“It is ourlost fish that I believe stay longest in memory, and seize upon our thoughtswhenever we look back on fishing days.” –LORD GREY
This is a SouthPacific fish story that begins on Darky Lake in Canada. In June, for four orfive years running, my sons Ben and Jeff and I went there to flyfish forsmallmouth bass big enough to swallow those we caught on mid-Atlantic riverslike the Potomac and the Delaware. The wilderness fishing in Ontario’s QueticoProvincial Park was dreamlike but repetitious, and in 1995, at our familiarcampsite, I experienced a sensation so unusual that at first I did notrecognize it. I was bored with the best fishing of its kind in NorthAmerica.
Upon returning tomy newspaper job in New York City, I conferred with my closest friend from backhome in Alabama. Tennant McWilliams is a university dean, justly renowned ineducational circles for his sound judgment and steady temperament. We havehunted and fished together since we were 15, and for years, I have relied onhim to talk me out of the wild-hair schemes that come to all fishermen. He hadseen me through a teenage phase of chasing giant hammerhead sharks in smallboats and later impulses to invest money in “undiscovered” fishingcamps. I thought he would talk me out of my newly conceived plan to battleangling ennui by fishing in all the exotic places we could never afford whileraising our families. Now, in our early 50s, we were both well-employed andbeyond the reach of alimony, tuition, and orthodontia bills. Even so, I thoughtTennant would say “you’re crazy” when I said that only an expensiveexcursion to Christmas Island via Honolulu in pursuit of our first fly-rodbonefish could restore our zeal. Instead he said, “Sign me up.”
The Republic ofKiribati does not refer to its Christmas Island atoll as a “paradise offish and birds” for nothing. In a few days we had caught so many bonefishon flies that we turned our thoughts to the bigger creatures outside the reef.So it came to pass that we chartered Tuna Smith, a well-known bonefishing guidewho owned a panga-like skiff, to take us offshore in search of giant trevally.We cast with spinning rods and trolled with conventional tackle to no avail, atwhich time Tuna, a strong, cheerful man who greatly resembled Don Ho, inquiredabout the contents of my tackle bag.
“Have you gotany big streamer flies?” he said.
We had beentrolling off the northwest corner of the island, where ocean currents boiledagainst the steep flanks of the old volcano. The water was hundreds of feetdeep here, and its upper stories were trafficked by schools of baitfish that,in turn, pulled in schools of small tuna. From time to time, we could see thesplashes of feeding fish, but we had no takers on our big plastic lures. SoTuna thought a smaller fly might attract a strike.
As it happened, Ihad a brand-new, tandem-hooked billfish fly purchased by mail order from theFly Shop of Redding, California, for what seemed to me, then and now, thebargain price of $4.95. A nice fly it was, and I had bought it, as I buy somany pieces of tackle, prophylactically. I felt that someday, somewhere I mightneed it, never mind the fact that I had never caught a billfish and had, infact, seen damn few in my life.
“How’sthis?” I said to Tuna, holding up a concoction of green and white plasticfilaments tied like a ponytail.
“Perfect,” he said. “Tie it on your 10-weight fly rod, and let’stroll for a few more minutes before we go inside the reef forbonefish.”
I tied my FlyShop billfish fly to my 20-pound Orvis leader with the 80-pound shock tipper. Ipaid line from my Orvis Battenkill 10/11 Salt Water Reel and within minutes Iwas trolling with my 9-foot, 10-weight Sage fly rod. I confess that I was notcasting my line as intended by the designers of all the products named aboveand as mandated by the International Game Fish Association of Fort Lauderdale,Florida. I think of myself as a flyfisherman and so present myself to theworld, but I was trolling as openly as any wire-lining, beer-gutted,bowling-shirted New Jersey plumber on his annual outing to murder a Cape Maybluefish.
I think Tuna wasexplaining the fine points of how the international police force would operatewhen the strike came. He talked about that a good deal to fill the odd momentsof the day. As ocean strikes go, it was gentle. The fish made a short run,pulling line from my fly reel, and then turned docilely and began swimmingtoward the boat and then past it. I had to wind rapidly to take the slack outof the line.
