<i>Field & Stream</i> Adventure: The One That Got Away, Part I

Howell Raines, former executive editor of The New York Times, hooked a Pacific blue marlin on a 10-weight fly rod while fishing off the Christmas Islands in an open wooden skiff. Here is his story.

Field & Stream Online Editors

This is a South Pacific fish story that begins on Darky Lake in Canada. In June, for four or five years running, my sons Ben and Jeff and I went there to flyfish for smallmouth bass big enough to swallow those we caught on mid-Atlantic rivers like the Potomac and the Delaware. The wilderness fishing in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park was dreamlike but repetitious, and in 1995, at our familiar campsite, I experienced a sensation so unusual that at first I did not recognize it. I was bored with the best fishing of its kind in North America.

Upon returning to my newspaper job in New York City, I conferred with my closest friend from back home in Alabama. Tennant McWilliams is a university dean, justly renowned in educational circles for his sound judgment and steady temperament. We have hunted and fished together since we were 15, and for years, I have relied on him to talk me out of the wild-hair schemes that come to all fishermen. He had seen me through a teenage phase of chasing giant hammerhead sharks in small boats and later impulses to invest money in "undiscovered" fishing camps. I thought he would talk me out of my newly conceived plan to battle angling ennui by fishing in all the exotic places we could never afford while raising our families. Now, in our early 50s, we were both well-employed and beyond the reach of alimony, tuition, and orthodontia bills. Even so, I thought Tennant would say "you're crazy" when I said that only an expensive excursion to Christmas Island via Honolulu in pursuit of our first fly-rod bonefish could restore our zeal. Instead he said, "Sign me up."

The Republic of Kiribati does not refer to its Christmas Island atoll as a "paradise of fish and birds" for nothing. In a few days we had caught so many bonefish on 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 guide who 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, at which time Tuna, a strong, cheerful man who greatly resembled Don Ho, inquired about the contents of my tackle bag.

"Have you got any big streamer flies?" he said.

We had been trolling off the northwest corner of the island, where ocean currents boiled against the steep flanks of the old volcano. The water was hundreds of feet deep 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 the splashes of feeding fish, but we had no takers on our big plastic lures. So Tuna thought a smaller fly might attract a strike.

As it happened, I had a brand-new, tandem-hooked billfish fly purchased by mail order from the Fly Shop of Redding, California, for what seemed to me, then and now, the bargain price of $4.95. A nice fly it was, and I had bought it, as I buy so many pieces of tackle, prophylactically. I felt that someday, somewhere I might need it, never mind the fact that I had never caught a billfish and had, in fact, seen damn few in my life.

"How's this?" I said to Tuna, holding up a concoction of green and white plastic filaments tied like a ponytail.

"Perfect," he said. "Tie it on your 10-weight fly rod, and let's troll for a few more minutes before we go inside the reef for bonefish."

I tied my Fly Shop billfish fly to my 20-pound Orvis leader with the 80-pound shock tippet. I paid line from my Orvis Battenkill 10/11 Salt Water Reel and within minutes I was trolling with my 9-foot, 10-weight Sage fly rod. I confess that I was not casting my line as intended by the designers of all the products named above and as mandated by the International Game Fish Association of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I think of myself as a flyfisherman and so present myself to the world, but I was trolling as openly as any wire-ling, beer-gutted, bowling-shirted New Jersey plumber on his annual outing to murder a Cape May bluefish.

I think Tuna was explaining the fine points of how the international police force would operate when the strike came. He talked about that a good deal to fill the odd moments of 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 swimming toward the boat and then past it. I had to wind rapidly to take the slack out of the line.

"What kind of fish is it?" Tennant asked.

"Probably a bonita," said Tuna.

At that precise moment, an astonishing blue-and-silver creation came out of the top of a Pacific 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 as long as your boat. In The Outermost House, Henry Beston wrote about big rogue waves "coming like a king" out of the sea. That is how I think of that moment. The wave rose above us like a king, and an impossible fish climbed into the sky like the son of God. What I'm trying to express, I suppose, is that on the stroke of that moment something rolled over within me, something at the center of my chest. It was, I think, the tumblers of my heart.

"It's not a bonita," I said.

Tuna, whose attention had been elsewhere, saw the second of three greyhounding leaps.

"No, it's not a bonita," Tuna agreed in a tone of calm acceptance that I assume is taught in the temples of his Baha'i faith.

"It's a marlin," I finally managed to say, feeling a foolish sense of triumph at being able to state the obvious.

It was, indeed, a Pacific blue marlin, and by every available sign, this particular marlin was in fine 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 man just past 50, could not be regarded as being at the height of my physical powers. On the other hand, I had reached through calculation and steady effort the ability to fish in some of the waters about which I had dreamed. So it came to 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. [NEXT "Blueness and Bolts Therefrom"]

Blueness and Bolts Therefrom
I had always wondered what it was like to fight a big fish for a long time, and the moment of my education was at hand. I had the tangible sensation of learning new things, moment to moment, and it became apparent that the things came in two categories, those that are surprising and those that are boring. I also had the feeling that time had slowed down, and that while the pressure of the fish is always there, the mind wanders. When someone speaks to you, you hear what they said, but you also hear its echoes inside your head. So there was a long historic echo when Tennant spoke a sentence after the fish had been on the line for several minutes, and the affair began to settle down into an orderly struggle.

