Big game fishing in Aruba
Fishing in the great outdoors is an unrelenting duel between man and fish. Our reporter Marco Barneveld follows in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, picks up his fishing rod and heads for the deep waters off the coast of Aruba. An aquatic quest for blue marlin, mako sharks and other large predators. “Today the sea has certainly given.”
The attack is fast and powerful. The rod on the port side bends deeply down due to the noble fish that has taken a bite of the bait and is now faced with a sharp hook in its mouth. Looking out over the shimmering, deep-blue water, I sit contently on my fishing throne, the “fighting chair” at the rear of the deck. I am ready for what big game fishermen call the “drill”: the unrelenting duel between man and fish, intelligence and technology vs strength and endurance.
The feisty creature quickly speeds away with great force
The fish leaps almost a meter and a half into the air. Is it a blue marlin? Is it a sailfish perhaps? No, it is a dolphinfish,and it is putting up a sterling fight. The feisty creature quickly speeds away with great force. It leaps out the water, skimming its tail along the surface, only to suddenly fall back down and disappear into the infinite depths. He is still caught on the line, however. I, therefore, lower the rod again and little by little reel in the rope.
Our boat, the Dushi, which means “darling” in Papiamento (the Creole language spoken on Aruba), pulls the fishing lines through the warm waters of the Caribbean, about three kilometres south of Aruba. For thousands of years these waters were fished by the Arawak, the indigenous people who settled on Aruba, in search of the same fish we are hoping to reel in.
For thousands of years these waters were fished by the Arawak, the indigenous people who settled on Aruba
In hollowed-out tree trunks they came from mainland South American to try their luck on what Spanish explorers would later callIsla Inútil (Useless Island). Today that is very different, and Aruba very much lives up to its motto “one happy island”. An island where there is something for everybody, especially for the deep-sea fisherman who has set their sights on fishing the big game of the world’s oceans.
The Dushi bounces steadily across the waves towards the rich fishing grounds off the coast of Aruba, as I stand at the helm with her captain Richard. He regularly sails these clear blue waters and has been a professional fisherman since the age of 20, so he knows what to look out for better than anyone. What to me looks like an endless layer of blue, Richard can read like a book.
“See the gulls over there? That means there’s a school of baitfish swimming there” he says pointing into the distance. “Baitfish attract predators, both large and small, that’s why we’re going to head in that direction.” He has witnessed some unbelievable catches here. “Last year we even had a blue marlin that weighed a tonne. It took nine hours to reel the thing in and land it on board.” By which he means that the life and death struggle of the fish lasted nine drawn-out hours before it was hauled aboard. An exhausting battle for both man and fish.
The Caribbean is a saltwater goldmine for fisherman on the hunt for giant fish. Captain Richard informs us of what we can expect, if the sea and the gods are on our side. “Blue marlin is regularly caught in these waters”, he tells us. “The largest ever caught weighed 1100kg. A beautiful fish, elegant and slim with sickle-shaped pectoral fins and a cobalt blue back. When the hook digs in, they jump clean out of the water, repeating this several times. The black marlin, the head of the marlin family, also swims these waters. Of all marlins, this is the one that makes the strongest, heaviest and most persistent impression. They have a wonderful dark blue- grey colour with a silver sheen, and they are strong fighters but prefer fighting in the depths of the ocean, in contrast with other marlins that resist their assailant through leaping and pulling near the water’s surface. The most dangerous fish I ever caught here was a mako shark.
The largest ever caught weighed 1100kg
At over 4 metres in length,a thousand pounds in weight, a top speed of 74 km/h and a fearsome mouth filled with long, sharp teeth, this shark was particularly challenging. Sharks are the prize fighters among fish anyway, and the mako shark is the fiercest of all sharks. Sometimes they can jump 10 meters clean of the water, making wild escape attempts where they sometimes play dead. The moment you haul them aboard they suddenly spring back to life, wildly biting and flailing with their tail. One swipe of their fin can cut your leg off. Not a fish for catching without a barbed hook.
The face Goffe, the photographer, has hues of green and yellow and bright, milky glow. Is that a waterfall gushing over his forehead or have the floodgates been opened? The latter seems to be the case. Our courageous but weak-stomached photographer has donated the delicious breakfast buffet of the luxurious Renaissance Hotel Aruba to the ocean’s fish. “Good”, shouts the captain. “Keep it up; it attracts fish.” And so Goffe continues heaving away at his task of feeding the fish, with great reluctance it seems.
The dolphinfish that I am grappling with falls into the category of little big game. Purists among big game fishers turn their noses up to fish in this category, but for beginners like myself, these unbelievably quick and lively little predators are gems for getting the hang of the drill. I, therefore, reel the line in bit-by-bit as I lower the rod downwards before pulling it up again. A movement which is known in big game fishing as pumping, and while I have a comparatively small fish on the end of my line, it is still pretty heavy. The increasingly warm midday sun burns down on me, the sweat dripping down my legs. I am fighting the cramp in my arms. Then the fight is over, as I haul an 8-kilo dolphinfish on board. “Mahi mahi”, says Captain Richard smiling, switching to the Hawaiian name for the fish. “Delicious meat. A delicacy.”
The Old Man and the Sea
The atmosphere is good. I am as pleased as punch with my first catch. I’ve won! I knew how to keep the fish on my line. I feel like Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the best known big game fisherman and once chairman of the Tuna Club of Avalon, the first big game fishing club in the world. In this way, I also like one of Hemingway’s most famous literary characters: the old man from The Old Man and the Sea.
In this novel the man sets out in nothing more than a rickety old wooden rowing boat, and armed with a strong fishing line without a hook, he starts to drill with a giant blue marlin, double the size of his piece of driftwood. A heroic tale in which respect for the fish is central. The ultimate drill. Motivated by this somewhat exaggerated self-image, I enthusiastically catch another dolphinfish and three handsome bonitos, a tuna-like fish with delicious red meat. All the fish disappear into a large wooden box in front of the fighting chair.
Today the sea has undoubtedly given
The water laps and gently passes along the side of the boat. I cut a piece of the dolphinfish with a sharp knife, put it in a bowl of salt water and add some lemon and soy sauce. The acid of the lemon causes the white flesh to turn lighter. I carefully take a bite. No hook this time. It’s delightful…mahi-mahi is delicious.
I’m still hoping for a large marlin or a mako, but it seems another bite on my line is not meant to be. After six hours on the briny waves, it is time for the Dushi to return to the safety of the harbour. Richard is happy with today’s catch and points towards two other boats. “They’ve been given absolutely nothing today.” Given. Captain Richard doesn’t talk about catching, but about giving. A wonderful idea.The sea giveth and the sea taketh away. Today the sea has undoubtedly given.
History of big game fishing
Which catch can be considered the beginning of big game fishing can no longer be accurately stated. The official catch list was opened by W.H. Wood of New York who in 1885 landed two tarpons, weighing 36 and 42 kilos respectively. An incredible achievement given the materials used back then. The fishing line could only be stopped by pressing a piece of leather down onto the reel with the thumb and the fishing lines themselves were
made of braided cotton and sped through salt water. All the great fishing grounds were yet to be discovered. Hemingway fished like a madman in the Gulf Stream and raved about big game fishing in his books. There is certainly one thing most big game fishers can agree on: fish are living creatures that do not need to be needlessly killed but also need to be protected and looked after.