By Nick Smith
On July 7, 2013 the Old Reliable raised 103 blue marlin and scored 18 releases on the flyrod. In three days we raised 169 blue marlin and released 37, all on the fly.
The seed was planted for this adventure three years earlier when we saw a blog claiming an astonishing number of blue marlin encounters far off the Pacific Coast of Central America. The area was probably first discovered by someone pulling lures on the long run to Isla de Cocos and the impressive number of blue marlin was probably considered a fluke. But eventually other boats started to experience similar good fishing over the underwater seamounts in the same area and word started to leak out that something special was going on far beyond the established billfish grounds.
We’ve been chasing billfish on fly aboard the Old Reliable for over a dozen years and have been fortunate to have experienced some great fishing for all the pointy-nosed species, but one stands out from the rest: the blue marlin. These fish are just incredible with their blinding speed, amazing acceleration, brute strength and explosive aerial displays. To me, they represent the ultimate challenge on fly tackle. No other fish even comes close.
And so more and more we’ve oriented our time and efforts into pursuing blue marlin on the fly. But where to go? We needed a destination that could consistently provide enough raises to justify the serious commitment such a venture would entail. We wanted to chase this dream with our own boat and crew so realistically this scratched from the list the well-known but very remote areas like Cape Verde, Madeira and the Azores as well as the far western Pacific. Closer by, the bite has been very good on the smaller, flyrod-friendly blues in the Dominican Republic, so this spring we committed our efforts there for two trips in May. Though our results were decent, averaging one marlin release per day, a combination of my high expectations, the consistently rough water and a less than impressive number of marlin in the area caused us to re-evaluate the venue.
But those stories coming from the Pacific from a few years earlier never left my mind and by now our time in the Dominican Republic had only whetted my appetite for more. I called Capt. Chip Shafer and told him to get the Old Reliable ready to go–we had to give it a shot.
Our first trip to these distant grounds occurred in early June and the results were impressive. In three days we raised 41 blue marlin plus a handful of sailfish. On each of the first two days we released four blues, breaking the previous record of three that was set twice on the Stalker with Capt. George Sawley and his owners fishing out of St. Thomas. Capt. Chip and myself had done plenty of blue marlin fishing over the years but none in those special marlin places, so the 41 blues raised for this trip was pretty satisfying for us. Our luck was good too, not losing any fish to broken line-class tippets, the all-too-often result of battles with blue marlin on the fly. All in all we were very happy with our 10 releases out of 15 bites. I could sense though from the quality of this fishery that our new record wouldn’t last long. Ironically, I was talking with Sawley on the phone after that June trip, saying that it’s probably not going to be long before another boat with a good crew and anglers hit the area at an even higher peak in the marlin action. Little did I know what would happen next.
Our next opportunity came over the Fourth of July weekend, so Capt. Chip collected the crew for another three-day shot at the blue ones on the distant seamounts. Our hope was to experience fishing as good as our last trip but we also understood that it’s called fishing, so we were prepared to settle for less. Fortunately, the fish gods were with us and the first day exceeded our wildest dreams. We raised 25 blue marlin, 10 bit the fly and we released nine. Amazing! The fish were tough but manageable, running in size between 140 and 225 pounds. Great fly fish but as always a great challenge, especially with the extreme water depths where the fish had plenty of room to go not just out but down as well. We were lucky not to get into any overly long battles like we had done in June, where we had one fish that fought us for three hours and 40 minutes and carried us four and a half miles from where it was hooked.
At that point we had broken the one-day record and by more than I had expected: nine blues on the fly. Wow! By the second day the blues kept coming in but they also got tougher. On this day we raised 41, had 16 bites and caught 10. This was after breaking a couple of tippets on fish that were just too hot to handle, plus missing two bites and allowing a third to throw the hook. Surely 10 would be the magic number for blues on the fly and I was ecstatic. That night we tried to prepare ourselves for a letdown on the third day. The action couldn’t possibly hold up like this, could it?
Incredibly, it did. We raised more multiples than singles and only Chip’s ever-present pencil on the bridge was able to keep track of the numbers. The action was so hot that Chip and I exchanged concerns about how you explain such numbers to others without sounding ridiculous. Chip suggested that we were in The Twilight Zone and it was indeed surreal. As the raises surpassed 50 by 10 a.m. we had already released nine but a bad batch of class tippets cost us three more that I felt were catchable fish. Damn!
By noon, we were at 12 blue marlin releases and our raise count was approaching 70. But a strange change was in store for the afternoon bite: The marlin were getting bigger. And meaner. The fly-friendly fish we had been catching so far were being replaced by 300-pounders hell-bent on destroying my fly tackle. An angler can get pretty complacent when you’re having successes like this but the rest of the afternoon was very humbling. The numbers kept building with singles, doubles and triples in the spread but these fish had gone to school, apparently knowing that immediately upon hooking up, sounding straight down for 300 yards at a reel-scorching speed followed by a lightning-fast horizontal run of a few more hundred yards would be more than enough to break my IGFA 20-pound class tippets.
I think I broke off 10 fish that day, marlin that I was simply unable to handle, including five straight at one point in the afternoon. Somehow we managed to hang onto six more to bring our release total to 18 for the day. But even more incredible was the fact that we raised 103 blue marlin to our teasers. Impossible? I know it sounds like fishing fiction gone wild but Capt. Chip Shafer is probably the most conservative and honest captain I know. We’ve fished together for more than 30 years. You can book the 103 number. The actual number is probably more. We never count raises that occur within a minute or two of a fish leaving the spread, feeling that most of the time those are the same fish. Certainly some of these were fresh fish and there were also many times where we had multiple marlin in the spread where we counted them as two but were likely three or more.
Is this the most blue marlin that have ever been raised? I don’t know for certain but I’m sure that I will never see those kinds of numbers again. We feel amazingly lucky to have simply been there at the right time to experience such an incredible occurrence.
My crew of Capt. Chip Shafer and two full-time mates Greysel Moreno and Canejo Chaves Batres was augmented by Oscar Roldan Cabrera, who did an incredible job of scrambling to help wherever needed. Capt. Chip needs no introduction, as his success has always spoken for him. Greysel and Canejo however are the guys in the trenches that make a special difference when the action gets super hot. So I’d like to say congratulations to the Old Reliable captain and crew–you have my undying respect and admiration.
Nick Smith’s Billfish on Fly Totals
*As of 9/5/2013
Sailfish (Atlantic and Pacific): 2,859
Striped Marlin: 535
Blue Marlin (Atlantic and Pacific): 102
White Marlin: 4
Black Marlin: 3