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October 25, 2001

Cape Cold, Hot Blues

Like a promising young athlete poised on the edge of greatness, Brazil's blue marlin fishery keeps maturing while showing flashes of world-class caliber.

Like a promising young athlete poised on the edge of greatness, Brazil's blue marlin fishery keeps maturing while showing flashes of world-class caliber. The names of several locations along the country's extensive coastline already ring familiar in the avid angler's ear. A 1,402-pound blue taken off Vitória in 1992 stands as the all-tackle record, and consistent, high-volume marlin fishing along the Royal Charlotte Bank led Artmarina's Tim Choate to establish a charter operation in Canavieiras in 1997.
Another name has popped up occasionally in recent years, attracting considerable attention in fishing circles because the word "grander" usually appears along with it: Cabo Frio, a fishing-village-turned-vacation-town in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
The name Cabo Frio, which translates as "Cape Cold," comes from the area's chilly winds and cool inshore waters. Dr. Alberto Amorim, director of research at the Instituto de Pesca in Santos, São Paulo, credits the region's productive fishing to a phenomenon known as resurgence. "Bottom topography and prevailing winds off Cabo Frio force deep, cold-water currents to the surface," he says. "The cold water contains phosphates, nitrates and other substances that promote algae blooms when warmed by the sun. Zooplankton feeds on algae, and the entire food chain takes off from there."
Pockets of cool, nutrient-rich water surrounded by warm tropical currents fuel a veritable baitfish factory. In turn, the steady supply of small fish and squid generates an abundance of dorado and tuna. Marlin never stray far from the all-you-can-eat buffet served in the area. Examining stomach contents of tournament-caught fish shows that local blues feed heavily on frigate mackerel.
Hints of a brilliant future glimmered as far back as December of 1955, when pioneering angler Raimundo Castro Maya ventured several miles off Cabo Frio to experiment with trolling techniques he'd learned the previous year in Peru. Maya's efforts resulted in a 117-pound white marlin and two sailfish - Brazil's first sport-caught billfish. In ensuing years, the Iate Clube do Rio de Janeiro (located in the city of Rio, 60 miles west of Cabo Frio) became the epicenter of Brazilian billfishing. Club tournaments there focused on the region's abundant sailfish, providing little incentive for anglers to specifically target blue marlin.
Changing Times
Though club members built a clubhouse and small marina in Cabo Frio in the late '50s, the area's typically windy conditions appealed more to sailboat enthusiasts than fishermen. Few offshore anglers took advantage of the facilities until about 10 years ago, when larger, faster sport-fishing boats became available in Brazil and made it possible to endure 60-mile runs to the shelf in pursuit of marlin.
While living in Rio for the better part of the last decade, I had the opportunity to witness Cabo Frio's coming of age as a blue marlin hot spot. In January 1994, the club's first annual Cabo Frio Marlin Invitational tournament attracted only eight boats which, in two fishing days, tallied 12 strikes. Seven blues were released or boated; the largest weighed 531 pounds.
After an inauspicious beginning, the tournament kept racking up increasingly impressive statistics, especially when one remembers the event remains largely a private-club affair fished by local anglers. The bar steadily rose a few notches each year as more boats participated and bigger blues strained the scales. From 1995 through 1997, the tourney's heaviest fish checked in at 648, 676 and 813 pounds. A 1,061-pounder was only good for third place in the 1998 event as two other teams racked up more points with four releases each.
The January 1999 Cabo Frio Marlin Invitational turned out to be a billfisherman's fantasy tournament. "The sea was incredibly calm and windless on both days," says Eduardo Baumeier, who caught three blues during the competition. "Marlin were concentrated about six miles inside the drop-off in depths from 60 to 80 fathoms, and 20 boats were working a 2-square-mile area. At one point I looked around and saw seven boats hooked up."
Fishing on Isabel, a 45-foot Brazilian-made Mares, Baumeier released an estimated 500-pounder on 50-pound stand-up gear before coming face-to-face with a grander. "When it came up behind my lure I said, 'Oh, God, let me at least score the release!' And I did," recounts Baumeier. Taking advantage of tournament rules - which have since changed - that allowed calling a release when the leader reached the rod tip, then deciding whether or not to boat a fish, Isabel backed down hard. Baumeier cranked down on the leader in just seven minutes, but the fish, still much too green to gaff, powered away on a long run.
Three hours later, the huge blue remained firmly attached to the 50-pound tackle - or so it seemed. "The exhausted fish was swimming on its side at the surface. Everybody aboard got a good look at it just off the transom in the glassy-smooth seas," Baumeier says. "I was bringing it within gaffing range when the 500-pound-mono leader chafed through." With aching arms and a half-ton of disappointment on his shoulders, the tired angler could only watch as the fish of a lifetime slipped back into the cobalt depths. "That marlin would have easily gone 1,100 pounds," he says.
On Day Two, Baumeier hooked a marlin shortly after lines in and boated the 544-pounder in 28 minutes. Early that afternoon, Marcos Areas, Isabel's owner, released an estimated 250-pounder to put his team atop the leader board. "But Laurocriwa reported boating a monster," says Baumeier. "They needed a fish of at least 1,100 pounds to beat us, and when the boat backed up to the dock, I had no doubt. The fish wasn't very long, but it was the fattest marlin I've ever seen." The 1,204-pound blue, along with a release on Day One, gave the victory to Laurocriwa.
That fish made news as the first grander of 1999 and the second 1,000-plus-pound blue in two years to grace Cabo Frio's tournament scales. All the hoopla over two granders in as many years overshadowed some other hefty numbers from that tourney: 25 boats fishing two days totaled 85 strikes, released 17 blues and weighed in 15 - with 10 topping 500 pounds.