“What kind offish is it?” Tennant asked.
“Probably abonita,” said Tuna.
At that precisemoment, an astonishing blue-and-silver creation came out of the top of aPacific wave that loomed above our puny boat like a hillock of cerulean jelly.There is something impressive about looking uphill at a fish that seems half aslong as your boat. In The Outermost House, Henry Beston wrote about big roguewaves “coming like a king” out of the sea. That is how I think of thatmoment. The wave rose above us like a king, and an impossible fish climbed intothe sky like the son of God. What I’m trying to express, I suppose, is that onthe stroke of that moment something rolled over within me, something at thecenter of my chest. It was, I think, the tumblers of my heart.
“It’s not abonita,” I said.
Tuna, whoseattention had been elsewhere, saw the second of three greyhounding leaps.
“No, it’s nota bonita,” Tuna agreed in a tone of calm acceptance that I assume is taughtin the temples of his Baha’i faith.
“It’s amarlin,” I finally managed to say, feeling a foolish sense of triumph atbeing able to state the obvious.
It was, indeed, aPacific blue marlin, and by every available sign, this particular marlin was infine fettle. It was a young marlin at the brimming height of its powers.Scientists of human aging would have to report that I, a stocky, graying manjust past 50, could not be regarded as being at the height of my physicalpowers. On the other hand, I had reached through calculation and steady effortthe ability to fish in some of the waters about which I had dreamed. So it cameto pass that the marlin and I met in the roomy precincts of the far Pacific.Now we were both doing what we had to do. I was holding on. And the marlin,having gotten its introductory leaps out of the way, was hauling ass.
BLUENESS ANDBOLTS THEREFROM
I had alwayswondered what it was like to fight a big fish for a long time, and the momentof my education was at hand. I had the tangible sensation of learning newthings, moment to moment, and it became apparent that the things came in twocategories, those that are surprising and those that are boring. I also had thefeeling that time had slowed down, and that while the pressure of the fish isalways there, the mind wanders. When someone speaks to you, you hear what theysaid, but you also hear its echoes inside your head. So there was a longhistoric echo when Tennant spoke a sentence after the fish had been on the linefor several minutes, and the affair began to settle down into an orderlystruggle.
“You arehandling this beautifully,” he said.
I thought not ofthe fish or my friend’s generosity, but of how much he sounded like his fatherand how pleased the old man, who was born in 1901, would be that these two boyshe had shaped so forcefully, his son and his student, were still friends as wepassed into our 50s. I thought also that in the becalmed waters of middle age,American men yearn for a certain amount of chaos. We will travel far and paydearly to get it. And I thought that I, by God, was getting my money’sworth.
The way you whipa big fish is to chase it for as long as it takes. The trick is not new. IzaakWalton, writing in the 17th century, recommended throwing the pole into thewater and letting the fish drag it around until it was exhausted, a trick thatI sometimes saw replicated by Alabama cane-polers during my childhood. Tunaplanned an open-sea version of this strategy, with our boat as the cane pole.We learned in short order that he was a marvelous boat handler. We racedthrough the ocean’s hills and valleys behind the marlin, and it was thrillingto be up in the high bow of the boat, tasting the warm, salty spray and feelingthe relentless pulse of the fish, leading us south. Tuna coached me constantlynot to put too much pressure on the line. We would tire the fellow out in duecourse. All we had to do was be patient.
There wassomething else about Tuna that I apprehended in those first pelting minutes. Hereally wanted to catch this fish. Beyond that, he believed we were going tocatch it. A guide cannot fake conviction, and there is nothing worse than beingin a boat with someone you are paying, but who does not much care, one way oranother. Right off, I sensed something elemental in Tuna’s response to oursituation. I can only describe it as the primal optimism of someone who hasgrown up conquering sea creatures of all sizes and for whom there is no otherbusiness than living the life that the sea and the world have put in front ofhim. More than anything, I did not want to disappoint him.
