Out of the Blue: Fighting Big-Game Fish

Illustration by Pat Kinsella

Chris Simmons is hard at it, putting the screws to his own big fish, when the bridge line pops out of the release clip after a second fish strikes. Simmons is in the fighting chair, which means my fish is going to be a stand-up fight. Alan “Big Country” Scibal, the Sensation’s mate, two-hands the rod from the rocket launcher and meets me at the transom’s starboard corner. He passes the rod to me just as my pal Dave Chappell works the fighting belt around my waist. “Coming around you, buddy,” Chappell hollers, groping for the buckles as the boat rocks in the Atlantic’s 5-foot swells. “Hang on!” All the while the reel whines as 80-pound monofilament rips off the spool and disappears over the transom, running through the 52-foot boat’s frothy wake and on toward the Gulf Stream. Already I can sense the rising tide of complaint from my arms, shoulders, hands, and back.

We’re 42 miles offshore from Sensation’s berth on the Morehead City, N.C., waterfront, and I’m in unfamiliar territory. I fish bluegill creeks and trout streams, and for bluefish from the beach, but I’ve ventured to bluewater only twice in my life. The gear is familiar; I know rods and reels and lines and plugs, even though everything is oversize. The hard baits I could only describe as being like Rat-L-Traps the size of a squirrel. But the world beyond the boat rails is alien and exotic. I couldn’t point north if I had to.

That’s the attraction of throwing yourself at an entirely different kind of sporting pursuit. You can’t know it all, and big-game fishing is a mystery to me. I don’t know how to wire a ballyhoo or rig a squid teaser, but sometimes it’s a kick to be the newbie. This trip to the Gulf Stream is a funhouse-mirror romp where, for once, I don’t have to know a thing and I’m not expected to figure out every detail. Maybe that’s why I’m enjoying this so much.

Wahoo's Your Daddy?
We'd pulled away from the waterfront well before sunrise and battened down for the two-hour slog toward the lightening sky. Here the coastline bulges deep into the open Atlantic, putting the Gulf Stream within easy access of anglers willing to pay the diesel tab. The first lines went into the water a bit before 8 a.m., and by 11 o'clock we'd logged five different saltwater supermodels—mahi, false albacore, blackfin tuna, barracuda, and a small wahoo. I'm hoping our streak will hold for a new species—sailfish, perhaps, or even white marlin—but my fish smokes hundreds of yards of line before taking a breather, and starts shaking its head like the world's largest striped bass. Scibal thinks it's another wahoo, and a big one.

Built like a lance, tiger-striped, and armed with a barracuda’s front grill, wahoo can swim 50 mph and are known for making a searing initial run. I can’t say I ever get control of this fish as much as it shifts gears on its own, spins a 180 somewhere out there, and charges the boat. I crank the handle furiously as Scibal begs me to recover line. As soon as I tighten up, the wahoo takes off again. The fish runs twice more before I finally get it into gaffing range, my back and forearms pleading for mercy. Scibal sinks in the gaff point and pulls the fish to the deck, its flanks heaving and streaked with blood.

My catch is longer than I am tall, and weighs 67 pounds of perhaps the best-eating fish in the sea.

The bite stays hot. We catch fish for a solid hour, landing four more wahoo as we take turns in the fighting chair. Then the wind shifts, knocking the white slop from the top of the sea’s swells, and it feels like the day is about to bust wide open.

Which shows how much I know.

Out of nowhere, a half-hour lull casts a gloom across the boat. Scibal shortens lines and changes baits, but nothing gets the fish to bite.
"You haven't tried your wahoo call yet," I joke to Scibal, then immediately regret the wisecrack.

I climb into the boat tower, where Capt. Dale Britt watches a chartplotter. Our track across the open Atlantic is a mess of dark lines on deep bottom contours. Britt points out coral reefs and bait balls marked with green rectangles. It all looks good to me, but Britt’s face is lined with a grimace.

“The wind has shifted from west-­southwest to northwest,” he says, and goes quiet for a few moments. “Old Capt. ‘Woo Woo’ Harker—he ran the Carolina Princess for years—once told me that a man could starve to death with a turkey on the table in a northwest wind.”

I know it in my bones, if not my brain: Just like that, the bite is done. The sea is calm, the sun shines, and for another hour we don’t raise a single fish. I know it’s not my job to figure out the next steps, not today, but still I want to pepper Britt with questions. Why would a shift in surface winds turn off a fish that’s happy at 100 fathoms? Did we put the school down? Where did the fish go?

Instead, I hold my tongue. I’ve been in Britt’s deck shoes plenty, when it looks like a quarter-full fish box is as good as it’s going to get. I climb down the ladder, back to my duty station watching the rods. Even if the bite is all over, I’ll still walk away with enough mahi for a dozen meals and enough wahoo for a block party. And I was paying close attention when Scibal wired those ballyhoo for baits. I have a center console dry-stacked a block down the docks from the Sensation, and I can’t help but wonder: On a really good day, maybe I could figure this out.

Tip of the Month: Wired to the Fish

The haywire twist is a go-to knot for light wire. Thread the hook eye with the wire, and twist the standing wire and tag end together with four tight turns. Next, wrap five tight barrel wraps with the tag end so it wraps the standing wire at a right angle. Snap off the tag by bending the end into a short handle, rocking it back and forth until the wire breaks. —T.E.N.