(Originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of Ski-Boat magazine)
By Adam Waites
Photos courtesy of Ian Steed and Brian Rhoades
THE call from a good mate came out of the blue: “Would you like to fish and deckhand on a sportfisher in Morocco this white marlin season? I would go but I’m working.”
Would I ever! There was one slight problem, though — I knew next to nothing about these fish and only slightly more about billfishing in general.
All I knew was that white marlin elicited a certain dedication among those fishing for them and command the biggest tournament prize purses in the world. Although I’ve been lucky enough to catch one or two sailies thanks to the Vidal Express, and a couple of semi-decent tuna along the way, this presented a major step up from my usual light tackle gamefishing and surf launches.
And that was how I found myself sitting in SKI-BOAT magazine’s office with the legendary Erwin Bursik. We were soon deep in a conversation in which I struggled my way through the details of sportfishing terminology and tactics. It’s easy to lose focus when you’re in there as the office is a treasure trove of old photos, huge mounts, dangling lures and even a few museum piece rods hidden at the back. It was an awesome way to kick off my crash course into this kind of fishing and I was lucky enough to leave the office with a stack of marlin-centred reading material. This included two rare gems — old Billfish University textbooks which had some awesome tips and starting points and Erwin’s parting advice that I find Captain Stuart Simpson (of Kenya and Cape Verde fame) and ask him for tips.
I struggled to find further information on the fishery (at least, written in English), but a few unexpected quarters provided some great insight. I’m an avid follower of fellow South African angler and SKI-BOAT magazine contributor, Jono Booysen’s fishing blog. He’s the only guy ever to catch an IGFA slam (all nine billfish) solely in Africa, and back in the archives I found his blog about his trip to Morocco.
Now he was definitely polite on it, but reading between the lines of his log made me realise this experience would carry multiple challenges both on and off the water. Craig Thomassen’s Inside Angling blog also held some info on the area which came in handy but had uncannily similar hidden depths!
With a little bit of research done, I set off from Durban and arrived a day later in Casablanca to meet the boat’s owner and my fellow crew. Our early days were certainly a crash course on local norms. These included strange moments like regularly eating dinner at 1-2am, truly insane roads, and seeing a bit more of the area and local customs than I’d expected.
STRANGE BUT TRUE
One of these was Eid al-Adha, where every family in the country sacrifices a sheep and has a big family feast. It’s a bit of an interesting one when this takes place in your apartment block and there are sheep lined up in the garden with guys walking around covered in blood!
While Morocco has a lot of similarities to South Africa, the whole vibe is completely different and much more chaotic. One thing that became clear was that nothing was ever really as it seemed or as expected. This became evident the first time we got a chance to go out and grab a local beer. We followed directions to a grimy industrial area around the main port to find the Casablanca Seaman’s Society. On a dark, austere corner, lines of expensive German vehicles clustered around a heavy wooden door. Through this we were shocked to find a stunning garden courtyard and open (as well as cheap) bar packed with locals and expats. This was just our first indication that things might not be as they appeared…
What followed seemed like a never-ending cycle of boat maintenance, tackle preparation and truly bizarre tasks. One day the guys ended up on a fruitless eight-hour tour of the city searching for various parts. The next day we were sitting in the front row of a local customary equestrian event. After all this we just couldn’t wait to get out on the water! Finally we managed to spend a few days getting to know the area, and we soon worked out a few early specifics.
The Moroccan white marlin action really occurs in a 35 mile dogleg of gradually rising surface gradient with very little structure or dropoff. This generally runs from north-east to south-west down from off Rabat to west of Mohammedia, the port of call for the fleet. We found that while we had a few red letter days in shallower water and further south, the real hotspot of the action was off Rabat, a run in the 40 mile range. However, we were told by some of the local anglers that sometimes through the season the action did move down along the dogleg until it was a relatively close run at 0 degrees.
Though we had a good few days in the 120-140m range, the bigger shoals of fish and the bait definitely were more prolific in the 140-180m range. This was especially true where the contours bunched up with a bit of a steeper gradient. Captain Thomas Holmes put us right on the action, marking bait aggregations in the deep and working around these, pulling the packs of marlin up into the spread. When the marlin are baitballing with whales and dolphins on the surface it is a stunning sight, but it can be challenging to distract them from the real action and get them into the spread.
All of us were lucky enough to tick this species off the bucketlist and we got a few double-ups along the way.
If a sailfish is just a dorado with a bill, I would agree with the Americans who say the white marlin really is more like a plus-sized, jumping wahoo. They make blistering runs, changing direction on a dime and careening around the boat. They also seem to have different personalities. Some come straight to the boat before giving you gears on the leader, others greyhound off into the distance before tiring, and every now and then there is what we called, the “fris” bugger. After a few jumps these would sound straight down and use their full 40-50kg body weight to sit in the current and make the angler really work to get them up.
