In 1989, English skipper Roddy Hayes set up a charter operation in Madeira. One of the first to work alongside Roddy was former commercial tuna skipper Anibal Fernandes (now Captain of M.Y. Balancal). Soon both skippers were recording remarkable blue marlin catches, the great majority of which were tagged and released. The exceptional marlin seasons of 1992 to 1996 saw the island of Madeira become the focus of worldwide attention.
Blue marlin fishing in Madeira, along with the other Atlantic islands, underwent a severe downturn between 1997 and 2000, blamed by many on the strong El Niño event of 1996-1997. Conditions quietly began to improve from 2001 onwards, and recent seasons have seen the island grounds return to much of their former glory.
Today, the emphasis is on sustainability and conservation. Heavy tackle is used to avoid prolonged fights and care is taken to release billfish in as good condition as is possible.
The fishing grounds are situated on the south coast of the island, sheltered by the high cliffs from the prevailing northeast trade winds. Fishing generally takes place within a few miles of the island and many great fish are caught well within two miles of the shoreline. Lure fishing is the most successful method with a wide variety of medium to large artificials from various sources being successful.
Blue marlin normally start to appear in May and can be encountered as late as September. Recent seasons have seen the months of June and July produce the very best blue marlin fishing. Most blue marlin encountered in Madeiran waters will be in the 500 to 700 lb class. True giants in the magic thousand pound class are hooked up and fought every year.
The Big Eye Tuna or 'Patudo' is the backbone of the Madeiran commercial tuna fishery. The island's tuna-boat fishermen range far and wide in pursuit of these elusive and valuable pelagic fish, which they attract with live bait and secure by the ancient means of pole and line.
The first tuna schools can arrive within striking distance of Madeiran sportfishing boats as early as January. April and May normally see the best tuna action with fewer, but larger fish being encountered as spring progresses. The largest Big Eye Tuna are often caught in the summer months.
These fish will often exceed 80 kgs (160 lbs) and are very strong fighters even on heavy tackle.
All tuna species can range over enormous distances in their never-ending quest for food. The movements and migrations of tuna schools are dictated by a complex and ever-changing interplay of ocean currents and the presence of baitfish. Tuna are also intensively hunted by commercial fishermen of many nations. Today, it is rare indeed to see the acres of busting tuna that were once so common in Madeiran waters. Nonetheless, the sportsman that visits the island at the right time still has a good chance of having his arms stretched by the power of one of these living torpedoes.
Big Eye Tuna are, of course, a highly prized gourmet delicacy, and a grilled tuna steak or a plate of finely sliced sashimi is a great way to finish off a day on the water.