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September 21, 2007

Out of Africa

Find out why the world of big-game marlin fishing is focusing its attention on the tiny nation of Ghana.


Reports of monster marlin brought a handful of big-game pioneers snooping around the Ghana coast a few years ago. What they found might just prove to be the biggest news to hit the world of sport fishing in years. Seventy percent of the blue marlin taken off Ghana to date have weighed over 500 pounds.

The 1999 marlin season off Madeira was a catastrophe. The fishing wasn't much better in the Azores, either, and after every blank day the talk in the marina bars invariably turned to migration routes and patterns. The big question revolved around the path of the mysterious "marlin highway," which the large female fish supposedly follow to reach their fabled spawning grounds. Some of the rest areas along the highway-Bermuda, the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands-are well known to fishermen, but the main route itself remains elusive.

Somewhere along the West African coast, between the fifth northern and southern parallels, the marlin highway runs close to the mainland-if the reports of Japanese longliners are to be believed. If true, this area could hold marlin that are larger and more numerous than anywhere else in the Atlantic.

Independent of each other, a young South African diplomat named Johan Zietsman and a group of German big-game anglers set out in 1996 to see if such a place existed. They met up in the little village of Ada, at the mouth of the Volta River in eastern Ghana, and together made a remarkable discovery, one that could turn this tiny country into the next hot spot for giant marlin.


Marlin Spawning Grounds?

There might even be more. Johan believes that the waters off Ghana may serve as a junction to nearby spawning grounds. "We catch marlin here year-round, which is why I think these spawning grounds can't be far away," he says.

Johan began his exploratory trips in October of '96. "The fishing turned out to be outstanding, despite the lack of a local charter infrastructure," Johan recalls. "We either raised or hooked an average of one marlin per hour."

boat
The Harmattan, a fully tricked-out 36-foot Rampage, was shipped over from Florida to handle the local marlin.

Since the private boat he was using at the time lacked a fighting chair, Johan fished with 80-pound stand-up gear, and right off the bat he caught a 650-pound blue. Two years later, the angling emissary got himself transferred to Ghana, solely because of the marlin fishery there, and began to fish whenever he could on the few local private boats. Now this Master Angler and IGFA representative is so thoroughly convinced of the fishing potential off Ghana that he has quit his job as the Upper Secretary of the South African High Commission and joined forces with fellow German and well-known big-game angler, J¿rg-Dieter (J.D.) Haselhorst to establish a sport fishing business.

Even J.D., a man with 72 blue marlin to his credit and a member of the 1,000-Pound Club since 1990, felt electrified after the first time he fished Ghana in May, 1999. "On each of the four days we fished, we raised fish, had strikes and caught a total of four marlin weighing 400, 650, 700 and 877 pounds," he says. "With a professional boat and crew we could easily have caught more. There are so many fish down there that it must look like rush hour in a big city."

It has yet to be determined whether all the hustle and bustle is due to spawning activity or merely an abundance of food. According to Johan's statistics, 70 percent of the marlin caught off Ghana have weighed over 500 pounds. Since the biggest marlin are females, he believes that these fish were captured en route to spawning. While no one's exactly sure what the marlin are up to, the fish caught from April to July are hungry, exceptionally aggressive and extremely strong. They appear out of nowhere, without warning, and inhale lures in great crash-strikes. However, in the months that follow, their behavior and appearance slowly change.

"Between November and late February, the fish get fatter and rounder. They also tend to 'play' with the lures and aren't as easy to catch," Johan says while casting a glance at his boat's novice crew. Although still in the learning stages of big-game fishing, these "amateurs" still managed to land a marlin last November weighing 1,238 pounds! Johan reports seeing much bigger fish, but they have always managed to escape.


Monstering Up

J.D. and his co-investors knew they had to do something about the big ones that were getting away. So in January they brought a 36-foot Rampage from Florida to Ghana. Then J.D. had his previous captain, Les Gallagher, come over from the Azores for a few months, and together they rigged the Rampage for serious marlin fishing. The boat now bears the name Harmattan, and is docked in the Volta estuary near Ada. From there the fishing grounds are only an hour and ten minutes away.

The Harmattan's first charter was a German from Munich by the name of Albi. He fished in February, but the marlin were so lazy that the action "wasn't really that good," Johan reports. However, "good" in Ghana is a relative term.

fish
Some experts speculate that the waters off Ghana serve as a spawning ground for marlin, which could explain the abundance of giant fish.

"Even without knowing the area very well we raised five blues in the first two days," recalls Captain Les. "I estimated the biggest two at 700 and 1,000 pounds. After ten days of fishing we released an 850, a 400 and a 200 out of 12 strikes. I have to say that although the number of hook-ups rose towards the end, generally our bite-to-catch ratio was terrible.

