THE STORY OF THE 1,656 by CAPT. BART MILLER
Updated: Jul 3
I would like to invite you aboard my sleek fishing machine for the catch of a lifetime. Notice the large cockpit and superb tackle. There is none finer. If you need to use of the head, it's forward on the port side. You're welcome on the bridge and, if you care to brave the climb, in the tower as well. Come on up.
The charter today is Mr. Rankin Smith, Jr. and his buddy Gary Merriman, both of Atlanta, Ga. Junior’s father, Rankin Smith, Sr., used to fish with me. He was quite the man. He would talk investments, insurance and other forms of high finance with me and I would talk thermoclines, ocean currents and big fish with him. What a pair we were! Rankin owned the Life of Georgia Insurance Company and the Atlanta Falcons football team, and he loved big game fishing. I miss him, as he was one of the characters I've met in my life of whom I was most fond. But this day my guest is his offspring, Rankin Jr.
Its 8:00 o’clock in the morning of March 16, 1984 and we're headed toward Otech Buoy, north of the harbor. We're cruising at 25 knots and the run takes about one hour. The plan is to catch live aku (skipjack) and put them out for bait, hoping to trade one for a nice ahi or blue marlin. I chat with junior along the way as I did his dad before him. He tells me he just bought a new boat, a 60-foot Hatteras. When I asked him the name of his new lady he smiled and said, “Pocket Change.” It seems the apple does not fall far from the tree. Junior’s friend, Gary, looked a lot like the movie character Indiana Jones. A little later in the day Gary would prove just how much he was like the amazing Mr. Jones.
We approached the buoy and I circled it to check the current and look for aku on the surface. Several local skiff fishermen signaled to let me know it was dead there, so we changed plans. Junior and Gary said, “Do whatever you feel is best, only make sure the end result is a big Marlin.” So I put out a team of lures tuned specifically for big ones and started trolling south. Over the years, lure trolling had become my favorite game. I had designed each lure in the pattern for a specific position. I climbed into the tower to help Dominic, my mate, set them properly on each wake. After tweaking the lures I returned to the flybridge to check the depth recorder. Eleven hundred fathoms was a breeze for this machine and, under the best of conditions, it would pump out 1,500 fathoms. I found some nice current slicks in eight hundred fathoms and I favored this depth for the zone I was working. In recent days, fishing had been deathly slow and the radio was quiet. I scanned the horizon with my Zeiss binoculars looking for birds, dolphin splashes, floating objects, anything that might indicate fish; but there was nothing to see. When conditions are like this, it is wise to buckle down to basics, make yourself comfortable, but always be ready for anything. Make every effort to stay positive, even if the effort seems futile.
The eight hundred fathom curve kept me away from the other boats, but they weren’t catching anything either. Once I got even with the grounds, I chose to work the deep drops in that area; trolling from 500 fathoms to 1,500 fathoms. It was a gray day with a mild chop under light winds. The lures were a pleasure to watch. I was relaxed and time was standing still a survival trick captains learn or their nerves would leap out and bite them.
AN APPARITION APPEARS
It was getting on 2:00 PM and the autopilot was set on a 160 degree course. The depth was 750 fathoms and the gray backdrop magnified the white trail jetting off the back end of each lure. It was a showy, aggressive pattern tailing down sea at eight knots. It was then I saw something the likes of which I had never seen before and have not seen since. She was just there, as if she had magically appeared, moving perpendicular to my pattern and taking aim at the lure in the short rigger position. The great marlin was offering me an incredible view as she literally surfed on her belly toward the lure that displayed no fear at her approach. She looked almost mechanical, more like a fine sculpture in bronze than an actual living creature. She showed so much of herself that I was left in awe. Great fish usually sneak in, attack and disappear and experienced captains know you never get a full side view like this.
My eyes were taking mental photographs as they traced her sideways, up and down. This was the fish I had waited for all my life; the one anglers and captains worldwide would die for. My first guess at her weight was computed in a second at over 1300 pounds. In a flash, I was out of the helm chair, facing aft with both hands on the throttles behind me. I was calm and steady, like a marksman taking aim, ready to squeeze the trigger. I had done all the knee-knocking, heart-pounding crap years before and those days were long behind me. Loud and clear I yelled out, “Right rigger-BIG FISH!” No sooner did the words leave my lips and she was gone. She never touched the lure.
My first thought was, “She’ll be back.” The lures kept pumping in the wake doing exactly what they must to peek the prey drive of a monster like this. I stayed put, hands on the throttles, waiting, believing that she would return. I pondered whether I should turn back or hold course. I held course and the seconds turned into minutes as my eyes strained along with my belief that she would be back for a second shot.
