Marlin Madness: masters of the deep

James Fuller trolls off the shores of Tobago for the catch of a lifetime – swordfish and marlins that can weight 1,000lb apiece

  • Alan Sheppard rigging up a ballyhoo (type of dead bait) “secret weapon”. Photograph by James Fuller
  • The Gud Tyme and Blue Fever relax after a long day on the ocean. Photograph by James Fuller
  • The 2008 winning team of Indigo with an 890lb blue marlin caught by 15-year-old Sean Mendonca – the fish broke the World Junior. Photograph courtesy Trinidad & Tobago game fish association

It’s 5am on a warm, overcast morning and I’m negotiating a wobbly exit from the pirogue which has taxied me out from Tobago’s Pigeon Point to the Gud Tyme. Lobbing my rucksack aboard the 42-foot game-fishing boat, I’m hauled over the side and greeted by a throng of expectant faces.

It’s the second day of the three-day Marlin Madness International Billfish Tournament hosted by the Trinidad & Tobago Game Fish Association (TTGFA) and, having drawn a blank on day one, the boys are eager to make amends.
Game fishing, and especially the pursuit of billfish, is a multi-billion-dollar global industry, and thousands of anglers visit the Caribbean each year in pursuit of the catch of a lifetime. The billfish grouping includes marlin, sailfish, swordfish and spearfish; the name comes from the elongated nasal bones or bills common to them (used in a swiping motion to stun prey). King of the bills is the blue marlin, and the same endurance and speed with which it travels the world’s oceans make it the ultimate fishing adversary. These apex predators are found throughout the region. But some of the best locations include the Bahamas, Bermuda, Grenada, Barbados, St Thomas, and Tobago.

Big blue marlin have become increasingly common in the waters off Tobago and during the 2008 competition, a junior world record fish of 890lb was taken by 15-year-old Sean Mendonca. Whilst that fish was special, there is widespread belief that even bigger fish, the so-called “granders” (fish in excess of 1,000lb), are present.

“Tobago is now very much on the map because of Sean’s fish,” says Chris Mouttet, TTGFA president and tournament chairman. “Whilst locations such as Grenada might have more fish, it’s really only St Thomas in the Caribbean that can now compete with Tobago for size.

“The ‘granders’ are definitely out there, we know that, and really it’s just a matter of time until one is caught. Therefore, for the lucky angler that lands the heaviest 1,000lb-plus fish in our competition, we are offering TT$1 million.”

It’s a spicy incentive and probably in the backs of many minds as the rising sun glints off the ocean surface and the clock ticks round to 6am, heralding “lines down” and the start of day two.

There are essentially two ways to fish: with plastic lures trolling at high speeds of around 8 – 8.5 knots, or with the addition of deadbaits, reducing that speed to seven knots.

Big-game fishing is often glamorously depicted, with footage of huge fish leaping high from the water, reels screaming as leviathans of the deep tear off on breathless runs, brutal tussles with straining anglers that can last hours. Of course that’s the goal, but to reach it, there is an awful lot of waiting.

We troll renowned spots along Tobago’s northern coastline, such as the Sisters Rocks, Charlotteville and Castara Bay. Circling seabirds, such as boobies and frigates, often indicate the presence of baitfish below, and where there are baitfish, predatory fish are never far away. Buoys, markers, rocks, anything to which life can cling is scouted.

Garishly skirted lures, some fished alone, some in combination with a fish deadbait, are dropped overboard to the ratcheting sound of 130-lb green and yellow monofilament lines being stripped from reels. In all, five lines are fished, with the assistance of outriggers stretching out like bamboo poles from the boat’s sides. These ensure that lines are set at varying distances and angles, both preventing snarling, and fishing as large an area as possible. To this elaborate system are added two multi-coloured and hookless “teasers”, whose popping, sploshing actions are designed to attract game fish.

“The whole thing – the engines, the baits, the teasers – represent the commotion of a baitball (a concentration of small fish on which birds and predatory fish feed). The idea is that they will see all this activity and come up and check it out.

“At the end of the day, though, a lot of it boils down to luck,” says Gud Tyme crew member John Collier.

The tournament was started by a group of local enthusiasts, and retains a family feel. Onboard the Gud Tyme is TTGFA treasurer Allan Sheppard, son of Stanley Sheppard, one of the tournament’s founders, after whom the trophy for the heaviest fish is named. Onshore, Allan’s mum Marylin is the Tournament Rules Committee chairwoman and still runs the logistical side of the competition.

