John Ashley meets me at the gate of the Kona Kai Club marina. It's 4:00 a.m., and misty darkness shrouds the harbor. Ashley, a vigorous, ruddy-faced man, leads me down the floating dock to his sport-fishing boat called Tenacious. Today, he and I are going to compete in the 17th Annual San Diego Marlin Club Small Boat Marlin and Tuna tournament. The tourney is open to the general public and club members on boats 26 feet or under. The largest tuna and marlin caught either today — Saturday, September 12 — or tomorrow will win each angler a Penn International 30 fishing reel.
The Tenacious is a 26-footer built by local boatmaker and marlin fisherman Don Blackmon. The aft third of the boat is a low, flat area called the cockpit. In the center of this area stands a bait tank about three feet tall. After we stow our bags in the cabin, which rises six feet from amidships and is topped by a flying bridge, John transfers 15 or 20 mackerel from a seaweed-covered cage under the dock to the tank. The green and black mackerel, ranging from five to eight inches, will be hooked through the nose and thrown to any marlin we spot. At 4:30, we're underway. Sitting on the flying bridge, John steers the boat until we're out of the labyrinth of boat slips and into the larger channel. "Take the wheel," he tells me. "You're going to need to know how to handle the boat if we hook a marlin."
I take the wheel and the boat starts drifting to port. I crank hard to starboard, and the boat swings back to the right past center and I crank to port again, then to starboard, to port... "You're overcorrecting," John laughs. "It's not like driving a car, is it?"
As I zigzag the boat around the west end of Fiesta Island, John, 59, flies up and down the ladder to the bridge checking radios, navigation equipment, running lights, charts. Finally, as we near the main harbor channel, he comes to rest on the bench seat next to me on the bridge. "Here's a bit of small boat sailing for you," he slips a red plastic cup over the end of a flashlight and sets the contraption on the left side of the dash. "My port running light is out, so I need to put this over here as we go past this police dock."
We cruise out the harbor mouth and take a heading a little east of south. John sets the autopilot and begins to explain his strategy for catching marlin. "There's an old saying in fishing, 'You go where the fish are.' I think that's saying a little too much. I say, 'You go where fish are most likely to be,' because with marlin, there's no way to know for sure."
How do you judge where they are likely to be? "By recent activity," he explains. "We're headed to a spot where I caught one on Wednesday, so we know there are likely to be fish there. The other 15 or so boats in this tournament know about the one I caught, so most of them will probably be down there as well. Then there are certain things you look for when you get there. Water temperature is one." Generally, warmer is better. "You keep an eye on the water temperature meter right here," he taps a small round meter in front of him. "There has to be bait. The marlin go where the bait fish are. You watch for the bait on your sonar, but you also look for bird action to tell you where the bait is. The color and clarity of the water are important. You want clear, blue water. You don't want it to be greenish or dirty. The depth of the water is another factor. Marlin usually hang out above the outer edge of an underwater bank where the water is about 600 feet -- or 100 fathoms, as we call it. You're maximizing your probability of catching a fish."
At 6:00 a.m., light filters through the low cloud cover. We're making 19 to 20 knots traveling with the swells -- "Going downhill," John calls it. South Coronado Island looms two miles off the starboard side. The water temperature steadily rises as we head south. Just off Point Loma, the water was 66.3 degrees; here it's 68.8 degrees. It's green, however, and only 150 feet deep, so John doesn't stop to put out lures. "You'd never catch one here," John says, "not that they never go into shallow water, it's just the probability is so low that it's not worth slowing the boat down to troll lures. Remember what I told you: the trick is to maximize your probabilities. Here, it's very improbable that we'd catch a fish. We'll go another ten miles down below, and then we'll throw out our lures."
At 7:45 a.m., John slows the boat down to a crawl, hops into the cockpit, and starts setting up the lures (also called jigs), artificial bait. They're cylindrical, about eight inches long and one inch in diameter. One end, called the skirt, consists of tassels concealing a hook. The other end is smooth and has fish eyes painted on it. They range from drab black and green, mimicking the mackerels, to bright orange and yellow. John trails one jig from the stern of the boat, one from the bridge, and one from each side of the boat. The lines of these latter two are fed up through outriggers that hold them out from the boat. Once the jigs are out, John fishes a mackerel out of the bait tank with a small net and, holding it in a towel -- "If I touch it with my skin it loses a protective coating and dies" -- hooks it through the nose and gently puts it back in the tank. The rod he sets in a holder attached to the tank. If we spot a marlin, he tells me, he will grab the rod and cast the live mackerel to it while I reel in the lures. I confess ignorance of how to work the reels. "Well, let me teach you," he says, "so we don't have 100 percent panic if we spot a fish."