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October 25, 2001

Granders in the Garden

Nowhere does such single-mindedness of purpose, such focus on accomplishing big-fish goals, exist as on the island of Faial.


Catching a blue marlin of any size often represents the crowning achieve'ent in an angler's career, but the pursuit of-truly huge fish - specimens of 1,000 p-unds and larger - becomes an obsession that rules the lives of those souls suffering from elusions of grander. Nowhere does such single-mindedness of purpose, such focus on accomplishing big-fish goals, exist as on the island of Faial.

Visit the small town of Horta ("garden" in Portuguese, official language of the Azores) during the July-through-September marlin season, and you'll understand. Martin Bates, mate aboard the Shanghai, says, "At this point in my life, I'm only concerned about big blue marlin. That's why I'm here. "Those words - coming from a New Zealander who's worked his own country's fertile waters as well as those off Australia, Hawaii and Ghana - sum up the philosophy of the island's small but fervent sport-fishing community.

Whenever anglers get to talking in Horta, the weighty term "grander" is frequently and casually tossed about, but never taken lightly. For example, at a backyard barbecue hosted by Capt. Jo Franck, several skippers and deckhands ended up discussing the difference in how a 1,000-pound blue fights as compared to fish of more than 1,300 pounds. And these guys weren't just blowing smoke; each spoke of hard lessons learned from monstrous fish, many of which had been hooked practically within sight of where we stood.

HEAVY ARTILLERY

Charter boats in the Florida Keys typically resemble floating tackle shops because crews must carry a wide array of gear appropriate for species ranging from yellowtail snapper to slammer dolphin to marlin. On the other side of the Atlantic and at the opposite end of the game-fish spectrum, Franck's boats, Shanghai and Double Header, enbody their owner's no-nonsense dedication to catching monster marlin exclusively.

Each vessel's arsenal consists of four 130-pound, bent-butt outfits standing ready in the cockpit and two spare 130s in the salon. A diligent inspection may uncover one or two 30-pound outfits, used only to catch the occasional skipjack for live bait.

Years of working waters that yield blue marlin aver-ging 700 pounds - not to mention the constant prospect of an ICBM (Incredibly Colos-al Blue Marlin) - have affected Franck's choice of equipment. To him, "light tackle" means 80-pound gear. "This place merits heavy tackle," he says. "I'd use 200-pound main line if I could."

London big-game fishing enthusiast John Sadler has chartered Franck for the past 10 seasons. In that time, he's weighed a 974-pound blue and released one estimated grander as well as more 700- to 800-pounders than he can remember. "Unlike other destinations, choices here are fairly limitet," Sadler says. "You don't see many wahoo or dorado off Horta. It's usually large blue marlin or nothin'."

Or maybe it's just that other species mean nothing to big-fish fanatic in the Azores. "We've got bigeye tuna over 200 pounds and plenty of white marlin here," says Greg Keck, mate on the Double Header. "They crash lures we pull for blues, so we don't have to take ourselves out of the blue-marlin pattern to catch tuna."


Elephants eat peanuts, but it takes bug guns to bring 'em down: at left, Shanghai mate Martin Bates readies a spread of 130s for a day off Horta.
(Photo by Andy Hahn)

CONTINENTAL APPEAL

Last September I joined Jim Chambers of Maryland and Capt. Skip Nielsen of Islamorada for a week in Horta. The visit taught me that the "blue-marlin pattern" Keck mentioned refers to much more than a spread of lures: It's a way of life.

Franck began his charter business in South Africa, where he was born and raised, then worked throughout the Indian Ocean and Caribbean before bringing Shanghai to the Azores 10 years ago. Why did he stay? "Big fish," he says. "I'm in Indo-Pacific kind of guy. I don't really like the Atlantic Ocean, but I can't leave it because the marlin here are so big."

The Azores, a nine-island archipelago of volcanic origin, lie about 900 miles west of Portugal. São Miguel Island hosts the bustling capital city of Ponta Delgada, but the residents of Horta take life at a calmer, small-town pace. Narrow streets climb steep, terraced hillsides, imparting an old-Europe feel enhanced by hedgerows guarding small plots of land overlooking the sea.

