By Jonathan Booysen
THE IGFA’s Billfish Royal Slam Club is one of the most prestigious and revered angling clubs in all of sportfishing, recognising individual anglers who catch — or catch and release — the required nine species of billfish during his or her lifetime. The proviso is, of course, that the catches must be made in line with IGFA rules. Currently only two South Africans hold this prestigious title, namely Trevor Hansen and myself.
The specified species for the Billfish Royal Slam are Atlantic and Indo-Pacific sailfish, Atlantic and Indo-Pacific blue marlin, black marlin, striped marlin, white marlin, swordfish, and spearfish. Catching all these species requires many dedicated hours on the water, several international trips to various locations and obviously a great deal of luck.
The Indo-Pacific sailfish is any light tackle angler’s ultimate fish. This fish is exciting to catch because it comes into one’s trolled spread of small lures with its flanks striped in purple bands and its head and lance-shaped bill half out of the water as it strikes. Then all hell breaks loose as it rushes into the air showing off its large dorsal sail. It’s a sight the angler connected to the other end of the line will never forget.
I caught my first sailfish in January 1995 while looking for marlin livebait off Cape Vidal. At the time I was planning to catch a marlin in an effort to kickstart my ambition to target the many billfish species we have in our waters. The sailie was thus not specifically targeted, and it took a small Sailure I had out for a dorado.
Indo-Pacific sailfish are prolific in hot tropical waters such as those which stretch from the KwaZulu-Natal coast all the way up Africa’s eastern seaboard to Somalia and into the Persian Gulf. The north Kenya coast, specifically off Malindi, has proved to have the most productive sailfishery of this continent’s eastern coast. In fact, it’s not uncommon to have double digit catches of sails during the sailfish season which stretches from October to late January.
Black marlin used to be the bread and butter of South Africa’s pioneer marlin anglers like Tom Woodhouse, Piet Joubert, Piet van Dyk, Erwin Bursik, Casper Walker and the Maree brothers. Almost all fishing was done with livebait and in relatively shallow water from 40m to 200m. Tournaments such as the OET and Billfish 15 000 were dominated by black marlin catches with the odd stripey in between.
Livebaiting became an art form involving catching the often super skittish tuna, keeping it alive and avoiding the sharks and wahoo. I was privileged to witness the latter part of this fishery from 1995 when I hitched rides with the old salts of the marlin game and managed to catch a few myself with my first being in March 1996.
As the billfish bug bit more and more anglers, the number of boats targeting marlin increased dramatically.
Livebaiting took a back seat as lure fishing became the more popular and, dare I say, easier fishing method. The art of catching and keeping bait alive was lost while the lure fishery blossomed. This, coupled with the introduction of 4-stroke motors, made lure trolling more affordable. As a result, more surface area was being covered and deeper waters were being explored. This opened the door to South Africa’s blue marlin fishery.
INDO-PACIFIC BLUE MARLIN
The effectiveness of lure trolling cannot be questioned. In fact, the number of strikes from marlin have increased so dramatically with the advent of lures that even the most hardened livebait anglers hang up their catalinas and leave their bait rods at home in favour of “pulling plastic” around for the day.
Trolling lures effectively did, however, require an adjustment in tackle. Longer and stiffer outriggers were required as well as an arsenal of heavy tackle rods and reels, not to mention the bags and bags of different lures. Probably the biggest change that came about was the shift to larger boats which gave lures a better action and improved results.
One of the first “big boat” marlin tournaments hosted in South Africa was the Black Watch Billfish Tournament fished out of Richards Bay. I managed my first Indo-Pacific blue marlin at the inaugural Black Watch Tournament held in January 2005, and was lucky enough to catch one at the 2006 event too.
This tournament put Richards Bay and its considerable blue marlin fishery on the map and attracted many billfish anglers who had been honing their lure trolling skills. The results are obvious as no less than three grander blue marlin have been weighed in KZN, all caught on lures.
In 2009, the year that I caught my first stripey, there was an influx of striped marlin all the way from northern KZN down to Struisbaai. It was a sight for sore eyes as they had been virtually absent from our waters for nearly a decade. All the billfish tournaments held that year recorded record numbers of strikes.
Unfortunately, due to the feeding habits of these finicky fish which “sword fight” the lure with the tip of their bills, most strikes only last a few seconds before the hooks slide off the bill.
To increase the chances of hooking these stripeys most anglers scaled down their tackle, reducing line class, lure size and hook size. Others focussed their efforts on pulling teasers and using pitch baits with some success.
South Africa’s fishery is a bit of a double-edged sword in that we have so many varied species available to target, but they are all found in the same areas so you never know what is going to show up in your scaled down stripey spread. It could be a small spearfish or a grander blue.
For the Billfish Royal Slam the spearfish is considered the most difficult of the nine species to catch. There are, however, four species which fall under the spearfish family. The most common one is the shortbill spearfish. It is relatively common off the northern KZN coastline, but most anglers head to Hawaii to tick this species off their list. Other spearfish which count for the slam are longbill, Mediterranean and roundscale spearfish.
For the spearfish category of my Royal Slam application I submitted details of a longbill spearfish catch made in May 2016. It was quite a special fish because, according to the geneticists at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), it was the first documented occurrence of a longbill spearfish outside of the Atlantic Ocean. (See the July/August 2016 issue of SKI-BOAT.) That’s why I say it sometimes takes luck to be successful.
