Marlin Madness

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

Kyle Maikath, a young sales rep from MaxSea, which produces software that gauges currents, depth, and temperature in the sea, sets up a laptop computer and projector. A large map of Antigua and Barbuda, which is 30 miles north, appears on a patio wall. As though mesmerized by a flashy lure, several boat captains glide to the detailed chart. They're responsible for leading their teams to waters that might be home to the elusive marlin and sailfish. When trolling for fish, a captain scans the horizon while standing atop the bridge, which is about 15 feet above the sea. But this software makes a captain virtually omniscient, as though he floats high above and swims deep below. "I've got a real hard-on for this stuff," one captain mutters about the technology.

The easy camaraderie between BXRL crews doesn't preclude behind-the-scenes strategizing. Captains have been vying for the services of Frank Hart, a local who's considered by many to be the best marlin fisherman on the island. Hart is a slim unassuming fellow with a puffy white beard. He talks at length with Robert "Cujo" Brinkmeyer, captain of Team Galati, a new addition to the league who recently set a record by catching or tagging 287 blue marlin in a single season. With the build of a bullmastiff, Brinkmeyer earned his sobriquet after biting someone during a bar fight. He's managed to snag Hart for a sea outing tomorrow, a coup he believes will give him an edge on Monday.

A short time later, Darrin Isaacs coaxes Hart over to the software demonstration. He asks if certain currents and depths shown on the charts correlate with areas Hart knows to be good for fishing off the island's east coast. They do.

Mamora Bay, Antigua: staging area for the six fishing boats that compete for a $50,000 prize
Mamora Bay, Antigua: staging area for the six fishing boats that compete for a $50,000 prize

Norm Isaacs shows up late with his wife, Julia, who is executive producer of the Billfishing Xtreme Release League series. She's a gregarious blond who appears considerably younger than her husband. Wearing a BXRL jersey, she brags about Norm's charisma. "Norm has such a way with people," she says. "ESPN recognized that right away."

Past midnight, after drinking the better part of a bottle of scotch, Flynn crashes for the night on a cot inside the lodge. He's up early the next morning, Friday, to deep-sea fish with some of last night's revelers. "You wanna catch marlin, you gotta be up early," he bellows on his way out the door.

Marlin are the deep-sea grail for hard-core anglers.

"It's like a Little Leaguer who wants to play the major leagues because that's the height of the sport," explains Mike Gautreaux, the BXRL's general manager. "You want to challenge yourself as much as you can. And billfish are harder to catch and require more out of you than any other fishing. It's much easier to catch a tuna or a mahimahi or any other fish. You need to entice marlin. There are a lot of things that have to go right from the time he shows up until the time he's released."

Marlin, however, like many of the sea's largest fish, are facing extinction, primarily because of indiscriminate commercial fishing. While U.S. commercial fishing boats are required to release all billfish accidentally caught in nets, they are kept and sold for food by most other fishing fleets, according to Jim Chambers, a fisheries ecologist who analyzed rates of extinction in a 2001 article in The Big Game Fishing Journal. If population trends continue, he concluded, the blue marlin will approach extinction by about 2008. He calls on sport fishermen to set an example by promoting catch and release and refraining from fishing during the marlin spawning season in spring and early summer. The solution, he contends, is outlawing multihook longlines and gillnets used by commercial fishermen.

"Killing fish is bad for the sport," Norm Isaacs says. He criticizes tournaments that promote trophy-taking, and that's why he was adamant that the word release appear in the league's name. "I thought we needed to show people protecting the resource."

A healthy saltwater fishery equates to a robust economy. Florida hosts more than 2.4 million saltwater anglers a year who spend almost $3 billion on trip-related costs, equipment, transportation, food, and lodging, according to 2001 figures by the American Sportfishing Association.

Isaacs' passion for billfishing began as a young man, when he joined his father on a deep-sea outing off the coast of Texas. It was then, he says, that "I got my hat handed to me by a 400-pound marlin that I didn't catch. He won the fight, but it was me who was hooked after that.

"Marlin are probably the hardest fish to go out there and catch on a regular basis. It takes some dedication. Marlin are pretty tough fish. Most will try you a little bit. It takes time and effort and physical power, or at least a good technique.

"What they have is a lot of muscle, and when they get scared and want to get away, it's hard to stop them. They're big, strong, and fast. They have a high metabolism and have to eat frequently. You can be there when they're not hungry. You have to keep mowing the lawn and mowing the lawn. I've seen five boats go over the same spot and the sixth one -- bang! -- there's the marlin. He probably wasn't hungry during the first five. I mean, when you drive down a street in Miami, you go by four Burger Kings and five McDonalds and finally you stop at one. Well, why didn't you stop at the others? You weren't hungry. Same deal."

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