Hemingway, Mancora and the World’s Greatest Fish

By Nicholas Asheshov

Last week saw me trolling the warm chop over the Mancora Bank at a brisk eight knots in a 28′ Phoenix Express fisherman hoping to hook a giant marlin, the king of the sea.

The boat belonged to Jose Luis Martinez, the international big game fisherman. Jose Luis, a jolly young Lima construction mogul, catches 30 or 40 marlin a year here.

I had six rods out with the lures between 20 and 40 yards aft a few feet below the surface, each of them glittering spoons aimed at attracting the attention of a curious, perhaps not too bright fish.

From the bridge we spotted a couple of marlin dorsals and spun round to trail the lures before their noses. No marlin takers today though we were to return to base at Punta Sal in the evening not empty-handed.

We cruised past a score of sperm and humpback whales, had a school of charming dolphins for company and a dozen artesan Kankas and Mancora fishermen long-lining in the distance for tuna and mero.

The temperature gauge showed the water at between 24 and 26 degrees centigrade. The Humboldt Current to the south is typically at 18 degrees and lower and the meeting of the cold north-flowing and warm south-flowing waters just here is what makes this the Piccadilly Circus, the Copacabana Beach of the oceans.

The depth sounder varied between 100 metres over the Bank, down to two, three and even five hundred metres.

A reel screamed.

“Es grande,” Alex, the captain, said.

I gripped the rod, My arms ached. My hands ached.

Then the fight was over. It was a Dorado, green and wet gold. It had a big head and big eyes.

I could hardly lift it. It was a big fish.

So might Ernest Hemingway, who fished these same waters six decades ago, have described my own fish, caught that day last week, a 50-pounder.

Anglers anywhere could be proud of a 50-pounder but in these exuberant waters it’s small beer. Hemingway himself brought in a massive 910lb black marlin here in 1956.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Cabo Blanco Fishing Club, founded by my old Cambridge chum Enrique Pardo, was the spectacular heart of international big game fishing.

Today, Jose Luis tells me, the best he can expect to catch, even with his state-of-the-art tackle, is 500 or 600 lbs., the size of a pony, terrific but half, even just one-third of the giants of half a century ago before the vast shoals of over-fished anchoveta disappeared.

Marlin are no good to eat. “Every one I catch we just bring it alongside, unhook the hooks, tag it and let it go.

*Sometimes after a big fight it’ll be exhausted so we stroke its bill and pull it along a bit to re-oxygenate it and then, suddenly it’ll flip and it’s off.”

Like salmon and whales marlin are world travellers. “My tags turn up in Australia or Hawaii,” Jose Luis says. The International Game Fishing Association, of Dania Beach, Fla. requires its members to fill in a form for every fish that’s taken.

The story of game fishing at Cabo Blanco, between Talara and Mancora, 250 miles south of the equator, is dramatic. A report by Doug Olander in World Record Game Fishes is headlined:

Cabo Blanco, The Rise and Fall of The Greatest Blue Water Big-Game Fishing The World Has Ever Known.

Olander talks of “colossal black marlin” and “huge bigeye tuna”. It was not just the size of the fish but their “amazing abundance”.

The rods in those pre-tungsten and carbon fibre days were of bamboo and the line not of tough stretch plastic but of ashaway linen.

“The biggest change has been in the reels with their gearing and braking systems,” Jose Luis tells me.

Olander describes a couple of epic all-day battles in Black Marlin Boulevard, as Cabo Blanco Club members called it, just three or four miles offshore.

The most famous of them came on August 4 1953 when Alfred C. Glassell Jr., a Houston oilman, brought in the biggest black marlin that has ever been caught and no one today doubts that it will remain the record forever. The fish is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. The photograph of Glassell, a tall 180lbs or so, standing with his rod dwarfed by the marlin hanging from a rope round its tail, is a famous one. It has “1,560 lbs.” whitewashed on its side.

Astoundingly, beyond serendipity, a Warner Bros film crew, down in Cabo Blanco shooting The Old Man and The Sea, starring Spencer Tracy, registered the whole of Glassell’s fight in epic widescreen Technicolor. The battle lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes, shorter than many, and the film caught this massive animal, the size of a bull, leaping 49 times.

The Hemingway story, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, was, of course, about a Cuban fisherman in the Gulf Stream but now you know that the fish and the sea are all from up here on the north coast of Peru.

My own 50 lb. Dorado the other day was caught for posterity on the cell phone camera of Jose Luis’ wife, my daughter Kitty. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of February 14, 2009



One comment on “Hemingway, Mancora and the World’s Greatest Fish

  1. Deci says:

    I was thrown off the dock when I cuhagt my first marlin, and I threw my girlfriend in the drink when she cuhagt her first marlin. I have heard a few reasons, to include it being a ritual sacrifice. But like most traditions, it is dying out and not done as much and the origin is lost somewhere in the mist of time. I tend to think the basis is a ritual sacrifice, just like getting blooded when you harvest your first deer or having you shirt tail cut off if you miss one. Traditions we take for granted tend to be rooted in some pagan practices of old and I for one think it is a shame we are getting away from these practices (I still put a twig of greenary in a harvested deer’s mouth and smear some blood on my face when I harvest one).

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