The fish hadslowed in its swimming a bit. It was still going steadily away, running about 6feet under the surface, out to the side of the boat so there was a long bow inthe line. I asked Tuna to move in more directly behind the fish to reduce thedrag on the line. I was afraid the weight of the curved line would pull thehook or break the tippet. Even though the seas were running 10 feet or better,the waves came in long swells, without a lot of surface chop. So Tuna was ableto gun the boat ahead, closing on the fish and enabling me to regain a hundredyards or so of backing.
After we had beenengaged with the fish for some time, perhaps a half hour of bouncing along thewaves, up and down, I heard a strangled noise from the rear of the boat andglanced back over my shoulder. Tennant’s head was hanging over the gunwale, andfrom time to time, he shouted passionately at the sea. He is not a large man,but he seemed to hold quite a lot.
Seeing my friendin the embrace of mal de mer reminded me of a comment I had read that comparedbeing seasick to a lover’s jealousy. You think you’re going to die and everyoneelse thinks it’s funny. One glance at Tennant, who had ceased shouting at theocean and had fallen back into his deck chair, convinced me that this would notbe a good time to share this witticism.
“Drink aCoke,” I told him.
“I don’tthink I can keep it down right now,” he said.
Even so, I wasencouraged. He had spoken a sentence free of complaint and containing nomention of the shore. Good thing, since there was no way in hell he was goingto touch the shore before this fish was caught or escaped.
More time passed.We had kept gaining on the fish until now it was only about a hundred feet offthe starboard bow, swimming steadily just under the surface, the point of itstail slicing out of the waves like a scimitar. Sometimes the boat would slowagainst an incoming wave, and without its mediating speed working on my behalf,I could feel the chained energy and weight of the fish and ponder theprofoundly unbalanced relationship between it and my fly rod. I was peacefullycontemplating such matters and silently congratulating Tennant for suffering insilence when Tuna spoke.
“Do not worryabout the boat,” he said.
I had not beenworrying about the boat, but Tuna’s introduction of the concept prompted me toturn toward him. I saw that Tuna was standing shin deep in clear Pacific oceanwater that had somehow managed to get on the wrong side of our hull.
“Just payattention to your fish,” Tuna said. “The drain plug came out. I think Ican find it.”
Ah, the drainplug.
If you are not aboater, you may not understand the centrality of the drain plug. Most outboardboats have a hole in the transom for the purpose of draining the bilge when theboat is lifted clear of the water or, more commonly, when it is moving aheadsmartly enough to cause the water to be sucked out into the wake. But we hadbeen moving slowly for a while, inviting water to enter the boat in the absenceof the plug. There was already enough water in the back of the boat for a grownman to lie down and take a bath. I’m no naval architect, but it was clearlynecessary to find the plug and return it to its home, a 1-inch hole in thetransom, in order to interrupt the nautical activity known as sinking.
In fact I did notmuch worry about the boat or the unalterably absent life preservers. I paidattention to the fish. I continued to handle it carefully, but with a certainairy absence of anxiety that I had never known before in the presence of a fishfor which I harbored such lava-hot desire. I felt calm about our situation. Wewere far from land, having followed the fish steadily away from ChristmasIsland for over an hour. There were no other boats in sight. We had no radioand no flares. So it did not require Baha’ian clairvoyance to know what mighthappen if we went into the water. Tennant would recover from his seasickness. Iwould drop my rod. Tuna would tell us not to worry. We would do the survivorfloat. We might be rescued. Or we might meet some of those big untutoredopen-ocean Pacific sharks that unlike their relatives in the Atlantic and theGulf of Mexico have not learned to associate people with danger and insteadseem to associate them with “easy to chew.”
Through the thirdhour and into the fourth, I was feeling pretty good. True, the marlin stillseemed very strong, but we were cruising along at its pace, which eased thepressure on my arms and shoulders and created in me two illusions. One was thatthe constant, pestering weight of the taut line over what you might call thefish’s left shoulder was bound to wear it down. The other was that ourtribulations had ceased.
“Do notworry,” Tuna exclaimed in what I initially took to be the spirit oftroubles laid by.
“The water isout of the boat,” he added.
I craned my headaround and looked over my own left shoulder. Sure enough, he was not standingin water. He was proud of himself.
“How are youdoing up there?” Tuna said.
