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

The conclusion to former New York Times editor Howell Raines' story of how he hooked a Pacific blue marlin on a 10-weight fly rod while fishing off the Christmas Islands in an open wooden skiff.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The Fourth Hour
Through the third hour and into the fourth, I was feeling pretty good. True, the marlin still seemed very strong, but we were cruising along at its pace, which eased the pressure on my arms and shoulders and created in me two illusions. One was that the constant, pestering weight of the taut line over what you might call the fish's left shoulder was bound to wear it down. The other was that our tribulations had ceased.

"Do not worry," Tuna exclaimed in what I initially took to be the spirit of troubles laid by.

"The water is out of the boat," he added.

I craned my head around and looked over my own left shoulder. Sure enough, he was not standing in water. He was proud of himself.

"How are you doing up there?" Tuna said.

"I feel good," I said. "We've passed four hours and I'm not tired at all."

Tuna had no way of knowing that I was not just another soft vacation fisherman. I wanted to assure him that I had been waiting a lifetime for this moment and that conquest resided in my soul. I desired to communicate, in the subtle, modest yet firm way of the Appalachian people, that for all the gray hair on my head, he had a gritty Dixie boy on his hands, a dead-game sport, as my dad would say.

"We'll wear him down," I said. "I think he's tiring a little. He doesn't have as much zip as he had when we first hooked him."

Yet this report did not seem to cheer Tuna as I had hoped. He stood at the tiller, steering us up and down the blue Pacific hillocks. He seemed curiously disengaged from the fish.

"Do you have a screwdriver?" he said.

I said, not testily but firmly, that I wondered why he needed a screwdriver.

"I have to pull up the floorboards," Tuna said. "I think the drain plug floated under the floorboards while the boat was full of water. Now all I have to do is find the plug."

Oh, yes, yes, indisputably, we still needed the drain plug. As long as we kept running along at half throttle or better, no water could enter the boat. But once we stopped to land the fish or when we, inevitably, ran out of gas, we would start sinking without delay. It was news to me that it had not only come dislodged from its hole but had gone missing entirely. If it was not under the floorboards, that would be additional news of a very bad kind. It was also news, of a surprising sort, that our drain plug was suspected of floating, since such items are customarily constructed of such sinkable materials as brass and hard rubber. If it comes out, it falls to the bottom of the boat and you pick it up.

"Float?" I said. "Why did it float?"

"It's wood," Tuna shouted back. With a touch of pride, he added that he had carved it himself.

"It has to be under the floorboards," he concluded.

It was time to rouse Tennant from his postpartum apathy. His color had shifted from green to pasty gray, and he moved when roused like someone swimming through an atmosphere that was thicker than that experienced by other humans. Nonetheless he made a good catch when I swung my Orvis fishing bag toward him.

"See if I brought my Swiss Army knife or Leatherman tool," I said.

He rummaged unhappily through the bag's several pockets. The zippers seemed deeply mysterious to him. As I suspected, the desired items were not in my fishing bag, but rather on my dresser back at the Captain Cook.

"Don't worry," Tuna suddenly exclaimed. "I found my screwdriver."

He held the welcome object aloft. It was cheap-looking, like the tools you see in the 99-cent bucket beside the cash register at TruValue. It was rusty. But it was, by God, a screwdriver. Tuna instructed Tennant to take the tiller and fell to work in the bottom of the boat, reming the half-dozen screws that pinned the plywood floorboard to the raised ribs of the hull.

Complications ensued. When we slid down the face of a long wave, Tennant failed to back off on 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. I cranked rapidly to try to take up the slack before the fish could slip the hook. But my cranking was rowdy and undisciplined. It caused the rod tip to jiggle, and this, my first crude move, threw a loop of slack line around the tip-top guide on my fly rod. I knew instantly that this meant trouble, and sure enough, when the boat slowed on the uphill side of the next wave, the fish took off, yanking the top section of the three-piece rod from the ferrule where it joined the middle section. The jerk of the separating rod seemed to inspire the marlin to try out its overdrive. Line peeled from the reel and I watched the end section of my rod, firmly looped into my line, disappear into the waves.

"Don't worry," Tuna said, looking up from his work. "We'll get the rod tip back as soon as I get the boat fixed. Just hold on."

Oh, yes, of course.

"I have it!" Tuna called in a few minutes. I watched over my shoulder as he held aloft a big square block of wood that had been whittled into a blunt point on one end. I wouldn't exactly call it a square peg, but I could see, given its irregular shape, how it had slipped out of the perfectly round hole in the transom. In any event, Tuna pounded it home and scooped out the last of the water. Then he took the tiller again and once more we went pelting after the marlin and that portion of the fly rod that was now in its possession.

After 30 minutes of playing the fish on the stumpy butt sections, I had regained enough line to catch sight of my missing tip section, still firmly looped in place.

"How sick are you?" I asked Tennant.

"I'm better," he said. "Still a little shaky. I'm all right."

"Then I need for you to get up here in the bow and put this rod back together when I reel the tip section back in. Do you think you can do that?" "I'm not sure. I'll try," he said.

The only problem, of course, was that Tuna had to gun the engine so I could regain line. The extra speed pushed the boat into the waves so hard that its bow was rising and falling 6 or 8 feet at a sweep. I was sure the bucking-horse ride at the front of the boat would make Tennant spew again as soon as he got in position. On the other hand, I knew that Tuna had to be at the throttle if we were to have any chance at all. As for me, I was not about to surrender the rod. So there was nothing to do but send my ailing friend forward.

