Written by Ted Schnack Jr.
Millions of years ago in the middle of the vast Pacific, a crack in the earths crust burped up a hot glob of lava to start what now is the Hawaiian Islands. It is a wild world of search and destroy, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, the endless cycle as old as time. Muscle, size and speed rule the deep; mercy is unknown in the simple, pitiless underworld of the ocean. The Serengeti of the deep. Kona waters are the stalking grounds of true beasts. It’s not tooth, claw and dappled stealth that strikes fear; but sword slashing gladiators in the salt water arena where big Marlin rule.
The largest rod and reel Blue Marlin came from Kona waters. A Brahma bull of a fish with a hanging weight of almost 1700 pounds. Legends of melted reels, busted rods, 130 pound test snapped like thread and anglers with dislocated shoulders tell tales of fish much larger. They are lean and mean muscle streamlined along a balsa wood frame to power a sickle shaped tail that looks to be forged by the Grim Reaper himself and can do zero to sixty with a few quick swipes of its tail. Speed kills and these fish are fast.
Marlin fishing is a rich mans sport and I’m not rich. So I learned to work the angles. I’ve been a deck hand, mechanic, sold time shares with a toothy grin and happy handshake and a few other things I’ll plead the fifth to until the statue of limitations runs out to be in the action. My obsession had consumed my life giving up family, love and home.
The D-Day armada had nothing on the docks of Kona. It is the nerve center of it all: Marlin Central. From trophy yachts equipped with trophy wives, to jerry rigged tugs thick with rust and slick with slime all rigged for one thing, the hunt for bruiser fish. The chatter on the docks is of water temperatures, currents, fresh bait, and a hot new lure. There is a pulse and a rhythm that is hard wired to if the big boys are in, or more accurately the big girls. Because for whatever reason when nature gets its feet wet the girls dwarf the boys and all great fish are babes.
The word was out, there was a buzz on the docks that some big fish had been spotted and the water was ripe with baitfish. Some boats reported a few big hits in hushed tones among the secret society of Marlin Hunters. Timing is crucial when trying to get a date with Miss Marlin.
I talked to a shell-shocked tourist on the docks who had a monster fish on the line for about ten minutes. “I’ve been fishing my whole life; you know lakes and streams back home...ahh... You know I’m from Wisconsin …I didn’t know you could be scared of a fish, I mean this fish scared me it was huge...came right at the boat...dam near jumped in.” He told his story told in a rat-a-tat fashion of a man truly shaken, making quick glances to the open sea.
That lucky star I was born under was shining again when I walked the docks. I approached a lone tattered boat at the end of the pier. Bent over the engine was the broad back of a man, a big man, talking to himself in the Hawaiian sing-song slang that tagged him as a lifelong local. Hawaii is the mixing bowl of the South Pacific and my guess was Samoan or maybe Tongan where God seemed to have made a race of people with left over dinosaur bones, big dinosaur bones. “I’ll fill the tank, and we spend the rest of the day on the troll and you keep anything we catch for the market.” A broad grin crossed his thick features and he said simply “We fish”
Soon the boat started rising and falling to the rhythm of the sea the engine humming in a low comfortable throb. Before long we were dragging our web of deception through the clear blue waters. The baits ran just underneath the surface leaving a trail of “smoke” busting the surface from wave to wave like panicked baitfish, the boats wake creating its own chaos. To a sensitive trout the vibration of a soft footfall can send them in a scattered panic. To a hunting Marlin all this turmoil rings just like a dinner bell and the commotion looks like an all you can eat seafood buffet.
To the untrained eye the open sea can look like a watery wasteland. Soon many are rocked into a boat lullaby staring blankly off into space giving into the seduction of the nap monkey and the warm sun. Big mistake. You better be searching that ocean like you dropped your wedding ring in a whorehouse. Every second is precious when you’re trolling the Kona waters and the big ones are on the prowl. Clues abound, baitfish, birds, porpoises, other boats stopped, lone splashes and the telltale fin. You gotta be looking hard, cause Mother Ocean is stingy with clues and it might be the only hint you get and your chance gone forever.
After several luckless hours it happened quick like a hard slap to the face on a cold morning. For a split-second a big fin sliced behind the long outboard line. Your eyes can play tricks on you with the space of the ocean, but I saw it, I was sure and then it was gone. In a blink, there she was again, making a hard rush to the short bait. Pushing through a thick slab of sapphire water the explosion was terrifying, thrilling, awe-inspiring and violent all packed into a split second of pure power. Oh my God this fish was a beast; she made one brutal hack with her sword and pounded the skipping bait hard diving hard to the port just when I grabbed the rod. How I kept my feet is unknown to me, luck, instinct, whatever. My knees slammed hard into the gunwale and the line screamed. And it screamed loud.
