You never know when you go fishing if the trip is going to be a routine drill, or a day that gives you a story you’ll never forget.
Among the rewards of fishing is you learn something new every day. Admittedly, some memories may fade like water in a falling tide, but others stick with the tenacity of epoxy. One summer morning early in my fishing career, I watched the owner of my local tackle shop board his boat with a guest toting a dozen fishing rods and reels. I nodded a hello to both men, and the curious look on my face as I stared at the tackle ammunition was dispatched when the friend smiled, winked, and commented that he liked to always be prepared for whatever fish were out there.
These words tell the true story about fishing. A fish does not have a job. Its day revolves around swimming, eating while avoiding being eaten, and pausing occasionally to breed. A hungry fish is an opportunist. Its competitive nature in the wild makes it eager to bite when hungry or excited. Some of them are pretty good at getting big by honing their bait-stealing prowess, like toothy king mackerel, which can slice through a five-dollar goggle-eye while avoiding the hook with repeated and frustrating regularity. The moral is: When holding the rod, you’d better be ready.
Preparedness comes in many forms. Long before the lines are in the water, tournament fishermen, and, especially those who wind up in the winner’s circle, have checked their equipment with due diligence. Hooks are sharp, leaders and lines are fresh, knots and splices flawless, rod guides clear, and drags smooth and properly set. The mates have rigged the dead baits to appear livelier than the real thing, and live baits have been pampered to be frisky and are handled carefully to be ready for their final show. This is because the bottom line of every tournament win comes down to one fish. It could be the biggest tuna or marlin weighed in, or perhaps the one released first that breaks the tie when two anglers land the same number of fish, as often happens in sailfish tournaments. No matter how much experience you have, you never know when that one is biting.
Being prepared is never a one-time deal. It’s a commitment that demands constant attention from the time the lines go in until they’re pulled at the end of the day. Hooks and knots are checked regularly. Dozens of ready-to-go replacements are waiting in the cooler, and worn-out baits are tossed and substituted with fresh offerings sooner than later. A good mate will do his weed checks long before the skipper barks his annoyance from the tower. Staying alert, watching the lines, and noticing what’s happening is de rigueur for a successful fishing team, and everyone aboard benefits from this ongoing learning experience.
A useful habit I picked up early in my charter boat career was how I pulled in the lines at the end of a typical day of trolling for tuna. Rather than have the anglers retrieve the baits or lures, I would reel in one at a time while the boat continued to troll toward home, which allowed us another 10 or 15 minutes of fishing time. Some days it worked, and we would catch another fish or two, which added to our daily haul. An encore at the end of the day made the customers happy, and this often meant a better tip for me. Like the last cast, or waiting until the skipper hits the horn on a party boat to signal that it’s time to reel in the lines and head for the barn, this approach has resulted in many surprises for me over the years. A story I fondly recall whenever I’m white marlin fishing goes back to an August day when we scoured Toms Canyon off the south Jersey coast for hours, with nothing to show for our efforts. On days like this, thoughts go from the minus of not seeing any fish, to the plus of not much boat to clean up when we hit the dock.
When the captain said to pull in the lines, I cranked in each rod one at a time, and after unsnapping the leader, handed it to the skipper on the flying bridge to stow for the 70-mile ride back to the inlet. But when I went to retrieve the daisy chain teaser, a stick popped up behind the last squid. After all those hours of less than nothing, here was a white marlin frantically pursuing a plastic squid, without a hook in the water. I yelled, “Marlin!” and the skipper handed down a rod. With 10 thumbs fumbling, I snapped on the leader and pitched the balao overboard. The marlin took it, and a few minutes later I released the only fish we saw all day. But that one made the ride home so much better that I still smile about it today.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.