It was the first minutes of the tournament, and the moment I set the hook, the line started screaming. This fish was for real, and he'd eventually lead me into a give-and-take, stand-up battle that would last three hours.
I had set the Shimano Tiagra's 50-wide drag for 22 pounds of pressure at strike. That's some serious heat to start off with, and it's normally enough to break the will of a lot of the smaller and midsize sharks and tuna we see here in the Northeast pretty quickly. However, this large, unknown fish that my crew and I suspected was a sizeable shark darted with quantum-leap speed under the boat and then sounded to about 160 feet. A large mako? A big thresher? Who knew? I could only hold on for now.
Seconds after I set the hook on this pugnacious pelagic, I positioned my Canyon Products fighting belt against my thighs. It helped keep me in the game during the battle's initial stages with excellent support for my legs and lower back, enabling me to follow the sprinting fish around the cockpit with relative ease.
But as the power of this seemingly mammoth fish took me to the transom, I got a real feel for his strength and called for the harness. This wasn't going to be one of those 15-minutes-to-the-gaff battles.
The sweat on my forehead started to run like a faucet as this war of attrition entered its 45th minute. My crew loves to catch big fish, and our motto is, "Bring it!" Well, this fish did just that and quite a bit more.
I was still feeling strong, so I powered my back into the rod, utilizing the CYC harness to support my legs and lower back as I pushed against the coaming, gaining about one crank on each pump. Translation: I wasn't making much progress.
But at least the fish was no longer dumping line, and with the drag now cranked up to 25 pounds, I was confident that my years of experience would prevail over this "simple" fish. Of course, I was absolutely mistaken.
You must remember that when you give heat to a fish, you're getting back heat, too. If that fish runs, the 25 pounds of pressure you set for him gets directed right into your back, legs, and arms. And, if you arm-fight a big fish, you'll lose. Every time.
Around the beginning of hour two, the fish found my weak spots—you know, those nagging little injuries that occasionally come back to haunt you. I felt them all: the bulging disc, multiple hernia surgeries, dislocated scapula, etc. Oh yes, all the scars earned over the years as an athlete and angler were being brought to light. I could swear this fish had forward scouts picking out my soft spots.
After two hours and ten minutes, with my back creaking in a similar tone to the reel, which now had 30 pounds of drag on it, the fish got peculiarly heavy. The consensus from the crew was that he might have gotten wrapped up in the line. If so, the fish would likely die. And while we like to practice catch-and-release and tagging fish as a general rule, we knew this was a tournament and that this fish was a contender. And if this was indeed the case, we wondered, could 80-pound test on a 50-wide reel with 30 pounds of drag attached to some wire and a swivel and tied with a palomar knot be enough to tow this fish up from the depths? Or would we never see what had taken our bait nearly three hours earlier?
The dead weight was wearing on me, and I told the crew that it was time to end this. I needed to go after this fish and boat him or lose him trying. The captain put the engines in forward to get an angle and then in reverse so I could effectively make up line as we tried to slowly plane the fish up. Every crank brought another half inch on the reel.
I could see we were making some progress. The harness and belt were essentially carrying my ever-tiring body, and I cranked and reeled out of robotic habit. Every turn of the handle brought a new high-tension squeak out of the reel. I started to wonder: "Is that knot going to hold? Is the cabling okay? What if the hook is working loose? We can't lose this fish now. Not now."
"Color! I have color," my brother Chip exclaimed as he looked to reach for the leader. "Ok, almost there," I thought. I cranked while a burning sensation seered through my legs and back. It was the home stretch. A few more pumps, and I heard, "He died—he got tailwrapped and died." After nearly three hours, the mystery was finally over: It was a shark, a male thresher nearly 15 feet long (with a 6'7" tail) who had fought to the bitter end. He came in at 276 pounds, worth a fifth-place finish in the tournament.
The shark was examined by marine biologists from Narragansett, Rhode Island's Apex Predator Program shortly after we docked, and his meat was donated to a food bank. But there was one thing those scientists couldn't learn by observation, which was that this shark had a wickedly strong will that came damn close to breaking mine.
This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.