An in­sider’s look at the 2018 blue marlin sea­son

As my flight de­scends, I peer out at an alien land­scape be­low. A vol­canic is­land juts out of the At­lantic Ocean, with its cliffs ris­ing at steep an­gles from the sur­round­ing blue wa­ter. From above, the is­land looks like a rugged one, mostly red­dish­brown rock with a few sandy beaches dot­ting the coast. To the north­west, I see an­other is­land, but its view is par­tially ob­scured by a sandy haze: dust from the vast Sa­hara Desert, 350 miles to the east.

The wheels of the plane touch down with a squeal­ing chirp, and I ar­rive at my des­ti­na­tion for the next three and a half months: Cape Verde, Africa. The ter­res­trial land­scape I ob­served through my plane’s win­dow, how­ever, is not what brought me to this re­mote ar­chi­pel­ago; rather, it’s the abun­dance of blue marlin. BIG FISH AND BIG NUM­BERS Cape Verde is one of the world’s premier mar­lin­fish­ing des­ti­na­tions. In terms of num­bers and size, its ac­co­lades speak for them­selves. An­glers fish­ing these his­toric wa­ters have brought to the scale more than 20 blue marlin over 1,000 pounds — with many more re­leased — as well as two Blue Marlin World Cup win­ners. Gray In­gram’s Big

Oh team re­leased more than 400 blues in a sin­gle three-month sea­son fish­ing here.

While these num­bers are cer­tainly im­pres­sive, it isn’t what in­spired me to take a sab­bat­i­cal from my job in Sil­i­con Val­ley and move half­way across the globe to a place I could only re­cently point out on a world map. To me, sim­ply com­ing here for the above statis­tics is like read­ing the last page of a good book: I might know the end­ing, but what makes it re­ally spe­cial is ev­ery­thing that leads up to the con­clu­sion. My goal was to ex­pe­ri­ence first­hand — both the highs and the lows — what it is like to fish a sea­son in these sto­ried wa­ters.


Af­ter clear­ing cus­toms at the air­port on the is­land of São Vi­cente, I hailed a cab to take me to the ma­rina in the city of Min­delo. The sec­ond­largest city and cul­tural hub of the Cape Verde is­lands, Min­delo is home to a char­ter fleet, and it’s where I’m sup­posed to meet my host, Matthias Hen­ningsen. He is the owner-op­er­a­tor of At­lantic Fish­ing Char­ters, man­ag­ing three boats in Cape Verde ( Hooker, Smoker and Sambo) and two more

Cape Verde is one of the world’s premier marlin-fish­ing des­ti­na­tions. In terms of num­bers and size, its ac­co­lades speak for them­selves.

on As­cen­sion Is­land, about 1,800 miles south.

I ar­rive at the ma­rina in the early after­noon and take a seat at the float­ing bar ad­ja­cent to the char­ter slips. Hen­ningsen, who is out on a char­ter, won’t be back for a few hours, so I or­der a Su­per Bock beer to help ease the im­pend­ing jet lag. With some time to kill, I de­cide to do some re­search on the his­tory of my new home.

In 1456, Por­tuguese ex­plor­ers dis­cov­ered a string of 10 un­in­hab­ited is­lands off the coast of mod­ern-day Sene­gal on the west coast of Africa. Ly­ing at the cross­roads of Europe, West Africa and the soon-to-be-dis­cov­ered Amer­i­cas, the is­lands’ strate­gic im­por­tance for oceanic en­deav­ors of trade and ex­plo­ration was im­me­di­ately un­der­stood by the Por­tuguese. Dur­ing this time, the transat­lantic slave trade was ramp­ing up, and Cape Verde soon be­came an im­por­tant lay­over des­ti­na­tion for cross­ing slave ships. Even though the na­tion has since re­bounded from this trou­bled past, the rem­nants of the slave trade’s in­flu­ence are still promi­nently seen through­out the is­lands — crum­bling light­houses sit­u­ated at har­bor en­trances, col­or­ful colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture and the is­lands’ Cre­ole cul­ture of mixed African and Euro­pean de­scent.