“I feelgood,” I said. “We’ve passed four hours and I’m not tired atall.”
Tuna had no wayof knowing that I was not just another soft vacation fisherman. I wanted toassure him that I had been waiting a lifetime for this moment and that conquestresided in my soul. I desired to communicate, in the subtle, modest yet firmway of the Appalachian people, that for all the gray hair on my head, he had agritty Dixie boy on his hands, a dead-game sport, as my dad would say.
“We’ll wearhim down,” I said. “I think he’s tiring a little. He doesn’t have asmuch zip as he had when we first hooked him.”
Yet this reportdid not seem to cheer Tuna as I had hoped. He stood at the tiller, steering usup and down the blue Pacific hillocks. He seemed curiously disengaged from thefish.
“Do you havea screwdriver?” he said.
I said, nottestily but firmly, that I wondered why he needed a screwdriver.
“I have topull up the floorboards,” Tuna said. “I think the drain plug floatedunder the floorboards while the boat was full of water. Now all I have to do isfind the plug.”
Oh, yes, yes,indisputably, we still needed the drain plug. As long as we kept running alongat half throttle or better, no water could enter the boat. But once we stoppedto land the fish or when we, inevitably, ran out of gas, we would start sinkingwithout delay. It was news to me that it had not only come dislodged from itshole but had gone missing entirely. If it was not under the floorboards, thatwould be additional news of a very bad kind. It was also news, of a surprisingsort, that our drain plug was suspected of floating, since such items arecustomarily constructed of such sinkable materials as brass and hard rubber. Ifit comes out, it falls to the bottom of the boat and you pick it up.
“Float?”I said. “Why did it float?”
“It’swood,” Tuna shouted back. With a touch of pride, he added that he hadcarved it himself.
“It has to beunder the floorboards,” he concluded.
It was time torouse Tennant from his postpartum apathy. His color had shifted from green topasty gray, and he moved when roused like someone swimming through anatmosphere that was thicker than that experienced by other humans. Nonethelesshe made a good catch when I swung my Orvis fishing bag toward him.
“See if Ibrought my Swiss Army knife or Leatherman tool,” I said.
He rummagedunhappily through the bag’s several pockets. The zippers seemed deeplymysterious to him. As I suspected, the desired items were not in my fishingbag, but rather on my dresser back at the Captain Cook.
“Don’tworry,” Tuna suddenly exclaimed. “I found my screwdriver.”
He held thewelcome object aloft. It was cheap-looking, like the tools you see in the99-cent bucket beside the cash register at Tru-Value. It was rusty. But it was,by God, a screwdriver. Tuna instructed Tennant to take the tiller and fell towork in the bottom of the boat, removing the half-dozen screws that pinned theplywood floorboard to the raised ribs of the hull.
Complicationsensued. When we slid down the face of a long wave, Tennant failed to back offon the throttle. The boat gained suddenly on the fish.
“Slow down,slow down!” I shouted, too late. There was a big belly in the line. Icranked rapidly to try to take up the slack before the fish could slip thehook. But my cranking was rowdy and undisciplined. It caused the rod tip tojiggle, and this, my first crude move, threw a loop of slack line around thetip-top guide on my fly rod. I knew instantly that this meant trouble, and sureenough, when the boat slowed on the uphill side of the next wave, the fish tookoff, yanking the top section of the three-piece rod from the ferrule where itjoined the middle section. The jerk of the separating rod seemed to inspire themarlin to try out its overdrive. Line peeled from the reel and I watched theend section of my rod, firmly looped into my line, disappear into thewaves.
“Don’tworry,” Tuna said, looking up from his work. “We’ll get the rod tipback as soon as I get the boat fixed. Just hold on.”
Oh, yes, ofcourse.
“I haveit!” Tuna called in a few minutes. I watched over my shoulder as he heldaloft a big square block of wood that had been whittled into a blunt point onone end. I wouldn’t exactly call it a square peg, but I could see, given itsirregular shape, how it had slipped out of the perfectly round hole in thetransom. In any event, Tuna pounded it home and scooped out the last of thewater. Then he took the tiller again and once more we went pelting after themarlin and that portion of the fly rod that was now in its possession.
