White Marlin on a Fly: Adventure in Vitoria

by Andy Hahn

Originally published (in Portuguese) in the Brazilian magazine PESCADOR, vol. 1, number 9, December 1996. WINNER OF THE OUTDOOR WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA’S ANNUAL CONTEST, SALTWATER FISHING - MAGAZINE CATEGORY.

When one thinks of fly fishing, the scenes that come to mind are gentle and delicate, with the line flowing back and forth in measured, rhythmic casts, like the serene lines of a poem. On the other hand, the term deep sea fishing evokes images of powerful boats, heavy tackle and fierce fish, all involved in a tug-of-war in which sheer brute force determines the winner. But there is a middle ground between these two types of angling, where deep sea fishing is given a dose of finesse and fly fishing is beefed up, without compromising the fundamental philosophy of either -- thus creating a breed of sportfishing that has no equal.

"BILLFISH! BILLFISH!" The three of us sighted the white marlin at the same time, just 30 yards from the Dolphin IV’s transom. With its dorsal fin out of the water, the fish was charging the teaser on the outrigger. I jumped up to pull in the other teasers as quickly as possible while Charlie got set to cast the popper with his fly rod. Luiz Guilherme picked up the outrigger rod and brought the lure in slowly, with the marlin close behind.

Whap - whap - whap! The enraged fish smacked the lure with its bill, but Luiz wouldn’t let the marlin grab the teaser. This lure had no hook in it because its sole function is to attract the marlin’s attention. Reeling in faster now, Luiz brought the fish up to the transom before suddenly yanking the teaser out of the water. At the same time, Charlie placed a cast in the marlin’s face. The fish was so lit up that it attacked the popper as soon as it hit the water. Charlie pulled on the line four times, hard, and only lifted the rod when the marlin turned and began its first run. "It’s a decent fish, at least 80 pounds," Luiz said, after seeing the marlin jump several times.

Watching Charlie steady himself against the transom, with the fly rod bent double, I simply could not believe it. This was the first white marlin we had raised and, by some miracle, everything had gone according to the plan and we managed to hook it. "It can’t be this easy," I said to myself.

Unfortunately, I was right: the fish put up a 70 minute struggle before shedding the hook. After that episode we went four long days trying - in vain - to hook another white marlin on a fly. And it wasn’t for lack of effort, nor for lack of opportunity. We raised an incredible number of billfish, and many of them tried to eat the fly.

Our fisherman, Charlie Tombras, of Knoxville, Tennessee, hadn’t scheduled his fishing trip in Vitoria on a whim. He had read an article in Saltwater Sportsman magazine that mentioned the fantastic marlin fishing here. As his bilingual guide, I felt the responsibility weigh on my shoulders when Charlie said that he had come with the specific intention of setting a world record for white marlin on a fly rod. Charlie already holds three IGFA fly rod records for marlin: two striped marlin caught in the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica, and the largest Atlantic blue marlin ever caught on a fly. His 94 kg record was caught on a 20 lb tippet while fishing in Venezuela on May 5, 1994.

So how does one go about catching a marlin on a fly? On this trip Charlie used a #14 rod which provided sufficient backbone for handling marlin up to 30 kg. The fly was a large popper that looked very much like the teasers we were using.

Once the tackle is in order, the next step is to find the billfish and lure them in close to the boat so that the angler can show them the fly. Artificial lures made of acrylic and plastic (the same kind used when fishing for marlin with conventional tackle) are rigged without hooks. Rods and reels in the 30 lb class are used to troll these lures and raise the billfish. When used in this way, the lures are called teasers. Their function is to attract the marlin’s attention and get him into a feeding mood. The teasers are deployed 30 or 40 meters behind the transom, where the crew can keep an eye on them. When a marlin comes up behind one of the teasers, the others are immediately pulled from the water. The one teaser that remains in the water becomes the sole target of the marlin’s attack. The marlin slaps at the lure and tries to grab it, but the teaser man doesn’t allow this to happen, always keeping the lure just out of the fish’s reach. The marlin follows the lure up close to the transom and, on a predetermined signal, the helmsman takes the boat out of gear, the teaser is yanked out of the water and the angler casts the popper. If all goes according to plan, the fired-up marlin grabs the popper. But, as we found out, things don’t always work out that way.