We started by running lures based on firstmate Chris Hill and skipper Thomas’s huge experience of fishing for a range of billfish worldwide. Furthermore, a quick stop at the port marker buoy yielded strings of macks and mozzies, providing a ready source of pitch- and livebait if needed.
A spread that worked really well for us was as follows:
A) Short right — Big T/Black Magic Zippy Skippy in purple or pink running behind a pink Squid Nation daisy chain/Pulsator spreader on the bridge teasers/flat teaser.
B) Short Left — Big T Super Lumo or Marlin Star Tomahawk in purple and orange running behind a Pulsator spreader bar or Moldcraft Wide Ranger Dorado on the bridge teaser/flat teaser.
C) Long Right — Black Bart Run Cay Candy or SevenStrand. Basically any longer bullet head-style lure with a slight cup in a pink or purple.
D) Long Left — Old Williamson Hacksaw Offcentre in pink.
(See diagram 1 alongside.)
We got what we thought were decent initial numbers, going 4-6, 4-7 and 3-7 on three successive days. We also managed to get stuck into a few dorado pack attacks. There are big shoals of roaming dorries in the area, and these are almost always bus fish. We stuck a few in the 14-18kg range but we also saw a good few in the 20-30kg range. Definitely welcome bycatch.
TACTICS TO TRY AT HOME
As an aside, judging from the catches and hit rate we were getting, we all agreed that this sort of medium- to small range lure spread would be highly effective back home. I’m guessing in calmer water it would be particularly effective on the smaller billfish such as juvenile blacks, stripeys, spearfish and sailies up north. It would also be quite easy to manage and run well on the smaller boats we are on in SA and would clean up the usual tablefare dorries and wahoo.
Switching out to a few jets and bullets on the longs would do damage to the tuna as well.
There’s also the option to add a shotgun daisy chain for bycatch or bait. I think this spread — run with a few halfbeak and japmack swim/skipbaits instead of lures — would be deadly.
So we had this waxed, right? Two slightly worrying things took place that made us not so sure. The first red flag came from the captain of the most successful boat in the marina. He looked at our lure rigs one morning, shook his head and, in a deep French accent, said “It’s no good.” The second red flag was my first meeting with Captain Stuart Simpson who said, “Wait for it guys, you don’t have any clue how much these fish can mess with your head!”
We found out what he was talking about when we were joined by two great guys for a few days — Brian Rhoades and Ian Steed, from the Mount Maunganui Sportsfishing Club in New Zealand. One of the most frustrating fishing days of our lives ensued. The whites gave us a serious lesson as we lost nearly every hookup, shattering our illusion of having a sorted out game plan!
Unfortunately we learned the hard way that in this case lure spreads would be a dead end! When the marlin settle in a bit after arriving back from their migration it’s extremely difficult to get good hookup numbers on lures and you miss a lot on skittish follows and half-hearted swats. We had only led ourselves far down the wrong path with the methods we were using.
After seeing some of Stuart’s previous seasons’ footage (with narrated advice), getting tips from other captains at the marina and going back to Jono’s blog, we knew we had to change our tactics entirely to what had been proven to work time and time again. The only way to really get the real numbers (and avoid a total mental breakdown) was by greatly simplifying matters.
White marlin are not big fish and seemed to get a bit confused/scared by a bigger spread. They are a lot more wary and fade off quickly when there is too much action. Also, when they have too much to focus on the pitchbait gets lost in the action. We could see from experience that they came in multiple times when one- to three simple, hookless teasers were presented to them. With less to focus on they also stuck around a lot longer and became more and more aggressive — a perfect time to pitch a well-placed mackerel. We also got better results and more interest with green gear as the locals said they just seem to be dialled into this colour.
The real trick, as we had been told, lay with the tease pitch. This was how we found ourselves pulling a spread with two hookless Moldcraft Wide Rangers and at times one flat long teaser around the ocean while standing against the gunnel, dead mackerel in hand. (See diagram 2 below.)
It seemed totally counterintuitive at first to fish without having a hook in the water, but it soon became evident that we were on the money as our catch totals shot up. Again, Morocco showed us that nothing is as it seems!
When pitching for whites it is absolutely crucial to be 100% focused and ready at all times — something that really applies to all billfishing. It’s not a case of having a 500 lb blue crashing into the spread; whites can come up almost invisibly, blacked out in full stealth mode. In certain light conditions this makes them almost impossible to spot. In this case, you need to be focused on the slightest details from any angle. A strange pop of the lure, a few centimetres of bill or a lit up fin, spotted briefly at a certain angle, could be all the indication you get. It’s not uncommon for these to only be visible from down in the cockpit.
