The mako shark flag as used in Kenya is definitely the most brightly coloured fish flag but how many people know the story behind this flag? This story had a massive impact on my childhood and why I became so infatuated with big game fishing. Mako sharks have always been a very special species to catch, one that demands total respect.
It was back on the 4th of March 1964 that Bob Cronchey, Tony Clifford, and Liz Coverdale set out from the Pemba Channel Fishing Club aboard the club’s flagship, White Otter skippered by my father, Pat Hemphill. As was customary in those days, they began the day by fishing for baitfish on the ‘bait patch’ immediately outside Shimoni harbour. In those days nobody fished for marlin with artificial lures and there were very few lures even available on the market. These were mostly restricted to Japanese feather jigs and metal spoons of various sizes. Hence marlin fishing was entirely dependent on one catching sufficient fresh bait, which fortunately was usually available in those days.
By 9 o’clock they had caught sufficient bait and decided to head out into the deeper blue water. I do recall as a child that there was a very basic depth sounder on White Otter, but I am not sure when this was first fitted, but certainly it was there in the 1970’s. With the blue water close in to the drop off Pat decided to put baits out right away and troll slowly out. Since baits were usually rigged using the New Zealand ‘reverse rig’ technique trolling had to be very slow.
They had only just completed the set-up, the time was 9:15 am when there was an explosive strike on the soli (torpedo) trolled down the centre on the 130-lb rod. Bob, who was on strike leapt into the fighting chair full of excitement and the hook was set. The rod bent double, and the old Penn Senator screamed as the fish tore off in anger then rocketed out of the water to gasps from all around. Pat was the only one to have seen a mako before, and that was in a book.
The fight ensued with much sweat and effort; they were all still finding their feet with this big game fishing game. Pat, who had started this business only the year before, by his own admission knew very little about big game fishing. He would read every book available and practice rigging techniques and knot tying at home. After a few hours of hard graft, the swivel finally came within reach and the mate Nasiri grabbed it eagerly. He was a wonderful character with a badly pock-marked face from smallpox, great sense of humour and totally fearless. The other crewman of course was Kadi who was the helmsman of White Otter for around 35 years or more.
Pat rammed home the flying gaff and all hell broke loose, the mako shot out of the water over the transom trying to reach Bob in the fighting chair. Pat took a turn of the gaff rope around the stern cleat to prevent the shark from coming any further on board whilst Tony Clifford wielded the baseball bat trying to force the mako back overboard. Poor Bob with his ankles behind his ears was shouting, “Take it away, take it away!” Of course, I am omitting the inevitable expletives that may have accompanied these words.
The shark then slipped back overboard but now the gaff rope was not long enough for it to reach the water, so something had to give. When we say flying gaff, it was a pathetic example of one and not one that you would usually use on a fish of this size. But of course, they had never come across anything like this before. Inevitably the gaff straightened out and the shark raced off still attached to Bob who was now saying, “I don’t want this brute anymore!” But of course, the others were never going to let him give up on it and they kept up some friendly teasing and every now and again pouring buckets of cold seawater over him.
In the meantime, Pat together with Nasiri and Tony took the gaff down into the engine room where they wedged it in to the mountings and bent it back into a semblance of a gaff once more. After a further hour or more the fish was again brought alongside where Pat yet again slammed home the gaff. The mako shark predictably objected vehemently and the now slightly softer gaff straightened out yet again.
So, it was back down into the engine room with only two persons required this time to bend the gaff back into shape. Considering this very ineffective piece of essential equipment Pat called my mother on the radio for her to ask Dougie Hinde to bring out a spare gaff with his boat Membe II. Dougie was a deaf as a post so there was little point of calling him on the radio or trying to phone if indeed that even worked.
