Catching the Big One: Unique Fishing Grounds

Jun 3, 2024 by Zack Thomas

Get off the beaten track to explore these three remote, and increasingly difficult to access, fishing grounds. 

Kona. St. Thomas. Cabo San Lucas. Islamorada. Cairns. The Azores. Isla Mujéres. The exotic and far-flung epicenters of bluewater sportfishing for billfish, tuna, wahoo, and mahi-mahi are almost as much a part of the sport’s allure as bent rods and screaming reels. But the list goes on, well beyond these storied islands, capes, and coastlines, to more obscure and remote destinations — some of them only barely outside the realm of myth. Here are three way-out-of-the-way destinations worth learning about, ranked by degree of difficulty. 

Madeira — Intermediate

Better known for grapes than granders, the paradisiacal Portuguese island of Madeira nonetheless produces an extraordinary bounty of huge billfish in addition to its unique fortified wines. The quest to catch a grander, a marlin of 1,000 pounds or more, has probably compelled more boats and more crew across more miles of ocean than any other feat in fishing, and many of those boats and crew converge on Madeira in the summer. 

Interestingly, Madeira’s distinguishing feature as a blue marlin destination isn’t necessarily how many blue marlin over half a ton its waters produce, but rather how few marlin under 400 pounds they produce. There are plenty of other places where you have a similar shot at hooking a grander, but when it comes to the average size of marlin hooked, nowhere on earth compares. Different figures are tossed around for the size of the average Madeira blue marlin, ranging from 400 to 700 pounds; anything under 400 pounds is considered small fish.

As isolated as it is — roughly 600 miles southeast of the Azores, 350 miles west of the Moroccan coast, and 250 miles north of the Canary Islands — Madeira still gets the “intermediate” rating because of its well-developed tourist infrastructure and relative proximity to continental Europe. Yachts and ships of all sizes are easily accommodated at half a dozen modern marinas, and the island is renowned for fine dining, rich culture, and breathtaking natural beauty. You won’t be roughing it by any stretch of the imagination. 

In addition to blue marlin, the waters around Madeira teem with white marlin, mahi-mahi, albacore, plus jumbo bluefin and bigeye tuna during the spring and summer, and wahoo during the fall. As a bonus, most fishing — even for huge blue marlin and tuna — is done in calm waters just one to five miles off the island’s picturesque southwestern coast in the shadow of the towering sea cliffs of Cabo Girão. Need some pointers? The well-established charter fleet boasts some of the most accomplished big marlin captains on the planet.

  • Madeira is approximately 4,900 miles from Fort Lauderdale via Bermuda and the Azores. Longest leg is about 2,200 miles from Bermuda to the Azores. 
  • Daily direct flights are available from Lisbon, London, Frankfurt, Paris, and other European hubs.

Cape Verde — Advanced

Around 1,200 miles south-southwest of Madeira and 400 miles off the Senegalese coast, Cape Verde is a different world. The developing island nation — independent since 1975 and officially known as Cabo Verde — shares little in common with Madeira besides its Portuguese heritage and the remarkable number and size of pelagic gamefish that migrate through its waters. In contrast to lush, temperate Madeira, the Cabo Verde archipelago is mostly craggy and imposing — although strikingly beautiful — and swept by hot, arid northeasterly winds much of the year. Tourist and marine infrastructure are still developing, earning Cabo Verde its higher degree of difficulty rating.

Is the fishing worth the significant challenges involved with visiting Cabo Verde? If you want to catch almost unheard of numbers of blue marlin with the constant possibility that the next bite could be a giant of 700 pounds or more, then absolutely. The average marlin caught here isn’t as big as in Madeira, but 10-bite days aren’t out of the norm and granders are caught every year, including a 1,370-pound fish in 2022 — among the largest ever weighed from the Atlantic.

Of course, if you somehow get bored of pitch-baiting blue marlin, there are also excellent fisheries for the usual tropical Atlantic suspects: white marlin, wahoo, mahi-mahi, swordfish, sailfish, and yellowfin and bigeye tuna. Fishing for most species peaks in the spring and summer, generally winding down by late September. March through July are dry and windy; most of the scant annual rainfall comes in August and September. The vast majority of sportfishing activity is centered around the harbor of Mindelo on the island of São Vicente, which is partially sheltered from prevailing winds by mountainous Santo Antão, just five miles to the north. 

