By Terrence McCoy
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The Billfishing Xtreme Release League competitions come with rules that make this battle between fish and human all the more challenging. There are few limitations on the kinds of equipment or boats that can be used for the contests. Teams can travel as far as they wish each day, as long as they're back at dock time, which varies but is usually around 6 p.m. Only eight people are allowed aboard during tournaments: a judge, an ESPN cameraman, and the six-member team. The league uses International Game Fish Association contest rules but with a few significant differences. Teams earn 100 points for sailfish, 150 points for white marlin, 300 points for blue marlin, and 500 points for blue marlin more than 500 pounds. (Because all fish are released, their weight is estimated by their length.) Judges make deductions if a hooked fish breaks a line, the fish is released with more than three feet of line connected to the hook, or a fish is tagged incorrectly. Fish are tagged for later monitoring by the Billfish Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to preservation through research and education.
As if the task of hauling in and tagging a 500-pound bruiser weren't tough enough, the strength of fish line is limited by the league -- in the case of the Antigua contest, 50-pound test line. Thus, manhandling will lead only to broken lines.
In most tournaments, a fish is considered caught if it's reeled in to the swivel that connects the fishing line to roughly 30 feet of leader line to which the hook is attached. "I just don't consider that caught," Isaacs says. "I personally have had my butt kicked frontways and sideways -- three or four times by the same fish -- after I got hold of the leader and still never caught him. I believe they're leaving a little bit on the table. The fish can still be 25 feet away. That's like automatically giving you a putt for anything within five feet of the hole. I don't know about you, but I miss plenty of five-foot putts."
On the more practical side, the additional rules make for gripping television, Isaacs asserts. "It's good action because it's so close to the boat," he says.
The boatside skirmish can get dicey. Dick Tanner, a judge and tackle wholesaler from Fort Lauderdale, recalls the last hours of the last day of a BXRL tournament near Venezuela in 2001. He was the judge for the World Team, then owned by Norm Isaacs. They'd hooked a 150-pound marlin in choppy waters producing 12- to 14-foot waves. The boat had a small cockpit, which is the rear section of the boat where the anglers maneuver the rods and reels. It's separated from the sea by only a one- to two-foot gunwale. The marlin kept heading into the waves, so the boat kept backing up as the anglers reeled in.
"They finally had a fish that would win the tournament," Tanner recalls. "We kept backing after this fish down sea and filling the cockpit with water up to our knees. Norm was on the bridge. I got concerned because the boat was sluggish. The bilge pumps were running. I think Norm and I said it at the same time that we needed to get the water out of the pit. The captain said it was sealed and no water could get down there. If so, then why were the pumps running? So we opened the hatch as we're going forward to get the water out and it's almost full underneath. If we'd kept backing... well, we were 25 miles off-shore, there were no other boats in sight, and we had no radio.
"The captain was being aggressive. That was a $50,000 fish for that tournament. Everybody's hearts were just pumping. I believe that if we'd kept backing into the water, though, eventually the stern would have dug in and the bow would have been like this." He holds his arm at a 45-degree angle.
The World Team tagged that fish and won the three-day tournament.
By late Friday afternoon, the teams are returning to Mamora Bay empty-handed and pummeled by an exceedingly rough sea. Frank Hart stands on the bow of the Team Galati boat as it docks. "Poor, poor," he says when asked how they did. Someone asks the same question of the mate on the nearby Team Freedom boat. "No luck," he says. "Pretty bumpy out there." Flynn, who spent all day at sea and never so much as saw a billfish, is still pumped by the memories of great fishing a week ago. "Trust me, they're here," he shouts to the naysayers.
Everyone's talking about the green water that's moved into the area, which is anathema to marlin. You want dark blue, almost purplish water. Captain Cujo says they found birds circling an area, normally a good sign that there are small fish below, which means that's where big fish will go to eat. But the color of the water was off. "It was green," he says. "No fish."
McCullough arrives after spending the day on another charter boat. "Wasn't shit, wasn't shit," he sums up in his laconic style.