Dateline: April 26, 2013 – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
At 1pm on April 24, 2013, I came to the conclusion that I have lost my mind. I recognize that I am significantly behind most of you in this discovery, but on that spring day, I did something so profoundly disturbed that even I could no longer deny that I deserve permanent residence at St. Arostegui’s Home for the Obsessive/Compulsive.
What did I do? Well, apart from ordering Chinese food at a Caribbean resort, I also, of my own free will, directed a boat crew to leave a wide-open marlin bite. The kind of bite that only happens in fishing ads and Spellman’s demented fantasies. I know it sounds irrational – because it was – but if you suffer through the next 2000 words or so, you’ll at least understand what I was thinking.
In a career based on small, anonymous fish, there are still times when the micros must be put aside and, either for personal pride or to stop Scott Kisslinger’s snide remarks, I must chase a big game trophy. Big game trophies take work, but if I ever want to have that elusive IGFA Royal Slam on billfish, I am going to need to put an Atlantic blue marlin and a spearfish in the boat. Apparently, THE place for an Atlantic Blue is the Dominican Republic. But THE month is apparently not April.
Still, I knew I was going to be in Miami for the IGFA awards, (click here for details) and Miami is much closer to the Dominican Republic than places which are further away. A few weeks before the Miami trip, Marty Arostegui let me know he was heading to the DR in late April to try for some marlin on the fly. (As if it isn’t hard enough on conventional gear.)
Marty is not to blame for this debacle. They warned me that there were more white marlin than blues this time of year – I had already caught a white marlin. (Click here for the Outer Banks escapade.) But there are some blues year-round, and I talked myself into going pretty quickly. I signed up for three days of marlin fishing right after Marty was done, with a day of overlap so I could hang out with him in Punta Cana, if he had forgiven me for losing his tailer.
I hadn’t done much fishing in the Caribbean, so I was looking very forward to racking up a decent species total and finally getting to the elusive 1200 mark, as well as getting the blue. As it turns out, I did none of the above.
Punta Cana is a short two hour flight from Miami, giving me just enough time to reread Old Man and the Sea a couple of times. I felt emotionally prepared to do battle with a monster billfish and gain the respect of my village.
I set up all my accommodations through Anna Lisa Brache, who runs Servicios Multiples VIP – email@example.com or (809) 222 -5075. The drivers were on time, the condo was gorgeous and huge, and the refrigerator was loaded with the essentials – Red Bull and frozen shrimp. I was immediately struck by how beautiful the place was. White sand beaches. Palm trees. Ridiculously blue ocean.
The view from my room. You may be looking at the pool or the beach, but I only had eyes for those rock jetties.
As you can imagine, it didn’t take me long to get out onto the water. I poked around the harbor with my standard sabiki rigs, and the Fish Gods mocked me by providing nothing but small grunts. I worked my way out onto one of the rock jetties, and the grunts followed me and swarmed every bait I put down. I only caught one other fish, which seemed even more annoying at the time – a plain brown damsel. I hate plain brown damsels. No one can ever identify them.
Little did I know this would turn out to be a new species – the dusky damsel. Thank you Val Kells.
I didn’t sleep well, with visions of gigantic billfish dancing in my head. Our first day of trolling, with skipper Tim Richardson, started eventfully. After the lengthy ritual of getting out dredges, teasers, and four trolling rods, we ran less than a minute when one of the outrigger lines snapped out of the clip. “It can’t be this easy.” I thought, as I grabbed the setup and started the fight. The marlin hurtled downrange, peeling out line so fast that spray covered my glasses. It wasn’t a big fish – I had been warned most blues here ranged 100-150 pounds, but a marlin is a marlin and I was ecstatic to be hooked up so quickly. I leaned hard on the 30# setup, and after about 15 minutes, I started making progress. Would I be done with my marlin quest a few minutes into the trip and be able to focus on hunting other species? This isn’t inexpensive fishing, so that would be really cool.
It was then the crew saw it was a white marlin, which is the predominant species this time of year. It was still fun, but not the right color. So we landed it – nice fish, but not a new species.
Sure, it’s a nice fish. But I’ve caught one before. (Wow, doesn’t that made me sound petulant, and the Fish Gods don’t like petulance.)
I caught my breath and we set up to troll again. We got another white right away. And then another. Marlin were everywhere, but none of them were blues. To a normal, psychologically-stable person, this would still be awesome. But this was me, and I wanted a blue. I asked the crew to troll only one rod so we could pull the bait away if another white came up. They had never seen this before. Sure enough, shortly thereafter, a white came up after the lure and I quickly ripped it away before the fish could get hooked. The crew was at a loss for words. The deckhand stood there, his mouth agape, pointing behind the boat and saying “Marlin.” I pulled the bait away from another one that came in hot and angry, and I waited patiently while he went away. The deckhand shook his head.
This was the moment I realized I had officially gone insane. My species hunting obsession had actually caused me to avoid fishing in an epic bite of billfish. We raised something like 18 fish, but never did see a blue. If you want to put a marlin on your scoreboard, this is the closest thing to a guarantee you’ll ever get. The skipper reluctantly moved a couple of times, but it was all whites.
To take my mind off the situation, we tried some deep bottom fishing late in the afternoon. It was emotionally difficult to pull up the trolling rod. I knew a blue marlin isn’t an everyday thing, but still I had hoped to beat the odds and put it on the scoresheet. I was a bit out of focus, but when we pulled up over a thousand foot deep rockpile, I reflexively went into action.