If you want to get that crucial first pitch in when visiting, that means being ready and waiting with eyes on the water; polarised glasses are an absolute must. It’s also easy for your brain to trick you into thinking you are seeing marlin; rather pick up the rod and have a second look as very often they’ll actually be there! I would also recommend trying to look slightly across the cockpit at the teasers on your opposite side because in certain light conditions this helps in catching more of those small details. (See diagram 3 alongside.) The guys who get bored and don’t pay attention don’t get as many fish, that’s for sure.
When a lit up marlin is confirmed and comes up onto the teaser, a carefully choreographed team play unfolds. As one deckhand or the captain teases the fish in (speed dependent on how aggressive it is) the anglers on deck pitch at the incoming fish. If the bait skips, they won’t attack it as much. If it goes past the marlin, you’ve likely blown the chance. It needs to “swim” in the clearer patches under the water’s surface down past the incoming teaser so the marlin can switch on to it. When all goes to plan, it practically looks like a trout bite as the lit up fish seems to almost sip the mackerel down. Deadbaits work way better for this, and you don’t even have to rig them up much — a 10/0 circle through both lips is more than enough.
From there it’s a quick freespool with thumb on the drum — three to seven seconds max. It’s tempting to want to give it more time, but the marlin often felt the hook and dropped or spat the bait when they were given too long. They also sometimes don’t realise they have the hook in them, and come back for more action on the teasers. In this case it’s easy to drop the bite when they are heading and facing directly towards you with no corner to act as a hookset for the circle. If the marlin misses or spits the bait, you can wind it in and drop it back again and it often gets smashed by a following fish.
Once you go on with one, you can keep trying with another pitch or throw out a livey. There are almost always fired up fish just out of sight which have been attracted to the commotion and are looking for a free meal. Using this trick, it’s not uncommon to have two or even four marlin on at a time.
It took us a while to get this system going right, but we soon got into some great action at solid hit rates. Throw in a good few double ups, and Brian and Ian got stuck into some great sized fish. With the marlin’s acrobatics they also got fantastic photos which accompany this article. After they started the long journey home we also had a few days with seasick or tired guests which basically turned into fun days for the crew which gave us even more chance to get to grips with the basics of the system.
I’m confident that anyone following a similar method, based entirely as it is on all the hard work the local guys have done over the years, would have a basis to also get solid results. We newbies couldn’t quite match the regular guys just yet, as the amount of fish they get and how dialled in they have their system is pretty unreal.
OFF THE WATER ATTRACTIONS
Off the water there is also plenty to do, and there is loads of tourism info available out there. Mohammedia, the home base, is pretty much the Moroccan equivalent of a Margate or Scottburgh. It’s packed with local tourists enjoying the beach and an awesome shorebreak but not exactly fireworks and ancient minarets. The only difference is that you won’t find a camel coming up to investigate you in a sleepy SA beach town!
I would definitely recommend booking a few days on either side of your fishing trip to explore further into the country and see this unique culture. The hospitality can be truly special at times and the food is out of this world — fresh and bursting with flavour. Just be careful because, as with all countries, there are some people out there who can be a bit on your case or try to scam you. One of the common tricks we saw was guys following us around a tourist site or airport, and then demanding a “tour fee”. Aside from on the roads which are hectic, there was never a time where we felt remotely unsafe.
If this sounds like a trip for you, I would recommend you speak to a South African who has been there. Reading blogs or chatting to people like Stuart Simpson, Jono Booysen or Trevor Hansen will give you great insight into the best way to properly organise a trip from South Africa to Morocco, and the pitfalls to avoid.
Getting a straight, direct answer in Morocco can at times be extremely difficult. As with any charter industry, there are some shenanigans going on. Be educated going in so you don’t have to deal with and be disappointed by this. It is also not as cheap as you might be led to believe; in some places you are looking at around R300 for three beers.
Having said that, there are also some truly world class options. The best boats to try get on are One More (highly professional and probably the best in the fleet), Capri with Captain Stuart Simpson, Solena (they have multiple boats and a great young team) or the Devil’s Pride and Nemo charter boats. The prices range from US$700 to US$1 800 a day, but ticking off a white and going on to get multiple fish is almost guaranteed with these guys within a few days. Some of these boats almost exclusively fish IGFA World Records on super light line classes so getting a free date is not set in stone. (See Stuart Simpson’s article in January 2019 issue of SKI-BOAT on catching white marlin on 2 lb line.)
Even as the plane took off into the dusty sunset for the start of my trip home, I had mixed feelings about Morocco.
This was both an exciting and very challenging trip, one which felt like my own “Billfish University”, although billfish primary school might be a bit more appropriate! However, when it comes down to it, the feeling of spotting and getting a pitch right on a lit-up white marlin is indescribably electric. Once you’ve had the chance to do it you’ll see the reason for the big bucks put up and you’ll feel like your (mis)adventures in Morocco have all been worth it!
Adam is more than happy to assist regarding tips, contacts and advice for this fishery. Contact him on <firstname.lastname@example.org>.