Marlins are the big beasts of the sea


The huge dark shape erupting from the sea maybe 100 feet ahead splashed water in what would be a drowning spray if an angler was closer.

The fish was boxy and dark-skinned, more black than blue, and totally mesmerizing.

As the big guy leapt from the water pointing with its signature sword-like fin, the marlin made its feelings of indignation known as it gulped down a lure and began reeling off line.

I was on the other end of the fast-spinning line anchored on a boat gliding through the portion of the Atlantic Ocean connecting the Florida Strait and the Bahama Platform leading to Cuba. At the rate the line was peeling, we might reach Castro’s coast in a minute and a half.

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The captain belted me in for stability. The fish rose and dove, its strength smashing my back against a row of battened-down fishing rods. And I sought to fight back against a behemoth far stronger.

This was 16 years ago when my younger body was better built for such warfare, but even then was over the hill, or the rocky big waves.

The reliving of my only showdown with a marlin was prompted by the word recently that Michael Jordan, the former pro basketball star, and his crew recently landed a 442.3-pound marlin in a North Carolina fishing tournament.

More boggling was that Jordan’s team was not even in the top five for size. I gasped.

But then I remembered Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway, two members of the literati who gained renown for their novels but who seemed to gain even more inner satisfaction from their bouts with marvelous marlin.

History most vividly remembers Zane Grey as a western author, his works highlighted by “Riders of the Purple Sage,” which sold millions of copies. But fishermen who study the sport recall him more so for his passion for wielding rod and reel chasing big fish around the world.

Grey, who also worked on films made from his books in Hollywood, caught the first 1,000-pound fish on rod and reel. It was a black marlin weighing 1,040 pounds. Sharks chewed up its body on the way to shore. Some estimated it would have weighed 200 more pounds.

Can you imagine a fish so grand being ground up?

Grey, born in 1872, died in 1939. A Sports Illustrated story once noted he made $1 million from his labors to go fishing and went fishing everywhere, from the United States to Australia to Tahiti, for every kind of big fish.

Grey set nine world records, including catching a 1,036-pound tiger shark, a 758-pound bluefin tuna, a 618-pound silver marlin, a 582-pound broadbill swordfish and a 318-pound yellowfin tuna.

“The enchantment never palls,” Grey was quoted as saying.

Ed Zern, a well-known outdoors writer, said, “It is reasonable to assume that no one will ever challenge his right to be known as the greatest fisherman America has ever produced.”

Grey traveled the world when commercial air travel was limited and when few sportsmen did so. His riches from his writings on the West and fishing put him in a top income bracket.

Grey caught his Michael Jordan dwarfing marlin in 1930, some years before it was identified as the Pacific blue marlin and was referred to as the Tahitian striped marlin his fish was spoken of in hushed tones.

On May 16, 1930, Grey was fishing aboard a boat named Tahiti. His 117-pound test and 126-pound backing line were trusty enough to bring in tuna, wahoo and sharks. Grey used bonito for bait on the marlin. Atlantic bonito may weigh 13 pounds, which is more than an appetizer.

It was an appealing meal, and the marlin mouthed it. Grey set the hook firmly, and then the man and fish wrestled for what was described as being for hours with the fish jumping from under the surface 15 times. One dive took the marlin under the boat and nearly sheared the line.

Grey reeled the monster up to the side of the boat, but while paused there, a school of sharks attacked it. Grey and the crew beat the sharks around the head as they sought to lunch on the marlin.

Even after this bloody battle, when lifted ashore, the marlin, displaying a frayed and chewed tail, still weighed more than 1,000 pounds.

Grey went everywhere

Grey had the means to fish anywhere in the world, including Tahiti.

In a sense, it was a fresh age of exploration, not to sail to the most distant, unexplored places on the planet such as Antarctica or the North Pole, but to learn what myths-turned-reality lurked under the ocean surface. Grey and his party, usually his brother, R.C., along with a regular captain, spent weeks, even months out.

Big fish. Big fish of all species is what Grey chased. The marlin of his dreams came to his hook on an April day after many trips to Tahiti in the 1930s. And that followed two close calls when he hooked and reeled huge fish of many hundred pounds that eventually outpulled him. Grey went from an exhilarated high to a demoralized low.

The third bite was the big fish, a rugged reel-in sparked when Peter, one of Grey’s fishing partner shouted, “Giant marlin!”

“This glorious fish made a leap of 30 feet, at least,” Grey wrote, “low and swift, which gave me time to gauge his enormous size and species. He looked monstrous. He was pale, shiny gray in color with broad stripes of purple. The white line melted, smoked, burned off the reel. I smelled the scorching. It burned through my gloves.”

Grey had 500 yards to work with on his rod as the powerful fish revved its engine. Grey reeled back 200 yards. Then the fish took a turn fighting. Back-and-forth. Grey dripped sweat.

“His power to leap was beyond credence,” Grey penned. The fish had no comment. “How sensitive I was to the strain on the line.”

There was a terrible moment when the fish dove under the boat. It could have splintered it. The weather turned from misty to rain. And then the sharks moved in. The men aboard slashed at them with large cleavers.

“Blood and water flew all over us,” Grey wrote. “They appeared to come from all directions, especially under the boat. Of all the bloody messes I saw, that was the worst.”

Grey and his crew towed the giant striped marlin to shore, and a dozen men jumped into the war to drag the body to land.

“He was bigger than I had ever hoped for,” Grey wrote. “And his body was long and round. His bill was 3 feet long. Right there, I named this species Giant Tahitian Striped Marlin.”

The marlin’s length was 14 feet, 2 inches, girth 6 feet, 9 inches. And his weight as is 1,040 pounds.

