(Originally published in the July 2020 issue of SKI-BOAT)
By Duarte Rato; photos by Duarte Rato and Gretha de Wet
IT was another sunny, flat calm, winter day on the banks, but at these latitudes that means little. The sun was merciless; the speed and intensity on the boat was extreme. With all the tackle and bait rigging, hookups and releases we’d done I overlooked ensuring I had enough water and shade. For the first time in thirty-odd years of fishing the tropics I experienced sunstroke.
However the 22 sailfish we released out of 42 raised for the day made up for it. Multiple, triple and even an insane quintuple hookup filled our day. We also released many other gamefish including big wahoo, dogtooth, GTs and yellowfin tuna up to 35kg.
Worn-out, we finally headed back to the yacht for a shower and a well-deserved drink. We watched the sun set from the bow, light spinning outfit in one hand and a GT-ice cream in the other. First cast and I had a hookup on yet another saily… I thought I had died and gone to sailfish heaven!
A few years ago a regular client-friend who has fished with us at Bazaruto aboard Vamizi for over fifteen years told me about the remarkable numbers of sailfish they were seeing on their annual winter popping trip to Madagascar.
He promptly invited me to join him and guide them to target sailfish specifically, but due to other commitments I was only able to do so in July 2018.
Less than ten minutes into that trip we had a pack attack and it never really slowed down. My client certainly hadn’t been exaggerating, and the numbers we racked up were well beyond our expectations. Despite being woefully unprepared, with a substantial lack of bait and with the other anglers still getting acquainted with the our system, we still released well over 200 gamefish including 61 sailfish in the five fishing days.
We headed back there in winter 2019 and this time we were as ready as we could possibly be. Unfortunately conditions were not as agreeable as they’d been the previous year. With unseasonal wind and green water, the first five days were inconsistent, producing only 42 sailfish. Thankfully the weather improved for the last five days when we released 63, making it a total of 105 releases for the ten-day trip.
Overall, in the 15 days we fished the banks we released 166 sailfish, not to mention all the other hundreds of gamefish we caught and released!
As impressive as these sailfish numbers are, they are substantially deflated by the vast diversity of other species that proliferate on the banks. When you’re exclusively using circle hooks on light mono leaders (which increase cut offs), one still loses considerable time fighting an array of other species. These include great barracudas (which are a pest), bonitos (which are welcome for strip baits), wahoo, dorado, yellowfin tuna, dogtooth tuna, skipjack, green jobfish, rainbow runners and giant trevally. They’re all sought-after gamefish, but we were really there for the sailies.
The Castor Banks start roughly 45 miles from Nosy Be so a live aboard operation is the only realistic way to fish there. The best times to target these fish, which we experienced to be in the 20- to 65kg range (30-35kg average), is during the southern hemisphere winter months — between May and August. This is also when the weather is at its best on the banks.
We used Bossi Adventures, with our motherboat being an exceptionally well maintained 53ft Royal Cape Majestic. The yacht provides very comfortable individual berths and heads for five anglers, along with a comfortable dining area. The fishing boat is a 38ft Supercat; with its ample 16ft beam, it’s the ideal platform to set a wide spread and handle the regular multiple hookups. The minimal white water its wake creates allows for the short baits and teasers to work at their best.
Fishing there is an adventure of a lifetime which we highly recommend to any angler, especially from South Africa, as getting to Nosy Be is a breeze with Airlink’s weekly direct four-hour flights.
This is one trip where team work is critical; taking as many mates with as possible not only makes it more affordable, but also becomes a huge advantage. You’re still going to catch heaps of fish and the extra hands make all the difference.
The five Malagasy crew are professional, friendly, helpful and willing — really great guys. However, they lack the appropriate tackle and finesse to run our set up which gives you the best opportunity to tap into the area’s incredible sailfish potential.