To­day, Cape Verde’s lo­ca­tion, the one that made it so im­por­tant for slave traders, is also help­ing it over­come years of eco­nomic stag­na­tion. With tem­per­a­tures av­er­ag­ing 74 de­grees, eight hours of sun­shine per day, zero trop­i­cal dis­eases, and direct flights from Europe and the east­ern United States, Cape Verde’s tourism in­dus­try is on the rise. For marlin fish­er­men, this is wel­come news; ac­ces­si­bil­ity to this os­ten­si­bly re­mote lo­ca­tion is im­prov­ing with each pass­ing sea­son.


At the end of the day, I see Hooker pull into the har­bor with two white flags snap­ping in the breeze — two blue marlin re­leases. Af­ter the char­ter clients de­part, I meet Hen­ningsen for the first time, and to my re­lief, there is lit­tle small talk, get­ting right down to the busi­ness of marlin fish­ing. “The bite’s been a bit slow, but hope­fully it picks up soon. Grab your bags and come meet some of the guys,” he says am­i­ca­bly.

We walk back to­ward the ma­rina’s float­ing bar, and I can im­me­di­ately tell this is the so­cial nexus of the Cape Verde fish­ing com­mu­nity, a place where the fleet’s crews and clients in­ter­min­gle to rem­i­nisce about the day’s ac­tion. It’s also where Hen­ningsen in­tro­duces me to some of the other cap­tains who helped put Cape Verde on the world’s fish­ing map: Berno Niebuhr, Olaf Grimkowski, Marty Bates and Zak Conde.

To­day, Cape Verde is where these cap­tains share the same wa­ter, but it is hardly the first time they

have fished to­gether. Over the past 20 years, these cap­tains’ paths have of­ten crossed as they hopped from one hot bite to an­other all over the east­ern At­lantic, from Madeira, the Azores and As­cen­sion Is­land to Ghana and the Ca­naries. De­spite these worldly trav­els, I soon learn that Cape Verde is their hands-down fa­vorite, thanks to some re­cur­ring themes: catch­ing gi­ant marlin on the pitch, the com­plete un­cer­tainty of what’s go­ing to show up in the spread and the flex­i­bil­ity to fol­low the bite to dif­fer­ent is­lands.


“Left teaser, left teaser!” Hen­ningsen screams from the helm of the 43-foot G&S Hooker. Sud­denly, there is an erup­tion of wa­ter as an an­gry blue marlin smashes the left short teaser. As I stand in awe, Wil­son — a sea­soned mate who has fished on Hooker for the past 16 years — doesn’t skip a beat as he throws a rigged fly­ing fish with a chug­ger head be­hind the boat. On the ini­tial bite, the marlin stripped 30 yards from the teaser reel, and Hen­ningsen is fran­ti­cally wind­ing to get the teaser out of the wa­ter. As the teaser reaches the stern, the lit-up marlin makes a sudden 90-de­gree turn as it sees the fly­ing fish splash­ing just out­side the prop wash.

Only 30 feet away, and with a bite al­most as vi­o­lent as the first, the marlin launches it­self half­way out of the wa­ter as it crashes the bait. Af­ter giv­ing the marlin five sec­onds of drop-back, Wil­son pushes the Ti­a­gra 50W’s drag to strike, and the fish im­me­di­ately be­gins grey­hound­ing across the sur­face. Af­ter a 30-minute bat­tle, the 600-pound blue marlin is boat­side — tagged and re­leased.

I was in­stantly ad­dicted. For me, this is as close to fish­ing nir­vana as one can hope to get. Conde, one of the most sea­soned cap­tains in Cape Verde, fish­ing here for the past 13 years, has sim­i­lar feel­ings af­ter hear­ing my story. “Noth­ing beats the pitch,” he says. “Noth­ing.”

The fol­low­ing day, I was fish­ing on Conde’s boat,

Amelia, dis­cussing the op­ti­mal spread for fish­ing in Cape Verde. Conde says the best spread con­sists of three teasers, a dredge and a lure on the shot­gun. “This setup max­i­mizes the chance of catch­ing a marlin on the pitch, which is a great bite, with a bet­ter hookup ra­tio than on lures,” he points out. “Depending on the size of the fish, we can pitch the ap­pro­pri­ate gear, from 30-pound-test for smaller fish all the way up to 130-pound-test if it’s a re­ally big one. And the shot­gun lure gives us one last chance at a marlin if it fades off the teasers be­fore tak­ing the bait,” he adds.