Despite the archipelago’s remoteness — it lies at one end of the shortest route between the Caribbean and Africa — the roughly 2,300-mile stretch of the Atlantic separating Barbados from Santo Antão. Unfortunately, it lies at the wrong end. Cabo Verde is a perfect jumping-off point to ride the easterly trades across the Atlantic to the Windward Islands; the west-to-east trip, against the trades, is a different proposition. Instead, at least for American vessels, fishing Cabo Verde makes most sense at the tail end of a Mediterranean swing.

  • Cape Verde is approximately 4,000 miles from Fort Lauderdale via the Virgin Islands and Barbados. Longest leg is about 2,300 miles from Barbados to São Pedro.
  • There are multiple commercial flights per week to Sal, the primary airport, from European hubs, especially Lisbon. Daily flights from Lisbon as well as daily interisland flights to São Vicente, the nation’s sportfishing hub.

Ascension Island — Expert

Ascension Island — in the middle of the Atlantic, eight degrees south of the equator, 1,000 miles from Africa, 1,400 miles from South America, and 800 miles from St. Helena, the closest land — might not be the most remote populated island on the globe (that honor belongs to Tristan da Cunha), but the difference is academic. This 34-square-mile speck of volcanic rock is still a very, very long way from anywhere. 

That remoteness, combined with a ban on commercial fishing within 200 nautical miles of Ascension and a population of less than 1,000 people, means the marine ecosystem is among the most pristine anywhere in the world’s tropical oceans. Anglers and spearfishermen who have visited Ascension often refer to its waters as a marine “Jurassic Park” teeming with 200-plus pound yellowfin and bigeye tuna, monster blue marlin, wahoo, and a rogue’s gallery of jack species.

Like most of the globe’s legendary bluewater fishing areas, giant marlin first put Ascension Island on the map. Few people had even heard of Ascension — let alone considered fishing there — when Capt. Trevor Cockle and the crew aboard the charter boat God’s Favor weighed an incredible 1,337-pound blue in November 2002. A month to the day later, Cockle weighed a second grander, and then, barely three weeks after that, on New Year’s Day 2003, Capt. Mattias Henningsen weighed a third.

It was an unheard-of run, and eight more granders followed between 2004 and 2015. In absolute terms, that’s not especially impressive. During the same period, for comparison, anglers fishing out of Kona, Hawaii, weighed 28 granders. But consider that Ascension has only a tiny, tiny fraction of the fishing effort, and 10 granders in 13 years becomes almost unbelievable.

Less known than the blue marlin fishery but just as remarkable is Ascension’s unusual yellowfin tuna fishing. Yellowfin in the 200- to 300-pound class are so numerous in the waters just a mile or two from the rocks that anglers catch them by blind-casting giant topwater plugs on ultra-heavy spinning gear. Incredibly, tuna in the 50-pound class and large amberjack can be caught from shore on artificial lures; there are even reports of yellowfin in excess of 200 pounds landed from shore. The size and quantity of tuna also make Ascension a bucket-list destination for spearfishermen. 

The catch, so to speak, is the incredible challenge of getting here, which merits the double black diamond difficulty rating. Only about 40 private vessels a year visit Ascension. Aside from sailing, a large mothership operation, such as Bad Company Fishing Adventures, which visited Ascension this spring, is the only realistic option. Air travel is possible but difficult via a single monthly flight from St. Helena, which is served by twice-monthly flights from South Africa.

  • Ascension Island is a short 5,300 miles from Fort Lauderdale via the Caribbean and northeastern South America including a 1,450 mile leg from Natal, Brazil, to Ascension, or 5,700 miles via Barbados and Cape Verde, including a 1,700 mile leg from Praia to Ascension.
  • Monthly flights are available to Ascension’s joint RAF-USAF military airfield from St. Helena island. Weekly flights to St. Helena from Johannesburg, South Africa, with a fuel stop in Namibia are available too. 

Zack Thomas is a Florida-based fishing, boating, and travel writer and author of “The Angler’s Guide to Trailer-Boating Baja.” He also provides professional marketing services for the marine and fishing industries through his company, Overslot Web & Communications.