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."
He hooks up a lure to one of the spare rods and drops it out behind the boat, letting it take out line. Then he shows me how the reel works and tells me to practice. I reel the lure in and let it out four or five times until I get the hang of it. The hardest part is maintaining balance on the heaving deck of the boat while holding the rod with two hands. Balance is not a problem for John. He walks around without holding onto anything, whereas I have to keep one hand on a rail to keep from falling off the boat. Back on the bridge, John sets the throttle at about eight miles per hour. "Keep your eyes skinned for a tail," he says. "It'll look like the blade of a sickle. This water is beautiful, perfect color. You see that deep blue color? Marlin like that. We could very well see one."
We're in the area in which John caught a marlin on Wednesday. Within a mile or two of us, eight other boats are trolling their lures. At 7:55, we hear on the radio that one has got a marlin hooked up, but a few minutes later, they come on again to say they lost it. Five minutes later, I see a black sickle sticking up out of the water about 100 yards off the starboard bow. I jump up and point.
"What? What?" John asks.
"Is that a tail?"
"Yes, it is. Good spot." John backs off the throttle and jumps down to the cockpit, grabbing the rod with the live mackerel on it. "Reel in those lures," he yells to me as he runs up to the bow, "and wind like hell." I jump down and reel in the lures as fast as my inexperienced hands will go. John casts the mackerel to the tailing marlin but it's not interested. It swims down out of sight. John continues to "soak" the bait -- he lets the mackerel swim around the area -- for the next half hour just in case the marlin changes its mind. After that, he puts out the jigs again and we circle the area for another hour. The other boats, having seen us stop and throw bait, also patrol the area, but none of us manages to "bring him up."
The sight of that fish has brought a change in John. Before he was relaxed, leaning back in his seat, jacket zipped up against the morning breeze. Now, he's sitting up, the jacket is off, and he breaks into laughter every few minutes. "That was a damn good spot, mate, damn good job. You're going to see some action today." At 9:45, one of the jig reels starts buzzing like a ten-foot zipper being unzipped. John guns the boat for three or four seconds, then backs off the throttle and flies down the ladder, grabbing the pole from its holder on the way down. "There's something on here..." he says pulling and reeling, "...it's off. Could have been a mako [shark]."
At 11:15 am, one of the reels goes off again but just for a second. "That's was probably a knockdown," John explains. "That's when the marlin comes up and whacks at the lure with his bill but doesn't take it." After the knockdown things get very slow. We drag the lures around in circles but get nothing. Asked if the waiting ever bothers him, John, jacket back on and leaning back in his chair, answers, "No, it gives you a chance to think things over in your mind while you watch the water."
To me, it's torture, especially since I'm low on sleep. After fighting drowsiness for an hour, I go below for a 30-minute nap in the cabin. When I come back up, John goes down and sleeps for an hour, and I continue dragging lures around the area. At 2:45, John comes up and points the boat north for home. We're about 40 miles from Point Loma, and it will take the rest of the daylight hours to get back, at trolling speed. "We'll just drag them back up there," John says, "and we may get one, who knows?"
Fifteen minutes later, we're "heading for the barn," when the port side reel starts screaming. Again John guns the boat for a few seconds, backs off the throttle, and practically jumps the six feet down into the cockpit. "That's a marlin!" he yells over the zzzzzzzzz of the reel. "Look at him!" Off the port stern off the boat, I see the light blue and gray marlin jump six feet out of the water. "Get down here and reel in these lures!"
John warned me he was going to yell "with, not at" me when we got a fish on the line, and he's true to his word. I run around following the orders he shouts while he fights the fish. "Come on, get those jigs in... Now get up there and call the Sidekick and tell him we've got a fish on the line... Now get down here and take the wheel."
The Tenacious has a wheel and throttle control in the cockpit, which I man. John yells, "Keep the line at a 45-degree angle to the starboard side of the boat! We're going to boat this fish, okay?" The line is behind us and a little to starboard, so I turn the wheel full right but oversteer, and now it's pointing straight ahead. "Bring the ass around," John yells. I crank left. For the next 30 minutes John slowly reels in the fish while I keep the line at 45 degrees to the boat. "He's getting close," John says. "Grab that gaff hook by your feet and hook him from underneath when he gets close enough."
Just then, the marlin surfaces off the starboard rail in a flash of electric blue. He's just out of range of the eight-foot gaff. The line swings around to the back. "He's coming up again," John yells. I run to the stern with the gaff just as the fish pokes his bill out of the water. I reach with the hook, but a big swell lifts the boat, wrenching the hook out of the marlin's mouth and it swims away. John and I stand there, hearts pounding, faces smiling. Because we had the leader -- the ten or so feet of heavier line used at the hook end of an angler's line -- in the boat, our marlin can be considered a catch and release. However, rules for the tournament state that to release a marlin and receive credit for a 130-pound catch, you must radio your intention to release within five minutes of hooking it up. We hadn't, always intending to boat the fish. So our marlin, which John estimated at between 130 and 145 pounds, can't be used. It doesn't detract from our excitement, however, and we laugh the five hours back to port.