When fish­ing in Cape Verde, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know what is go­ing to show up in the spread. For both Niebuhr and Grimkowski, this is what makes it so thrilling to fish here.

Af­ter a day on the wa­ter, I sit down with these

Then, with just 15 me­ters of line out, we heard a loud pop and the rod snapped in two. We con­nected a sec­ond rod to the leader, and af­ter an­other 30 min­utes had the marlin in the boat. It ended up weigh­ing 1,241 pounds.

cap­tains and or­der an­other round of Su­per Bocks at the float­ing bar. The most tenured cap­tain of the fleet, Niebuhr has fished the wa­ters of Cape Verde for more than 20 years. As our beers ar­rive, he trans­ports me back to the early days: “Even though it has come a long way, when I first ar­rived, this place was com­pletely off the map,” he says. “It was dif­fi­cult to get fresh wa­ter, spare parts, and even find­ing a restau­rant was an ad­ven­ture. But hon­estly, what has kept me here is the in­cred­i­ble fish­ing.”

Hav­ing of­fi­cially weighed nine granders and won the Blue Marlin World Cup twice, Niebuhr knows a few things about fish­ing for big blues. Af­ter tak­ing a sip of his beer, he de­scribes one of his most mem­o­rable catches. “With­out telling me, one of my mates put out some ugly lure with a big pink head that I would have taken out of the spread if he showed me,” he re­lates. “Luck­ily, I didn’t. About mid­day, a huge marlin came up and en­gulfed it. It was mad, and we fought the fish for over two hours be­fore we got it close to the boat. Then, with just 15 me­ters of line out, we heard a loud pop and the rod snapped in two. We con­nected a sec­ond rod to the leader, and af­ter an­other 30 min­utes, had the marlin in the boat. It ended up weigh­ing 1,241 pounds.”

An­other cap­tain who isn’t a stranger to big fish, Grimkowski — the only cap­tain to weigh two At­lantic blue marlin over 1,300 pounds — notes that even though Cape Verde cer­tainly has big

fish, it’s the num­bers that makes this lo­ca­tion his fa­vorite place to fish. He tells me about one in­cred­i­ble day: “The fish­ing was slow, but in an in­stant, that changed — it was pan­de­mo­nium be­hind the boat, with ev­ery teaser hav­ing a marlin be­hind it,” he says, talk­ing with his hands as many marlin cap­tains do. “We pitched all three of our rods and im­me­di­ately hooked a marlin on each — two of them over 500 pounds. Then, even af­ter hav­ing a triple­header on, there were three more marlin be­hind the boat try­ing to eat the teasers that were hang­ing off the tran­som. I don’t think blue marlin fish­ing like that can hap­pen any­where else in the world.”

Af­ter a few more sto­ries about big fish and big num­bers, Grimkowski sums up why fish­ing in Cape Verde is so spe­cial: “You just don’t know what you’ll see next. It could be a 250-pounder or a 1,000-plus-pounder; it could be a sin­gle, a dou­ble or a triple. You just don’t know.”


As I put some months of fish­ing un­der my belt, one thing re­mained con­stant — the re­lent­less chat­ter over the ra­dio. In Cape Verde, the lo­ca­tion of the bite can change in an in­stant, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion among the cap­tains is crit­i­cal to suc­cess. Us­ing the ra­dio as a weapon, the cap­tains wage a co­or­di­nated as­sault on the marlin as they chase the bite across three is­lands: Santo An­tão, São Vi­cente and São Ni­co­lau.

Bates, a New Zealan­der who cap­tains La Onda

Mila, has been fish­ing pro­fes­sion­ally since 1996 and is one of the most vo­cal cap­tains on the ra­dio.

“The com­mu­nity here is like nowhere else — it’s a great group of guys, and we rely on each other for in­for­ma­tion,” he says. “If some­one finds the bite, they let the fleet know. If I find the bite, I do the same. We all help each other out.”

