VIVA LA FRANCE!
Beaulieu-Sur-Mer is unlikely to be the first name to roll off the tongue in a discussion about the many chic resorts you’ll find along the French Riviera, Frances glamorous playground for the rich and famous on the Mediterranean. St Tropez, Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Ville Franche, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and the neighbouring tax haven and independent principality of Monaco, these are far more likely to enter a conversation about the ‘Cote d’ Azur’ rather than Beaulieu. Yet as I recently discovered this idyllic coastal town has far more interesting things to offer rather than simply the chance of getting a glimpse of A-list celebrities.
Beaulieu-Sur-Mer is a lovely little town, it’s the epitome of a classic Mediterranean fishing harbour, the southern fringes of the French Alps providing an imposing, even jaw dropping backdrop. It’s is a place where traditional wooden, colourfully painted fishing boats sit proudly at their moorings, side by side with the multi-million mega yachts that seem to dominate most other ports in the region.
Beaulieu is a town where early each morning the local fishermen still sell the freshest of freshly caught fish directly from tiled stalls at the harbour right next to the their boats, in just the same was as their families before them have done for generations. Beaulieu is a place where old men sit on age worn benches beneath the shade of an old tree on the harbour side.
Partrice Garziglia was born in Beaulieu. His father is the harbour master, his grandfather and great grandfather were both fishermen at the port, and today Patrice maintains the family fishing tradition, albeit fishing for sport rather than the market, and what truly magnificent sport fishing he has to offer, too! I first met Patrice in the Maldives, one of several exotic destinations where he guides throughout the winter months when ‘The Mistral chills the coast. During this trip he told me of the fantastic tuna fishing he has all but on his doorstep in southern France, further drawing me in with tempting talk of the broadbill swordfish and spearfish his clients catch each year along with, albeit on rare occasions, white marlin. No doubt you’ll understand why at the very first opportunity I found myself on a plane heading for Nice.
The night before my first days fishing a violent thunderstorm lashed the coast. The next morning, as we slipped out of the shelter of the harbour into open water the seas were, to say the least, grumpy. Looking back I could see fresh snow had fallen on the highest peaks of the Alps, and this was the first week of June! As we steamed south the sea conditions deteriorated, the gusting remnants of the storm were lashing the tops off the hefty swells that were rolling in from the west. Don’t ever be fooled into thinking the Mediterranean is always the tranquil picture postcard setting we mostly see. Often it is, but as I have seen for myself on several occasions this is a sea that is more than capable of outwitting any sailor naïve enough to take her for granted.
As ‘Papeete II’ ploughed her way through these heavy seas, Patrice told me more about the areas bluefin tuna fishery; which I had assumed was little more than just just an occasional fish his crews encountered “Non, we catch a lot of tuna here Dave,” he had replied in an accent thicker than melted chocolate. “Last week we fished two days taking 12 fish on one, 18 on the other. From May until August we average perhaps 5-10 fish in the 20-60lb range a day.”
As the day progressed conditions slowly started to improve, but they had been enough to prevent Patrice from reaching his favourite area located about 50 miles offshore. Most of our crew had succumbed to ‘Mal-der-Mer’, yet despite having all of the odds stacked heavily against us, we still hooked up with three tuna. Sadly all three came unstuck due to a combination of adverse sea conditions, inexperience and plain old bad luck.
The weather conditions on day two were vastly improved. After taking on essential supplies for a days fishing, freshly baked, still warm-out-of-the-oven croissants, French sticks, a few bottles of Château Montagne St Emilion 2001, a selection of salamis, locally produced cheeses and smoked meats and mouth watering dressed salads, we once again we slipped out into the inky blue waters of the Mediterranean for a days fishing.
Patrice fishes for tuna trolling fishing up to 11 rods at a time, each rigged with a selection of small jet head type surface lures presented well astern of the boat off the outriggers and flat lines, along with deep diving Rapala, Storm and Halco plugs that work closer to the boat all but swimming in the foaming prop wash.
“The ideal sea surface temperature for catching bluefin tuna is 19-20˚c,” Patrice told me as we ran at high speed towards his favourite area. Looking at the boats instrument panel I duly noted that two days of strong northerly winds blowing off snow capped peaks had crashed what invariably were stable summer conditions to a fin frosting 17˚c. “Do you think its too cold to catch tuna I asked,” barely able to disguise the doubt in my voice? “It will be tough, but I think we will catch fish today,” replied a quietly confident Patrice.
The day before Patrice had told me often they sighted broadbill swordfish basking on the surface during the daytime, the fish apparently sleeping. By carefully given these lazing fish a wide berth and presenting the spread of lures just in front of their bill, just occasionally one could be provoked into snatching at a lure. “On average we pick up around 10 swordfish a year, but undoubtedly we’d catch a lot more if we fished specifically for them, especially at night” he confirmed.
And sure enough less than an hour later the boat had suddenly swung to starboard, Patrice pointing excitedly at the unmistakable profile of a swordfish lying on the surface. The characteristic pointed lobes of dorsal and tail fin had given the fishes position away, but despite several attempts at trying to induce it to strike that fish could not be tempted, and eventually it sank away into the inky blue depths.
The morning passed without event, aside, that is, to a near continual procession of excellent wine and good food. We trolled this way and that, we trolled to the east and then we trolled to the west, but despite frequently changing our lures and the formation of our spread we failed to induce a strike. Then, in the early afternoon just as I was beginning to think the low sea temperature had indeed put the fish down into the depths where they would find more favourable conditions, suddenly one of the transom rods was snatched over sharply and line started to scream off the reel.
One of the crew grabbed the rod, and barely had he removed it from the rod rest when a second fish boiled on a bright orange Rapala CD18 fishing just behind our wake and tore off to the horizon; a double hook up! While Patrice skilfully manoeuvred the boat, barking out orders in French as the two anglers fought their respective fish, I worked my way around the cockpit taking photos, previously I’d seen and caught most species of tuna around the world but until this trip I’d never seen a bluefin.
Clearly these were not the gargantuan 1000lb+ monsters that the species is capable of, but I could see they were hard fighting fish that were providing fantastic fun and great sport on the relatively light tackle on which they had been hooked. The first fish was brought to the gaff in around 15 minutes, while the second took almost double that time. Twice Patrice had reached out and grabbed a hold of the leader but both times he was forced to release it as the fish turned and powered off. Eventually, though, steady pressure and patience paid off and Patrice was able again to grab the leader, reach out with the gaff, and hoist our second tuna aboard.
Both fish weighed in the region of 40lb, they were beautiful in every detail. As I snapped away with my cameras I couldn’t help marvelling that here I was, barely a couple of hours travel time from home, looking at the fish that previously I’d travelled half way around the world to catch, the skipper and crew all but apologising for the unseasonably and unusually slow pace of the fishing. How has France managed to keep such fantastic sport a secret from us for so long?
Papeete II is based at Beaulieu on the French Rivera from May until August. Occasional shots at billfish are always possible during this time, while opportunities increase towards the later part of the season along with a lot of dorado and occasionally albacore adding variety. From August until November the boat is based at Bonifacio in Southern Corsica. Here Patrice intercepts a run of much larger fish that migrate through the narrow channel separating Corsica from Sardinia. Now he fishes live baits at anchor beneath balloons, and these tuna average 100-300lb. Here the water is relatively shallow water and there is also excellent bottom fishing for amberjack, dentex bream and various species of snapper and grouper. For more information visit: http://www.med-sportfishing.com