To make the most of it, be prepared to carry lots of tackle along and carefully plan all the logistics. Do your homework, talk to the operation managers and crew beforehand, pre-rig as much as you can, take along all the essential tackle (which is most of it) and the duty free booze you’re allowed. Make sure the crew pre-buys enough local fresh bait, brines them in coarse salt and freezes them in stacks of ten before your arrival. Nothing must be left unattended.
If you’re not comfortable with all the prep work and this style of fishing, hiring a specialised guide will take most of this weight off your shoulders and maximise your chances when fishing.
I could tell a hundred stories of our trips, but let’s rather look at the preparation, setup and techniques that have worked for us …
On the first trip all the chaotic bait and terminal rigging on the boat sort of spoiled it for me. Catching, cutting and rigging a hundred plus strip baits a day plus snelling hooks, tying leaders, releasing fish and everything else leaves little time to actually concentrate on the fishing, and sailfishing is all about visual awareness…
Pre-rigging before your trip is paramount to enjoying and making the most of it.
To start with spool 30 lb braid backing on to four spinning reels (Stellas, Sagarosas 12– to 20 000 or similar) with a 100m, low diameter, high vis 30 lb mono top shot. If you have one or two extra spools fill those up too and take them along. Extra braid and especially extra mono is advised as the top shots get abused quickly and we tend to change them regularly. Spinning reels have the disadvantage of line twist, so make sure to dump, stretch and untwist your line at the end or beginning of each day. To help on multiple hookups we prefer to use two different hi-vis color top shots on the four outfits.
Pre-rig 200 sailfish leaders for a week and take spare hooks and leaders. This might sound excessive for a weeklong trip, but believe me it’s not!
Our circle hook of choice is the 8/0 Eagle Claw Billfish and we use a 3m #100 mono leader. We tie an additional 2m leader from the short double line to the swivel (or use a wind-on). We prefer to use the long leader so that our top leader (wind-on) does not chafe and frequently need replacement. We also do that so that after the numerous toothy cut offs one can just tie another hook on to the leader. Our ball bearing snap swivels are size #4 Centros.
We rig three different colour daisy chain teasers (one spare) and have an additional Squidnation Flippy-Floppy on hand. Then there are all the Halcos, Speedpros, bait and daisy chains to remember, as well as all the spinning and jigging outfits with spoons, bucktails and dropshot gear to use while fishing on the mothership at night.
Buy lots of #30 lb wax thread, thin but strong and short rigging needles, at least 100 oval chin weights, a couple of pairs of scissors and a long sharp knife. You’ll also need sixty squid skirts to put over bellyshine — Big-T lures makes a number of good ones to use in different conditions. Basically you must get everything you need to make bait rigging fast, effective, smooth and easy.
We tweaked and changed small things according to wind, sea conditions and fish behaviour, but our program and spread was invariably the same. This setup works for us at Bazaruto and did well off Madagascar too.
We run two extra-long lines from the outriggers on pre-distance-set, dacron rigger loops. It’s crucial to use those as it speeds up the process of setting the lines; elastic bands stretch on a bite, making them impractical. The rigger clips must be set as light as possible so that they open up at the slightest pull. We use black clips as they work better with the loops and are more sensitive than roller trollers.
We use our bigger reels and 7’ 6” rods on the longs and the baits are staggered. The left — small to medium size swimming ballyhoo (halfbeaks) — is on a longer line with a 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 ounce chin weight (depending on bait size and sea conditions). The right is a similar bait or a lure and strip-bait combination.
There are numerous internet sites showing how to rig these swimming ballyhoos. We prefer to use the cross above the head method. It’s practical to rig and easy to use, as one only has to insert the circle hook point across the center of the X and the pre-rigged bait is ready to go. (See pics A and B.)
The two short lines are on the smaller reels and short jigging rods, also with pre-set dacron loops. I like the short rods so one can fish off the rod tip. On bad weather days (rare) we put the dacron loop on a piece of wire attached to the transom (pic C).
