Brazil's Sailfish City

by Andy Hahn, Brazil and Portuguese Editor

Rio de Janeiro. The natives call it cidade maravilhosa, the marvelous city. Known the world over for its beaches, luxurious hotels, the Girl from Ipanema, wild Carnaval celebrations... You can forget about all that stuff because this city's hottest action takes place 30 miles offshore, from late October through January, when warm ocean currents bring the billfish within reach of Rio's sportfishing fleet.


PHOTO: ANDY HAHN

Although blue and white marlin are fairly common, the sailfish is Rio's bluewater king. How good is the fishing? When the bite is on, you can raise twenty sails in a day without raising any eyebrows; many anglers complain about a bad day if they hook "only" four or five. These are good sized fish, averaging over 50 pounds. The billfish are abundant, yet the cariocas, as residents of Rio are called, still have to work hard in order to enjoy the sport.

A typical day on the water begins at 6:00 a.m. with a quick drive-by tour of Rio's landmarks as the boat leaves the docks of the Iate Clube do Rio de Janeiro and motors out to the mouth of Guanabara Bay. The club itself is situated at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain (Remember James Bond vs. Jaws on the cablecar?), and a glance in the opposite direction reveals the open-armed statue of Christ, high above the city on Corcovado Mountain. Copacabana beach comes into view as the boat makes its way around Fort São João, but the shoreline scenery is quickly left behind. The billfish are concentrated in the bluewater currents 30 to 50 miles out to sea, which means a running time of at least two hours before putting lines in the water. Depending on the exact location of the fish, it may be dark by the time the boat returns to the docks after a day of deep sea trolling.

Ballyhoo

The cariocas are pretty much set in their ways as far as tackle and techniques are concerned. Live bait? Are you kidding? Everybody has a freezer full of ballyhoo, netted months prior to the season because these baitfish are tough to locate during the Brazilian summer. Bait and switch after teasing fish to the transom? Well, some anglers have heard of it, but nobody employs this tactic because it conflicts with the "tournament style" fishing that everybody is used to. Standard sailfish operating procedure involves flopping two strings of teasers off the transom and deploying four lines, on 20 lb outfits, baited with naked, surface skipping ballyhoo. And then it's off to the races at speeds varying between five and seven knots. The sailfish are quite willing to jump all over these spreads, so why mess with success?


PHOTO: ANDY HAHN

Other pelagic species pounce on the ballyhoo as well. Several varieties of tuna, including yellowfin, blackfin and bigeye, along with dorado, wahoo and bonito, provide the offshore anglers with plenty of strenuous exercise. Here's a quick rundown of some of the house records at Rio's Iate Club: Blue Marlin - 928 lbs; White Marlin - 173 lbs; Sailfish - 112 lbs; Yellowfin Tuna - 168 lbs; Wahoo - 102 lbs; Dorado - 75 lbs.

Tournaments In Rio

I mentioned the tournament mentality because the vast majority of Rio's billfishermen are private boat owners -- there is no charter fleet -- who avidly compete in the numerous tournaments sponsored by the Iate Clube do Rio de Janeiro (ICRJ). When they aren't fishing in the tournaments, they're training for the tournaments. Thus, they don't experiment much with tactics that they can't use in competition.

The most important event is the ICRJ's Annual Billfish Tournament, most commonly referred to as "The Sailfish Tournament", in which five fishing days are distributed throughout December and January. Teams are made up of four anglers and all tackle, leaders, etc. must conform to IGFA regulations. Anglers may not use line that tests out above 20 lbs. Each year approximately 40 boats take part in the competition, tallying over 500 sailfish during the five fishing days.

The bad news is that this is a kill tournament. The directors of the club say they are considering a release format for the future, but that is still a long way off. Many anglers vehemently defend their "right" to kill whatever they catch. Funny thing, though: these same anglers complain that the sailfish are getting more scarce with each passing year, and all the blame is placed on those damn longliners. Some bright spots are beginning to shine through. Several fishermen are complaining about having to gaff fish because of tournament regulations, and these guys are planning to boycott upcoming competitions.

Perhaps the most high-spirited contest is the ICRJ's "Elas & Elas" ("Hers & Hers") Women's Tournament. Teams of lady anglers participate in this one-day, catch and release tourney in January of each year. This event resembles a floating party more than a billfish tournament because most of the women have little angling experience, but even so, they catch a good number of fish. As a matter of fact, Lavinia Ferraiolo garnered first place in the 1993 Women's Tournament by releasing a 300 lb blue marlin.

Tiny charter Fleet

Despite the fantastic billfishing to be found in one of South America's largest cities, there is no true charter fleet in Rio. You cannot simply stroll down to the marina and book a bluewater trip. Why? There are several reasons: First of all, the season lasts only three months, so it would be impossible for a captain to make a living. Second, the costs are astronomical. All tackle and most accessories are imported (and heavily taxed), and diesel fuel is very expensive.

Fortunately, many boat owners rent out their boats, but they usually compete in the tournaments, so they do not rent out their boats the day before, the day of, or the day after each tournament. That means their boats are unavailable on almost every weekend during the peak season. Some boat owners are getting back to just fishing for fun, so their boats are more readily available. Prices for a day of offshore trolling range from US$ 900 to $ 1,700, for boats that vary in size from 28' to 45'.

Rio de Janeiro will never become a billfishing mecca like certain Central American destinations, but the best sailfish months coincide with the high tourist season. So if you happen to decide on a vacation in Rio, look beyond the beautiful women and the world famous beaches. The blue offshore waters hold plenty of excitement for the traveling angler.