Looking at the Richards Bay statistics of shortbill catches from the previous few years, there seems to be a pattern showing that they prefer warmer water of 26- to 28°C during the months of January and February.
When it comes to lures, these fish have got attitude and are not afraid of tackling a big lure. Unfortunately this normally results in a bad hookup rate, so the smaller the lure the better. The average size of the fish is between 10kg and 20kg, so it won’t provide much sport on the average heavy marlin gear.
ATLANTIC BLUE MARLIN AND ATLANTIC SAILFISH
For many years Angola was an unknown billfish destination; skip forward a decade or so and it is now arguably one of the best places in the world to catch record size and numbers of Atlantic sailfish. The 11 current world records, including the All Tackle record of 64.6kg, are a testament to this. Not to be outdone, Angola’s blue marlin fishery is also right up there with the top-rated destinations in the world. Several granders have been caught in Angolan waters and 500 lb to 800 lb fish are common.
I have fished in Angola on two occasions, both times out of the port of Lobito. The first trip was in March 2008 when I fished with my friend Marco Couto on his boat White Marlin. At that stage sailfish mania had not yet taken a grip and crews were mainly using heavy marlin gear, trolling with lures and bait-lure combinations, targeting the abundant blues. On one of the practice days I was lucky enough to be on the rod with a blue of around 400 lb which ticked the box of my first Atlantic species.
In March 2015 I again fished out of Lobito in the 24th FIPS-M World Trolling Championship. It was a real eye-opener because in the few years since my previous visit the fishery had radically changed from being predominantly marlin-focused to being a light tackle sailfish mecca. During the practice days with Carlos Moran on Espirito do Raimundo and during the tournament days my team and I released 32 sailfish.
The style of fishing is typical when it comes to targeting sailfish in that teasers and ballyhoo (halfbeaks) are the order of the day. The teasers included two weighted Squid Nation dredge teasers pulled off the stern cleats and two squid chains pulled through the outriggers. The tackle was 30 lb spinning gear which we used to troll Costa Rican X-rigged halfbeaks and lure-halfbeak combos. The 8/0 and 9/0 circle hooks on 80 lb leaders worked perfectly on the 25kg to 50kg sails that we caught. (See the article “Angolan Bills” in the July 2015 issue of SKI-BOAT.)
For many years I thought of white marlin as an exotic species and believed one had no option but to travel to the USA or some remote Atlantic island for a chance of catching one. A few had, however, been caught in Angola and, on the rare occasion, in the waters off the Cape, but neither was a consistently reliable option.
I then contacted Trevor Hansen who had spent a season in Morocco. He spoke of an incredible white marlin fishery with double digit days up to 19 releases a day. It seemed to be a no brainer — Morocco it would be!
In August 2017 a small group of fishing friends and I arrived in Mohammedia, Morocco. We had booked a four-day trip on one of the local charter boats, but due to a luggage delay our gear only arrived after the second day. As a result we struggled a bit in the beginning, but still managed to release a couple of marlin, and by the end of the trip we had all ticked the white marlin box.
It was mainly a “bait and switch” fishery where boats pull daisy chain teaser and hookless lures until a marlin — sometimes two or three — is raised. Depending on how the fish is behaving, live or dead mackerel are then pitched to the fish.
From our experience, a dead bait/chugger on a 9/0 circle hook with a 100 lb leader worked the best. We were using 30 lb spinning and conventional gear which was perfect considering the fish were in the 25kg to 50kg range.
On a normal day the routine would be to catch mackerel at a marker buoy just outside the harbour. After the livewell was full of decent size bait, we would run about 30km straight off Mohammedia in a depth of 110m to 160m where there were several rips and current lines that held the fish.
There seemed to be a distinct morning bite and an afternoon bite, so it was important to get to the grounds as early as possible.
The final species on the list to complete the Royal Slam was a broadbill swordfish. Swordfish numbers have declined in South African waters to such an extent that it is almost not viable to fish for them. With this in mind, four of us made our way to Watamu, Kenya, where there was a realistic chance of catching a swordfish. As luck would have it, I managed to tick the box on the first night — 22 March 2018.
The fishing method used was to troll at night with a three-rod spread. The lures of choice are softheads with a strip of squid inside them, rigged with two 8/0 hooks set at 180 degrees to one another. A lightstick was attached to the 250 lb leader about 5m up from the bait.
Two rods were fished off the outriggers and one off the downrigger. The downrigger was set at 30m while the two outrigger lines were set at 25m and 45m respectively. Most of the strikes were on the downrigger, but if the fish missed the hooks, they often came back for another shot on the long rigger lure. The trolling speed was about 3-4 knots.
The area we fished was dotted with seamounts between 400m and 650m. When one of the boats had a strike, the other boats immediatey moved into the area as broadbill tend to hold in a small area. Most of the broadbill were on the small side — 10- to 30kg, but we found out that there are a few big fish lurking about in between when Herman Olivier fought a fish for three and a half hours only to have the hook pull a few metres from the boat.
In total it took me 23 years to complete my Billfish Royal Slam and I am proud to be the first person to have caught all the species from the African continent. Sincere thanks to my father and all my fishing friends who have spent countless hours with me on the water; without them it would not have been possible, nor would it have been any fun.