December third, 1995. We left the docks of the Iate Clube do Espirito Santo aboard the Dolphin IV: Captain Luiz Guilherme, mates Marcelo and Rubens, Charlie Tombras and myself. We went to "the drop-off", approximately 25 miles from the coast of Vitoria, where the depth plunges from 100 meters to over 600. It is here that Vitoria has earned, quite deservedly, its reputation as one of the world’s premier marlin fisheries. We placed three teasers in the water. One on the port flat line and two on the starboard side. The port outrigger was left in the upright position so Charlie wouldn’t tangle his line in it while casting. We then took up our battle stations, glued our eyes to the teasers and waited for the marlin to answer our call.

The first one appeared at 10:55 and, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, took the fly but shed the hook after 70 minutes on the line. That white marlin was plenty big enough to have been a new world record. We got over our disappointment at losing the fish rather quickly, when another marlin blasted the teasers and grabbed the popper. But this one spit out the hook after its third jump. Nobody complained, though, because he was on the small side - probably around 25 kg. It wasn’t long before we got another chance. A marlin came in fast, terrorizing the spread of teasers. It wolfed the fly and took off on a series of desperate leaps.

CRACK! What happened? "I saw it was a small fish and I didn’t want to waste time fighting it," Charlie explained. "So I clamped down on the drag and broke him off on purpose." When this guy goes after a record, he means business.

After that fish we went through a long dry spell. During the next two and a half days we were subjected to an endless torture session, in which every marlin we raised resulted in yet another frustration. Charlie was unable to put a hook into any of the 37 marlin that crashed the teasers. We missed quite a few opportunities due to our own mistakes, some of which were: turning the boat as the fish is being teased in ( the marlin can’t see the teaser in the boat’s wake); pulling the teaser in too quickly (the marlin loses interest if the teaser gets too far ahead of him); tangling the teaser in the fly line; leaving the teaser in the water after the popper is cast (the marlin stays tuned in on the teaser and never sees the popper). Perhaps the funniest mistake - and the least expected - occurred when Luiz teased a marlin in and yanked the lure out just as the boat went into neutral. We waited long seconds, but the popper never dropped into the water. Showing his good sense of humor, Charlie was laughing at himself. "You guys did everything perfectly. We should have hooked that marlin, but I tangled my line on the rod during the cast. My mistake."

Despite our frustration, we all agreed that this type of angling is a thing of beauty, a show unto itself. A marlin lights up when it attacks the teasers. Its pectoral fins glow a bright electric blue that shows up vividly in the water. The marlin slaps the teaser with its bill, sometimes actually grabbing the lure and peeling line off the reel. When this happens, the teaser man feels as if he has hooked the fish, even though there is no steel in the lure. When the teaser is wrestled out of the marlin’s jaws, the fish gets hotter, coming after its "victim" with even more fury. After several vain attempts to grab the teaser, the marlin is drawn right up to the transom in a blind rage, looking for something - anything - to kill. I swear that if you were to toss a cigar butt overboard the marlin would pounce on it.

