Dateline: September 16, 2013 – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Santiago was a proud man. He could hold his head high as he came back to the village after his epic battle with a ton of angry marlin, even if he was left with just some scraps of forensic evidence and a moral victory. For me, I had no marlin, no victory, and arguably, no morals.
Five bitter months had passed since my April attempt at an Atlantic Blue marlin. (Details HERE) This had not been the prime time for blues, and as much as I enjoyed catching white marlin and dorados, this was a hunt for THE Atlantic Blue, and I had failed. Captain Corey Hexter had been a superstar, trying every possible option and location, but it was not to be. Still, I was not going to let this fish defeat me.
That’s Corey on the right. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org – if you follow his advice, you’re going to catch fish.
As soon I stopped weeping, I called Corey to discuss a return trip. He told me that the week before a full moon in September is THE time, and I trust this guy. I booked it, and I had a second chance that Hemingway’s finest protagonist never did. I dedicate this trip to Santiago.
I called up trusted booking agent Anna Lisa Brache – email@example.com – and set up accommodations at Cap Cana. The flight from Miami is quick, and the logistics from the airport to the luxury condo were seamless. The resort is fabulous, and as this is not the summer high season, there was no crowd and I got upgraded to a three-level villa I never did fully explore.
After I checked in, I raced down to the marina to touch base with Corey. He was on the T-zzer, rigging marlin baits, checking gear, changing lines, tying leaders. He was in a great and optimistic mood – I could tell this was going to be a different trip than April. We chatted strategy for an hour or so, then I headed off to dinner. I was awash in positive marlin vibes.
That evening began a three-day game of cat and mouse with the resort security staff. Before I signed up to stay here, both now and in April, I had repeatedly verified that it was OK to fish from the shore. (I had gotten a new species and a world record from the beach in April.) You see where this is going.
My first night on the rocks, a soft, pleasant topical evening, began well. I was casting a small jig and thinking back about the huge bluestriped grunt I had caught here in April, when I caught a huger grunt. No, a hugerer grunt. The hugerest. A pound and a half of steaming bluestriped grunt, breaking my already improbable record. Things were looking good.
Bluestriped grunts aren’t supposed to take line.
My reverie – and a perfectly cold Red Bull – were interrupted by a frantic security guard who sprinted out onto the rocks and announced that fishing was “impossible” and insisted that I go with him. I tried to explain that I had been told fishing was OK, but there are pets who speak better Spanish than I do. He was so wound up it was actually hard to take him too seriously – somewhere in the discussion, he actually demanded my passport. It was getting late anyway, so I went in with him. As he headed briskly to the resort security office with what likely the most important criminal collar of his career, he got quite some distance ahead of me, and as we passed by the garage for my condo, I figured I would make a night of it and I slipped away. I got upstairs, peeked outside, and saw several guards running around looking for me. I felt loved.
In the morning, I checked with the front office about the fishing situation. The manager sighed. She explained that the night security manager was a bit “overenthusiastic” and had invented some rules, but that fishing was OK and I could not be arrested or beaten. This put to rest any worries I had about a small room with a metal chair and one light bulb.
I then headed over to the boat. Corey was there, smiling broadly and saying “Let’s go get one!” My mind was wandering to topics like how MANY marlin I would catch. The Fish Gods don’t put up with this. We reached the trolling grounds quickly and set out our spread, and within minutes, nothing happened. The radio crackled with reports of other boats landing blues – 100, 125, 140 – and almost everyone was getting multiple fish. The boat a mile off our stern got a double hookup. It couldn’t be long for me, I figured. But the hours dragged on, and to my complete astonishment, no marlin. Disbelief settled in. I had upset the Fish Gods, and we weren’t going to get a blue marlin today. But I refused to give in to depression. I had two more days to go, the fish were here, I had a great skipper, and it was going to happen, dammit.