Tennant is, shall we say, an unhurried person. To say that he took up his station in the bow deliberately is to exaggerate his speed exponentially. I passed the time by explaining how he was going to have to take the tip of the rod in hand without stressing it, then unwrap the half hitch that the fouled line had thrown around the rod's top guide. He had to perform this quickly but be all the while prepared to let the whole works go if the fish sped away. Once he had the rod tip in hand and the knot undone, he must deftly reunite the male and female sections of the rod ferrule, or joint, all the while making sure that the guides were properly aligned. Given the lack of cooperation from the fish and the speed at which the boat was moving, this would not have been an altogether easy task in calm water.

Finally Tennant was in position and I cranked the tip within his reach. He did everything perfectly, and suddenly, we were not sinking, the tackle was in order, the line was tight, and Tennant was not throwing up. Our great travail was over, but my expectations of whipping the fish by the end of the fourth hour proved illusory. Even so, in midafternoon, the wind backed around to the south and the seas flattened a bit. We were able by gunning the boat to close to within 20 feet or so of the marlin. I could see my fly plainly in the corner of its mouth. I had a solid-gold hookup. Tuna was coaching me constantly, warning me not to get impatient and apply too much pressure, and his eagerness made it necessary for me to declare an intention I thought he would oppose.

"We're not going to kill this fish," I said.

"Don't worry," he said. "We'll just get the fly back and take some pictures."

Now the fish was swimming right beside us. Another few feet and Tuna could have touched the leader, which under the international rules of billfish tournaments meant the fish could be counted as caught and released. The rule is a conservation measure, the logic being that if a fish is that close to the boat, you could snag it with a long-handled killing gaff if you chose to. Since we were not in a tournament, had no gaff anyway, and had already cast aside the holy rules of flyfishing, none of this really mattered. But I understood Tuna's reasoning immediately and bought into it. If he could get the leader in hand, we could honestly say we had fulfilled the technical requirements of "catching" this fish.

Perhaps it was the vibrations of our optimism that provoked the marlin into showing us what it had left.

Which turned out to be a lot.

One moment, we were going along side by side and Tuna and I were plotting how to get the leader close enough for him to grab, and the next the marlin was tilting its nose down and playing submarine. That is to say, with me exerting maximum pressure by jamming my gloved hand against the spool of the reel, the marlin sounded.

Down and down it went, as if it had an Evinrude strapped to its butt. My two football fields of backing melted away and I could see the exposed spool. When there were about a half dozen wraps of line on the spool, I clamped down, figuring to break the fish off at the leader rather than the bitter end of the backing and thereby save my fly line. The line came tighter and tighter; the tip of my rod plunged into the water. By the fraught feel of things, I could tell that everything between me and the fish was at the breaking point. And then the last thing I expected happened. The marlin stopped its descent and began swimming horizontally again at a leisurely pace exactly 699 feet below us-600 feet of backing, 90 feet of fly line, 9 feet of leader.

At this great depth, the fish swam more slowly, with a kind of casual power. We motored along, keeping pace. The rod was bent to its most severe arc, the line pointing straight down in the piercing blue ocean, as if pinned to a peg at the center of the earth. There was no question of pumping the fish to the surface with main force. Fly rods are notoriously short on lifting power, which is why you don't use them in bottom-fishing for grouper or halibut or for that matter were able by gunning the boat to close to within 20 feet or so of the marlin. I could see my fly plainly in the corner of its mouth. I had a solid-gold hookup. Tuna was coaching me constantly, warning me not to get impatient and apply too much pressure, and his eagerness made it necessary for me to declare an intention I thought he would oppose.

"We're not going to kill this fish," I said.

"Don't worry," he said. "We'll just get the fly back and take some pictures."

Now the fish was swimming right beside us. Another few feet and Tuna could have touched the leader, which under the international rules of billfish tournaments meant the fish could be counted as caught and released. The rule is a conservation measure, the logic being that if a fish is that close to the boat, you could snag it with a long-handled killing gaff if you chose to. Since we were not in a tournament, had no gaff anyway, and had already cast aside the holy rules of flyfishing, none of this really mattered. But I understood Tuna's reasoning immediately and bought into it. If he could get the leader in hand, we could honestly say we had fulfilled the technical requirements of "catching" this fish.

Perhaps it was the vibrations of our optimism that provoked the marlin into showing us what it had left.

Which turned out to be a lot.

One moment, we were going along side by side and Tuna and I were plotting how to get the leader close enough for him to grab, and the next the marlin was tilting its nose down and playing submarine. That is to say, with me exerting maximum pressure by jamming my gloved hand against the spool of the reel, the marlin sounded.

Down and down it went, as if it had an Evinrude strapped to its butt. My two football fields of backing melted away and I could see the exposed spool. When there were about a half dozen wraps of line on the spool, I clamped down, figuring to break the fish off at the leader rather than the bitter end of the backing and thereby save my fly line. The line came tighter and tighter; the tip of my rod plunged into the water. By the fraught feel of things, I could tell that everything between me and the fish was at the breaking point. And then the last thing I expected happened. The marlin stopped its descent and began swimming horizontally again at a leisurely pace exactly 699 feet below us-600 feet of backing, 90 feet of fly line, 9 feet of leader.

At this great depth, the fish swam more slowly, with a kind of casual power. We motored along, keeping pace. The rod was bent to its most severe arc, the line pointing straight down in the piercing blue ocean, as if pinned to a peg at the center of the earth. There was no question of pumping the fish to the surface with main force. Fly rods are notoriously short on lifting power, which is why you don't use them in bottom-fishing for grouper or halibut or for that matter