So then you have a furious marlin right there, scant meters from the transom, looking for a victim. "It’s like fishing in an aquarium," says Luiz Guilherme, impressed with how clearly he can see the marlin. Remember that the fly is cast with the motor in neutral and there is no wake to roil the surface. The problem is that our long-nosed friend is rather impatient and he doesn’t stick around for very long. If he doesn’t nail the popper on the first or second cast, he has to be teased into a rage again with a secret weapon: a hookless ballyhoo, sewn up with dental floss to withstand the marlin’s abuse. Using spinning gear, the ballyhoo is cast out and worked past the marlin. Smelling fresh meat, the marlin may take a bite. Then, once again, the bait is yanked out of the poor fish’s mouth. The ballyhoo is reeled in past the popper and quickly removed from the water. The marlin should then switch targets and grab the popper. This theory is fairly easy to understand, but several obstacles may arise when we put it into practice. If the ballyhoo is worked too quickly, the marlin doesn’t chase it. If the ballyhoo is worked too slowly, and sometimes even when it’s not worked so slowly (these marlin can be darn quick when they’re hungry), the marlin swallows the baitfish and forgets about the popper. Then he goes on his way, without so much as a "thanks" for the free meal.

On December seventh we raised 12 white marlin but we couldn’t sink the hooks into any of them. They were batting the popper with their bills, but they wouldn’t grab it firmly enough to allow a solid hook set. We had agreed to fish until 4 o’clock, so I let Luiz know when my watch read 3:58. "Just two more minutes."

"Let’s put in a little overtime," he said with a determined look in his eye. "We’re getting close to a spot where we already raised a few fish today. I got this feeling..."

Up on the flybridge, Marcelo did his fortune teller imitation: "The fish is gonna show up at 4:05."

Vitoria is known for its rough seas and strong northwest winds that can hamper the fishing, but today the waters were unbelievably calm, so I figured, "Why not enjoy the great conditions and see if we can raise one more marlin?" We had seen 12 up till then. Would 13 be our lucky number?

At 4:05, just like Marcelo said it would, a marlin rushed in and chomped one of the teasers. Luiz grabbed the rod and tore the lure out of the fish’s mouth while Rubens and I reeled in the other two teasers. Charlie positioned himself and waited to make his cast. Then the fish disappeared.

"Where is he? Where’d he go?"

"I can’t see him. He’s gone."

A long silence before the marlin suddenly swatted the teaser again. "There he is! Bring him in carefully!"

Seconds later, Charlie made a quick, sharp cast. Luiz brought in the teaser and the marlin hit the popper. Nobody spoke as the first few meters of line went out. We all prayed silently for the hook to hold while the marlin repeatedly went skyward, thrashing the air with its bill. Luiz had already gone up to take the helm on the flybridge and maneuver the boat during the fight. He moved the boat ahead to keep the line tight and backed down to recover line whenever the marlin allowed. Pushing his tackle to the limits, Charlie forced the fish to duke it out on the surface. The more it jumped, the faster it would tire out. Charlie didn’t want this marlin to go deep. He had already lost a nice one that way and he couldn’t risk repeating that scenario.

The marlin was tiring and Luiz cautiously backed down, bringing the Dolphin IV closer to the fish. A few more wild jumps and the fish surrendered, floating on its side. Marcelo and I drove the gaffs home and swung the pelagic Pinocchio aboard. Fighting time: 14 minutes.

At last we were able to celebrate Charlie Tombras’ first fly-caught white marlin, and the Dolphin IV’s first fly-caught billfish.

We were euphoric during our return to the marina at the Iate Clube do Espirito Santo, although we had our doubts: Was the marlin big enough to surpass the current record of 33 kg? Our fish wasn’t huge, but we figured it to be in the 30 to 35 kg ballpark.

The scales at the Iate Clube pointed to exactly 30 kg. "Darn it," wailed Luiz. "We came so close to the record." Marcelo, ever the optimist, said with a grin, "Tomorrow’s another day. Now that we know how to do it, we’re gonna catch at least five. We’re gonna get that record."

The sea was calm and we had fantastic weather for our last day of fishing, but we didn’t get our Moby Dick. However, thanks to the coordinated efforts of both angler and crew, Charlie set another type of record by catching four white marlin on a fly rod in a single day, something that had never been done before. The two largest fish weighed 30 kg each, so the current record remained intact. But this record won’t last forever. On this trip, his first to Brazil, Charlie Tombras became enchanted with the fishing to be had in Vitoria. Both the people and the waters of Brazil made such good impressions that Charlie has already scheduled a return trip for next year. The pursuit for the record has not ended.