"We lost a 900-pounder after 45 minutes just below the boat, but the one that really hurt was the 1,200. And I mean at least 1,200. That fish cruised in from the back of the spread like a submarine and scooped up the short left. Talk about raised eyebrows and open mouths when that one came in! With the hooked fish screaming in one direction and the boat still moving forward, Albi slammed the drag to strike and the drag plates had no chance to absorb the change in spool velocity. The sound of the line parting was like a shot through the heart for every one of us. It took a while to get over that one."

Les is well qualified when it comes to estimating the size of marlin. He has skippered charter vessels in the Azores since 1989, and has more than 600 marlin to his credit, including approximately two dozen granders. One of those fish weighed in at 1,307 pounds. So far his experience off Ghana has convinced Les of the country's potential. "Ghana will be the newest hot spot in the world of fishing," he says confidently.


Tuna & Swords Too

Marlin aren't the only big fish available in the rich waters off Ghana. Local Ghanaian fishermen routinely travel 20 miles out to sea in large dugout canoes to fish depths of 100 fathoms. What they bring back is proof of the many things big-game anglers can look forward to in addition to marlin. "At the fish market I have seen sailfish that could break world records, unbelievable swordfish and bigeye tuna that weighed more than 200 pounds," Zietsman states.

Right now, though, the angling attention is focused on blue marlin-big blue marlin. Johan is not the only one who is convinced that the "millennium marlin" will be caught off Ghana. "That fish will have a weight that's at least equal to the year it's caught in," he predicts. The ex-diplomat has good reason to feel this way. In November 1997, using 130-pound tackle, he spent ten torturous hours fighting an enormous marlin. "We estimated the fish at over 2,000 pounds and 24 feet long," he says. "During the last five hours of the fight, the marlin was swimming slowly just below the boat. The wireman leadered the fish 30 times, but it was too heavy to be pulled within gaffing range. In an attempt to bring the fish in, the 700-pound leader was wrapped around a cleat, but the marlin popped it with ease. It was the experience of a lifetime-simply incredible."

Brian Harris, an Englishman who has lived in Ghana for years, confirms that Johan's gigantic fish was no exception. He says that many such leviathans can be found off the Ghanaian coast. Last year, while Harris was wahoo fishing in his 16-foot catamaran, a marlin suddenly appeared alongside that was about three feet longer than the boat.

You certainly won't encounter such monsters every day at the marlin junction near Ghana. However, the prospects of breaking the 1,402-pound world record, set off Brazil eight years ago, are good. Even if such a fish doesn't show, it appears that Ghana still offers outstanding action with smaller marlin. "Starting soon, the international big-game community is going to be hearing more about Ghana," Johan promises.

Gotta Get to Ghana

Map
Ghana will be the newest blue marlin hot-spot.

From an economical and political standpoint, Ghana is considered the "Switzerland of Africa." The country owes its wealth to bauxite, diamond, and gold mines. President J.J. Rawlings has managed to create domestic political stability that has drawn investors from all over the world. The capital city, Accra, throbs with life and has a remarkably low crime rate. Accra's attractions include an impressive art market and the historic slave fortresses along the coast. These sights are definitely worth a few days' exploring.

The Harmattan is a 36-foot Rampage Express Sportfisher with a cruising speed of 22 knots. The vessel is equipped with a tuna tower, radar, GPS, depthsounder and tackle from 30- to 130-pound class. Catch-and-release is the rule, and only potential record-breaking fish are kept. After being weighed, the fish are distributed among the locals in a nearby village.

Blue marlin can be taken off Ghana year-round, with boats averaging one fish per day. The average weight so far has been around 650 pounds. When the harmattan, the desert wind, is blowing in January and February, a swath of green water can form along the coast, thereby doubling travel time to the fishing grounds.

Full-day trips on the Harmattan start out from Adda, a small village near the mouth of the Volta. Adda is roughy 11/2 hours from Accra by car. Fortunately, the only hotel anywhere nearby, the Manet Paradise, is highly recommended. It features 50 air-conditioned double rooms and four suites, each equipped with bath or shower, mini bar, phone and satellite TV. The hotel comfortably satisfies international standards and offers Harmattan charter guests the following U.S. prices: single, $50; double, $60; family suite, $75. Prices include breakfast and free transfer to and from the airport near Accra.

- J¿rgen Oeder

¿

For further information:
¿
J¿rg-Dieter Haselhors
Tel: 49-5423-94-49-0;
fax: 49-5423-94-49-49;
email: haselhorst@t-online.de
¿
IGFA Representative and Chairman of the Ghana Game Fish Club
Johan Zietsman
Mobile: 223-24-346222
fax: 223-21-772841
P.O. Box KA 30441
Airport Accra, Ghana