After 30 minutesof playing the fish on the stumpy butt sections, I had regained enough line tocatch sight of my missing tip section, still firmly looped in place.
“How sick areyou?” I asked Tennant.
“I’mbetter,” he said. “Still a little shaky. I’m all right.”
“Then I needfor you to get up here in the bow and put this rod back together when I reelthe tip section back in. Do you think you can do that?”
“I’m notsure. I’ll try,” he said.
The only problem,of course, was that Tuna had to gun the engine so I could regain line. Theextra speed pushed the boat into the waves so hard that its bow was rising andfalling 6 or 8 feet at a sweep. I was sure the bucking-horse ride at the frontof the boat would make Tennant spew again as soon as he got in position. On theother hand, I knew that Tuna had to be at the throttle if we were to have anychance at all. As for me, I was not about to surrender the rod. So there wasnothing to do but send my ailing friend forward.
Tennant is, shallwe say, an unhurried person. To say that he took up his station in the bowdeliberately is to exaggerate his speed exponentially. I passed the time byexplaining how he was going to have to take the tip of the rod in hand withoutstressing it, then unwrap the half hitch that the fouled line had thrown aroundthe rod’s top guide. He had to perform this quickly but be all the whileprepared to let the whole works go if the fish sped away. Once he had the rodtip in hand and the knot undone, he must deftly reunite the male and femalesections of the rod ferrule, or joint, all the while making sure that theguides were properly aligned. Given the lack of cooperation from the fish andthe speed at which the boat was moving, this would not have been an altogethereasy task in calm water.
Finally Tennantwas in position and I cranked the tip within his reach. He did everythingperfectly, and suddenly, we were not sinking, the tackle was in order, the linewas tight, and Tennant was not throwing up. Our great travail was over, but myexpectations of whipping the fish by the end of the fourth hour provedillusory. Even so, in midafternoon, the wind backed around to the south and theseas flattened a bit. We were able by gunning the boat to close to within 20feet or so of the marlin. I could see my fly plainly in the corner of itsmouth. I had a solid-gold hookup. Tuna was coaching me constantly, warning menot to get impatient and apply too much pressure, and his eagerness made itnecessary for me to declare an intention I thought he would oppose.
“We’re notgoing to kill this fish,” I said.
“Don’tworry,” he said. “We’ll just get the fly back and take somepictures.”
Now the fish wasswimming right beside us. Another few feet and Tuna could have touched theleader, which under the international rules of billfish tournaments meant thefish could be counted as caught and released. The rule is a conservationmeasure, the logic being that if a fish is that close to the boat, you couldsnag it with a long-handled killing gaff if you chose to. Since we were not ina tournament, had no gaff anyway, and had already cast aside the holy rules offlyfishing, none of this really mattered. But I understood Tuna’s reasoningimmediately and bought into it. If he could get the leader in hand, we couldhonestly say we had fulfilled the technical requirements of “catching”this fish.
Perhaps it wasthe vibrations of our optimism that provoked the marlin into showing us what ithad left.
Which turned outto be a lot.
One moment, wewere going along side by side and Tuna and I were plotting how to get theleader close enough for him to grab, and the next the marlin was tilting itsnose down and playing submarine. That is to say, with me exerting maximumpressure by jamming my gloved hand against the spool of the reel, the marlinsounded.
Down and down itwent, as if it had an Evinrude strapped to its butt. My two football fields ofbacking melted away and I could see the exposed spool. When there were about ahalf dozen wraps of line on the spool, I clamped down, figuring to break thefish off at the leader rather than the bitter end of the backing and therebysave my fly line. The line came tighter and tighter; the tip of my rod plungedinto the water. By the fraught feel of things, I could tell that everythingbetween me and the fish was at the breaking point. And then the last thing Iexpected happened. The marlin stopped its descent and began swimminghorizontally again at a leisurely pace exactly 699 feet below us–600 feet ofbacking, 90 feet of fly line, 9 feet of leader.