Dominic appeared below me in the cockpit and asked what I was sounding off about. I could not believe that I was the only one who had witnessed this magnificent sight. Junior and Gary popped to attention and asked, “How big?”
“Well over 1000 pounds!” I remarked. “The largest marlin I have ever seen.” Every one settled back as if to say, “Yeah, sure.” They showed little concern over my excitement.
I was pissed and could not understand why the great fish did not attack. I left the grounds and headed further north and out to sea. This set was called the ‘Lighthouse-Cinder Cone’ run, one of the favorites of local captains. I completed the run when the depth recorder indicated we crossed into 1000 fathoms and turned the bow toward Kaiwi Point and the Hilton Hotel. While on this run back in 700 fathoms she appeared again, a full forty minutes after the first showing.
This time I got an even better view of her and I wasn’t alone. Everyone on board saw her clearly and was mesmerized! Was this the same fish? It couldn't be another one that big! But it really didn’t matter. She was back and on the same lure, posing in the same mechanical manner, only this time coming more from the quarter with greater speed and authority. This time she meant business.
Gary was ready, as Junior had told him to take the first fish. Once again the marlin faded away, but as before, I believed in my bones she would return. Damn her though, why is she doing this to me? Come back and show yourself. Bite and hookup! That is what you are supposed to do. I held the course for another fifteen minutes and she came back again, this time like a submarine, water pouring off her back, her mighty sword moving from side to side with each undulation of her flanks. She was settled deep in the water, approaching fast and furious from directly behind the very lure she had declined twice before.
My hands were resting on the throttles as I enjoyed a calm I had never known before. Her head rolled to the right, her mouth was open, I saw jaws shut down tight on the lure, I watched as she dove and turned with explosive authority. I pulled the throttles all the way back, shifted into reverse, and with not a second wasted began to back down hard sending the rest of the lures toward the bow and beyond.
I heard Dominic yell, “Hold on, the lures need to be reeled in!” But I wasn’t going to fall for that one. I could have cared less about the other lures with this fish on. Gary was buckled in the fighting chair looking like a light heavyweight prizefighter. The 130 pound line was being dumped off the powerful Zane Grey reel like I had never before seen and the Stump puller rod was arched and doing its damage. All the support systems were ready and I was pushing the Merritt in reverse, water splashing high over the transom, flooding the teak cockpit sole. Two hundred yards of line was gone in a flash and the fish was coming to the surface to show off; exactly what I wanted her to do. I spun the boat on a dime, slamming one transmission into reverse and the other forward, swinging the rudder hard over and then pushing the throttles to sunset. The wheel was turned back to center, both gears were pushed ahead and we were parallel to the fish getting line back on the reel as we paced her. The high capacity bilge pumps were blowing their load, but we were more than holding our own against the brute force of this mighty creature.
KEEP THE PRESSURE ON
Being only men we don't know the true capabilities of these black and silver acrobats. But I knew this fish was angry and she liked neither the pull of the line on the side of her head nor the proximity of her tormentors. I pressed her even harder because I wanted her up and out of the water in a great jump, filling her air sacks and tiring her great muscles. This was how we would defeat her. We were very close when she decided it was show time. God what a sight as she powered her way through the choppy sea leaving the water for the sky! Her initial slow motion posing changed to a gyration, a blur of vibrating muscles and swatting tail. She reached heights that I had only seen in much smaller billfish. Her fury, grace and speed are indescribable yet as vivid as if the encounter happened yesterday! Her temper flared and she wanted to crush everything in her path. Jump after jump, she kept at it as if there would be no end, while I back down on her even harder, closing the distance. The pressure was getting to Gary, sweating in the chair, but it was obvious he was not going to give an inch.
Six high capacity bilge pumps were set on manual trying to evacuate the seawater from the boat. We had been backing down in hot pursuit and taking on water, when she decided to sound. This is when the fight gets down and dirty. It would become a power game and we had to let her run against the drag, which was set at about 45 pounds, as she dove. I wanted her to slow down, to give in just a little, so that we could get the drag up to 60 pounds. The increased pressure would encourage her to surface again.
If you are ever in such a battle, then you must work hard to redirect a diving blue marlin. You want to keep a big one as close to the surface as possible. Black marlin that dive usually return to the surface quickly, but that is not case with blues. They will dive to incredible depths, dog it, and eventually die there. When this happens you have two very difficult problems: first, how to lift that much dead weight from the depths, and second, the worry of getting shark bit. Your single-minded goal must be to stay as close as possible to a big blue. For every inch she takes, try to get back two. Be decisive and remain resolute. It took me years to learn how to fight big blue marlin and there is just no question about it: if you lose control, your chances of winning go with it.