"You are handling this beautifully," he said.

I thought not of the fish or my friend's generosity, but of how much he sounded like his father and how pleased the old man, who was born in 1901, would be that these two boys he had shaped so forcefully, his son and his student, were still friends as we passed 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 pay dearly to get it. And I thought that I, by God, was getting my money's worth.

The way you whip a big fish is to chase it for as long as it takes. The trick is not new. Izaak Walton, writing in the 17th century, recommended throwing the pole into the water and letting the fish drag it around until it was exhausted, a trick that I sometimes saw replicated by Alabama cane-polers during my childhood. Tuna planned 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 raced through the ocean's hills and valleys behind the marlin, and it was thrilling to be up in the high bow of the boat, tasting the warm, salty spray and feeling the relentless pulse of the fish, leading us south. Tuna coached me constantly not to put too much pressure on the line. We would tire the fellow out in due course. All we had to do was be patient.

There was something else about Tuna that I apprehended in those first pelting minutes. He really wanted to catch this fish. Beyond that, he believed we were going to catch it. A guide cannot fake conviction, and there is nothing worse than being in a boat with someone you are paying, but who does not much care, one way or another. Right off, I sensed something elemental in Tuna's response to our situation. I can only describe it as the primal optimism of someone who has grown up conquering sea creatures of all sizes and for whom there is no other business than living the life that the sea and the world have put in front of him. More than anything, I did not want to disappoint him.

The fish had slowed in its swimming a bit. It was still going steadily away, running about 6 feet under the surface, out to the side of the boat so there was a long bow in the line. I asked Tuna to move in more directly behind the fish to reduce the drag on the line. I was afraid the weight of the curved line would pull the hook 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 able to gun the boat ahead, closing on the fish and enabling me to regain a hundred yards or so of backing.

After we had been engaged with the fish for some time, perhaps a half hour of bouncing along the waves, up and down, I heard a strangled noise from the rear of the boat and glanced back over my shoulder. Tennant's head was hanging over the gunwale, and from 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 friend in the embrace of mal de mer reminded me of a comment I had read that compared being seasick to a lover's jealousy. You think you're going to die and everyone else thinks it's funny. One glance at Tennant, who had ceased shouting at the ocean and had fallen back into his deck chair, convinced me that this would not be a good time to share this witticism.

"Drink a Coke," I told him.

"I don't think I can keep it down right now," he said.

Even so, I was encouraged. He had spoken a sentence free of complaint and containing no mention of the shore. Good thing, since there was no way in hell he wnd until it was exhausted, a trick that I sometimes saw replicated by Alabama cane-polers during my childhood. Tuna planned 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 raced through the ocean's hills and valleys behind the marlin, and it was thrilling to be up in the high bow of the boat, tasting the warm, salty spray and feeling the relentless pulse of the fish, leading us south. Tuna coached me constantly not to put too much pressure on the line. We would tire the fellow out in due course. All we had to do was be patient.

There was something else about Tuna that I apprehended in those first pelting minutes. He really wanted to catch this fish. Beyond that, he believed we were going to catch it. A guide cannot fake conviction, and there is nothing worse than being in a boat with someone you are paying, but who does not much care, one way or another. Right off, I sensed something elemental in Tuna's response to our situation. I can only describe it as the primal optimism of someone who has grown up conquering sea creatures of all sizes and for whom there is no other business than living the life that the sea and the world have put in front of him. More than anything, I did not want to disappoint him.

The fish had slowed in its swimming a bit. It was still going steadily away, running about 6 feet under the surface, out to the side of the boat so there was a long bow in the line. I asked Tuna to move in more directly behind the fish to reduce the drag on the line. I was afraid the weight of the curved line would pull the hook 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 able to gun the boat ahead, closing on the fish and enabling me to regain a hundred yards or so of backing.

After we had been engaged with the fish for some time, perhaps a half hour of bouncing along the waves, up and down, I heard a strangled noise from the rear of the boat and glanced back over my shoulder. Tennant's head was hanging over the gunwale, and from 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 friend in the embrace of mal de mer reminded me of a comment I had read that compared being seasick to a lover's jealousy. You think you're going to die and everyone else thinks it's funny. One glance at Tennant, who had ceased shouting at the ocean and had fallen back into his deck chair, convinced me that this would not be a good time to share this witticism.

"Drink a Coke," I told him.

"I don't think I can keep it down right now," he said.

Even so, I was encouraged. He had spoken a sentence free of complaint and containing no mention of the shore. Good thing, since there was no way in hell he w