But before Dougie was able to reach them a now very exhausted Bob managed to bring the mako back within reach of the trace. They had been fighting this fish for 7½ hours by this point and it was approaching 5pm. Yet again Pat gaffed the shark and although it was definitely tiring it was also clear that the now rather softened gaff was not going to hold much longer, and Nasiri had had enough of these shenanigans. Before anybody could stop him, he had jumped overboard with a rope that he whipped around the shark’s tail and was back in the boat almost before anyone knew what had happened saying, “Bwana, there’s your fish.”
Nasiri did admit some years later that what he now knew about mako sharks he couldn’t believe he had actually done that.
At the time I was very young, but I remember the next phase of the story very clearly indeed. As they were returning to Shimoni discussion began as to what flag to fly for this incredible catch. As we all know a shark flag is yellow on a black background but everyone on board was adamant that a special flag was needed to celebrate such an incredible catch. Liz Coverdale had a very smart beach towel with her that had yellow, red, and blue stripes and everyone’s eyes lit up. Whether Liz had much choice in the matter is unclear but, in any case, it was ceremonially cut up and a yellow, red, and blue flag was hoisted proudly aloft. For many years we used that same flag and the remainder of the towel for mako shark flags.
As White Otter entered the harbour, I recall seeing the spray and thrashing behind the boat as she towed the shark in tail first. The only place that they could land it was at Dougie Hinde’s slipway but there was no way that the dinghy could tow the shark into the beach. So instead, Nasiri brought ashore a long rope and handed the end to the eager crowd waiting to set eyes on this monster with the other end attached to the shark. The entire community was there, nobody had seen anything like it before. With cries of “Harambee, Harambee, Harambee!” the crowd hauled the shark up onto the slipway. An old man from the village picked me up and sat me on the roof of my father’s Land Rover where I had a grandstand view. Once on land it continued to jump scattering people in all directions until it was finally subdued with an axe.
Of course, we had no scales to weigh a fish of that size, so it had to be put into the back of the long wheelbase Land Rover and taken into Mombasa where it was weighed at Bamburi Cement Factory. It had caused quite a stir on the Likoni Ferry, the coxswain refusing to move the ferry until he had had a good look at it himself. Once in Mombasa traffic police had to ask them to move along because they were causing a traffic jam whilst Dad was in the bank. Everyone, including the police it should be said were stopping to look at this amazing fish.
Well, that is the history of how the colours of the mako flag came to be and there is no right or wrong way up. And for many years to come mako sharks were always known as the ‘jumpy’ sharks.
Often it is the ones that get away that we remember the most, dreaming about how big it might have been, or what if's. And, on this particular occasion it was no different except that I don't think that any of us on board actually seriously thought that we were going to catch the fish. But all the same it was very memorable and extremely enjoyable and had everything that we love about marlin fishing.
This story comes from late February sometime in the early 1980's fishing aboard the legendary sport fishing boat White Otter with regular angler Stuart Allison and some friends from the UK. During that particular season there were so many schools of skipjack and juvenile yellowfin tunas all the way along from the Punguti ya Juu Island to Chale Point. The plan each morning was to reach the drop-off as quickly as possible, catch some I've baits and put them out. With so much bait around there were also plenty of black marlin and the occasional blue and striped marlins as well. Generally speaking if you could get live baits down before 10 am you were as good as guaranteed a black marlin. Then between 10 am and 2 pm you may well get strikes but very often the marlin were only interested in killing the live bait and not eating it. After 2 pm there was often another positive period with good strikes late on.
In order to best protect our marlin fishing reels we used old star drag reels such as Penn Senators and Ocean City (This one was an Ocean City), for bait catching. On this occasion we had reached the drop off where there was a big school of skipjack tuna and very quickly we had a multiple hookup. Since White Otter has a high freeboard I was half out of the boat with one leg on the transom spray rail just above the waterline, the other still in the boat and both hands free to grab my next live bait ready for rigging from underwater. I heard one of the old reels start to scream and somebody shouting "Marlin!"
I responded, "Hold on, I'l have this bait rigged in a jiffy."
