Old-Salt Angler Still Reeling In The Big Ones

By Rich Armstrong

Captain Jose Campos is still an active offshore sportfisherman in his native Puerto Rico at age 84.

Captain Jose Campos

Captain Jose Campos is an angling legend in his native Puerto Rico, with hundreds of billfish landed over six decades and enough trophy hardware to fill the bragging room at his home in the Miramar section of San Juan.

"I won my first tournament back in 1957 at Cangrejos Yacht Club with a 437-pound blue marlin caught on a charter vessel. I got a big trophy but no cash," says the gregarious 84-year-old.

He has fished the Atlantic from Brazil to Nova Scotia, targeting big offshore species, especially billfish and bluefin tuna, while winning tournaments for giant tuna and blue marlin along the way. More impressive, Campos tagged his 315th blue marlin — a Puerto Rican record — just two years ago.

"I fought it for about two hours with my 80-pound rig, with 40-pound drag. It was my eighth blue marlin weighing over 600 pounds," he says. "Just me and two young crew members, who I was teaching the basics of offshore fishing aboard my SeaPro 27," he says of his 17-year-old boat rigged with twin 225-hp Mercury outboards.

Catching a blue marlin

Campos began his saltwater life at an early age. His father, Joaquin, was the first outboard-engine dealer in Puerto Rico. The patriarch had a mahogany boat and would take his son out to fish. He used the opportunity to show off the new Johnson and Evinrude outboards to potential buyers.

"We used to go out fishing for snappers, and my job was to cut up the bait," Campos recalls. He was soon hooked for life by a hobby he turned into a career.

The secret to sustained success at fishing, he says, is simple: patience.

"In fishing, you have to be patient, along with persistent and perseverant," he says. "The ocean is not like a stream full of fish where you just throw a hook. Here in Puerto Rico, all our fishing is done trolling, with no live bait and watching what is around us. Watching the birds and floating debris, that's what makes a good captain."

This good captain turned 84 in October, and with that maturity came other trophies: arthritis and a right knee replacement.

"You name it, I got it, but I still go out, at least one five- or six-hour trip each week," he says. The physical toll his passion has taken on his body has plenty to do with the old-school ways he does it.

"I fish with my hands, left hand on the reel with a glove, and bare right hand on the handle. I lean against a fighting chair, with no footrest, bolted to the cockpit with a kidney harness. I use my feet, with one foot on the rail," he says. "I used to do a lot of stand-up fishing, but now with my back, no way, Jose."

He used to earn his keep as a charter-boat captain but now focuses on taking young men out who want to crew on big charter boats.

"I like to teach. In fact, I helped make 23 sportfishing captains," he says. "It's the legacy of my life."

That, along with serving as an early advocate of catch-and-release in his native land.

"Back in the 1960s, we used to throw 20 to 30 tunas to the sharks after fishing and have 120 blue marlins hung up after a tournament so the press could take pictures," he says. "We are running out of fish."

Campos became chairman of the Caribbean Fishing Council in 1986 and took the unpopular stand to transition marlin tournaments to catch-and-release. Now they are the norm, and he is very proud to have played a role.

"With iPhones, now instead of killing a fish, you can take a picture of it and release it. I love it," he says.

Looking back, Campos sees clearly how he followed his life's path, and his life's passion.

"I believe it's something that people are born with — you're either agricultural people or mariners. That goes back thousands of years," he says. "It's something inside of you that makes you go out to chase fish." 

— Published: December 2016

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