HURRY UP AND WAIT

WHEN IT COMES TO BIG-GAME FISH­ING, SOME­TIMES IT’S BET­TER TO BE LUCKY THAN GOOD

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN BROWN­LEE PHOTOS BY AUSTIN COIT

We all know the old say­ing about off­shore fish­ing: hours of bore­dom punc­tu­ated by sec­onds of chaos. This is what the lat­ter looks like. By JOHN BROWN­LEE

Most of us have heard trolling de­scribed as “hours of bore­dom in­ter­rupted by sec­onds of chaos.” This def­i­ni­tion holds es­pe­cially true when dis­cussing big-game fish­ing for marlin. It’s un­ques­tion­ably a low-per­cent­age game in which one must of­ten tol­er­ate long pe­ri­ods of in­ac­tiv­ity in the hopes of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the adren­a­line rush of a big fish sud­denly ap­pear­ing in your spread. It’s what off­shore junkies live for and what keeps us coming back again and again.

I have a psy­chol­o­gist buddy who likens those of us so af­flicted to lab­o­ra­tory rats. He points out that rats can be trained to push a tiny lever re­peat­edly with their forepaws. Af­ter maybe a hun­dred pushes, a morsel of food drops out of a chute. This re­ward en­cour­ages the rat to push that lever again and again in the hopes of an­other re­ward.

I’m not sure I like be­ing com­pared to a lab rat, but I must admit that the be­hav­ior sounds a lit­tle like me. The low catch-pe­runit-of-ef­fort rate (the sci­en­tific mea­sure­ment of fish­ing suc­cess) in big-game fish­ing doesn’t dis­suade most of us. And when that big fish does ma­te­ri­al­ize, it makes it all worth­while. Ev­ery­thing gets boiled down to that one, brief mo­ment: the bite, the best part of fish­ing.

No matter how many times you ex­pe­ri­ence it, you never seem to be quite ready for it when it oc­curs. Pro­fes­sional crews and an­glers of great ex­pe­ri­ence stay calm and sim­ply go to work. The me­thod­i­cal process of hook­ing and catch­ing the fish be­comes rote, and the calmer and more fo­cused you can stay, the higher your chances of suc­cess.

Of course, it doesn’t al­ways work out that way. For one thing, fish don’t al­ways attack when you’re ready. They can show up at de­cid­edly in­op­por­tune times — quite an in­con­ve­nience, re­ally. Such a sce­nario oc­curred many years ago on a friend’s boat while trolling off

Bi­mini in the Ba­hamas. His crew had got­ten a late start af­ter a late night at the now-de­funct Com­pleat An­gler bar, and they headed off­shore with pow­er­ful hang­overs.

Such an im­pair­ment def­i­nitely re­duces your an­gling ef­fec­tive­ness, but they were de­ter­mined to catch a blue marlin. As the cap­tain steered the boat off Bi­mini’s west­ern shore, my buddy worked the cock­pit, putting out baits. Back then, many skip­pers used rigged bone­fish for bait (a prac­tice now frowned upon), and my buddy’s crew had a fat bone rigged and ready.

The crew were dis­cussing the pre­vi­ous evening’s fes­tiv­i­ties and the fe­roc­ity of their hang­overs, and no one had an eye on the spread. My buddy was the sole oc­cu­pant of the cock­pit, and as he at­tempted re­peat­edly to de­ploy the bone­fish, it kept snap­ping out of his hand as he tried to put the line in the out­rig­ger clip. He told the cap­tain that the bait had ob­vi­ously been im­prop­erly rigged, as he couldn’t get it set right, spark­ing a spir­ited dis­cus­sion about who knew more about bait rig­ging.

Af­ter the third or fourth at­tempt, my friend looked back at the bait to see what was go­ing on, and he saw a huge dor­sal fin cut­ting back and forth be­hind the bone­fish. “Marlin!” he shouted, set­ting off a scram­ble as those on the fly­bridge jumped to the cock­pit sole. Some­one grabbed the rod and man­aged to drop the bait back to the fish amid the bed­lam, and hook it. The fish had re­peat­edly tried to eat the bait, un­de­tected, and per­sisted long enough for some­one fi­nally to realize what was hap­pen­ing. They caught and re­leased that fish and es­ti­mated it weighed close to 800 pounds. Cock­pit chaos takes many forms and doesn’t al­ways in­volve marlin. One win­ter af­ter­noon a few years back, I found my­self off­shore in my home waters off Is­lam­orada, Florida, fish­ing live baits for sail­fish. The ocean had been greasy-calm all day, with lit­tle cur­rent — typ­i­cally not the best sail­fish con­di­tions, and we hadn’t caught much. We hadn’t seen a sin­gle sail­fish all day. As late af­ter­noon ap­proached, we agreed to admit de­feat, call it a day and head home.

My wife, Poppy, and one of her friends manned the cock­pit. When we’re done for the day we usu­ally dump our re­main­ing live bait over­board in the hope of elic­it­ing a strike — a des­per­a­tion move to be sure, but some­times it pays off. The ladies tossed scoops of live bal­ly­hoo and pilchards over­board, and from the fly­bridge I watched the baits streak across the sur­face, seek­ing shel­ter.

Dark shapes ap­peared be­hind the boat, two dozen or more, as a huge pack of sail­fish rose to chase the ter­ri­fied baits. “Sail­fish, get ready!” I screamed to the crew be­low, a to­tally un­nec­es­sary an­nounce­ment, as they, too, were mes­mer­ized by the melee off our tran­som. The re­main­ing baits made a bee­line back to our boat, the only shel­ter around, with the sails in hot pur­suit.

We still had four live baits out, and the sail­fish be­gan streak­ing be­neath the boat. It was like watch­ing a movie. All four rods went off al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and we found our­selves hooked to a quad with only two an­glers. Poppy and her friend grabbed two rods and left the other two in the hold­ers, and in the en­su­ing pan­de­mo­nium we man­aged to lose all four fish. The sail­fish were gone as sud­denly as they had ap­peared, and the three of us could only stare at one an­other and laugh as we all ex­claimed, “What the hell just hap­pened?”

Lastly, not all cock­pit chaos in­volves fish, not real ones, any­way. A friend worked as a char­ter boat mate in Ore­gon In­let, North Carolina, years ago. While trolling off­shore one calm sum­mer day he sat atop the bridge lad­der watch­ing the baits. The bite had been slow, and af­ter a while the rhyth­mic hum of the diesels and the gen­tle rolling of the boat caused him to nod off.

He fell off the lad­der into the cock­pit and landed on his feet with a loud bang. Ap­par­ently the char­ter guests had dozed off, too, but now ev­ery­one sat bolt up­right, won­der­ing what had just hap­pened. Be­ing a quick thinker and not want­ing any­one to know he had fallen asleep, my friend grabbed the near­est rod, held it high above his head and screamed, “White marlin, right rig­ger!”

The as­ton­ished crew leapt to their feet and stared back into the wake, look­ing for the myth­i­cal fish. The cap­tain du­ti­fully be­gan steer­ing the boat in a fig­ure-eight, try­ing to get an­other bite. To this day those folks likely think of that “fish” as one that got away.

Mo­ments such as th­ese de­fine our sport and make what we do worth the wait.

Rough con­di­tions — like epic hang­overs — can im­pact the ef­fec­tive­ness of cap­tains and crew.

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