Some might say that Molly Palmer got a lot less than she hoped for after hooking a giant blue marlin off Hawaii's fabled Kona Coast during the Big Island Invitational Marlin Tournament on Aug. 18. Palmer waged an epic, four-hour battle with the thousand-pound fish before finally deciding to hand off the rod -- forfeiting nearly $40,000 in prize money and a surefire women's world record. But after the story spread of her team's honesty in deciding to disqualify themselves while still working to bring the fish into the boat, Palmer may have gotten far more than she ever dreamed of, becoming something of a poster girl for ethical pursuit of a sport she has built her life around.
Palmer was fishing with several other anglers aboard Captain Neal Isaacs’ boat Anxious. The team put up about $9,000 to compete in the Big Island Invitational. Isaacs was running a classic Kona spread, surface-trolling five lures on 130-pound tackle in about 3,000 feet of water two miles offshore. “We were looking into the sun and saw a big hole in the water,” Isaacs (right) says of the hookup, which came about 90 minutes into the outing. “We could see the fish’s back and knew it was a marlin. It didn’t jump much at first, just went down, down, down and ran off 500 yards of line. Then it jumped about 150 yards behind the boat, and we could tell it was a pretty good fish. I’m not sure we knew how good, but we knew it was at least 700 or 800 pounds.”
The first glimpse of the fish thrilled Palmer. “We had it pretty close to the boat after 30 minutes or so, and from the looks of it that’s when it realized it was hooked,” she says. “It did a bunch of jumps, taking 2 or 3 tries to get its whole body out of the water. It was amazing to watch. After a final jump, it dug down deep under the surface, which is a much harder fight.” Palmer would not see the marlin again with the rod in her hands.
An experienced angler who grew up fishing for croakers and baiting crab pots with her grandfather in the Chesapeake Bay, Palmer moved to Hawaii about a year ago with her husband, Shawn Palmer, specifically for the fishing. Both crew on fishing boats and fish Kona-style “a couple times a week, at least.” Kona style, she says, means big tackle, catch-and-release fishing for some of the largest trophies in the sea. “It means knowing a monster can jump on your lure at any moment. We catch a lot of fish that aren’t big blue marlin, and you feel a little silly pulling a 40-pound sail spearfish on 130-pound line. But as soon as you get spooled by a big marlin on light tackle, you move up to the big stuff.”
Isaacs outfits his anglers with Pat Brian custom rods and Shimano 130 reels spooled with 900 yards of 130-pound-test Amalon T IGFA 130 monofilament; he trolls a mix of soft and hard baits between 8-1/2 and 10 knots. Palmer’s grander hit a Marlin Magic Ruckus (shown here), a medium sized hardhead lure with aggressive action. Isaacs rigs the lure with 20 to 22 feet of 520-pound test Momoi extra-hard leader and a single 11/0 Jobu hook, placed in the back of the skirt.
Other lures that fill out Isaacs’ Kona rig are Joe Yee Super Plunger lures (left) in medium and large, which are used primarily for blue marlin. The fish not caught in tournaments are usually tagged and released. “We probably catch 60 to 70 blue marlin each year, and kill maybe 3 or 4 the whole year,” Isaacs says.
Farther behind the spread he likes to trail a Malolo lure (right). This smaller lure is rigged with 18 to 20 feet of 400-pound-test Jen-Kai leader and a single 9/0 Jobu hook.
Though intended for smaller game fish like wahoo, mahi-mahi, spearfish and striped marlin, the small lure sometimes attracts blue marlin, including this 561-pounder that the Anxious caught September 1.
After Palmer’s thousand-pounder dove, the fight turned into a vertical tug-of-war. The typical play on a big marlin is to use the boat to back down on the fish, gaining line by quickly reeling in slack created as the boat reverses engines to follow the fish. “Once a fish dives, the boat obviously can’t follow it down,” Palmer says. “Then it’s a matter of using your strength to lift the rod and take up slack that way.” After a couple of hours fighting the fish this way, the team became concerned. “It wasn’t as much a tug of war anymore as the fish was dropping straight down,” Palmer recounts. Exhausted by the fight, the big marlin had died. It was then, she believes, that they made their first mistake. “It took us a little longer than it should have to decide the fish was dead. A couple guys whispered it, but we were afraid to say it. We didn’t want it to be true, so we didn’t say it.”