“My heaven, I breathed,” Grey wrote, “what would a bigger one do?”

Hemingway and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’

Someone did find out. A man named Alfred C. Glassell Jr. caught a black marlin weighing 1,560 pounds in 1953, measuring 14 feet, 7 inches off the coast of Peru.

The play-by-play highlights included the comparative minuscule bait of a 5-pound mackerel but also the giant piercing the sea 49 times with its leaps to free itself. It took just one hour and 45 minutes for Glassell to haul the fish in.

If a black marlin comes at prey, it can be a fearsome experience. The beast can travel at 60 mph, but it cannot always fend off men bearing sharp hooks.

It’s not clear if best-selling authors of the early part of the 20th century had adventure built into their souls or if they just had the adventurous spirit linked to their fingers, but Ernest Hemingway was also a newspaper war correspondent, a big-game hunter and an ocean fisherman who like Grey wrote his way through the waves, particularly when it came to marlin. Likely, it was that both men wanted the biggest, to match their egos.

Nonetheless, there was a trick to marlin fishing in the 1930s in Florida and Cuba’s turquoise waters. Once you hooked the marlin and fought it to drag the monster to the boat, you had to fight off the sharks that sought their share, taking bites as the marlin swam.

Eventually, Hemingway began spraying machine gun bullets at the sharks to preserve the marlin.

Once, he hauled in a 1,000-pound fish. And at least one other time, he had a 1,000-pound marlin mangled by sharks, diminishing it with assaults. That was the plot of “The Old Man and the Sea.”

This tale was fiction, based on reality. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for 1952, and it was cited by the Nobel Committee when Hemingway was presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. The plot tells the struggle of an old man named Santiago who had not had a bite for 85 days.

Santiago is worn down by the sharks. He wanted to show off the great marlin on shore to the people who believed he had lost his skills. Instead, he and the marlin are both battered.

“The shark swung over and the old man saw his eye was not alive,” is what passed through Santiago’s mind, “and then he swung over once again, wrapping himself into loops of the rope. The old man knew that he was dead, but the shark would not accept it. The shark lay quietly for a little while on the surface, and the old man watched him. Then he went down very slowly.”

Santiago struggled, losing pieces of his grand catch. He hugged the 1,000-pound marlin home until it became a half fish, shrinking as the teeth of other fish snatched flesh.

Such a masterpiece of fiction came to Hemingway as a performance of his craft and logically because he spent many years plying Cuban waters with his boat, Pilar, and pursuing marlin.

In the first issue of Esquire, in 1933, Hemingway wrote about catching marlin. One jumped from the sea 23 times.

In August 1934, Hemingway’s crew brought in a 420-pound blue marlin and preserved the scene in a photograph. He caught 15-foot blue marlin, from 50 pounds to 1,200 pounds. Around that time, Hemingway wrote, he had caught 91 marlin in the previous two years.

Once, he mentioned a 468-pound marlin, and another time, a 500-pounder that was under siege from sharks which he blasted with a machine gun. That only brought more sharks lured by blood.

While he had a permanent home in Key West, Florida, he even overlapped in Cuba with Fidel Castro. The bearded revolutionary who turned the island nation Communist became prime minister in 1959.

In 1950, Hemingway created the popular Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament about 9 miles outside of Havana that emphasized catching marlin, tuna and wahoo.

In 1960, Castro took first place. There is an unlikely sports photograph of the two men together from that scenario. The next year, 1961, Hemingway committed suicide in Idaho in early May.

Me and Michael Jordan

It was May 2004 when I set out with Capt. Tim Greene and a couple of strangers on his 36-foot Beachcomber to see if we could hook a marlin between Florida and Cuba.

Inspired by those great writers, this was probably going to be my only chance.

“Blue marlin grow to more than 1,000 pounds, and very few are caught,” Greene said. “I just watch all of the line go bye-bye. We really don’t want to go out there and hook into a 1,000-pound marlin.”

Yes, I did. I would take any marlin I could hook, and I was of sound body, if not sound mind. I had faith, if not experience. I was in place, if not the man for the moment.

The waves were high in the gorgeous light blue water as they slapped the boat, giving us steady hits. When a marlin is hooked, the line screams, and the adrenaline in instant. We were about 30 miles offshore in a 16-knot wind, so the ride was getting rough.

“Fish!” shouted Greene. He told me I had on a muscled, black marlin inhaling a 10-inch-long ballyhoo bait.

Greene strapped the white belt around my waist and anchored the butt end of the rod into a holder while shouting “Reel! Reel!” I tried.

It was like arm-wrestling with Andre the Giant. I knew who was going to win.

As for Michael Jordan, proclaimed the best basketball player in the world and also a professional baseball player, he stands 6-foot-6 and was around 215 pounds. He has some muscle mass, and he had help slinging in his 442-pound marlin.

Jordan and his crew were aboard an 80-foot boat in the North Carolina Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament off Morehead City, North Carolina, in mid-June, and it carried a $3.3 million purse.

Jordan grew up in North Carolina, starred in college basketball in the state and has owned the majority of the Charlotte NBA franchise for a decade.

“I’m always looking for an excuse to be back in North Carolina,” Jordan said. “It is a chance to come back home.”

And a chance to reel in a 400-pound fish, another slick thing to place on one’s résumé.

Jordan did so. I did not. I did catch two dolphin fish, mahi-mahi. One a 40-pounder. The larger one, bright green and yellow with a blocky head, was probably 7 feet long, spectacularly bright in appearance and grilled up.

Hardly as big as a marlin, but perhaps better food.

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