Marlin Madness

Competitive marlin fishers do lots of drinking, tell lots of tales, and, oh yes, sometimes they catch fish.

The league, now in its third year, was the brainchild of Norm Isaacs and his son Darrin Isaacs, who for years have run charter fishing businesses out of Kailua Kona, Hawaii, and hosted fishing programs for ESPN. The elder Isaacs hosts the Xtreme series, which is shown on the sports network in the fall.

A Kansas native, the 58-year-old Isaacs was signed by the New York Yankees after he graduated high school in 1962. But an injury and too much "runnin' and gunnin'," he says, ended that career after several years. From there, he flew charter airplanes, then moved into the deep-sea-fishing business. He's strikingly handsome, with a full head of white hair, a strong jaw, and a genuine smile. He has an uncanny memory for names.

"It's designed to be run like, say, teams in a professional football league," Isaacs says of the Xtreme league. "You have an owner and it's up to him to go out and surround himself with the best talent he can find and then compete in a level playing field and catch more fish than the next guy." Each team must also foot the bill for fuel, slippage, boat upkeep, and crew salaries -- all of which can run more than the $125,000 entrance fee.

Sam Peters (standing above) and Rob McCullough gaze out at the business end of a billfishing boat. The arrival of Dream Catcher lifts the spirits of the Mercury World Team.
Sam Peters (standing above) and Rob McCullough gaze out at the business end of a billfishing boat. The arrival of Dream Catcher lifts the spirits of the Mercury World Team.
Frank Flynn (right, bottom photo) and Darrin Isaacs zip off to the next promised land of the marlin. Antiguan captain Frank Hart (left, top photo) is coveted for his local fishing wisdom.
Frank Flynn (right, bottom photo) and Darrin Isaacs zip off to the next promised land of the marlin. Antiguan captain Frank Hart (left, top photo) is coveted for his local fishing wisdom.


As his flight makes its descent toward V.C. Bird International Airport in the late afternoon, Flynn points out the whitecaps on the sea. "It's rough out there," he comments casually, though from up here, it's easy to underestimate what such waves can do to a fishing boat. From several thousand feet, Antigua looks more brown than green, evidence of the persistent drought the nation of 68,000 has been experiencing. To the east of the island lies only the vast expanse of the cobalt Atlantic Ocean, which provides a constant and refreshing eastward breeze.

Christopher Columbus discovered the island during his second Caribbean expedition in 1493 and named it after a Seville saint, Santa Maria la Antigua, but evidence of human settlements discovered here go back to 2400 B.C. The British colonized the isle in the late 1600s and developed the sugar-cane industry using African slaves. Today, the Antiguan economy relies mostly on tourism. Landing the BXRL competition is considered a major achievement by many Antiguans.

Ground zero for the contest is the dock in front of the St. James Resort on the isle's southeast. By the time Flynn and his old and new friends from the flight arrive, boats from four teams have already docked. Flynn looks around for his team members and finds two gabbing on the pier: Darrin Isaacs, who is Norm's 35-year-old son and a cofounder of the league, and Robert McCullough, the owner of Dream Catcher. The 46-year-old McCullough resembles a short-haired, beardless Eric Clapton and sports a golden cross in his left earlobe. He retired recently after selling a Budweiser distributorship. Now he splits his time between his home and family on the Florida Panhandle and fishing tournaments. He's holding a can of Bud. He appears to have a lot on his mind. His role in the team is simply as an angler. But boat ownership entitles him to both more authority over the team and more headaches because of it. He and Flynn routinely haggle over team decisions.

"They've got one guy working on it," McCullough informs Flynn. "Then the chief mechanic is coming in with the same parts tomorrow afternoon in case that guy can't fix it. Oh my god, I'm..." he trails off, befuddled, shaking his head and taking a deep drag on his cigarette. The boat beside them blasts a '70s-vintage Bad Company album.

The signs of commerce on the dock are ubiquitous: Every T-shirt carries the logo of a fishing or boat product, and product endorsements hang, stick, and flutter on each boat. Teams seek out corporate sponsors to help underwrite the costs of competing, but for the most part, this is not about the money. This is about passion, the thrill of the hunt. The teams respect, even honor, one another. Sure they want to win, but not through cutthroat means.

There's an unwritten honor code at work here. The most coveted of local boats and captains have already been snapped up by other teams for prefishing on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Of course, the issue is moot if the Dream Catcherarrives. If it arrives. McCullough tells Flynn that he'd called around the island and one boat captain informed him that another team, Duraflame, had reserved the boat a month ago. The captain, however, had not yet received the deposit, and he offered McCullough the boat. "I said, 'I can't do that to those guys. That ain't fair. '" He ponders the idea a moment, then says, "Bad karma."

"Yeah, to do that, yeah," Flynn responds.

"We'll play it by ear," McCullough chirps. "We will know tomorrow. It's just a buzz away [from San Juan]. That ain't nothin', baby."

That night, the Antigua sport fishing club holds a barbecue bash at a nearby cottage and invites the visiting fishermen to what becomes the unofficial kickoff of the tournament. They treat Flynn like visiting royalty, providing him with a steady supply of scotch and sodas. He regales them with exaggerated versions of last week's events.

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