It’s a long way down, and on the first two spots, nothing bit, so it was also a long way up. On the third rockpile, I put 330 yards of braid down, and I felt bites. I waited to make sure I had a couple of fish on the circle hooks, then started the long haul up. After about seven minutes of reeling with a decent load on the line, I was made suddenly and unpleasantly aware that I was not the only one interested in my fish. A shark took everything and I had to rig over again. Two drops later, more hits, and again, I got solid hookups. I held my breath as I reeled through the midwater, but this time I made it. I landed two beautiful queen snappers, a new species for me.
The queen snapper – another new species. Things were looking up.
That’s Captain Tim Richardson on the right and the traumatized deckhand on the left.
Day two was with skipper Corey Hexter, the same guy Marty had fished with a few days before. I begged him to go south, as the areas to the north seemed to be lousy with white marlin.
Heading south toward Punta Cana.
I was avoiding marlin. How sick is that? But we made the long run and set up to troll. Five times the ourrigger cracked like a rifle, and five times it was a dorado. (Known as mahi-mahi in Hawaii and dolphinfish to people who don’t remember Flipper.)
Again, this should make a normal person happy. If I hadn’t insisted on trolling big blue marlin lures, we could have caught dozens of these.
These were beautiful fish, but they were not blue marlin, and all the while we were searching, the wind was picking up and shifting to the north. By the time Corey turned us toward home, we were pounding into big seas head-on, a type of ride they call “Victory at Sea.” I just wrapped a pillow around my head and tried to avoid brain damage. Corey and crew gutted it out without a word of complaint, but it was rough enough to dislodge minor organs.
Once we docked, I kissed the dry land and headed back out to the rock jetties.
The rocky shoreline at sunset. These structures were full of surprises.
I set up a medium popping rod and started casting a jig, and I immediately got crushed. Something peeled my 15 pound braid out 25 yards in a hurry, then fought hard all the way back to the rocks. When I finally got it to shore, I was pleased to see a four pound mutton snapper. Sure, I had caught them before, but it was an outstanding fight on light tackle. I cast until dark with leadhead jigs – I got several more snappers, and an astonishing surprise.
My history with bluestriped grunts is not a proud one. These pint-sized pests have entertained Florida children for years, and while they aren’t at the level of pinfish, they’re close. Clouds of them get on the reefs, and they can easily eat a whole shrimp meant for a snapper or grouper. And I had never seen one bigger than about six ounces – until now. I thought I had hooked a decent snapper, not quite as much weight as the others, but when I swung the fish up to be unhooked, I nearly spit out my dental implants. It was a bluestriped grunt over a pound – a positive monster. The bluestriped grunt that ate New York, and this, I knew, was an open world record. Things were looking up.
The bluestriped grunt that could eat any other bluestriped grunt I had ever caught.
The positive attitude from the grunt – and a pizza – sustained me through the evening, and I slept well. The morning trolling session stomped all over my optimism, and by noon, the outcome was pretty well evident. We headed to areas where there were fewer white marlin, but this did not mean there were more blues. We trolled and we trolled and we trolled, but apart from two more heart-stopping dorados, we came up blank. Corey suggested we do a bit of bottom fishing. When he stopped on some 200-250 foot reefs, I figured there was no way there was anything new for me to catch, but I wanted to feel a couple of bites, so I set up a cut bait rig.
Tropical reefs have some amazingly colorful stuff – this is a greenhead wrasse.
After I got a few small critters, Corey insisted that I cast a big bucktail jig. This seemed like a purist thing, but I tend to listen to the guide on most things that don’t involve nudity. (See http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/the-countdown-to-1000-the-naked-truth-of-day-three/)
I’m glad I did. I few bumps on the bottom later, I got a vicious strike and hooked into something that fought like a cinder block falling off a tall building. Ten minutes later, I landed a positively monstrous dog snapper – around 10 pounds.
No, it’s not a blue marlin, but it pulled pretty darn hard.
After a heartbreaking fight with a yellowfin grouper that escaped right at the surface, I got another big strike and spent 25 minutes battling the biggest dog snapper I have ever seen, on the order of 18 pounds – not nearly a record but about 17 and a half pounds bigger than the ones I had caught on earlier trips.
This fish was so big that I briefly – BRIEFLY – forgot I hadn’t caught a blue marlin … yet.
As the day drew to a close, Corey took us through the trolling ritual one more time, and we covered the ground back to the harbor hoping for that one lucky break. It didn’t happen, and that’s part of the game.
I think Corey was more bummed out than I was, if that’s possible, but this is part of fishing. We had a couple of beers before I headed back to my condo to pack. I was already planning a return trip in September, when the blues are apparently here in force. I was not going to let this creature defeat me.
Corey Hexter and crew. Corey is a top-notch skipper – if you are looking to fish in the DR, look him up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It had been a shot – a pricey shot – but it had not worked out. The trip ended with just two species, the snapper and the damsel.
This certainly caused a moment of soul-searching. I had fished in six countries in one month, flown 19,000 miles, and all it netted me was eight species – two in Gibraltar, four in Italy, two in the DR. And I was all bummed out for a while – I had expected a bunch more. This is what we in the business call a “low point” – the first time I felt that 2000 was going to be impossible. Then I looked back at all the fun I had had in April. The new friends I made, the old friends I got to spent time with, and all the amazing fish I got to catch. Species-challenged though some of the trips were, these were beautiful places and I got to catch extraordinary fish. I remembered the words of an old baseball coach. (Marta said “You mean the one who said ‘You suck, give me the baseball?'”) No, not that coach. It was another coach, and this one said “Keep swinging at good pitches and the hits will come.” With trips to Mexico and Hawaii coming up, I knew I would see a lot more pitches, and even if I missed most of them, as I am wont to do, I knew I was going to have a lot of fun – and that’s what this is all about.