“She loves fishing and takes part in all the other tournaments. If she wasn’t working today she would be out here,” says Allan. “She started off in a little shed on Pigeon Point beach 29 years ago and is still going strong.”

Tournaments like this, and the six others which make up the Southern Caribbean’s Billfish Circuit, are the familiar face of big-game fishing. However, it is the less visible long-line commercial fishermen who are devastating the global stocks of big-game fish. Regardless, game fishing associations and anglers are keenly aware of their own conservation obligations, and catch-and-release is becoming the preferred fishing method.

“I believe that the time is fast approaching when this tournament will be a 100 per cent billfish-release tournament,” says Mouttet.

Previously, all fish would be taken so they could be weighed accurately, but now anything under 500lb has to be released, with severe penalties for those who fail to comply. They use photographs, with points awarded for released billfish, and these are totted up over the three days to determine the overall winners.

Blue marlin migrate along the major ocean currents of the Atlantic, and their presence off Tobago is greatest between January and April, when the water is cooler.

“We believe the fish come up from South America, come round Tobago and then head off towards Venezuela, Aruba and along that coastline,” says 29-year-old Danny Agostini, whose biggest blue marlin is a 657-pounder, taken off St Lucia in 2007.

The largest recorded rod-and-reel capture is a 1,805-lb Pacific blue marlin caught in Oahu, Hawaii, but mystery still surrounds the species’ life and habits. Renowned for their long ocean journeys (one fish was recorded off Delaware, USA, and then again off Mauritius, a trip of 9,254 miles) they are found in all the world’s major oceans. They are sexually dimorphic – any fish over 350lb in weight is likely to be female – and it’s estimated to take around 30 years for a fish to reach 1,000lb.

Tobago’s beautiful tree-covered slopes are a constant backdrop as we chug a path along the coastline up towards its northeastern tip before heading eight miles out from the Sisters Rocks in search of fish. The sun pierces through the light cloud and flying fish skip across the surface as we pitch gently up and down on calm, dark seas. In the distance, a bottle-nosed dolphin leaps from the water, spins in mid-air and re-enters beak first, like a scene from a Florida theme park. But the scenery is not why we’re here.

By mid-afternoon the shrugs are getting deeper, yawns longer, and cigarettes drawn harder and longer. As the anglers get bored, the jokes get bawdier and spirits are kept high by, well, spirits. It’s in the midst of another fruity anecdote that a shout peals out from Captain Jonathon de la Rosa on the fly bridge.

“Something on the short one, yes.”

The banter stops. From a standing start, or more accurately a lethargic sitting start, men are at the rods in a flash, wide-eyed and fidgety, hands hovering expectantly over the US$500 rods and huge brass reels. But the fish has already gone. This often happens: a billfish comes in to investigate only to leave as quickly as it came. The incident gets pulses racing momentarily but the waiting game is soon resumed, accompanied now by increasingly outlandish fish-catching theories. Favourite lures are dug out and kissed for luck before being tossed into the wash, but, as the hours tick on, it’s becoming evident this is not the Gud Tyme’s day.

The announcement of “lines up” comes at 4pm and we turn back for Pigeon Point. Tomorrow is Lay Day, a rest day of music, partying and food, before Saturday’s final fishing day, and it seems Lay Day is at present the more eagerly anticipated.

Whilst I watch Tobago’s picturesque coastline speed by as we head for shore, I’m reminded of the old adage that there’s more to fishing than catching fish. I’m just not sure if it’s the right time to try telling that to the crew of the Gud Tyme.

An 825-lb blue marlin was taken by Jovan Jangoo and his team, Reel Finatic, on Saturday’s final day of fishing to win the Marlin Madness 2009 tournament.

The Marlin Madness International Billfish Tournament

The 29th year of this tournament was hosted by the Trinidad & Tobago Game Fish Association and sponsored by the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs, the Tobago House of Assembly, and Carib Breweries.

Crews entered from Martinique, Grenada, Barbados, and Trinidad & Tobago.

The 140 anglers on 29 boats vied for prizes of over US$40,000 and three main trophies: heaviest fish, most billfish released, and best junior angler.