Again the left is set slightly longer with a chin-weighted medium- to big swimming ballyhoo. This is set just before the left teaser — a green Moldcraft reverse-rigged squid daisy chain trailing a black/purple Iland Express rigged on 400 lb mono.
The right short line is run very short, with a skipping lure/strip bait combination just before our right teaser. For this teaser we use an electric pink Squidnation Flippy-Floppy with a blue/pink Express.
The teasers are run from the boat’s #80 Tiagra reels which are bracket-mounted on the bridge. The lines run through the rigger’s middle halyards on a solid ring and are operated by the captain. It’s important that those teasers are short enough to hang from the outrigger or put inside the boat as soon as possible when a sailfish is in hot pursuit. It can prove very difficult for a fish to switch to a bait if any of the teasers are still in the water. We prefer using the Iland lures for teasers as the skirts are not easily chopped by the ever-present razor gang. However, make sure you take spares for cut offs.
Using a dredge on a downrigger down the middle certainly gives you an edge, but they are heavy and cumbersome to take with and, again, toothy critters do become a nonsense.
The drags are set fairly light at about 8 lb. The reel’s bail arm is left open, with a short piece of wire tied to the reel seat and holding the line in place while trolling (see pic D).
There are clips you can buy and cable tie to your rod just above the reel for this purpose, but we have found the wire pieces work just fine.
The theory is that once there is a strike the wire opens and creates an automatic drop back. The angler then picks up the rod, slowly counts to four, closes the bail arm, winds leisurely and voila — the circle should set right in the corner of the mouth. It’s a KISS (keep it simple stupid) technique that works even for the most inexperienced angler. No backlashes or heavy thumbs.
Once the fish finishes its first run one can tighten the drag. However, you need to check how much of a turn you can apply on each specific reel beforehand, as different brands of spinning reels differ immensely. We find a light drag works best to wear out these speedsters, and only push it up when they dig in deep.
We also have an additional two standby pitching rods. We use Trinidad 16s, but a spinning reel or a TLD 25 works just as well. They are kept ready in the chair gimbals, ready to go with a strip bait.
It really depends how many anglers and deckhands you have on the boat, but these are extremely handy when a pack shows up, and we have raised well in excess of fifteen fish at a time on previous trips. In many instances one or two anglers failed to hookup, pulled the line in with a sanchoco (bait head), grabbed a pitch rod and baited and hooked a fish (or two) trying to eat the paint work out of the transom.
The deckhand and guide are also there to hook extra fish. That’s how you’re going make every chance count — and enjoy the total chaos it provides.
MAXIMIZING YOUR CHANCES
On very windy days — a rarity in winter — we might take our longs out. The wind can easily make them tangle on the teasers while dropping after a bite. In that case we only put out the two teasers and two short lines, and have four standby pitch baits. We only deploy those when the sailies show up on the teasers.
You can also choose to put lures with J-hooks on the longs, but those provide a terrible hookup ratio and thus many lost opportunities.
Overall our system has worked very well for us — someone is always ready with more baits on a miss, a single angler can easily hookup two fish in a pack attack and, every angler will be busy and have a go when the sailies come in thick. And those two extra-long lines regularly make all the difference, picking up fish that have faded from the teasers as well as lots of lonely or double cruising fish that most likely would otherwise not have shown up on the teasers.
The downfall of this system, especially on the Castor Banks where the razor gang are wild, is that one goes through a lot of gear and, more importantly, our most important commodity — bait. We rigged and went through 60 to 100-plus baits a day, but that’s a small price to pay for the frenzy of a lifetime.
BAIT IS PARAMOUNT
Bait management should be your foremost priority. On my first trip there we were caught with our pants down, and our teeny bait supply of 50 half-rotten tiny halfbeaks only lasted to the morning of the second day. For the rest of the trip we had to resort to catching bonnies for bellyshine (strip baits), and could not keep up with the bait demand.