The green countryside ends abruptly where dark-gray cliffs drop into the sea, leaving little doubt as to what lies below. "Nine islands surrounded by extensive banks," says Franck in his characteristic style. "It's a holding ground for marlin. Fantastic."

Basing operations on the island of Faial proved a logical choice, where the marina in Horta serves as a perfect gateway to grander-land. "Faial is centered among the best fishing spots," Franck says. "We've got drop-offs all around the islands and three very productive banks close by: Condor, Princess Alice and Azores. Those banks have given us so many fish. In 1994, I released three granders in one day on Condor."

Due to the proximity of productive waters, boats typically leave the Horta marina at the gentlemanly hour of 9 a.m. and return by 6 or 7. Chambers, Nielsen and I spent the first day aboard Shanghai with Bates working the cockpit and Capt. Andy Lyon, also of New Zealand, at the helm. Sadler and two other Londoners fished with Franck on Double Header.

Staying within sight of each other, both boats trolled the northern face of Faial, where expansive flocks of birds betrayed shoals of baitfish below choppy seas between two and three miles offshore. Bates explained that recently, bait seemed to concentrate close to the islands rather than stacking up around the banks, thus saving us the 18-mile run to C'ndor bank.

Contrary to what you'd expect, crews here find relatively small, 12-inch lures most effective for behemoth Azorean marlin. "It's a matter of matching the hatch," says Keck. "Most of the baitfish are pretty small." Color preferences lean toward the dark side, with favored patterns including blue/black and purple/black.

At midmorning, Lyon hailed Double Header to see how they were doing, then relayed this report from the flybridge: "they've seen two whites but haven't raised any fish yet." These guys remain so intent on catching blue marlin that they don't even recognize white marlin as fish! Not long afterward, when one of these neon-finned marauders appeared in our spread of lures, Lyon advised us, "Vermin, right rigger."

Our only excitement for the day came during a brief knockdown, drag-out episode when an unseen blue popped a rigger clip and pulled out 200 yards of line before slipping the hook. Sadler fared better, releasing a 700-pound blue.

NO RESPECT

The next day brought more of the same: We went fish-less while Sadler released another 700 pounder. Shanghai also missed hooking a bruiser on a very dramatic strike. "She came out of the water and hit the right rigger bait on her way down, then took a long run and dropped the lure," says a still visibly impressed Keck, telling the story back at the dock. "It was one of the largest fish I've ever seen." (Keck has wired several granders, including an estimated 1,200-pounder a few weeks prior to my visit.)

Trying a change of venue, we ran about one hour to put in lines off São Jorge Island on our third morning. A couple whites checked out the spread before Lyon and Bates decided to switch tactics. Despite their efforts in catching and bridling a 6-pound skipjack, no blues took the live bait.

Once again, Double Header released a marlin in the 700-pound class and had another big mama stir things up. According to Franck, he backed off the throttles when a white marlin hooked itself on the right rigger lure. Before Keck could clear the lines, a 900-pound blue roared across the spread and tangled the right flat line in its mouth on the way over to swat the left flat-line lure. "That damn fish blew in and made a mess of everything, then swam away. A typical woman!" jokes Franck. "Showed no regard for all our careful planning and effort. Just wreaked havoc and fled."

Hearing such stories helps one understand why skippers in the Azores hate to "waste time" on low-wattage white lightning, knowing that at any moment a half-ton of blue thunder could rumble into the spread. Fishing here leaves crews with a distorted mindset because the curve skews so sharply toward oversized blues. That fact became clear as I sat on the Double Header flybridge with Franck on my last day in Horta.

A dorsal fin resembling a big blue windsurfer's sail zigzagged up to one of the lures, then disappeared in a splash as the rigger clip snapped open. After 15 minutes of hard cran-ing, Sadler brought the fish - which until then had refused to show itself - close to the transom. Franck looked down and said, almost with disappointment, "It's a small one. About 750."