Diving forward Ono grabbed the wheel and slammed the power full on. Like an aging boxer battered and scarred with one last great fight in them, the old boat showed its stuff. What she lacked in looks she made up for in guts. I yanked the rod over and over trying desperately to set the hook deep. Once the fish felt the bite of the hook she was pissed. She made a hard circular run in a furious rage tearing up the ocean like a Rodeo Bull on speed with a quickness and ferocity that defied her immense size. She completely cleared the water in an awesome show of raw strength, smashing back down in a booming crash of blue diamonds. Then she ran straight and hard. This was the first high speed test of the reel. Was it up to it? Was it going to melt down? seize up? blow up? and with it my dream fish …. I looked at the worn Penn and muttered to myself , ”Come on Baby…Come on Baby.” That old reel sang like a soprano with the sweet notes of a fine machine.
Ono let out a guttural primal scream over the roar of the diesel and the crash of the bow. A wild fire in his eyes harkened back thousands of years to the days of head hunters and war parties. His wild warrior mane blew in the wind; his huge clenched fist pumped the air. It wasn’t hard to imagine Ono, war-club in hand on the bow of a tree-trunk outrigger canoe cruising these same waters with his warrior brethren looking for a new head to hang on the mantle or see how the neighbors might taste.
On a dime she turned and charged. I yelled at Ono “Here she comes!” I was reeling for my life. I kept repeating over and over “reel…reel…reel”, trying to will the reel faster to keep a critical tight line. Charging the boat she was jumping from swell to swell gaining fifteen yards a leap, thwop….thWOP….THWOP. She was coming and she was coming hard.
She made a tremendous leap completely airborne less than a dozen yards away. Stunned I thought; she’s bigger than the boat. For a brief instant the line went slack, and just as quick, yanked hard. Still on! Off balance I flew forward slamming my shoulder into the bait-box knocking the rod loose from my grip. In a desperate attempt to control the rod I tried a wild grab. Just for an instant the inside of my forearm touched the sizzling line, its friction making a foot long quick-burn brand complete with the sweet smell of burnt blood and seared flesh. How the rod ended up in my hands, I’ll never know. I went down hard to both knees holding that rod high out of sheer desperation. I had to make it to the fighting chair or I was going to be pulled over the side, lose the rod or be beaten to death. Struggling to my feet I stood my ground letting her run and my sweet reel sing her song. Inching my way back to the fighting chair I chained myself in. Blood trickled down the fronts of my shins, my right shoulder was on fire, my forearm felt like it had been bull whipped and my $200 sunglasses lay shattered on the deck. I had never been happier in my life.
She had hit me right on the chin with her best shots. I was staggered, knocked down and bloody. She was far from done and made a change in tactics. She dove deep in a powerful stride peeling line off in a steady strip. Hundreds of yards out and hundreds of yards deep, she stopped. I could feel small electric vibrations, the line a 300 yard raw nerve. The reel slowly stopped clicking and I could sense she was stopped to think.
Sometimes a great fish is so full of spirit it becomes infuriated and will literally burst their hearts in a fast furious fight to the death. An insane hour or two whirlwind battle of crystal will. You might catch me but you won’t break my soul. The classic last act of defiance not to be taken alive using their last spark of life in their final battle. Most of the time a fish like that destroys either you or your gear leaving a wake of busted tackle and broken bodies in their all or nothing dance of death.
And sometimes they wait.
Her opening attack came at midday. Hours drifted past. We were all waiting for an opening, probing, looking for a weak spot. In tandem, both Ono and I were trying to gain line. With a couple of swipes of her tail it was all lost in a second or two.
I sensed she was recovering and biding her time. While she was regaining her strength I was fading. The blood on my legs and arm had crusted over and was of great interest of the fat blue blow flies that follow old boats. My knees were swollen, sore and tightening up. My shoulder made a crackly sound when I moved it and hurt like hell. Everything hurt.
You might ask why Ono didn’t give me a break. Doesn’t work that way. If anybody else other than the original angler touches the rod, even accidentally, and just for a second that mystic bond between the angler and the fish is gone. It is all spoiled and you might as well have used a harpoon or a cable net. It just doesn’t count the magic spoiled.
The setting sun cast a golden glitter across the waves and the cooling breeze signaled the end of the day. As the day drifted into night the first stars twinkled on.
Ono had caught a pair of small Mahi-Mahi on a hand line late in the day. He wrapped the fish in tin foil, a stick of butter, a fist full of spices and a sliced mango, laying them to roast on the engines manifold. Soon the rich salt breeze was mixed with the tantalizing aroma. I had never smelled anything more delicious in my life. Ono ripped the meat from the bones and set a pile of perfect white flesh on a paper plate. Keeping one hand tight to the rod I used my free hand to take huge juicy fingers full of flesh and stuff them into my mouth. Juices ran from my hands and down my arms and chin. All words fall short of describing the taste of that fish. Like a warm glow its nurturing powers spread throughout my body.
It was full dark and crystal clear; the wonders of the stars were astonishing and a crisp slice of a moon gave little light. The drum of the diesel played on and Ono quietly hummed to himself, his dark outline a comfort.
