Marlin Madness

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

It's the original bait and switch, a technique that deep-sea fishing pioneer Harlan Major described drolly as a dance between hunter and hunted in his 1939 book, Salt Water Fishing Tackle. The fish seems to grow exasperated with the teaser tango and slashes wildly. Then his eye catches a different, clumsier dancer, and he releases all his fury. "This one, however, does not dodge him; at last his pride is vindicated, and he swallows gleefully -- only to find himself hooked," Major wrote.

Ross is more prosaic: "He's pounding at the lure and he can't get it, and it's pissing him off."

But marlin behavior is hardly predictable. "I've seen them stick their heads up on the side of the boat looking for something to eat," Ross says. "Sometimes we've had the teaser out of the water, and it'll be rocking back and forth, and you look and there's one laying there watching it. I've seen a marlin jump into a boat next to me. Everybody was up on the bridge. He just tore the cockpit up. It died, killed itself by tearing around. People have gotten bills through the chest."

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

Today, however, the marlin are as predictable as past days: none shows up. Peters feels queasy again and spends part of the trip lying down in the cabin. With the help of an antiseasickness patch, I felt fine. The World Team heads to the dock by early afternoon to reconfigure its outriggers and rods. With the contest upon them tomorrow, the marlinless state of affairs has many anglers edgy. Dave Noling, captain for Team A-Fin-ity, which took first place last year and won $407,000 in prize money, chats with McCullough. A long-time charter-boat captain, Noling has helped clients land more than 5,000 billfish. He offers up the possibility that nary a billfish will be tagged during the next three days. "I'd like to see Norm deal with that one," he muses.

Marlin fishing is as much about telling and retelling events as it is about the catch. Sure, there's rivalry among the six teams, but the secrets are few because it's just no fun if you can't brag a bit about the trick you played on a crafty marlin or the discovery of the perfect deep-blue current. Besides, rum cocktails have a way of loosening even the most taciturn of tongues. No one here feels joy when a team returns from prefish with the news there "wasn't shit" out there. That deprives everyone of new stories and new hope.

The tournament's official kickoff soiree is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Piccolo Mondo, a hillside restaurant, but team members gather two hours early beside an adjoining studio for on-camera interviews by Julia Isaacs. The footage will later be edited into the series. The men are subdued, almost downcast as they wait outside for their turns. It's one thing to have a cameraman aboard filming them as they go about the task of fishing, but to sit for an interview, well, that's something to grouse about. A few of the guys kill time by razzing the captain of the Duraflame team when he kvetches about prefishing in rough waters. He'd piloted the boat 250 miles to Antigua three days earlier through brutal waters and looked like a man disembarking from a blender at trip's end. He sputters, "I've got three days of fishing coming in this mess. I don't need this recreational shit." The men chortle. "There's no way I want to fish until 4 o'clock and then go through this dog-and-pony show," he says, motioning toward the studio.

In reality, though, Xtreme tourneys are as much about television as they are about fishing. When Isaacs steps up minutes later and announces she's ready for the Duraflame team, someone tells her that the captain has been planning trouble. "He doesn't want to be difficult with me," she says. "I can make his life really difficult." She laughs. No one else does.

Most anglers show up at the party promptly at 7 p.m., no doubt coaxed by the open bar. A calypso duo strolls between tables, strumming and singing. After dinner, BXRL general manager Gautreaux reiterates the contest rules over a booming sound system. The room is quiet each time he pauses, save for the agitated voice of Frank Flynn. He and McCullough are standing together at the bar, still hashing over where they'll commence fishing in the morning. The overheard snippets are shorthand for ocean topography around Antigua. "Forget the fucking blue hole," Flynn cajoles. "If we run up there," Flynn declares during another of Gautreaux's pauses, "I guaran-fucking-tee you that everyone will be following us up there." The only thing that's certain is that Flynn will need to be up by 6 a.m.

A short time later, Flynn is laughing it up with his Antiguan buddies. Then he saunters toward the door and shouts, "C'mon, we're going to the casino." He's wearing shorts.


Five days after the tournament ends, Flynn is back in his office. Gone from his voice is the jubilation of the chase. The tournament proved as frustrating as the days leading up to it.

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