At this greatdepth, the fish swam more slowly, with a kind of casual power. We motoredalong, keeping pace. The rod was bent to its most severe arc, the line pointingstraight down in the piercing blue ocean, as if pinned to a peg at the centerof the earth. There was no question of pumping the fish to the surface withmain force. Fly rods are notoriously short on lifting power, which is why youdon’t use them in bottom-fishing for grouper or halibut or for that matter forwinching up a sounded marlin. It would be over three hours before we saw thefish again. My wish to see what it was like to fight a fish for a very, verylong time was to be fully granted.
So when Tunaspoke, I thought perhaps he had some tactical advice, some ploy for us toexercise upon this willful monster for which I felt such an o’erspilling mix oflove and awe.
“Do you haveany pliers?”
THE CAUGHT ANDTHE UNCAUGHT
As for why Tunaneeded pliers, it seems our outboard motor was attempting to escape into theroomy sea, which would leave us far from land, powerless, at the mercy offishermen’s luck or perhaps the Christmas Island Rescue Service, if such athing existed. In thousands of hours of boating and the requisite number ofmechanical failures, I had never been confronted with this precise situation.The vibration of the motor had loosened the two heavy clamping screws that holdthe motor upright on the transom of the boat. As a result, the motor wasjiggling slowly upward, and one of the clamps had only the barest grip on thetop edge of the transom. The other screw still had a better purchase, but it,too, was migrating toward freedom. If Tuna had not detected the situation, themotor would have simply climbed up and up until it dropped kerplunk off thetransom into water that we knew was at least 699 feet deep. For good measure,it would probably have jerked the gasoline tank out behind it, since the twowere connected by a stout rubber fuel line.
I thought aboutthe sounds we would have heard when the motor drowned.
A big splash.
In my fatigue, Iwas entering a new, highly personal and whimsical reality. Up until Tuna spokeof pliers, my zone of attention had shrunk to the little world in the bow ofthe boat and the space between me and a marlin that was sometimes near and wasnow far, far below, his existence betrayed only by the steady pit-a-pat ofenergy reaching me through line, rod, cramping hand, lazy arm. Comments andevents outside these areas of engagement had seemed slightly hallucinatory,like the attenuated reality portrayed in those ’70s movies about acid trips, soI had not replied immediately to Tuna’s query.
He amplified onhis tool request. “I need a wrench or pliers,” he said.
I knew withoutasking that a wrench would have been preferable. Tuna soon discovered that myneedle-nosed fishing pliers were not the ideal instrument for adjusting theclamp that had lost its handle. There was a square post where the handle hadsheared off, and since needle-nose pliers open in a V, he was having a hardtime getting enough purchase to tighten the screw.
In my youngerdays, I might have made a peevish remark about being sorry that I came to thePacific theater without my marine repair kit. But age had calmed the temper Iinherited from my hillbilly forebears and the prickly Celts who produced them.Besides, if I wanted a captain with a full set of crescent wrenches, I couldhave chartered a boat on Long Island Sound. The fact was that I was happy frommy hair right down to my shoes for a very straightforward reason.
Out here, therewas nothing to bemoan. Tennant and Tuna and I had cornered the local market onunpredictability. For example, who would safely have predicted that Tuna’shands would be strong enough to achieve the impossible task of fixing the motorclamp with those misshapen dime-store pliers? Yet he did just that, thanks tothe grip earned in a lifetime of heaving, hauling, and stripping copra.
Then, during thefifth hour, I entered a doldrum. I had always wanted to see what a long battlewith a fish would be like, and now I understood the kind of waiting involvedwhen you are waiting for something wonderful to happen, something that may nothappen without your close attention. Simply put, there is not a moment, nomatter what else you are saying, thinking, or doing, when you are not alert tothis demanding presence and what it will take to continue your relationship ontrack, from the pressure on the line to the exact bow in the rod to the amountof backing on the reel to the mood of your partner. With these forces inbalance, the fish was always there, when I ate a waterlogged ham sandwich,relieved myself over the side, smoked one of the Marlboros I brought toChristmas Island to give my vacation a whiff of self-indulgence.
