On the Hook: When size disappoints in sport fishing

Bill Walsh

When you go after a major game fish, you need to unearth all of that patience you have hidden in your being ... and all that immediately comes to pass when you first set sight on that sizable creature that comes roaring out of the teaming sea. It’s a heart-stopping experience.

A real life example of that happened a few years back when a group of local charter captains took a weekend off and headed down to the Florida Keys for a blue marlin chase. It was to be an exciting diversion for the group of four after months of fishing the Southwestern Gulf of Mexico and applauding customers who caught 10-inch snappers or ladyfish.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose when fishing for blue marlin. But most of the time you come away with a story to tell.

The arrangement was with a world-class deep sea captain who regularly would hoist the blue marlin catch flag on return from an six-hour trip to the deep blue water south of Key West. The four of us were excited just to get the day off also — kind of like a busman’s holiday.

It was a six-hour car trip down the Overseas Highway and we had left home just after midnight so it was “sack” time in the rental van as the hours and miles melted away. As dawn broke, we “seniors” were as excited as kids at the circus. We stopped quickly for a tub of foot-long sandwiches and liters of libation and then piled aboard this beautiful fishing vessel as we set up a cash prize pool for the winner of the big marlin landing ... hopefully.

We passed the sea buoy and swung east into the northbound edges of the Gulf Stream that cascades through that area at four or five knots and thus kicks up sea conditions. We could tell when we reached the deep reaches of the Stream as the water darkened to a deep indigo and the water temperature jumped an additional five degrees.

Finally, as the boat engines cut to an idle, the rather dysfunctional mate deployed the outriggers and set an elaborate array of trolling baits, all set at varying depths and distances astern. We were all given time slots in the fighting chairs to be on either of the two rigs. The engines were fired back up and off we went. No one could wait for the first strike and plenty of supplemental bets were being thrown back and forth. Excitement reigned supreme!

On these type of big game trips, you really don’t know what to expect. It’s not like fishing for snapper or pompano back home where there is something tugging on the lines most of the time.

First hour is full of hope and you’re not too worried. After all, this is a great captain and he’ll get us our fish.

Second hour and those seeds of doubt begin to pop up and you begin to hear questions like “You guys have blues on trips earlier this week?" or  “Captain, hear anything from the other boats out here in the stream?" But nobody is discouraged  — yet.

Third hour and the mate changes all the rigs and sets them in a differing pattern as the captain reverses course and you cut trolling speed in half. You all just stare at the water coursing behind the wake and ask for another libation.

You all begin to think “Could this be one of those days?" that you’ve heard about and shuddered. Could it happen to us after a six hour car trip in the middle of the night ... another six hours when thinking about the pending trip back home.

Fifth hour and things are getting serious and thoughts begin to creep in that “good chance that we zero out.” Guys leave the cockpit and go below and stretch out on the lounge chairs. Ordinary conversation is strained. The captain comes down off the bridge and in a bit of sour humor and begins to make excuses “once in awhile this happens, that’s the roll of the dice.”

We all look at one another, shaking heads as he heads back topside. As we enter the final hour we all grab a remaining foot-long and a cold libation and head back up to the cockpit. The captain turns the boat for home as the mate readies the gear for a final retrieve.

And suddenly, the fish gods smile on our dilemma as the port outrigger goes off with a screaming reel and a shout from the captain up on the bridge, “blue on!” The cockpit comes alive and it looks like the General Quarters scene from “Mr Roberts” as one of the four grabs the rod and gets strapped into the chair and the fight is on. Back and forth go the give and take as time drains past our allotted six hours with three guys cheering on the fourth as he makes his “bones.”

Finally, after a half hour struggle, they pull the marlin to leader and the big 200-pound marlin is tired but still active. The mate takes a few group photos of the four of us surrounding the marlin, extracts the hook and the blue flips its tail and heads back to the briny unscathed.

Our charter captain, who landed the marlin, says "we’ll just tell ‘em back at the marina that we all caught one.”

The captain puts up the “blue marlin” pennant on the yardarm as we enter the marina. Trip over.

An experience with lesson learned. Maybe catching snapper ain’t so bad after all.

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to