Suddenly Palmer was faced with a half ton of dead weight on the end of 600 yards of line. “At that point, the technique for fighting it changes completely, because you’re trying to lift dead weight through all that water. Had we made the decision earlier, we might not have had so much line to gain.” A dead fish drops straight down, pinning the line directly behind the boat and making it impossible to gain slack. The only option is planing–basically towing the fish on a taut line against the current. “When you do that the fish gets lifted higher in the water column, and if you back down quickly and take up slack, you can gain 30 or 40 yards at a time,” Palmer says. “But it happens real slow.”
After an hour-and-a-half of planing the fish, Palmer had gotten about a third of her line back on the reel. But progress was so slow they were worried the marlin would become a target for sharks. “If a shark attacks your fish, it’s disqualified from the contest anyway because of mutilation,” Palmer says. “Second, you never get to find out how much the fish actually weighed, because pieces are missing.” That’s exactly what happened with this blue marlin when a Minnesota fisherman chartered the Anxious for his first big game fishing trip. Sharks ripped an estimated 100 pounds from the fish after it died and began sinking, but it still tipped the scales at 706 pounds.
“We decided planing wasn’t working fast enough and wanted to try something different,” Palmer says. “We turned the boat around and planed in the other direction, but somehow the fish got caught in the current and started dropping fast. I was using both hands to hold myself in the chair. I kept trying to take one hand off to stop the reel, but I needed both hands to stop the fish from dropping. If I had let go of the chair, I wouldn’t have been in the boat long. At that point, I just didn’t have enough arms to keep fighting the fish. So I said, ‘Rather than lose this opportunity, let’s get the fish in the boat.'” After four hours in the fighting chair against a fish six times her weight, Palmer made the decision to hand off the rod. The catch would not meet IGFA rules that require an angler to land a fish unaided. And because the tournament was an IGFA event, Palmer and her team were saying goodbye to $39,000 in prize money.
“I’ve had people try to slide things past me for a whole lot less money, for a less important thing than a world record,” tournament organizer Jody Bright told the Associated Press after Team Anxious disqualified itself. “We don’t have officials on the field like you do in baseball or football or anything like that. Everybody’s playing on the open ocean playing field and since there’s nobody there checking to see if you stepped out of bounds or any of that sort of stuff there’s a whole lot of opportunity to do things nobody would know of.” Palmer says there was never any debate about doing the right thing. “There was never a time when we were deciding, ‘Are we gonna tell the truth or not?’ It was assumed. If we’re gonna play the game, we’re gonna play by the rules.” Isaacs knows cheating happens. “Big-game fishing is a small area, even around the world, and those few folks who’ve bent the rules a little, that still follows them around. Two or three guys aren’t allowed to fish in tournaments because of it. We’re out here to catch fish and try to catch big fish, and if we’re gonna play by the rules we just need to do that. That’s just who we are.”
Palmer was spent. “I had tears of frustration running down my cheeks. I felt dazed. I could barely walk and my hips were bruised from the fighting belt. I had to collapse in the V-berth for a few minutes to recover. But pretty quickly I realized the guys were still at it, and I went back on deck to see what I could do to help.” The rest of her teammates–Shawn, George Liddle, Phil Duke and crewmembers Jeff Metzler and Brian Schumaker (left) worked to bring the marlin into the boat. “Three guys would work the rod together: One would hold the reel to keep the line from letting out, one would pump the rod and a third would jump in when we were backing down and actually hand-line the line out of the water while the guy on the reel cranked.” A couple hours later–six hours after they hooked up–the Anxious team had their grander in the boat.
“Catching the fish with my team was satisfying,” Palmer says. “This is why my husband and I moved to Kona. We didn’t come here to gamble or play in tournaments or even set records. We came to catch fish. You can’t drive the boat and do it all on your own. It takes a good team that communicates and works well together. That’s what we did, and we landed the fish.”
The marlin stretched 172″ from nose to tail–a little over 14 feet–and 147 inches from the tip of the lower jaw to the V of the tail. The girth was 72 inches. The smallest part of the tail measured 20 inches around. That key measurement is an accurate indicator of a marlin’s weight, Isaacs says: A 20-inch tail indicates a 1,000 pound marlin, a 19-inch tail marks a 900-pounder, and so on down to 11 inches for a 100-pounder. “At that point, it was just a matter of will it or won’t it go over 1,000,” Palmer says. “There’s a world of difference between 999 ½ pounds and 1000 ½ pounds. When the scale hit 1,022.5, it felt great.”
Palmer says the attention garnered by the story of ethical sportsmanship has been a surprise. “I would have never even thought of telling the story that way. But to see that people find it so interesting and inspiring makes me appreciate it more. It means a lot.” The kids round Honokohau Harbor bring Palmer flowers and people have taken to calling her by a new nickname: Molly Marlin. “I didn’t start it,” Palmer says. “But I like it.”