 650lb last week, and they had two over 1,200lb last season. If you want to try for a ‘grander’, this is the place to do it. Our motto is ‘monsters or bust’.”

A “grander” is a fish over 1,000lb. The biggest fish I’ve ever caught, a sailfish, weighed in at under 100lb. I am a little scared.

Blue marlin are mysterious creatures, wanderers of the open ocean, and the big ones are all females. Although they have been fished by locals since the 1970s, the international fishing community only discovered their presence in Madeiran waters in the early 1990s – and the years 1992-1996 proved golden. Fish caught on Madeira took the Blue Marlin World Cup three years in a row, but this was followed by a lean period, and it was only in 2006 that the fishery began to approach former levels. 2008 was a good season. 2009 had started well.

Friday 1600 I look around the departure lounge at Gatwick to see if anyone else is nervous, but trepidation is not an emotion that visiting Madeira commonly engenders. As we descend I have a view along the cliffs of the north coast. The Atlantic has never looked so blue, so promising, so full of menace.

Friday 2100 I arrive at The Vine, a new Design Hotel in the heart of old Funchal where I’ll be staying. It breaks the Madeira mould in so many ways, being joyously modern and minimalist. My corner suite has a view over red-tiled roofs to the port and up past churches and forts to the peaks behind the town. The roof terrace has a deck, a pool, a crazy oblong Jacuzzi and an Antoine Westermann restaurant, Uva, where I eat lobster and pork and watermelon gazpacho.

Saturday 0900 Jonathan is having breakfast at a café by the marina, PowerBook at hand. He’s got a DVD of the highlights of the ’93-’94 seasons, and he wants to show me what’s in store – maybe. My instruction continues on the boat. Nick Bayntun, photographer, graphic designer, chef, is going to be my “wire man”, the guy who does all the fishing, except when there’s a fish on. He takes me through the drill for that eventuality. Move to the chair, rod-butt in gimbal, feet on stretcherboard, clip in reel to back-strap, and hang on. “You push your weight back against the strap and reel as you come forward. Find a smooth rhythm. You’ll probably only manage one or two turns for each pump. Don’t worry about the drag lever – for now.” The reel is massive, like a spool of 100 CDs. The line looks like strimmer cord.

Saturday 1000 Captain Aníbal Frenandes, a small, wiry man who has been fishing since the age of 14, casts off and we motor out of the marina. Almost immediately, Nick lets the lures fly. Madeira is the summit of a volcanic peak, and within a very short distance from the shore the sea bed falls away to the abyssal plain thousands of feet below. Nick makes the lures himself, casting the resin heads and trimming them with flashy skirts. We have a spread of four out behind the boat, short and long left and right, and down the middle a smaller lure on light tackle that often attracts dolphin fish (dorado), spearfish or tuna. I watch the lures dig and skate, waiting for a bill to emerge from the water and slash at them. It’s mesmeric.

Saturday 1130 We are trolling at about seven knots in a pattern that takes us along the coast a stretch, then out to sea and back again, along the coast and so on. The remnants of yesterday’s bad weather are hanging over the island, obscuring the peaks in dark clouds. Occasionally a shower sweeps down the steep green slopes, dotted with houses, and reaches us out at sea. The rain has filled the ribeiras, the ravines so typical of Madeira, and waterfalls pour over the sea cliffs. There is a distinct line between the green surface runoff and the blue water.

We are approaching the tallest of the cliffs, Cabo Girão, and Nick is on the alert. So are the sea birds. “It’s a good spot, this. We call it Marlin Alley. It’s where the waters that stream around the island meet. The bait fish gather here, and then so do the predators. We often pick up a dolphin on the light rod.” Normally the weather comes from the north-east in this season and the seas along the southern coast are calm, but today there is a queasy swell rolling from the west, which makes it hard to move when the reel of the light rod starts to sing. I grab the rod and wind, expecting a dorado to fight back, but something is not right. As I pump the rod, one of the birds following the boat is pulled down into the water. Its wing has become entangled in the line. I land, and release, a shearwater.

Saturday 1400 I don’t have the stomach for lunch. I climb up to the flying bridge for some air and a chat with Aníbal. He’s had word that one of the other boats has had a bite on the seam between the green and the blue water, but a bite is not a hook-up is not a landed fish. We stay further out, where the birds are sitting on the water. We scan the sea for any sign of diving birds, or nervous water, or jumping baitfish. Nothing. Whales and dolphins are often seen around the island. I fix on the trail of bubbles the lures leave in the water and rehearse in my mind how I’d get down the ladder and to the chair.

Saturday 1600 Still rehearsing. We have turned for home and wallow in the following swell. The time to catch a fish is now. Or maybe inattention is the answer, a reverie that drifts on unbroken until we come to the end of the day’s opportunities. Of the six boats that have been out, not one has caught a marlin.

Saturday 2000 The ground is still moving a little when I arrive at the Cliff Bay Hotel. I feel tired after a day on the edge of my seat, but a glass of poncha, the local rum-based tipple, restores me for dinner in Il Gallo d’Oro, Madeira’s newly Michelin-starred restaurant. The prawn and pesto minestrone is covered with a puff pastry crust; the poached pear is accompanied by a glass of Bual, rich and raisiny.

Sunday 0900 I have one more chance to catch a marlin, one more morning out on the water, one more run along Marlin Alley. I look at the fighting chair and visualise what I have to do to get into position to take on a monster. The weather has not improved but the water looks good, says Nick, and all our senses sharpen as we approach the choppy water below Cabo Girão. The birds are waiting too, and several swoop in to inspect our lures. One shearwater drops down and tangles its wing in the middle line. It is all we catch, and I can’t deny I’m disappointed.

Sunday 1230 Back at the dock, we’re joined for a couple of beers by Olly and Ian. Olly has been bitten by the big-game bug, but he had a tough initiation. It wasn’t until his 13th sortie that he caught his first marlin; it weighed over 1,100lb. Ian will be going out on the Balancal tomorrow for his first try. Jonathan takes me for a commiserative lunch at the Café do Museu, in the main square in Funchal, and tells me of the day he caught three huge blues, with a combined weight approaching 2,500lb: “It goes like that. They seem to come in waves.” I had a Madeiran speciality, tongue stew. I didn’t want anything more to do with fish or waves.

Sunday 1830 At the stopover in Lisbon on the way back, I have plenty of time to ask myself if I had unreasonable expectations of my day-and-a-half fishing. But what was reasonable? Nick had said that he expected two to three bites every day he went out, at least one of which should result in a hook-up, and then with some luck for the angler and the skill of the crew, a hooked fish would become a fish brought alongside, measured and released. I had just been unlucky, he said. Among all the boats fishing over those two days, there had only been one bite.

My doubts extend into Monday, but that evening there’s a message waiting on my answering machine. It’s Jonathan. His tone sounds both excited and apologetic. Ian has caught a marlin, probably the biggest taken so far this season. Over 1,000lb. The tape measure wasn’t long enough to get its exact length… With monsters like that in the water, all I can do is bear my disappointment stoically. But imagine what this Madeiran angler is feeling: two weeks after my visit, on July 4, the Blue Marlin World Cup takes place at multiple locations and time zones from Fiji west to Hawaii. (I follow it avidly on Twitter.) It seems that no qualifying fish, over 500lb, has been caught this side of the date line. As dusk sweeps across the western Pacific, news comes in of a 595lb fish taken off Madeira. It is the leader for six hours, until a 17-year-old angler in Bermuda lands a blue of 865lb. First prize this year is over $340,000. Second prize is – nothing.