By Ryan Nienaber
WHEN you mention Mount Vema to Cape Town yellowtail fishermen, it’s akin to mentioning a unicorn to a small child. This is the place where everything is possible. Dreams of 50kg-plus yellowtail can easily become a reality, and from what I have now seen this area may well hold the biggest yellowtail in the world.
The sea mount is located 525nm due west of Cape Town, and rises from 5 000m to 26m in a matter of metres. The bank itself extends for several miles and holds lots of ground between 40- and 120m, with areas of pinnacles that come shallower. The water is bluer and clearer than any I have seen before, and the water temperature averages 21.5°C. The currents are more confusing than any I have ever encountered before, with drifts that you simply could not replicate.
Our trip was planned on the spur of the moment — a team of seven of us would head out there on a converted 84ft racing yacht (now fitted with a motor and with the mast removed). The goal was to explore Vema and set the bounds of recreational fishing possibilities.
The first weather gap was predicted to be between 15 February and 15 March 2021, so we had to be on standby for a day’s notice. On 24 February we saw the weather was looking promising for calm seas on Vema in three days’ time, and although strong south easterly winds and big seas prevailed around Cape Point on 25 February, we set off.
We departed from Simons Town. Swell was 3.5m and there was a 25 knot south-easterly wind gusting at 30+ knots.
Cruising at a speed of around 8.5 knots we pulled lines from the get go. We got one strike of a tuna, but the hook pulled near the boat. We were not phased and spent this time prepping tackle and talking big stories of what was to come.
Strong sea conditions prevailed, from behind with a 20-30 knot south-easterly blowing, and 3-4m seas.
After two nights at sea it was refreshing to wake up, and see that by 9h00 we only had 270nm to go. The distance is mind boggling; it’s as if the horizon is simply not getting any closer. There is only so much you can do to keep entertained — lots of eating and tackle prep and lying down, along with some good stories from memory lane.
At 11h50, with 253nm to go, one of the rods let off a metre of line, we all heard it and looked back into the huge following sea, to sea a giant from the deep surfing down the swell. Bang and a massive marlin was on! That turned out to be the fastest I have ever seen a Tiagra 80W be totally stripped clean!
I had caught a 500 lb marlin just two days before in Struisbaai, but this dwarfed that fish. With my limited marlin experience I feel it could have gone 1 000 lb, but we will never know and he lives on to make another fisherman’s dream come true.
The weather started showing signs of easing up, and the first fish found its way to the deck — a couple of flying fish; a great sign that we were heading into fishy waters.
9h15 85nm to destination
18h15 20nm to destination
20h20 Arrival on Mount Vema
We scouted around for some shallower areas, and put in the parachute for the evening.
Game time! After waking up to good seas, we decided to move around the area a little in search of pinnacles that we could fish on, and simply try to understand a small section of this underwater paradise.
We put out two rappies and steamed around. In less than three minutes both rods took off with yellowtail. Before those fish could be brought to the boat and released, the ocean around us changed colour from electric blue to yellow, as the tightly packed fish schooled past.
It was literally drop for drop with whatever you could throw at them. Young yellowtail in the 2–4kg size were clearly hungry and grabbed at anything. We could have stayed there and plugged away at them all day, but that was not why we went to Vema.
We left those young ’tail biting and moved around a bit to the 40–60m water. Although the area looked much flatter, the fishfinder showed lots of fish holding in the area. The top half were smaller fish, and the big boys were down below on the floor.
We started working vertical jigs on the bottom and soon the first better fish started coming out in the 18–20kg size range. After a quick photo they were back in the water.
The boat was clearly not rigged for fishing, but no one cared; the fish were keeping us all busy. After a while our arms felt like they where falling off, so we took a unanimous decision to go on the troll and look for shallow pinnacles.
We found some bumps shooting from 50m to 25m and put in a net hoping to catch a crayfish for dinner. While we waited, we took the opportunity to jump in for a quick spearfish. To my surprise, two wahoo swam past me. I tried to chase them down and politely herded them to David who was waiting with sniper-like precision and bagged us some sashimi to go with the three crayfish we netted. A couple of young yellowfin which came by put the cherry on top for the day. Back on board we put out the parachute for the night as Vema is notorious for cutting anchors loose.
The original plan was to fish through the night, but everyone was simply too broken from the day’s fishing to even try.
We woke up to calm flat seas, with under 5 knots of wind. What more can one ask for on an adventure trip 500nm out to sea?
In the morning when we looked at our drift from the night, we had done an almost perfectly circular drift. The current on Vema is next level and something I have never experienced before — strong and irregular, changing direction all the time.
Before we had even switched on the motor and moved up to the fishing area we wanted to target for the day, the jigs where already vas. We saw a handful of small tail darting erratically in and out under the hull which seemed very peculiar, but we soon realised what their problem was. A dark shadow came after them — a marlin of around 400 lb — simply herding them under the boat trying to get his breakfast.
I caught my first five finger fish that morning. It was a novelty catch, 2–4kg in size, but how many people can say they’ve caught a five finger?
The day was filled with many new species for all of us:
Blue Nose ±5kg
Five Finger Fish ±3 kg
Big Eye Tuna ±30kg
The fishing was so good that David whipped out his fly-rod. I can’t remember exactly, but he caught something like five yellowtail in five casts on fly —truly magical.
While steaming around we saw a long rope on the surface that seemed to disappear into the depths. We guessed it was an old anchorage, so we tied up for the evening in about 40m of water. She held strong and saved us the effort of having to put in a parachute for the evening.