We did some bottom fishing on the way in and jigged up more beautiful snappers. This caused me to forget the marlin situation for a few minutes, but the idea of facing Marta after a second unsuccessful and pricey DR trip terrified me.
The place is LOADED with snappers like this.
I also caught a big Bermuda chub. One of these pooped on Spellman once.
I set up in stealth mode for the second night of shore fishing. I walked out to the furthest rockwall away from the security office, wore dark clothes, and minimized my flashlight usage. This bought me a couple of hours of good fishing – I got some nice snappers and a surprise new species – the purplemouth moray.
Yes, the mouth is really purple.
Just when I thought the security guards had found something better to do, a brilliant beam of light started playing across the jetties. They had brought out one of those German prison camp spotlights, and they were sweeping it over each section of rock and sand, looking for me. I made myself as flat as possible behind some of the boulders, but my Loomis spinning rod turns out to reflect light really, really well. Several excited voices started shouting in Spanish, and as I could hear them coming closer, I realized the jig was up, so to speak. I stood and waited for them to walk all the way out onto the rocks before I acknowledged them. This time, two of them marched me back toward the security office, one in front, one behind. I was in no hurry, however, and they eventually both got well in front of me. We passed by my garage, and that was it for my night with security. I was starting to feel a bit like the Road Runner.
When I got upstairs, I sat on the balcony with a cold Pepsi and watched the guards running around the complex and felt faintly unsettled but faintly amused. I talked to the front desk again; they smiled and told me not to worry about it.
The morning came quickly, and Corey had arranged for us to leave early to get us to the prime fishing areas before everyone else. It paid off. We had trolled for no more than 15 minutes when the port outrigger snapped and a fish started greyhounding downrange. Corey shouted “It’s a blue!!!” and the fight was on. I took the rod and went into battle mode, just me and the fish, total focus on the rod and the line, trying to stay one step ahead of a very athletic, very smart animal. It was not a huge fish – about a hundred pounds, and after about 30 minutes, we got him close to the boat.
My first blue marlin. Don’t worry – the gaff is just for grabbing the leader.
In marlin fishing, the mate touching the leader is considered a good release. These were fairly light leaders – 80 pound fluorocarbon – so grabbing a fish is a bit of a delicate operation, and most times, when the mate grabs the leader, it snaps off for a clean release. That is exactly what happened. Corey ran up and hugged me and said “You got your blue!!” and I was thrilled, but faintly unsatisfied because I did not have the great picture I had always imagined I would have of my blue.
So we put the trolling gear back down, and shortly, we got another hookup. Again, great photos of the fish in the water, but not the one in my lap.
My second marlin.
Foolishly, I told Corey we should get one more, and try to leader it delicately and bring it up for a really good picture. We wouldn’t have to hurt the fish to do this, but it would require some fancy wiring work by the crew. It apparently wasn’t enough for me to catch the darn thing, now I needed to put conditions on the photos. The Fish Gods would punish me severely for my hubris.
We put the lures out again, and right on queue, a pair of 100 pound fish nosed into the spread. We were so intent on them that we didn’t see the big one that grabbed the long bait on the port side. The rig, a mere 30 pound setup, folded over and screamed drag. I wrestled it out of the rod holder, jammed the gimbal into my fighting belt, and assumed the fish battling position.
That is how I spent the next three hours and one minute of my life.
For the first hour, I could deal with the situation. I knew it was a bigger fish, well over 200 pounds, and we had her close enough a couple of times to convince me that she was tired. I was wrong. She was just getting started. In the 75th minute or so, was had already drifted a couple of miles, and she had run the line around a buoy. Corey had to guess which side to run by it, and we were all keenly aware that if he was wrong, the 30 pound line would break in an instant. He guessed right, and we were back at it.
We drove backwards a lot that day.
By the time 90 minutes had gone by, it was getting a bit old. I was tired of water splashing up over the transom as we backed down, and who knew toes could cramp?
The last hour was just a weight-lifting contest. No strategy, no subtlety – just the fish hanging hard about 200 feet down and refusing to budge. I would gain three feet, then lose four. Gain eight, lose six.
