Just as a serious mountaineer is helplessly compelled to climb the great peaks, not simply to brag, but to fill a genuine void, I am drawn to fishing. And though the obsessions are similar in some ways, there is one major difference: I am after fish, and the mountaineer is after, uh, something else I guess.
Luckily for me, my passion is far less perilous and usually requires little in the way of physical or mental discomfort. I say usually because of the few times I have been matched with a particularly huge fish that has left me exhausted and in pain. Here is a story about one such fish.
It was the first Sunday of August 98, and only our second giant blue fin tuna trip of our lives. Gearing up for these fantastic fish had proven far more difficult and costly than any of us had imagined, but finally we were prepared. Ok, let's just say we were somewhat ready.
We pulled out of the slip at 4:30 a.m. and pointed Deadline, my 25 ft. Hydra-Sports, down-river and out to sea. As I turned on the Magellan and began to plot our course, Ed and Scott, fishing buddies/mates, secured the cockpit for the trip out.
The weekend before, Scott and I had ventured out and to our amazement were greeted by schools of large-school and giant blue free-jumping all around us. We never got a hook in one. But this day the seas were flat and lifeless. And aside from a few pilot whales, seals and birds, the 15-mile trip to the tuna grounds was uneventful.
Assuring Ed the lack of jumping tuna meant nothing, Scott and I began to set up our spread while Ed kept us on course. We began with 2 spreader bars, each with 15, 18" plastic squids, banded and clipped into the outriggers. I also selected a massive Yo-Zuri swimming plug to put down the middle. Because the average tuna in Maine this time of year is just over 200 lbs., I opted to put the plug on one of my G. Loomis stand-up rods with a Penn International 50TW loaded with 80 lb. Jinkai. I figured if we were to hook up on that rod, the fight would be challenging, but we would certainly have the upper hand. I also opted to tie the plug directly to the running line, rationalizing that a tuna would see a heavy leader at such slow trolling speeds.
We trolled this spread for an hour or so before rigging up a de-boned swimming mackerel for the downrigger. This was the first time I used the downrigger with a Z-Wing instead of a traditional lead ball. The set-up worked like a charm and we were all encouraged by the way the mackerel swam. We pictured it swimming all alone, down at 50 feet, waiting for a blue fin with a mouth the size of a trashcan to engulf it. We were excited to be out there and to finally be in the game.
For the first three hours we watched the water for birds, crashes, slicks, anything that would indicate feeding tuna. We checked the baits often, cleaning off weeds and making sure everything was running the way it should and looking good enough to eat. As the hours passed, we maintained a good deal of optimism, but our attention began to dwindle in the heat of the mid-day sun. What happened next is forever burned into the sport fishing highlights of our memories.
As Scott and Ed discussed which condiments would go best with their sandwiches, I happened to glance back at the spread and notice something had changed. There was something moving up the wake, apparently heading right for the prop wash. As it moved closer, it began to quickly rise out of the water. By the time I yelled to the crew, the object had taken full shape. A blackish, gray fin, still rising out of the water, standing over two feet tall and as big as a manhole cover was heading straight for us.
What appeared to be 10 ft. behind the fin we saw a large, sickle-shaped tail, sweeping in extensive arcs, from one side of the wake to the other. It quickly became obvious that this was a shark, not only enormous, but also quickly gaining on us through apparently minimal effort.
It was then that Ed noticed a long, pointed snout raise briefly out of the water. By the shape of the snout and the size of the animal, we agreed that it was possibly a mako or a white. But regardless, it was clearly the biggest fish any of us had ever seen.
Through the shouts and directions spouting from all three of our mouths, I quickly grabbed the rod closest to the fish and began to reel. It was the lightest rod we had. When I saw the plug getting closer to the boat, I moved the rod in front of the fish, which was now just a huge shadow descending out of sight, and dropped the lure back to where I figured he must be. A split second later the reel began to sing as the line crackled and popped under the strain of the nearly locked-down drag.
I braced myself in anticipation of the snap that would send me flying backwards as the shark's teeth parted the 80 lb. mono. But it never happened. And as the fight continued over the 10 min. mark, we began to realize that the plug, at over 15" long, had snuggly lodged into the jaws, protecting the mono from the teeth. This was not completely settling, however, because without a leader, it would not take long for the sandpaper skin of the animal to wear through the 80 lb. mono. We had to work fast!
Increasing the drag even more, we began chasing the fish to gain back the 300+ yards the fish had already taken. Scott raced to the bow to ready the harpoon, rigged with 30 ft. of line and attached to a large poly ball, in hopes the fish would surface. But that moment never came, as the shark spent most of the battle some 200 ft. below us, sulking and ripping off line whenever it pleased.
As the fish threatened to spool us for the fourth time, we noticed the line angle was changing. As we again chased to regain our line, it became obvious the mighty fish was surfacing. "He's gonna jump!" yelled Scott, as the line angled toward the surface. Then, about 300 yards away, on the surface, we again saw the fin. We were actually winning this battle.
The fish had made about 15 long, line-dumping runs in the past hour and a half, all of which required chase in order to keep it from spooling us. But now it seemed the runs were not only getting shorter, but also less frequent. In fact, I was even able to pump and gain line, a sure sign that the fish was beginning to tire. But, by this time, we figured the 80 lb. stretch of line that had been scraping across the fish's back was probably more like 20 lb. test by now. Had the fish just taken one of the other baits, we would have him on a 130 class outfit with 175 lb. running line and a 400 lb. leader. But you know what they saw about hindsight.
After a backbreaking 1 hour and 45 min. fight, the line parted and the fish of a lifetime was again free to roam, feed and make more sharks. When we reeled in, the end of line was frayed some 5 ft. up, indicating the line broke close enough to the mouth to not cause harm. It would take the huge shark a few days to shake the lure, a few hours to regain his strength, and probably minutes to forget. The three of us just sat there, thinking of what might have been, knowing we could never forget.