The morning greeted us with rain, 15-20 knot winds and a massive ground swell. Through the night we had swung around and now lay in 80m of water. Due to the bad weather we decided to spend the day on anchor, on that same spot.
This turned out to be the most ridiculous day of fishing. The sheer quantity of fish we caught was unfathomable. Drop your jig, flip over, one jig, vas, reel up, release and repeat — literally all day long. I’m not sure if it was due to us being on anchor or if a big school of fish simply stuck with us all day.
With the fish being so wild, I tried every thing in my tackle box, from drop shots, spinners and buck tail, to just a skirt over a bear hook, it all worked. It was amazing to fish with such confidence that you just knew you were going to catch no matter what you did.
Kyle and I were having a small competition to win a limo ride to see who could catch the most fish in ten minutes. We went drop for drop, neck and neck with each other, eventually only dropping our jig 6-8m so that we could catch faster than the other one. It was down to the wire, fish for fish even, until one of us dropped a fish while lifting it over the side, then the winner was crowned.
We had some turtles come and visit us during the day and even caught a small wreck fish of about 10kg. That night some maasbanker came up under the lights of the boat. I caught a few and dropped big livebaits through the night in the hope of catching my monster.
Mike hooked up a ’tail on a Tiagra 50W, and he simply could not stop it, even with that sized gear. It ended in sad stories as his line got zigzagged thought the reef until the fish eventually fouled and parted the line.
Waking to good seas with no swell, we worked around the shallow areas. Everyone had had their fill from the previous day and both gear and men where worn down.This was to be the most enjoyable day of the trip for me.
We caught a couple of wahoo on the troll in the morning while moving up to the area, followed by a good few yellowtail in the 20kg size range on jig.
I suited up and jumped in for a spearfish, once again seeing the odd wahoo, schools of free swimming yellowfin and big eye tuna, and five finger fish distributed through the height of the water column.
After a couple of drifts we located a series of big rocks that we could see from the surface. These boulders rose 10–15m from the surroundings and really held the fish. The current was very strong, and dropping down to 20m on a single breath proved challenging.
I saw yellowtail that I believe to be the new world record, pushing what I estimate were 50–60kg. Like the boss of the rock, when one of them moved on all the younger ’tail shied away. One fish in particular I saw a few times; I recognised him by a small mark on his lower jaw. An absolute bus, he knew how to keep his distance and effortlessly swam into the current as I tried with all my will to move into a spearfish-able position. It was not to be. I had many opportunities on yellowtail that would have been 20–30kg in size, but after seing that giant I could think of nothing else.
Once I was back to the boat, Mike wanted to scuba dive on the pinnacles we had found and was looking for a dive buddy. I pounced at the opportunity because I doubt that very many people have ever had the chance to scuba dive on Vema and understand the sea floor there.
As we descended through this perfect clear blue water, schools of young yellowtail swirled around us on the sea floor at about 30m. With time on my side, I examined the ground that I was simple unable to do on snorkel. The ground is covered with short kelp 1–2m high, shale gravel in between and bare rock. It’s very similar to what I have experienced on Alphard Bank in Struisbaai. I looked in all the cracks and saw a couple of crayfish. On closer inspection I saw some very tiny cleaner wrasse. I got totally engrossed examining the kelp, and when I finally looked up, sitting not more than 2m away from me was that monster yellowtail with the small mark on his lip. Spellbound I simply admired him. For the next few minutes we swam together as I studied him and appreciated the gladiator of the reef that he is. I also got to accurately access his size, and with all confidence I can say that fish was 50kg+.
This scuba dive was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Upon surfacing and kitting down, we saw a Chinese longline-type vessel come onto the bank and start working the area. Being international waters, it is unfortunately a free for all who go there, with no regulations or policing.
That evening we set a course for Cape Point, 525nm to destination, followed by a small fines meeting to hold crew accountable for their sins on the trip.
9h35 450nm to destination
Naturally we had a couple of lines out and we hooked a 45kg yellowfin tuna around sunset. The sea was glassed out, and I kept dreaming of one more day on Vema.
13h20 236nm to destination
Just after lunch the back lines all went vas, and we could feel weight but no fight.
We took the boat out of gear and everyone reeled in. A huge clump of rope had hooked all our lines. No sooner were we looking at the rope in the blue water when it turned green — dorado!
Quickly we grabbed a couple of spinning rods. Dorado, yellowtail, and small big eye tuna all started coming up; it was so exciting.
I took this opportunity to jump in and have a look at what was happening under this drifting FAD. I saw a school of well over 100 dorado in the 6–10kg size, young yellowtail, and even some 50kg-plus yellowfin tuna.
Armed with my speargun, I looked for a nice bull dorado and took a shot. As I hit it, about a million sharks came out! I’m not sure where they were hiding until that moment.
They were all around 1.5m long, and I swam as quickly as I could back to the boat with my prized catch while pushing these sharks away with my other hand. I reached the dive platform and threw my dorado up, then I felt a blow on my back.
At first I thought my fellow dive buddy had hit me with his fist, but on turning around I saw a cheeky shark that had hit me with his nose.
My heart was racing, and I retired to quietly fillet us a fresh dorado for dinner.
We finally tied up back in Simon’s Town with a half tick next to one item on my bucket list.
Although I have now been to Mount Vema, it is not yet ticked off my list. I need to get back there.
It was an amazing trip, filled with great memories and new friends. Thank you to each of the members on the team for adding your bit and making this trip a reality.
What I saw and experienced out in the middle of the ocean was a level of fishing I have simply never experienced before. I hope places like this can remain in this pristine condition forever, but I wonder if that’s really possible.