We resorted to J-hook lures on the longs and our strike to release ratio suffered immensely — never to be done again! On the lures we also caught many more doggies, wahoo, barracuda and other species which was extremely time consuming.
On my second trip, we had 500 perfect size, freshly caught halfbeaks. It was not enough for the ten days, but we made it up with the fresh bait we caught on a daily basis.
Always make sure you have ample bait and freeze whatever fresh bait is left over from the day. You never know how much you’re going to need on any given day, and this can be the difference between failure and success.
We constantly ran a flat short rod with a TLD 25 on a Scotty rod holder with a weighted small Pulsator daisy chain to top up our supply of fresh bonito belly shine. If we were desperate we used two, keeping them short, deep and out of the way.
Aside from catching us fresh bait, we had many sailfish come up on this outfit first and foremost. It proved to be a great additional teaser and works like a dinner bell. We have since upgraded the hooks and system and catch many sailfish on this bait rod as well.
THE NEED FOR SPEED…
It’s a numbers game and, the need for speed is vital to optimise the biting times. Although you normally have action throughout the day on the banks the sailfish tend to turn on and off twice every day. Unlike most places, and as a general rule, they seem to lull around the tide changes and be at their hottest in between.
A well-organised boat is paramount to keep things flowing swiftly. Manage your bait and make sure they’re ready to go as needed. Traces, needles, chin weights, skirts, wax thread, gloves, pliers, knifes (all of which you need to take yourself), need to have a set place in the cockpit and everyone should know their place. When fish are hooked new baits should be rigged on new traces by the deckhands or any other available hands while the fighting is taking place so that they’re ready to go as soon as you can start trolling again.
This kind of fishing is all about team work and that is what makes it such fun.
As I mentioned earlier, a minimum of three, but preferably five anglers with an additional deckhand is ideal to optimise your chances. With a 16ft beam, the 38ft Supercat provides ample space for six people on the deck.
The numbers help you make the most of your chances, especially when you get those crazy pack attacks. If you want to rack up your catches then achieving multiple hookups is crucial.
In a pack attack the captain needs to work the teasers in quickly, and at the same time work the wheel around the first hookup to provide ample time for others. Each angler and deckhand should know what to do and work in unison — some watching the long lines, and ideally two anglers holding the shorts on their index fingers, ready to drop when the bite comes and others ready to throw the pitch baits if necessary.
The deckhands need to keep watch over it all, helping where necessary and making sure lines are not crossed when all hell breaks loose. While the anglers are fighting the deckhands must get ready to set up again quickly after the releases, to make the most of the bite time.
ROUND THE CLOCK FISHING
Bear in mind that these are hard core, action-packed days that start shortly after a sunrise breakfast on the yacht and finish just before sunset. However, as tired as one is at night, the ocean is all around you and fishing from the yacht in the evening can be just as exciting. After a shower and a drink it’s hard to refrain from throwing a line in the water.
We hooked a wide diversity of species around sunset and sunrise. After dark we would put out some livebait and drift lines while eating dinner, and caught GTs, sharks and big snappers to name a few. Schools of trevally invariably feed around the yacht well into the night and we had a ball catching them on light spinning tackle.
On many occasions I woke up before dawn and put out a dropshot, jig or bucktail, catching jobfish, snapper, triggerfish and other species that would be a record anywhere else. So make sure to take some light spinning rods (we used Aerocasts with 5 000 Stellas and #20 braid) and plenty of spoons, ice creams, bucktails, drop shots, yo-zuris and the likes for round the clock fishing.
You’ll go home exhausted but fully satisfied after a week or two of surreal fishing.
On arrival at Nosy Be you will be transferred to the yacht and depart early the next morning, giving you a half day’s fishing. If you book for a week-long trip you fish for four consecutive days plus another half morning on the return day. If you choose to do two weeks you will get a total of ten fishing days as the boats need to come back for a night to get supplies and refuel.
For reservations or any other information feel free to contact Duarte Rato <email@example.com>.