Things began to hurt. Other things began to hurt. The things that had begun to hurt initially began to hurt even more. The seas were choppy, so I was having to maintain balance and pull hard on an angry fish. I gulped water and still sweated like a pig in a sauna. They poured water over my head and on the reel, two things I had on my bucket list – and they actually used a bucket! My shins cramped, and my back, normally not an issue, warned me that disks were going to go flying if I didn’t stop this stupidity. I labored on.
A range of emotions went through my head during the whole process. I started out in awe of the fish – the raw power, the wildness, the will. Then I got mad at it. It was making me hurt. And then I felt stupid, because it was hurting just as much and I’m the one who started the fight. I finally lapsed into my default emotion – stubbornness. I was going to finish this because, well, I started it. Why would anyone stay in this position for three hours? Was a picture really that damn important?
Of course it was.
Four feet up, three feet down. Six feet up, seven feet down. Three feet up. I was making agonizing progress, but I was not sure if I would make it. My hands cramped and my fingertips were turning odd colors. The outcome was very much in doubt. The marlin was not epic size – perhaps 250 pounds – but I was fighting it on tackle better suited to big striped bass, and tiring the fish out required a lot of consistent pressure but also some degree of finesse – 30 pound line isn’t as hard to break as one might think.
At two hours and forty-five minutes, we saw the fish. She was about 40 feet down now, electric blue, swimming along with us, giving up a foot at a time.
The last few moments of an epic battle.
The moment the fish swung up to the side of the boat, Corey was on it instantly. He somehow reached over, cradled the leader, and got hold of the fish’s bill. He then held on for dear life, as the marlin wasn’t as tired as we thought. One of the deckhands got a grip on it, and I knew we had landed it. The other deckhand and I got on the swim step and grabbed the tail, and all four of us swung the fish up for the picture you see here.
There were high-fives all around, and instead of the primal bellow that I was too tired to utter, I let out sort of a contented whimper as the fish regained her strength and swam off into the depths. I collapsed into the chair and laughed most of the way back to port.
I went to sleep looking at that picture of the Atlantic blue marlin, giving the guards the night off.
The final day, we had the luxury of being able to focus on bottom fishing. Corey, a marlin expert by trade, had researched a bunch of bottom spots and we planned out a day of deep dropping and jigging. It was all gravy from there – I had my marlin.
The best cast of the day was before we left the dock. I fired a sabiki into a school of baitfish, and as it turns out, got TWO new species, the scaled sardine and the mackerel scad.
Two species on one cast. It doesn’t get much better, although my personal best is four new wrasses on one sabiki rig in Belize, December 2005.
The day was a pleasant one. The water, normally choppy, laid down nicely for us, and we had hours of pleasant drifting over reefs shallow and deep. We loaded up on snappers – which made for a marvelous dinner back at the marina – and I added one new species, the black jack.
I caught just one black jack. The limit is 21.
Steve and Corey with an assortment of snappers.
That evening, after a celebratory dinner and a few beers, I decided to give it one more round with the security guards. It was late and my flight was early, so I wasn’t going to fish, but my inner child – the 12 year-old who makes most of my decisions for me – hit on a plan. One of my flashlights was getting a bit old, so I took it and some heavy mono and snuck out to the rockwall in front of my condo. I tied the flashlight to a piece of driftwood that was sticking up, and found the light swung perfectly in the wind, about 5 feet off the ground. I turned it on and ran.
From the safety of my living room window, I watched the flashlight twinkle off on the end of the rocks, looking a whole lot like someone waving it around. Moments later, two groups of four security guards came trotting out, hunched down in the combat position, and raced out to the end of the jetty, where they arrested my flashlight. This pleased me a great deal.
Just to show I am a good sport, I bought a case of beer for the night security crew, to be delivered through a thoroughly bewildered concierge, along with a note that will likely never be adequately translated.