This bargainreel, I reminded myself, was the core of our problem. A Fin-Nor’s mighty dragwould have tired this fish by now. But the Battenkill’s lighter drag, plus thepressure that I could add with my hand, did not add up to a wearying load for a200-pound fish. Our little crises about the boat were a diversion fromsomething I could not ignore much longer. The fish was wearing me out. I wasfading. The marlin, having sounded, did not seem disposed to forsake the depthsof the ocean. Then a small discovery lifted my spirit.
I had beenlooking at the bare spool of my reel for some time. This fish was two or threewraps away from freedom, so there was little I could do to make things better,and only one thing I could do to make things worse. I decided to try that. WhenTuna positioned the boat directly over the fish, and I loaded the rod to itsabsolute maximum bend and held that pressure steadily, the fish would, after 30seconds or so, move toward the surface enough for me to crank in a couple ofinches of line. Once the fish got used to the process of responding to thepressure, it would sometimes come up 6 inches or even a foot. By repeating thislaborious process hundreds of times, I regained perhaps half my backing. I hadno illusions about what was going on. I wasn’t lifting the fish, so much asirritating it into a mild levitation. Then suddenly, I felt a mighty rising fardown below.
“It’s comingup!” Tuna said. My line, which had been entering the water perpendicularlyfor hours, tilted slowly toward the front of the boat. “This fish is comingup fast,” Tuna said. “Get ready.”
And come it did,racing toward the surface in such a smooth, rapid surge that I could hardlykeep the line tight. I cranked madly. The backing was fluorescent orange incolor, and it went off into the blue like a bending beam of light that aspiredto climb into strict parallel alignment with the surface. I expected the fishto break through the waves like a submarine-launched ICBM. Hubris, like a rich,waxy, white flower of the tropical night, blossomed in my chest. I rememberedwhat Santiago had said about using the fish’s leaping to exhaust and kill it. Idid not want to murder this fish, only to touch it and retrieve my fly. Ithought of the fly hanging on the wall of my office.
In a shadowbox.
Tired as I was, Ibelieved, again, that something wonderful was going to happen. We had waitedfor it and it was going to happen. We were going to catch this fish. Tuna wasgoing to grasp its bill. I was going to touch its shoulders, which would be asglossy and deeply colored as a lacquered Chinese box. Then we were going torelease it. When I remembered Santiago’s words about the killing effect thatjumping has on marlin, I unfortunately forgot the concluding words of thatparagraph: “Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts.” For thefish did not jump. Instead, it came racing, racing, racing ever upward from theheart of the sea. Or so it seemed until, perhaps 10 feet below the surface, themarlin simply tilted over like an airplane leveling out and began swimming awayfrom us at great speed, ripping yard after yard of hard-won line from thereel.
I had thedefinite, Ahab-like feeling that it had come up not because of the pressure ofthe dedicated lifting and inch-by-inch cranking of which I had been so proud.Rather, the marlin had simply come up to inspect us once more. By now it hadreclaimed all the line I had gained, clearing the reel right down to the spoolagain.
The marlinsounded yet again, as relentlessly as ever, all the way down to the spool, andyet again, Tuna put the boat directly over the fish, and I went back to theinch-at-a-time game. By the end of the seventh hour, we had been through thissoar and sound business four more times, and there had been an interestingshift in my physical situation.
I found I couldnot raise my left arm. So when I needed to pump the rod, I rested my forearmatop my thigh and lifted my leg. The leg, in turn, lifted my arm which, inturn, lifted the rod. It was not an efficient system.
I was tired on myleft side, of course, from lifting the rod hundreds of times, and in my righthand, which had made thousands of cranks. Yet I felt clear-headed, and deep inmy chest burned a radiant core of certainty. Neither I nor my equipment hadcollapsed. We had shifted to a southeasterly heading. It was past seven o’clocknow and the first purple brattices of night were draping the eastern horizon.The water was blackening.
I looked back atTuna, who was the picture of tireless optimism. Never once during the entirelong day did he flinch or suggest that we were simply overmatched and shouldend it. He was a man of the southern ocean, and all he seemed to care about,aside from Baha’ian political science, was the pursuit of sea creatures. Whenit came to catching this fish or any other, he was in for a dime, in for adollar.
What is soadmirable in life as a man who is both mannerly and unintimidated?