FEAST OR FAMINE

While the average size of local blues attracts plenty of attention, these fish at times make themselves conspicuous by their absence. Fishing has been slow the past three years in comparison to catch records from the early and mid- '90s. Accustomed to releasing 80 to 100 marlin in a typical 90-day season, Franck saw his totals drop to below 20 fish per season. Though lacking in numbers, the fish still run large. "The Azores are one of the few places in the world where you staid very good chance of catching a 1,000-pound blue marlin," affirms Keck. "It's slowed down recently, but the fish we've caught have been slobs, really big fish. If you spend a week here and put your time in, you'll get a crack at a quality marlin."

The abundance or lack of highly migratory species such as blue marlin depends on a combination of variables ranging from currents and baitfish availability to commercial overfishing. No single factor determines whether or not marlin will appear in any given area, but Franck has detected a pattern that usually indicates a banner year in the Azores. "Our success is linked to warm currents flowing up from the south-est. Satellite images show that in our best se-sons, the temperature break - the boundary between warmer and cooler water - occurred close to the islands," Franck explains. "This year [2000] the warm water never made it up this far, and the past two years it went much farther north. Unfortunately, we have no way to predict where the temperature break will occur prior to each season."

Franck begins chartering on July 1 of each year and keeps at it until marlin vacate the area, usually in early October. The 2000 season got off to a dreadfully slow start. American angler David Lauzen fished for more than 30 days before finally scoring big - very big - on August 5. Using 80-pound stand-up gear, he fought a beast for 90 minutes. Everyone aboard Double Header got a good look at the blue as Keck took wraps on the leader, but the marlin swam off when the mono chafed through. Franck's conservative estimate put the fish at 1,100-plus pounds.

That blue marked the herd's late arrival. Lauzen caught a 990-pounder soon afterward, and Franck's boats began releasing several marlin ranging from 600 to more than 800 pounds per week from then on.

DIFFERENT SHADE OF BLUE

Anglers intent on tussling with behemoth blues in the Azores may end up with something weighing four figures other than marlin on the line: Giant bluefin tuna make sporadic, unpredictable appearances in these waters on feed-finding missins. During the summers of '96 and '97, they became impossible to overlook. "There were so many tuna, you couldn't ignore them," says Franck. "It was a blatant rape of Azorean waters by hordes of ravenous bluefin."

Bluefin as well as many other forms of marine life took advantage of a sardin surplus. "We saw baleen whales, porpoises and even yellowfin, which we don't often find here, mixed in with bluefin and bigeye. It was a huge feeding frenzy. The bank looked like an oil spill every day," Franck says.

The first giant took Franck by surprise by grabbing a lure intended for marlin. "We landed it after a two-and-a-half-hour fight on 80-pound tackle. That bluefin died on the line and weighed 1,002 pounds," he says. "Then we switched to 130s and began releasing giants in 15 minutes."

Chunking proved unnecessary to catch the big, blue eating machines; Franck simply stuck to his marlin-trolling pattern and hooked bluefin until his anglers cried for mercy. "Three novice anglers on a charter released three giants in the morning, then a 700-pound marlin, then another three bluefin in the afternoon," recalls Franck, who estimated the smallest tuna at 600 pounds and the largest at more than 1,000. "Those fish dished out some serious abuse for the anglers. They had no will to carry on after that, and never booked another charter with me."

The bluefin blitzkrieg continued for several weeks. "Giants began attacking with military precision, splitting into groups that worked up each side of an island. Near the end of the run, I saw two bluefin swimming frantically after half a dozen sardines," Franck says. "When the bait was gone, they left."

Unfortunately, I too had to leave the Azores. Upon returning home, I received an e-mail from Franck's wife, Greet Wouters. She said that at about the time I was boarding my plane at the Horta airport, Sadler had hooked an estimated 1,400-pound marlin. Keck managed to grab the leader twice during the three-hour fight, but couldn't budge the fish. Then the hook straightened, and an incredulous angler and crew watched their worthy adversary recede into the depths.

At one point while I stood on the Double Header bridge, watching the lures and enjoying Franck's stories of growing u" in Africa and fishing around t"e world, he looked me in the eye and said, "Never waste a day of your life. You can bet he's not wasting his days in Horta, hunting for the huge marlin he calls Red October."