Ahoy Matey! The Thrills of Big Game Fishing – Kenya

Watamu. The small dhow bounces on the waves during the early morning one-minute ride to the fishing boat, its sails full of wind; the sailor deftly adjusting the ropes. The twin-engine 25-foot craft we are headed to is designed for a crew of two and specially designed for 2 more passengers.

As we climb aboard, I feel the excitement building for the task ahead. This is my first time on a professional fishing boat, and I’m impressed. I also pray to the gods of the sea to keep my stomach steady, especially after the earlier full English breakfast.

On the boat, I’m introduced to Captain Majid and his assistant Abdul, who casually asks me if I had taken seasickness tablets. I reply in the affirmative, and then we head into Indian Ocean, the boats diesel engine rumbling and leaving a wake behind us.

Many locals argue that in reality there is a twelve month fishing season in Kenya, though from a practical point of view, April and May fall between the main rainy season on the coast, and not surprisingly fishing activity during this period is at a minimum. June and July see a gradual increase, but for many, skippers and anglers alike, August marks the start of fishing season proper. 

From September through until Christmas, the fishing is excellent, while January through until mid March as being the ‘high season’, as this is the period when fishing for the king of saltwater game fish, the marlin, traditionally hits its zenith.

Cpt. Majid handles the boat like a pro, while Abdul has prepared some thin slices of fish in a container, and is putting some platisc fish onto hooks before casting them into the sea.

Teasers, he informs me whenI inquire. “They attract fish closer to the surface so that we can catch them”, he adds looking out at the reels and arranging them meticulaously.

He explains that the fish spot the teasers first, and come up, before the decoys are pulled in and the bait left for the fish to feed thus letting us catch them.

If there’s one species of fish that is synonymous with fishing off the Kenyan coast, then it has to be the sailfish. Indeed Kenya’s Malindi is widely rated as the ‘sailfish capital of the World’. Its possible to catch these incredibly fast, incredibly beautiful high flying members of the elite billfish family any time of the season, though generally, the best action starts in September, with good numbers remaining well into January and beyond, with weights averaging between 22.5 – 31.5 kgs. 

“There’re no less than 3 species of marlin in the Kenyan waters”, skipper Majid explains “and the’re the secon most sought after by serious anglers”.  The black marlin is by far the most common, with her blus and striped cousins also present.

The 45 – 135 kgs. black marlin is present all year around, but what the striped marlin lacks in size (45-72 kgs.), it makes up in speed and astonishing display of high flying acrobatics when hooked. 

We head to the banks, where Abdul explains that we’re sure to catch some fish. The banks are made up from a huge undersea mountain with a flat 17 km. summit. I’m intrigued. Its shallow at 18m. at the highest level, but drops down to over 350m. on the southern side. 

Capt. Majid joins the conversation and explains, “it’s on the deeper side that the big fish are found. The smaller fish feed in the shallower waters, and the big fish mill around close to the surface to feed on them”.

I peer overboard and see the deep ocean cliff and a shoal of fish swimming on the deeper side of the banks. Abdul points out seagulls, terns and pelicans flying over the ocean. “Those that are migrating from the north to south and back stopover at the banks to eat or snack. The variety of food is diverse”. 

Suddenly, the middle line reels and my heart start to pump with excitement! Abdul grabs a nearby fishing line and while handing it to me, Majid fumbles to secure a harness around my waist. Now its up to me to land the fish!

With blood rushing through my veins, I excitedly jump onto the fishing chair that is fixed in the middle of the deck. It takes me no more than a few minutes to master and control the fishing rod and locate the hooked fish! I feel the adrenalin coursing through my body as I angle harder and harder!

The captain moves forward and grabs the fishing line at the leader – the length of the line between the fishing hook and the edge of the rod. With lightening speed, Abdul lunges at the fish with a gaff and impales it on the side, much to my cringe. 

The fish is hosted to the boat, the crew congratulating me on my first catch. It’s a dorado, or falusi in Swahili, not much for bragging rights, but better than nothing, (…I tell myself).

I wonder out loudly if there’re any sharks in the waters, and Majid proudly, but cautiously tells me that even though there’re many species present, the fearsome tiger shark is a common occurrence. These wonderful underwater apex predators (135 – 360kgs.)  are commonly caught, tagged and released. Giant bull sharks are occasionally landed, while the prized mako shark is much sought after.

The rest of the day is spent learning more about big game fishing; its history and intrigues. I find out that Kenya is a favourite game fishing destination, with the latest favourite fish being the Giant Trevally, a 45kg. member of the jack family. Tuna, arguably one of the strongest fish in the sea, is a favourite, especially the yellow fin tuna. The popularity of night fishing expedition has increased with recent times (13 – 15 hrs.). A tag and release program is in place to ensure eco-friendly fishing.

The deep throb of the fishing boat as we return from out excursion indulges my imagination, and I drift off in thoughts. Anyone can catch fish and enjoy this fantastic sport. 

While most of these fish do not live off the coast, the monsoon winds are credited to bringing them there. The Omani Arabs from the Persian Gulf are said to have blown in on the same. 

During a second attempt, a mysteriously strong fish (I hope it was a shark!) proved too powerful for me and I had to let it go. However, I managed to get one more falusi, which was still exciting for an amateur.

Inclusive of the kingfish, marlin and dorado, the waters also offer wahoo, sailfish (suli suli), and anglers are spoilt for choice at the Kenyan south coast.

The fishing chair is not for the fait hearted, and 5 hours on a boat might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But landing one (fish) through sheer wit and grit is totally out of this world!

A typical itinerary is flexible enough to include your preferences while fishing. Most excursions include fishing equipment and high standards of safety, inclusive of lunch and drinks, though you’ll definitely need to carry your sun tan lotion. 

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