"Too bloody late, he's already on!" I heard Stuart shout and this little reel was screaming. I looked up to see about a 100-kg black marlin going absolutely berserk behind the boat. Now, all very exciting but the reel didn't have more than about 150 - 200m of 50 lb line on it and there was no trace,, no double line, just 50 lb monofilament direct to the hook, which was a # 3 O'Shaughnessy stainless steel hook inside a 3 inch white plastic squid.
One of our other boats, Broadbill, fished that day by my late mother Maia, was also working the same school. The two crew were heads down in the cockpit rigging livies totally oblivious to what was happening elsewhere. Fortunately my mother was standing by the helm. She saw our black marlin coming straight for the back of Broadbill and realised if she didn't do something it was coming in the cockpit. She slammed the boat into gear and gunned the motors with an angry retort from Usama, the captain until he saw our marlin looking at him over the transom. They made it clear just in the nick of time.
Kadi, the great captain of White Otter on those days had to use every bit of horsepower and experience available to him to stay within 100m of that marlin, which jumped non stop for an hour. White Otter's old engines in those days were wonderful 2-stroke Foden diesels, which when you gunned them produced plenty of black smoke. It was really quite spectacular and all of us on board loved every minute as you can see from the picture (Photo by Stuart's buddy John), Finally after 1 hr 10 min, when the fish eventually got tired and stopped jumping the line parted close to the hook.
This was indeed a fish that none of us will ever forget, it wasn't the biggest fish but it was beautiful and finally broke free to live another day.
Since I took out my first charter in August 1974 with the late Paolo Gallmann, when I was just 14 years old virtually everything with regards to big game fishing has changed. Of course I was not really in charge of the boat, that was Kadi the helmsman on 'White Otter' ably assisted by Ngonga, the best wireman I have ever worked with. I remember that day very well because that was when I saw my first whale, a huge sperm whale that made me think of Moby Dick. It was longer than 'White Otter', which is 44-ft long and I recall how its massive would tail rose and fell in slow motion with its huge blunt head way clear of the water. Paolo wanted to foul hook it on 130 to see what would happen, which was so typical of the man.
Back then in 1974 there were three boats in the Pemba Channel Fishing Club fleet including White Otter, Pingusi and Broadbill. Broadbill at that stage was still owned by Ted Holmes but he used to fish through the club. Then during January and February many of the boats from further north would relocate to Shimoni including White Bear owned by the late Lady Diana Delamare, Sea Swallow, and Ndundu owned and run by the late Robin Giffard. Others that used to come down included Lallie Lee, Blue Fin, Enter Nous and Yellowfin. Local private boats included Dougie Hind's Membe, always so hard to beat and Dick Jessop's Maverick.
Since that time almost everything has changed except that Broadbill, now owned by my family since 1976 and White Otter, now owned by Peter Ruysenaars since 1990 are both still in operation. Lever drag fishing reels were still a bit of a novelty and some boats were still using Penn Senator and Ocean City star drag fishing reels. We still used these for catching bait throughout the 1980's but the Penn International and Everol reels had taken their place for the more serious fishing. It was not until the late 1980's, early 1990's that the Shimano Tiagra really took over, and what a difference that made.
The fishing rods and lines have also changed so much since those days when it was not that uncommon for a rod to break during a fight. Some of the rods were simply awful, I recall a few of our German clients arriving with rods made by DAM, which were so stiff that even if you swung off the tip you were unable to put a bend into it. Others like the Harnel went too far the other way and an 80-lb rod was not really suitable for anything more than 50-lb line.
The lines were either Dacron or Nylon but the qualities were nothing like they are now. The Dacron line was nice in some respects because you got plenty of feel for the fish since there was no stretch but it was very susceptible to rot. Some of the nylons were like elastic bands and the breaking strength was unpredictable. Throughout the 1980's we used an excellent dark blue line Amilan S that was favoured on the Great Barrier Reef by the marlin boats there..
