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February 20, 2008

the Shadow of the Dragon

Fish the volcanoes of India's Andaman Islands for an unforgettable adventure

A Wahoo and Black Marlin Day
Night fishing while at anchor can be exciting, unpredictable and rewarding; some years, Coe has enjoyed tremendous after-dark dogtooth bites while casting Raider jigs. I particularly enjoyed rising just at first light while others slept, quietly taking some coffee from the galley out to the cockpit, and casting lures and strip baits on light tackle. The variety of species and sizes kept things lively. I lost some larger fish on the light gear, very likely dogtooth and wahoo, but caught a variety of smaller fish. Sherman joined me one morning and promptly hooked the largest green jobfish of the trip.
We didn't stay at anchor long as the sun climbed over the horizon. Pearce put lines in only a little farther from the island than our overnight anchorage, yet in very blue water. (Run out for a few minutes, and you're in a thousand feet of water or more.) We found wahoo en masse: After repeated double, triple and even quad hookups (nearly all of which we released), Sherman quipped that we could have literally covered the cockpit deck with 'hoos had we wanted to. I recalled Pearce mentioning earlier that he likes to fish teasers but often can't because wahoo chew them off too quickly: "Sometimes I've resorted to a line of Coke cans!" he said.
But we had in mind bigger things, and once we managed to move out farther from the island, beyond the wahoo, we began to keep a lookout for bills slashing in the spread. That was just what we saw a couple of hours later, when, about 20 miles from Narcondam, Kiat had begun to circle a seamount that rises to within 200 to 300 feet of the surface. The fish focused its attack on an orange Tsunami and, once hooked, peeled off the 130-pound hi-vis mono from the big International at an impressive rate. Eventually, Coe managed to turn the fish and finally bring it to boat-side for a release, also giving us our first good look at the black - it never jumped, even once - when Pearce and Ali tagged it. That provided a bit of history - the first Andaman Islands marlin to receive a tag from The Billfish Foundation. 
Pearce guessed it to be in the neighborhood of 700 pounds -- an impressive catch so early in the trip. Within a few hours, while trolling back toward the island, a second black, slightly smaller, nailed the same lure. Pearce and Ali also successfully tagged that one. The fish would not be our last marlin of the trip.
Pearce doesn't do a lot of live baiting, in part because he doesn't have to in order to catch fish and probably in part because sharks can be a major nuisance. Still, I had the sense that a group of enthusiastic bridle-riggers here might drop some live skipjack or small yellowfin deep on a slow troll and find monster marlin and yellowfin in the offing. Strictly trolling lures, Pearce has taken yellowfin to about 150 though the yellowfin we caught trolling around the island ran much smaller.
That night we found the snapper a bit more willing than the night before, bringing over the gunwales a couple of pretty substantial Lutjanus bohar or red bass as they're widely known in much of the Indo-Pacific. Darwin had decided to have a go at the sharks that come in the night, rigging a small tuna on a heavy wire trace on an 80-wide reel. Whatever grabbed that bait nearly pulled the lithe but light angler overboard at the same time. Eventually, the beast managed to cut the line on the bottom of the boat before anyone could get a look at it.
We gladly gave up the action for dinner and hurried into the salon when "Cookie" called. This short, rotund Thai woman, working alone in a tiny galley, managed to cook up, meal after meal, some of the very finest Thai dishes that I've eaten (and I've enjoyed many eateries in and around Bangkok).

Exploration: Just Beginning
It will be many years -- if ever -- before much of the Andaman Island group has really been fished, Pearce says: "We're only here a couple of months out of the year" - the generally reliably calm months of March and April. That's when Pearce brings the boat across from Thailand (as a glance at a map reveals, the Andamans sit much closer to that country than to India, which nevertheless retains ownership). Pearce says most trips are limited to the distance they can cover in a week or so out of Port Blair; he hopes someday to explore more distant areas on longer trips or with a larger mothership.
In fact, anglers making the long trip to fish the Andamans would do well if possible to plan for 10 days or so out of port, either to explore some of the more distant areas or to have the chance to fish both the southern and (where we fished) northern Andamans, as Coe did in 2006. 
But traveling anywhere among these unspoiled islands will provide an angler one of those increasingly rare opportunities to fish some of the most remote and pristine reefs and blue waters in the world. Be glad this trip truly isn't for everyone: For the few who make it, the payoff is unforgettable.