I had pulled onenough fish in my life to know what we needed to find out. We were at closequarters now. The fish was swimming along the surface, half its tail breakingthe surface regularly, a sign at long last of true fatigue.
Now was the timeto see whether with steady low rod pressure on its left side, I could make itswing its head. If I could do that, we could make it start swimming round andround the boat, like a horse on a tether. Then we could bring it to hand bysmall but relentless shortenings of the line.
“This fish isstill strong,” I told Tuna.
“Yes,” hesaid, “but he’s staying on top.”
I did not tellTuna about my conviction that the time for summing up had come nor about thestrategy that proceeded from that conviction. The most important sign that areckoning was in order came from the fish. After seeming tireless for so long,it was allowing us to stay close. There was also the conversation that thesmarter part of my brain was having with the fishing part.
“You are over50 years old. You are in good shape, but you have not trained for this level ofexertion. It is possible for you to kill yourself doing this. It is only afish.”
“But a damnnice one,” said the fishing part of my brain, taking over theconversation.
The marlin waspulling with the line positioned over its left shoulder, a position ideal forthe turning of its head. Tenderly, I increased the pressure on the 20-poundleader that the Orvis company had made so well. We still had a solid-goldhookup. Several things might happen, but the hook was not going to pull nomatter how much we increased the load on it. Other things might happen if Irushed things, but the hook was not going to pull. The fish needed only alittle more coaxing. Strong as it was, I knew that after seven hours of pullingagainst the pressure in the left jaw, it wanted to do what a horse wants to dowhen you pull on its rein. It wants to turn in the direction of the urging.Every corpuscle up and down the fish’s left flank would welcome a turn. Onlyone thing, the instinct to flee something bigger, a boat hull which probablyregistered on its lateral line as some kind of shark, kept it pulling straightahead. If only I could bring that little bit of pressure that would teach thefish how sweet it would be, how good for both of us, if it just came round tothe left and rested for a bit by circling our boat.
Once the fishturned, I would keep it calm by backing off on the steering pressure. No needto be impatient then. Just keep a tight line and maintain its steadyencouragement for the marlin to keep swimming in easeful, imperceptibly smallercircles that would draw it by and by within Tuna’s reach.
I knew what Tunawas thinking, of course. He was thinking that thanks to all his coaching aboutgoing gently, gently, I had not done anything abrupt or stupid. Soon, nightwould crash down the way it does in the tropics. The astonishing stars of theequatorial night would pop out. I thought about what kind of sight the flywould become, a faint white slash being carried through inky water, invisibleto us in the boat, visible only to the eyes of the creatured sea. Once thatkind of night came, very soon now, we would be able to see the fabulous glow ofdisrupted plankton where the line cut through the water, a shower of light,great plumes of organic radiance when we had the fish thrashing beside theboat.
As for thefighting of the marlin, I guess that’s about all there is to say about thefacts right now, the journalism of the thing, as it were. A great fish had comeout of the ocean. I had been caught by it, and then…
“It’soff,” I said.
“What? What’swrong?” Tuna said.
“The leaderbroke,” I said, which was true as far as it went.
For a long timeafter the marlin left us, taking my wonderful $5 fly into the far ocean, no onespoke. For the first time that day, Tuna let the motor idle for a bit. Icranked in until both line and broken leader were onto the spool of thetireless Battenkill 10/11, the choice of budget-conscious, traveling fishermenaround the world. I propped the rod, the 10-weight Sage, in the bow of theboat.
I thought of theold hymn: “We Shall Be Released.” So may we all be released, in ourhour of darkness, in our time of need.
Darkness was uponus now in the sweet situation that enveloped us at every point–the diamondedsky above, the sea below and round-about, and the place where we were, in ahardy boat with quite a good chance of surviving our plunging navigationthrough the churning combers that rise, curl, and crash luminously night uponnight all across the very pass that admitted Captain Bligh on that ChristmasDay so long ago to the island that had become, despite the intervention ofguns, personalized devils, contrary religions, and thermonuclear flashes, justwhat the sign at the airport promised, a paradise of birds and fish.
Tuna spoke.”Do you have a flashlight?”