This great blue lady was now taking us on a journey further out to sea. As she slowed, we were finally able to increase drag to 70 pounds and, for brief moments, even higher. She would respond with extra force as if to say, “You will not tame me, you will never see me die!” This course of action was working, but I realized we needed another man in the cockpit, someone special, a really good wireman. Dominic would be the gaffman, but he just was not up to wiring a fish of this size. I got on the radio and asked for back up and several boats responded.
The No Problem, a 43 foot Merritt, was nearby and volunteered their wireman, Fran. I knew him to be one of the best, so we made the transfer, the two Merritts going bow to bow. We now had a wireman, gaffman, helmsman, and angler the team was complete.
Wasting no time, I pushed the boat closer and closer to the fish. There was no need to turn and chase anymore as the fight had changed from moving offshore to the fish pulling in all directions, including concentric circles, none of which were difficult for the boat to follow. The fight was now like a dance and it was up to me to follow and still keep plenty of pressure on the head of this great fish. Fran was doing an excellent job coaching the angler, telling him just how much drag to use, when to work, when to pause. We kept the heat on the fish and Gary was showing no signs of collapse. I asked him regularly how he was faring and he always smiled and said, “I’m fine, thank you.”
THE END GAME
After two hours of intense give and take the fish was beginning to show signs of tiring. Fran put on his hefty gloves, wet them and began performing shoulder and deep breathing exercises, preparing for the final test. My job required I keep the boat at just the right distance from the fish, doing everything in my power to give an advantage to the wireman. We could see the marlin quite clearly now, her head going away from the stern, her massive body undulating as we backed down and closed the gap. Every time we applied more pressure she would swing from port to starboard and back, repeating this motion over and over, making it difficult for me to place her in a set position for the gaff. She was easily sixteen feet long and snaking from side to side with incredible grace.
The bottoms of my feet were burning from being planted in one spot for so long. My elbows were stiff for the same reason, but this was endured as I maintained total concentration on the fish and the boat. The radio was ablaze with conversation about the battle. The other captains in the fleet were well aware it was drawing to a close by the way the boat was being handled.
Fran was still stretching and breathing hard, looking for all the world like a fighter about to enter the ring for the first round. The time came, and as the fish swam within reach, Fran took a quick aggressive and powerful wrap. Just as quickly the fish shook its mighty head shaking the wireman to his bones, causing him to release. The power of this marlin was enough to rip body parts off if not treated with great care and respect.
Things settle down once again and Fran reached for the leader a second time, but he could not get enough slack to lay a wrap, and I could not get any closer to the fish to assist him. This was the point in the fight that the tension was highest, because this is when the unexpected is most likely to occur, and I was not about to lose this fish.
Fran signaled that she was coming up to jump so I pushed the throttles down and gave her everything we had. Fran grabbed handfuls of wraps and, in a flash, the fish was in reach of the gaffs. It was at that moment I knew everything was going to come together. Dominic reached over the enormous shoulders and placed the first gaff deep in the big fish. Junior placed the second gaff and Fran reached out and placed the third, pinning the huge marlin to the port side of the boat. I came down off the bridge and placed a fourth gaff in the head, tying a half hitch to secure the bill that was as big as a man’s leg.
I quickly thanked everyone on board. Gary, Junior, Fran, Dominic, each did an incredible job as this was the most difficult fish I had ever fought. It took two hours and twenty minutes of intense pressure to subdue her, and getting her into the boat took another twenty minutes. Her tail was seven feet from tip to tip and had to be left outside of the tuna door for the ride home. The radio was crackling with congratulations. I was still in shock as I looked at the massive fish that filled my cockpit. I went to the tower so that I could be alone and get a better look. I could not believe my eyes, knowing this was the largest blue to ever be weighed in Kona. My feelings at the time were uncomfortable. I wasn't proud of what I had accomplished; yet I wasn’t ashamed, either. I was simply and soulfully sorry that this beautiful creature was no longer alive.
Word spread via the coconut express that my boat would be coming to Kailua Pier to weigh a very big marlin. Never had I seen so many people gathered on the pier or running down the streets. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air. A long rope was placed around the tail of fish, the other end went to the pier attendants who tied it off to a cleat. I then engaged the gears and powered ahead in order to get her massive body out of the boat for weigh in. The weighmaster announced that this great Pacific blue marlin weighed an astonishing 1,656 pounds. At that moment, another captain and personal friend asked me why I wasn't jumping for joy. I assured him that I was very happy and deeply satisfied, but if he wanted to see me do a jig on the dock then the fish would have to weigh a ton.