Despite enjoying phenomenal fishing, another boat, Guess, was reduced to an also-ran in the tournament. After getting spooled by an estimated grander on Day One, the team hooked up a tripleheader the second day. One fish came unbuttoned; the others were liberated, and Guess finished in the middle of the pack with "only" two releases.
Upping the Ante
In an effort to reduce the number of "dead hangers," tournament organizers kept increasing minimum weights and instituted a scoring system that works in favor of those who release marlin up to a certain size. The first few tourneys established a minimum of 330 pounds, which was raised to 440, then to 550 for the event's Y2K edition. Another rule change, approved in 2001, assesses penalty points to teams killing undersized blues.
Firsthand accounts of fantastic fishing prompted me to return to Cabo Frio for the tournament in February 2000. I immediately noticed that the ICRJ had expanded its marina by adding more slips and installing a much larger davit to facilitate weighing huge fish.
A strong cold front put a damper on the fishing as a tournament-record 37 boats drew a paltry 23 strikes in two days. Vida Mansa capitalized on four first-day bites to release two marlin and boat a 535-pounder - a mere minnow by local standards - to win. These not-so-hot results (compared with those of previous seasons) don't mean Cabo Frio has gone dry. Maybe the competition's timing was off just a bit. Several weeks prior to the tournament, Blue Chip cashed in on a grand opportunity and brought in a 1,034-pound blue on December 30. That feat put Cabo Frio on the map as the site of 1999's first and last granders.
Further proof that this area fully deserves its weighty reputation - and that blue lightning can strike the same boat twice - hit certified scales on November 16, 2000. On that date, Capt. Jose Tomas de Brito's Andesa, which registered Cabo Frio's first grander in 1998, accounted for a 1,150-pound blue marlin. The hook point penetrated the nerve at the base of the bill, allowing angler Alessandro Corti to boat the big blue after a 20-minute fight. The crew didn't even need a gaff! Corti says he noticed another, larger marlin also flirting with the lures when his grander struck.
Unlike in the previous year, when an early-season grander preceded a rather disappointing tournament, the 2001 competition produced world-class results. Day One scattered 13 strikes among a field of 28 boats. Komplot boated the largest fish of the day (691 pounds), while Laurocriwa spent four hours battling an estimated 1,100-pounder that ended up breaking off close to the boat. Nobody doubted the crew's calculation of the fish's size because Laurocriwa notched a 1,204-pounder in 1999.
Clear skies, flat seas and a light easterly wind greeted anglers on Day Two. Along with seven releases and reports of at least six fish over 700 pounds hooked and lost, four blue marlin were boated by 3:30, including fish of 699 and 870 pounds. Then Komplot angler Eurico Soares hooked up. One hour and 20 minutes later, the skipper radioed tournament control to say they'd gaffed the fish but were having trouble fitting it in the cockpit of the 50-foot sport-fisher. When the beast finally reached the scales that evening, another Cabo Frio grander made history. Baumeier, working as tournament weighmaster, describes the marlin as "146 inches long [lower jaw-fork length], fat and round, like a giant tuna with a bill." Komplot sealed a victory with the 1,267-pound blue, the largest marlin ever weighed in a tournament and the fourth-largest Atlantic blue caught in accordance with IGFA rules.
Long Run, Rough Seas
"We know where to find marlin," says Baumeier. "The problem is getting to them." According to Baumeier, typical conditions "range from rough to impossible." He cites steady 25-knot northeast winds and 10- to 12-foot seas that discourage most weekend anglers from running required distances to the fishing grounds. The 100-fathom line lies about 60 miles offshore; shortly after that, the ledge drops off.
Brazilian businessman Ze Tomas de Brito spends summers at his home in Cabo Frio to pursue his passion of catching blue marlin. Having fished well-known hot spots around the world, Brito ranks his home turf as the best and most consistent big-marlin fishery. "Other places may have more agreeable sea conditions and shorter runs to find fish, but Cabo Frio holds greater numbers of marlin," he says.
Taking Andesa offshore about two days a week from December through February, Brito averages 15 to 20 blues each season. He enjoyed his best year so far in 1997, tallying 33 marlin. After traveling far and wide in search of the elusive grander, Brito has seen two half-tonners hauled into his cockpit while fishing in his own backyard. Like every other angler who has plied these waters, Brito feels the major drawback is the long, punishing run to the fishing grounds.

Stunted Growth
The typical supporting cast of pelagic characters swims with the burly blue protagonists. Few recreational anglers focus on tuna in these waters, though many crash lures intended for marlin. Yellowfin frequently top the century mark, with many pushing 200 pounds. Bigeye also make occasional appearances, such as the doubleheader (320 and 280 pounds) caught by a team in the 1995 tournament. Wahoo ranging from 50 to 100 pounds seem to pass through in now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't waves.
Despite the global visibility afforded by five granders in four years, several factors keep Cabo Frio's recreational offshore fishery from growing at the same rate as the well-nourished blue marlin populating its waters: Rough seas, long runs, short seasons and high overhead combine to doom any would-be, full-time charter operation to starvation. While it's possible to hire local boats (see sidebar), American anglers still can't conveniently book fishing trips to Cabo Frio through stateside travel agents.
If you're bent on scoring an Atlantic blue grander and don't mind sorting through fish averaging 500-plus pounds while searching for Big Bertha, it would be worth the effort to start planning a Brazilian vacation.