Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Pinnacle of Sport Fishing: Catching a Blue Marlin

One drawback of living in DC is that lots of people here don't appreciate stories about catching fish, especially rare and legendary sport fish. In my opinion, the proper response to 'We caught a 9.5-foot blue marlin this past weekend' should be 'holy fucking shit, you what??' -- not the reaction I typically get around here which is more like the response you should expect if someone told you they chose the tilapia over the flounder last night at Red Lobster.

But there are a few people around here who appreciate a good man-versus-beast story and one like what happened recently to me is worth writing down for posterity.

Until this past Saturday, I'd never gone fishing for blue marlin. And until this past Saturday, I'd never experienced fishing at the height of its possibilities.

Barely able to our put our feet from the bed to the floor, waking up at 3:45am, my group of friends crawled out of a dirty Motel 6 in Norfolk, Virginia into our car for a four-hour boat ride to the fishing spot.

Calling this place a "Motel" is a compliment. A more accurate description is a freelance brothel where some of the rooms smelled like an orgy took place some time in the previous 100 hours. Nothing much in this world makes you want to sleep less than the smell of a two-day-old orgy having occurred underneath where you lie. God, I wish I was exaggerating. One guy in our group brought his own towels and sheets, having stayed there before.

With me on this fishing trip are: Colin, my brother-of-a-friend whom I've known since third grade; Brian, an affable Irishman from Belfast with a shapely belly and big personality who has a since-childhood obsession of catching a blue marlin; Rusty, a likable fellow on the quiet side, who owns a fireplace-and-grill business in Virginia; and Mike, a fun-ass unedited joke-cracker who's got seven kids and an early-model Chevy with serious fuel digestion problems.

Every time we head out fishing the group vows to take it easy and go to bed early. That didn't happen on this trip either. So most of us hit our filthy beds at near 2am after killing a bottle of tawny port and Sambuca that Brian grabbed from his home liquor cabinet on the way out.

That night we vowed that we'd pass the rod to Brian if there was a blue marlin hooked the next day. It was his lifetime dream to catch one, and if you could see the gleam in his eye when he talked about wanting to catch one, I imagined this must've been the type of zeal that drove Hemingway to catch 20 marlin per month off Cuba in the 1930s. Brian has traveled the globe in an Ahab-like pursuit of a blue marlin and spent more money on it than I think he'd want me to reveal on a public blog.

The captain of our fishing boat drove us over four hours off Norfolk until we were trolling in 500 to 1000 feet of water off the continental shelf. We had all the lines in by 8:15am, trolling 8 rods and two teasers.

A teaser is a hookless chain of fake orange squid that makes lots of splashing. They're used to draw the marlin up from the depths. Once the fish is near the teasers, it usually peels off and hits one of the hooks and the fight begins.

And at around 10:00am, that's exactly what happened.

Brian was fully spread out on the boat's couch at 10:00am in a state of half-seasickness and half-hangover. Rusty was lying face down on the salon floor carpet after puking most of the ride out. Mike was trying to sleep in the chair, baseball cap pulled over his eyes, but every once in a while when the boat rolled, he'd be thrown violently onto the floor in a chaotic toppling event. And Colin and I were just watching those lines from the back deck, waiting -- the excitement had pushed our tiredness into some dusty corner of our skulls.

Then, in a bellow that cracked through the drone of the twin diesels and the snoozing, the captain shouted from the top deck -- "MARLIN ON THE PORT TEASER!! MARLIN ON THE PORT TEASER!!"

I looked back and there it was, not 20 yards off the back of the boat -- a big blue dorsal fin trailing the teasers. And that's when the true skill of our Mate and Captain went into full gear.

It's worth saying here that catching a blue marlin is not easy. Some people pursue this prize fish half their lives and catch nothing -- having spent tens of thousands all for nothing. Some people pursue this prize fish half their lives only to watch one nearly take their hook, but lose it due to the inexperience or bad luck by Mate and/or Captain. And if a blue marlin is checking out the teaser you're trolling, trust me, you want a Mate and Captain like ours.

I've never seen fishing like this. Our Mate Fred jumped into gear, grabbing the transom-mounted rod, trying to lure the marlin away from the teaser. Captain Mike maneuvered the boat into place and reeled up the teaser so the marlin would lose interest in it.

All this time everyone onboard is shouting and yelling and chaos is rampant. The boat pitches and rolls. Brian is falling and tripping out of the couch onto the deck and into the fighting chair. He's still barefooted and if I'd looked, there was probably crusty drool stuck to his face.

The mood change onboard was as distinct as a lightning strike.

Fred's rod bent over fast and we heard that distinctive beautiful fast ZIZZZZZZ of 50-pound test monofilament line peeling off the bowling-ball-sized reel at high speed. The fucker was hooked!

Then, in a second later, Fred's rod loses its curve and he's cursing that he's lost it. FUCK! And here's where the experience factor plays in -- Fred didn't even pause; he just grabs the second rod off the transom and starts playing the lure, trying to draw in the leviathan.

Our anxiety and head-spinning adrenaline rush had come to a confusing low point when we thought the marlin had spit the hook on Fred's rod, but not a minute later, and Fred had the beast hooked on the second rod. He set the hook hard, and then the reel just started screaming as Colin and Fred steered the butt of the rod into the fighting chair and Brian started one of the most exhausting fights of his life.

Most fishing in my life has not been an athletic feat. Maybe when I caught a small hammerhead shark in Hitlon Head as a kid -- that was tiring. Or even a few sand sharks and rockfish and barracuda I've caught along the way have been enough to break a sweat and work my biceps. But watching Brian battle to reel in this blue marlin was painful -- even witnessing it tired me out.

This marlin ran off the boat nearly 400 yards and then began to jump and thrash about in the water as we all watched in awe and shouted at Brian to REEL REEL REEL REEL. REEL MOTHERFUCKER REEL.

That's the thing about the fight to haul in a blue marlin -- all that shouting and screaming and sweating and waves splashing over the transom and saltwater in your eyes and chaos as the captain puts the boat in reverse. It's like some kind of spontaneous desperate celebration that hurts your vocal chords.

Brian fought that son-of-bitch for thirty minutes and at one point we thought that reel would get smoked. After the initial run, the marlin nearly finished the spool of line. Through the skilled reverse engines, the captain prevented that, thank God. But damn, after that first 20 minutes, I was wondering if Brian could do it. I was wondering if anyone onboard could do it.

The marlin dove deep into the 100 fathoms beneath us and we couldn't see him for a while. There were times when the drag was just stuck and any amount of Brian's reeling was useless. Then after a while, the fish tired and we could see the long flash of its body rise up from the depths. As it got closer to the boat, I had to spin Brian in the fighting chair into position. Fred had the rod bent over his right shoulder as he made sure the fish came up properly.

Through some deft boat positioning, the captain made sure the prop didn't cut the line and Fred put on gloves to grab the marlin by the bill and de-hook and release it, and we watched it drift and then swim away gracefully.

Marlin fishing is a bit like an arm-wrestling contest with a true bad-ass and (usually) neither party gets killed.

It was just unbelievable. All of use were coming off an adrenaline high and half panting and half laughing. I looked over at Brian, covered in sweat, breathing, smiling and just saying YESSSS, YESSS over and over. The mother fucker was in tears, man. In TEARS.

Here's Brian reeling in slack after the boat had reversed for a while:

Here's Brian as he starts to tire:

Here's the fish as the Mate de-hooks and releases it. The blue marlin was estimated at 9.5 feet in length and 275 pounds:

And of course the guy who catches the blue marlin always gets pushed in by the crew:

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