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.
P.O. Box 348,
Ukunda - 80400
Tel" +254 - 722 - 796198