Then, with a smile, he says it isn’t all se­ri­ous busi­ness ei­ther. “We’re all close friends, so with that comes a lot of trash-talk­ing,” Bates says. “We’re a com­pet­i­tive group, and we all want to catch the most marlin. It’s part of what makes this such a spe­cial place to fish. The cap­tains want to catch a marlin more than the clients.”

De­scrib­ing the dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, Bates starts with the north­west­ern­most is­land, Santo An­tão. “Here, you fish on the western lee side of the is­land, mak­ing for com­fort­able con­di­tions,” he says. “Santo An­tão is also the launch­ing pad to get to the North­west Bank, a pair of un­der­wa­ter moun­tains that rise from the seafloor 9,000 feet deep to 120 feet from the sur­face. This is the land of gi­ants, and fish of 1,290, 1,245 and 1,150 pounds have been caught near here in re­cent years.”

Mov­ing east to São Vi­cente, Bates notes: “You can fish ei­ther to the north or the south, so there’s al­ways plenty of room. The fish­ing here can be off the charts too — there were two years where we rarely trav­eled to an­other is­land since the fish­ing was so good. It’s also nice to have the com­forts of Min­delo af­ter a day on the wa­ter.”

Lastly, the east­ern­most is­land of São Ni­co­lau, Bates says, can be in­sane when it turns on. “The marlin con­cen­tra­tions off the south­ern bank can be nuts — many cap­tains have had 10-plus blue marlin re­leases here in a sin­gle day.”


As I de­part Cape Verde af­ter three and half months of fish­ing nearly ev­ery day, I look out one last time at the is­lands. In­stead of the re­mote moon­scape I saw when I first ar­rived, I think in­stead about all the mem­o­ries I’d made. Even though I had ex­pe­ri­enced un­be­liev­able fish­ing, see­ing mul­ti­ple 900-plus-pound fish and nu­mer­ous dou­ble­head­ers, that won’t be the first mem­ory. In­stead, I think of ex­plor­ing the small vil­lages on the is­lands of Santo An­tão and São Ni­co­lau, the late nights telling fish­ing sto­ries on the float­ing bar in São Vi­cente and, most of all, the in­cred­i­ble peo­ple I met along the way.

As I left for the air­port, Hen­ningsen shook my hand and sim­ply said, “See you later, Jimmy.” This couldn’t be a more fit­ting sen­ti­ment, since I know I will re­turn soon to these dis­tant yet won­drous is­lands.

We pitched all three of our rods and im­me­di­ately hooked a marlin on each — two of them over 500 pounds.

A Cape Verde blue marlin splashes down af­ter an in­cred­i­ble se­ries of jumps. Most cap­tains pre­fer to pitch-bait their fish, cit­ing a bet­ter hookup ra­tio as well as an im­pres­sive bite just feet from the tran­som.

Cape Verde re­ceives lit­tle rain­fall through­out the year (top). The ar­chi­tec­ture is rem­i­nis­cent of the days when these is­lands sat astride im­por­tant ship­ping routes to the New World.

A study in boats: the37-foot Ber­tram Smoker on its moor­ing near a small out­board-pow­ered skiff, the pre­ferred fish­ing boat of the lo­cals.

Vis­it­ing an­glers can choose be­tween fight­ing their fish on stand-up tackle or from a fight­ing chair. The marlin can vary greatly in size: The first fish of the day might weigh 200 pounds, and the sec­ond, over 1,000 pounds.

Be­cause of Cape Verde’s lo­ca­tion, the weather con­di­tions can of­ten be quite windy and oc­ca­sion­ally rough, al­though many of the is­lands of­fer a fish­ery in the lee (be­low). Nonethe­less, vis­i­tors should be pre­pared to fish in rough con­di­tions at some point.

Lure-fish­ing al­lows cap­tains to cover plenty of wa­ter in or­der to find fish. Cap­tains Marty Bates and Andy Moyes show off a pro­duc­tive se­lec­tion (top), while Capt. Zak Conde has his own fa­vorites (above). Most pre­fer to arm their lures with a sin­gle stiffrigged hook-set.

ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Jimmy Mor­row works at Google in San Fran­cisco. In his free time, he helps char­ter cap­tains and fish­ing com­pa­nies im­prove their dig­i­tal pres­ence, and can be reached at reel­toreel­con­sult­

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