 If You'd Like To Try It

Using hookless teasers to lure billfish close to the boat, where they can then be caught on other baits, is a technique known as "bait and switch". This term can be translated into Portuguese as iscar e trocar.

No matter what you choose to call it, it’s an exciting and productive way to pursue billfish. This technique can also be employed using conventional tackle - the use of a fly rod is not mandatory. Widely used in Costa Rica and other locations, baiting and switching allows the angler to choose the fish he wants to hook. Better yet, it allows the angler to match his tackle to whichever fish comes up to the teasers. For example, an angler can rig three different rods with light, medium and heavy lines. If a sailfish is raised, light tackle can be used. If a blue marlin shows up, it can be baited on heavy tackle. Although it is a matter of scant seconds from the time the fish is raised to the time it should be baited, if the crew remains calm there is plenty of time to evaluate the fish’s size and choose the appropriate tackle.

Success depends upon the coordinated efforts of the crew, in which each person does his part. The following tips will help you get started.

  • The fish has trouble seeing the teaser in the boat’s prop wash. There are usually two "alleys" of clear water between three lanes of white water in a wake. You must bring the teaser up one of the clear alleys in order for the fish to be able to follow it. If the teaser gets into the white water, the billfish loses sight of its prey and gives up pursuit.
  • Experienced captains react according to each fish’s individual attitude. For example, they slow the boat down to let non-aggressive fish catch up to the teaser.
  • The teaser man should let the marlin grab the teaser once or twice, then immediately yank it out of the fish’s mouth. This way the marlin gets furious and comes after the teaser with a vengeance.
  • If the billfish are fading off the teasers without grabbing them, they may need a bit more persuasion: Sew a ballyhoo or a dorado belly strip onto a monofilament loop and troll this appetizer instead of a plastic teaser. The smell and taste of fresh meat are irresistible to marlin. Be careful to not let the fish eat the entire teaser. Give him just a taste to whet his appetite.
  • If you don’t hook the marlin on your first try, don’t give up! He can be raised again if you react quickly. Put the teasers back in the water and keep working the same area. Stay alert because the fish usually come back up quickly.

Some crews have developed a technique to facilitate "re-raising" billfish. If the fish comes in on one of the flat line teasers, the mate leaves the outrigger line in the water. Then if the fish is not hooked, the helmsman quickly puts the boat back in gear. The billfish usually reappears immediately, right behind the teaser that was left in the water.

The Popper

When fishing for marlin, one obviously does not use a typical trout fly. On the other hand, if the hooks are too big, a solid hook set is impossible because light tackle doesn’t have the backbone to imbed large diameter hooks in a billfish’s tough mouth.

Charlie used a tube fly on this trip. Unlike conventional flies, tube flies are not tied directly on the hooks. The popper head and the long feathers are tied onto a short section of plastic tubing. The shock leader passes through this tube and a bead holds the body in position ahead of tandem 3/0 hooks. Standard, bulky poppers can act as counterweights when a marlin is leaping or shaking its head. One advantage to the tube fly is that the popper runs up the line during the fight while the hooks stay in the fish’s mouth, guaranteeing a solid hookup. On the other hand, when the popper head runs up the line, there is the danger that a dorado or other fish may take a shot at it and cut the marlin off. Despite this risk, most bluewater flyrodders are using tube flies these days.

Epilogue

He made good his promise. Charlie Tombras returned to Vitória the following season and, on December 1, 1996, fishing with Capt. Luiz Guilherme (this time aboard the Molina), he boated an 83 lb white marlin using a 20 lb tippet. After establishing this new record, he fished the rest of the week using 12 lb tippet, and came darn close to breaking that record, too. Maybe next year....