Ono was a man of few words yet there was a real unspoken connection between us. Strangers hours before but drawn together bonded in the prehistoric brotherhood of fishermen. That brotherhood spawned in the misty fjords of the north to the seven seas and all waters wild. With spears, bone hooks and crude nets the simple survival of the tribe or clan counted on this ability to brave the unknown. Myths of sea monsters or other terrible tales of ocean demons and witches knowing many before had never come back from the watery horizon. Yet, lured by the bounty of the sea, it was this silent ancient link that held us together.
The night drifted on. A rusted red Coleman lantern swung with the sway of the boat, its hiss, the shape of the mantles and smell of burnt white gas, a distant reminder of boyhood fishing trips with my dad.
The line held taught and sure. Gone were her frantic runs of earlier gone. Like a blind man in the black night my sense of touch and feeling became more aware. Then something strange happened she started to make short haphazard runs. I was struck with the thought this fish is in its death throws the last vibrations and bursts of its life waning. I imagined her powerful muscles shuddering and quivering, her great body starting to drift and turn sideways in the current only to be righted by one more surge in her desperate will to live. She was dying. Closing my tired eyes a sense of sadness came over me. It was not supposed to end this way.
Then a stark thought bloomed in my mind and a small smile crossed my face. No, that is not it at all. She is not dying; she is feeding. She is actually feeding. Once I realized this the pattern and rhythm her short runs became clear. Only through the touch of the rod and my minds eye as if I was sitting ringside at a great sporting event. The line became a great optic nerve of logical imagination. A spy scope into her world. I could see her making short attacking runs hacking and gulping her way though swarms of protein rich tuna and squid. Her tired body resting, gaining strength, readying herself for the final battle.
The first hint of a new day came in a blush of pastel across the eastern sky. Both Ono and I had passed the night saying very little, commenting on a shooting star or what the fish was doing. Ono had been quiet for hours, but now breaking his silence, “We got three maybe four more hours of gas, we gonna have to push this fish.”
A sleepless night, good old fashioned exhaustion and a bare knuckle back alley beating had left me a physical wreck, yet my mind felt surprisingly fresh. Somehow sensing that my life was about to change forever.
Ono and I worked out the plan. He would back the boat just as fast as I could reel in the line. We just might get close, catch her napping, bring her up by working the boat to keep a taught line, hope she was spent, it was our only chance to take her.
I glanced to the thick hemp rope s-knotted tight to the rust blistered chrome cleat on the edge of the transom. That executioner’s rope led to the sinister tobacco colored iron gaff lying in wait. It looked to be a prehistoric talon of some other worldly raptor and just as deadly. For a moment something made me pause.
The engine cleared its throat, Ono looked back to me and I nodded. We lurched backwards a crash of seas over the transom. We were gaining ground. This was too easy, she actually felt like she was coming up. At twenty five yards, I knew then from the angle of the line she couldn’t be deep. And then like a surfacing submarine she broke the waters surface swimming easily.
We were hushed in awe of her sheer size. She was exquisite. Streamlined, thick, lean and powerful well over 1800 pounds of perfection. She was bigger than the boat that was clear but it was the fine details that caught my eye. Midnight sapphire and liquid pearl had been applied in thick strokes, the fine touches finished in emerald green and ruby purple. The suns rays and flickering water danced across her creating a living kaleidoscope of vibrant color. An electric current of life.
Ono stopped the boat in an uneasy standoff the diesel in a low rumble. Making a quick glance to each other we wordlessly looked to the fish. And just like that she exploded, her trap sprung. I snapped out of my trance, the boat roared. She made a hard short run of about fifty yards and then turned hard and quick back towards the boat. She dove about 20 yards deep still coming straight on. I could see her black outline a speeding one ton torpedo. It struck me; she was trying to go under the boat. I was able get unbuckled and sprung to my feet knowing what would happen if that line raked along he bottom of the boat. Encrusted with barnacles it was no place for tattered and tortured pencil lead thick fishing line attached to a runaway horse. There was no avoiding it. I held hard to the rod, she went under at a slight angle and I could feel the sickening-popping grate of the line as it ran along the bottom of the boat. Like a punch to the gut the line snapped free and slack. Loops of tired line blew in the breeze off the end of my rod. It was over in a heartbeat.
It was a stunning blow.
Within minutes my nauseating disappointment was taking on a peculiar form. The bitter sting moments ago had evaporated and I was actually feeling a strange sense of joy, Strangely, it was like I had been told a secret but didn’t know what it was. Somehow I knew it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Instead of a sun blackened fish withering at the docks surrounded by envious anglers and sun burnt tourists taking snapshots she was back where she belonged. Queen of the deep
It has been decades since I was a young man chasing dreams across the Hawaiian Blue. Sometimes when the moon is just right, a shooting star falls from the heavens and the salt breeze is a warm tease, the seductive caress of the Ocean Mistress reminds me of her once again. I like to daydream of her still out there. Once again, on the prowl, fins cutting clean and deep in the magic, mysterious and secret universe of the wild Ocean.