There was also not the range of lures that are available nowadays and fishermen tended to be rather skeptical as to the effectiveness of lures. After all how could you expect a marlin to take a piece of plastic? Whenever I asked my father or one of the other skippers why marlin take lures invariably they would answer either, "Because the lure makes them angry" or "Because they are playing!" Nobody ever responded that perhaps the marlin was trying to eat it, that just wasn't conceivable. But, even as a child I had a fascination for lures and loved fishing with them.
But, up until the 1990's fresh bait was the preferred option when fishing for marlin. Lures were used to get you out to where you wanted to fish and to get you home again but fresh bait were also largely plentiful in those days. Pre-1973 the New Zealand reverse rig was the preferred method for rigging dead baits but these meant trolling very slowly and allowing the fish sufficient time to swallow the bait. And, you only got one shot at the fish because once the bait reversed you had to quickly replace it with another.
A lot of changes came about post 1973 when my parents and some friends returned from a 10-day fishing safari on the Great Barrier Reef fishing aboard the Teddy Too with the late Charlie Powell. At the end of that season Peter B Wright visited Shimoni on his way back to Florida and carried out some coaching sessions. Following this we adopted new rigging techniques, began trolling much faster and learnt how to use and handle piano wire. On Ngonga, Peter said that if he could get past Australian immigration he would find a job on Peter's boat since he was a natural.
Pre-1969 lures were restricted to rubber squid or octopus, Japanese feather jigs and metal spoons. In March 1969 my father was introduced to Hawaiian konahead lures by a Hawaiian Bob Reece. Mr Reece had fished up off Malindi but was politely told to take his fish frighteners away. He rang my father to ask if he had a boat free to which my father answered in the affirmative. Mr Reece warned my father that he would like to use his lures and would my father have any objection. My father was always ready to try new techniques especially at a time when the fishing was really rather bad. The seas were very calm and very few marlin had been seen for a number of days. Fishing aboard Pingusi they landed a mako shark and a sailfish on the first day, and a striped marlin on the following day. Funnily enough some of the skippers who had refused to fish Mr Reece and his lures were fishing out of Shimoni at the same time.
Following that a couple of Kenyans began making excellent konahead lures, Roger Jessop and Jenny Slater. Their lures accounted for a very large number of marlin and sailfish over the next 20 years or more. But gradually we began to use more lures until they began to dominate the charter boat's arsenal. Through the 1980's lures became used far more alongside bait and switch techniques to great effect.
Another major change came about in the late 1980's when conservation began to be introduced in Kenya. At Shimoni we began tagging in around 1987 but it was an uphill battle persuading anglers to release their catch. It was, of course doing the complete opposite to what they had become accustomed to and initially anglers would only agree to release very small marlin or sailfish.
But, perhaps the change that has had the greatest influence on the development of big game fishing is that of electronic technology, especially GPS. Even back in the 1970's we had echo sounders but they were very basic and didn't have the depth range of modern sounders. With modern technology we can see what the sea bottom looks like, find drop offs, schools of bait fish and with the GPS fish a location with great accuracy. But, there is something to be said for growing up fishing without this technology having to read the visual signs and navigate using basic skills. I wonder how many of the modern day skippers could fish offshore without any electronics at all?
This technology coupled with much faster boats has enabled the fleet to explore area much further offshore and to fish an area for longer. With improved communication skills are being shared across the globe making boats more efficient. That more fish are being released is excellent for the longevity of the sport as we cherish the beauty of these magnificent creatures.
I hope that you enjoyed reading this story and will keep checking back as I shall be writing Storie from the past to maintain a record of the Shimoni / Pemba Channel fishery.
With a lifetime spent working on and with the ocean I have developed a deep love and empathy for all things fishy. After more than 30 years as a professional charter captain and a doctorate in fisheries biology i shall be writing and various subjects associated with marlin fishing and fisheries in general.
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