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Battling Black Marlin Off Costa Rica

Middle-Aged Man & the Sea


Illustration by Brian Raszka

Forty-five miles off Marina Pez Vela, Costa Rica, I was recently fortunate enough to witness one of life’s intimate and constant dramas. Onboard were marina executive Juan Montalto, his sons Esteban, age 15, and Jose, 13, and the crew. We were trolling the continental shelf, hooking up with bunches of amply sized Pacific sailfish. I had reeled in the first fish, Juan the second, and Esteban the third. Logically, Jose would be up next, but since his growth spurt hasn’t kicked in yet, I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to haul in a 100-pound bundle of Pacific-made muscle. So, to avoid potential awkwardness on the next bite, I sidled up to his dad and, nodding at Jose, asked, “Hey, is the little guy gonna go next?”

“No,” Juan grinned, “He’s not big enough yet.”

I settled onto the gunwale and commenced scanning the azure swells, waiting for the next spindlebeak, which was now mine.

But Jose had other plans. While I was in the cockpit, he was in the saloon, where I suspect he was being goaded by his (considerably larger) older brother who had already caught a fish. Sure enough, when the next pelagic bit, Jose flew towards the action, asking for the rod. As one mate set the hook, the other strapped the fighting belt around Jose. Then the fish jumped—or I should say, it breached. It was a truck of a thing, a black marlin pushing 300 pounds—easily three times heavier than our intrepid angler. As the fish landed with a seismic splash, the mates exchanged a glance. One leaned down and spoke to Jose in Spanish—something along the lines of “That’s a big fish. You sure you want this, little dude?” He did. With a firmly set jaw Jose motioned for the pole.

But his battle wouldn’t last long, his arms indeed not strong enough to budge the behemoth. And there was a real threat he might go flying into the drink—a mini Superman with a marlin-powered jetpack. And so, into the breach stepped Juan Montalto.

Now Juan is many things. He’s a successful businessman, a devoted dad, and he drives his truck like a bat out of hell on the New Highway to Caldera. But Juan probably won’t be running the Boston Marathon this year, and at 48, middle age is bearing down on him like Ray Lewis on a blind-side blitz. And now, beneath a roaring tropical sun, 45 miles out to sea, Juan was buckling in, taking his son’s place in a fight with an enraged opponent, thrashing its monster head in a frenzy off in the middle distance.

Juan’s fight would be longer than his son’s. Again and again he heaved back and then leaned forward, reeling furiously. Minutes slid by in bunches, but the fish wouldn’t give in. Juan’s baseball cap became saturated with sweat and saline droplets leaked off his brim. He was short of breath. But there was no quit in that fish. Nor any in Juan. There was a moment a half hour in when I contemplated asking if he wanted a spell—he looked like he could use it. But with his sons looking on, something in Juan’s face assured me that the answer would most certainly be no. So I held my tongue.

At the one-hour mark the fish began to tire, and we backed down on it, Juan reeling all the while. Just as he worked the leader up to the point where it was deemed an official catch, the fish snapped the line, and drilled off into the abyss before we could get an up-close look. But it didn’t matter—the catch counted. The crew went nuts, and Jose and Esteban proudly high-fived their dad as he tumbled back into the fighting chair—exhausted, drenched in his own sweat, and smiling like a little kid on Christmas morning.

And I sat back down in my spot on the boat, thinking about men and their sons, and about the 13-year-old boy who wanted his chance to fight a monster and his middle-aged father who wanted it even more.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.