Fathers Day 2005 rolled around in Nassau. Reports came in of tuna and occasional marlin sighted close to shore, and I wanted in on the action. What else would I do but go fishing?
Gary Honkofsky and I launched Boat Tales at sunrise from Sandy Port, in western Cable Beach, to catch an early morning bite. I loved chasing tuna because it was entirely sight fishing to chase fast fish. Summer doldrums gave us mirror flat water, enabling us to see swarming tuna birds and splashing fish at great distances. Once we saw tuna birds, we would race to the action and fast troll cedar plugs, feathers, and small jet heads through the melee of diving birds and fish crashing on desperate baitfish.
On this morning, we zigzagged northwest at high speed for several hours, but alas, we saw no birds or fish. By ten o’clock, we called it a morning and headed back to port. I stopped the boat three miles offshore in 2,000 feet of water to drift and relax for a while. Optimistically, I put whole squids on an eight-inch cedar plug and on a blue feather jig. We dropped both rigs down fifty feet, put the rods in the holders, and sat back to enjoy the calm turquoise sea and cloudless sky while sipping beer.
A movement on the port side caught my eye. I turned to the stunning sight of a colossal marlin surfacing forty-feet away. The last thing I expected to see this close to shore was a marlin. When he gracefully slid under the boat, I saw his back was over two feet wide. Gary and I jumped up, not knowing what to do. Pull in the lines; put out more lines; start trolling; or nothing. Totally caught off guard, we couldn’t move for ten seconds. I certainly didn’t have marlin lures and heavy gear for fighting the largest of fish. Suddenly, the port rod bent over violently, then snapped straight like a spring. Gary pulled in the line and a bare hook. Thirty seconds later, the other rod doubled over, and line screamed off the Penn 50 International reel with six hundred yards of fifty-pound line. I grabbed the rod and jerked hard several times to set the hook into the bony bill. The marlin shifted into high gear, slamming me into the gunnels. Fortunately, Gary grabbed my belt to hold me in the boat. Line peeled off the rod at an unbelievable rate.
I desperately held on to the rod and yelled, “This is the biggest fish I ever hooked. I hope there’s enough line on the reel.”
“What do we do?” Gary asked incredulously. Neither of us knew how to handle gigantic fish.
“I’ve never hooked a marlin before. Clear the deck and get me a rod belt,” I responded.
Gary strapped a rod belt around my waist. I struggled to place the swaying rod butt in the cup. We watched in awe when the giant marlin jumped twice at two hundred yards creating huge, white splashes and then took off on another blistering run.
I settled in for a long battle. I wonder if I have the endurance to catch this beast. I couldn't stop him on this first run. If I tighten the drag now, I risk cutting the line on the fish’s bill or tail.
My standard marlin rig used fifteen feet of two-hundred-pound leader to prevent chaffing the line, but today I only had three feet of sixty-pound leader on my light tuna rig. Without a fighting chair on the boat, I had to fight this marlin standing up. I had only been at it for a few minutes, and my arms were already cramped.
I told Gary, “Break out the fighting harness. I’m not going to last much longer.”
We looked like clowns as Gary struggled to put the harness around my back while I held onto the rod.
When he finished, he asked, "Now what?"
“Get that knee plate and clip it onto the harness.”
Once the knee plate was attached, I said, "It's hanging too low. Adjust the straps to make it higher.” While Gary tried to adjust the straps, I almost lost my grip on the rod twice.
“Now take these side straps and clip them onto the reel.” Once the reel was strapped to the harness, I took my cramped hands off the rod. The pull was transferred to my legs and back rather than my aching arms.
Three hundred yards of the line and counting was off the reel, and the marlin was still going strong. I hadn't even started reeling. I just hung on, waiting for this marathon run to stop. I watched the knot of the backing line roll off the spool where I had recently spliced on new line.
I yelled, "Start the boat and chase that son of a bitch, or he'll spool me." We followed the marlin plowing a big V in the water, but I was still unable to reel in line.
Gary throttled up to fifteen knots before we gained on him. I reeled in one hundred yards of line, inch-by-inch. I was relieved when the backing knot went back on the reel. We were within fifty yards of the fish when the angle of the line changed. We had moved too close and spooked the marlin while he was still green. Now he sounded.
"Slow down, he's diving."
My line now pointed straight down. Gary stopped the boat as the marlin dove with a vengeance. The line once again screamed off the reel, creating that beautiful musical sound of fish and raw strength. Out went the backing knot again. I wasn’t even slowing him down. The power of the fish was unbelievable.
When Gary pulled the gaff out of the fish box, I laughed.
"How are you going to gaff a monster marlin with a little six-foot dolphin gaff."
He looked at me mystified. “What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
“Want me to take the rod?”
“No, this is my fish.”
Down and down the fish dove. I still couldn’t reel line in. I just held onto the rod, waiting to see who would tire first, me or the denizen from the deep.
I thought I wish the water wasn't so deep. My line will run out before it reaches the bottom. What the hell am I going to do? I tightened the drag as much as I dared, to no avail. My back started to tighten up. Fifteen minutes into the fight and the marlin hadn’t slowed down a bit. I now understood the stories of marathon struggles with a giant marlin that lasted for many hours. What would it take to slow him down, much less bring this goliath in? I didn't have it in me.
Five hundred yards of line was out when Gary asked again, “What are we going to do?”
"We have two choices. We can tie another rod onto this reel and throw it overboard to give us another five hundred yards of line. Or, I can tighten the drag and hope he stops before the knot in the middle breaks. He won't give me enough slack to cut the line and tie it on to another reel."
I thought, this is a $600 rod and reel. I am not in a high dollar tournament, so there’s no way I’ll throw the rod overboard and sacrifice it to the fish gods.
The line approached the last forty yards, and the fish was still diving. I tightened the drag all the way down, but that didn’t faze him. When the line got to the end of the spool, I put more pressure on the line with my thumb, pulled up hard, and braced for a big surge. The rod jerked down violently then went limp. Gary and I stepped back and looked at each other silently. With limp arms, I slowly reeled in line. Unbelievably, I recovered all six hundred yards. The sixty-pound leader had pulled free from the hook, letting the fish get away with just a hook in his mouth.
Marlins have been known to sound to deep water, turn sideways, and fight to the death. After a giant marlin dies in deep water, it is almost impossible to lift that much weight against the thermoclines and currents without breaking the line. More line would not have helped me. My only hope would have been a bigger rod, larger line, and more drag.
Remember, you can't catch a fish if you don't have a hook in the water
I knew where I would be next Father's Day.