Story #7 - Listen To This Story
|7. Kayak Fishing Fenzy
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|Five Marlin in One
By Jon Schwartz © 2007 www.bluewaterjon.com
In October of 2007, I finished writing an article on big game kayak fishing for Sport Fishing Magazine. It was really exciting to be asked to write for that publication, and in my delusions of grandeur, I envisioned the next logical step would be TV- springing up and down on Oprah’s couch, no doubt.
In the meantime, all the time I spent in front of the computer writing that article was time off the water, and I was getting soft and pudgy again. I felt kinda like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, in the hotel room, where he’s fretting that for every moment he stays out of combat, his nemesis, still in the jungle, grows stronger. I never quite got to the point where I found it necessary to smash any mirrors and collapse in a fit of pent up rage, but the pile of Cheetos crumbs that littered my desktop was no joke either.
Turned out that Doug Olander and some of the people over at Sport Fishing Magazine were planning a kayak fishing mother ship trip in Cabo in late January, and I was somehow invited along for the adventure. We sent emails back and forth discussing what gear to bring. I kept in contact with Durance Lowendick, the owner of the Marlin Masters Sportfishing, the charter operation that would be running the kayak fishing mother ship operation in Cabo. Just before Thanksgiving, Durance shoots an email off to us about a remote location called Finger Banks, 57 miles off of Cabo, where he witnessed an incredible scene replete with pods of bait-crashing marlin, breaching whales, and acres of porpoise and tuna. My kinda scene! I’d never heard of the place before, but I figured, hey, let’s get in on the action while it’s hot, as in, drop everything and fish, now! There were a few problems with this. Everyone else was booked that week, and I was actually in the middle of a juice fast (during Thanksgiving Vacation, no less!) that had rendered me so weak that I could barely brush my teeth.
Durance suggested that we try a week later. That would give me time to get some gear ready, and get back in some sort of shape- at least to the point of where I could walk a block or two. All that was left was to make sub plans for the days I’d be gone from my second grade teaching job in San Diego.
All, that is, except the packing. I always leave that to the last minute. Here it is, midnight, I have to leave at 5am, my gear is stacked up next to my bags, and no matter how I cram it together, it won’t fit. I don’t know why- all I had was, 7 rods, 7 reels, 2 gaffs,1 paddle, 3 sets of gloves, 2 wetsuits, booties, assorted clothes, 4 cameras, a vhf marine radio, 5 adapters and chords, 3 pairs of glasses, gobs of lures, weights, and leader material….
When my wife called to see how I was doing from the other room, I barked back, “FINE!!!” The cool thing is that we’ve been married enough long enough to see through each other’s lies, and within a minute she arrived in the garage with a caring smile and went to work on the wretched pile of debris. 5 minutes later she’s done. Go figure.
I hadn’t been to Cabo in a long time- about ten years- and when Durance picked me up at the airport and drove me into town, I couldn’t believe my eyes. First off, there was no trash on the side of the road, and all of the “Get drunk and throw up for 99cents!” bars that catered to the college crowd were gone, replaced by really ritzy shops and boutiques. The marina in particular totally blew me away- it was like downtown La Jolla, with tons of really classy restaurants and stores catering to the well-heeled crowd. I usually hate malls, but the mall they have on that marina kicks butt. I’m talking about, you’ll have one store with expensive Persian rugs, next to a Rolex store, a perfume store, a fashion boutique, and then an art gallery. Way out of my league!
Durance brought me to his store at Marlin Masters Sportfishing in the mall and introduced me to his wife Sharon and their 23 year old son Phillip. Turns out Durance is a semi- retired attorney from Atlanta who decided to transfer the charter boat business he ran in Florida to his favorite vacation spot- and he seems to be doing really well. The business is run with a “customer’s first” mentality that may have something to do with the fact that it’s family owned and operated. As soon as I got there they treated me like one of their own, and we went out for a dinner to an open air restaurant on the water’s edge. The chef had agreed to cook the fresh fillets from a 40 pound grouper that was landed on one of his boats that day. Marlin Masters has a fleet of 7 boats, ranging from 33 to 57 feet, and one of their captains specializes in light tackle fishing and fly fishing. The delicious grouper was landed on the latter charter.
The next morning, we loaded 3 kayaks on the 38 foot Bertram Marlin Maste’s I, filled up the live well with about 50 prime greenback mackerel that we purchased from a bait receiver inside the marina, and headed north past the famous arches that mark the meeting point of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. We’d be heading straight out to Finger Banks, a location so far out, that only a few companies will take their boats there.
Most Mexican sport fishing operations leave the dock at 7:00am and return at 2:30pm, no matter how hot the bite is in the afternoon- it’s an unwritten law. Not so with Durance. He stays out until the sun goes down! Now that’s my kind of person! I guess he kind of blew his employees’ minds when he told them that they wouldn’t be coming back at the regular times, but he pays them more than the other companies, so they’re lining up to work for him.
We hadn’t made it out 5 miles when we saw our first giant breaching whale, and a striped marlin right near it that was all lit up. As we made our way out, I prepped my gear. I’d brought along my favorite super short rods with 40 pound lever drag reels, so that if we hooked up with our intended quarry, the striped marlin, I’d be able to reel them in and release them in time to affect a successful release, where the fish swam away in good shape.
We were using circle hooks, which many kayakers prefer because they set themselves without requiring a full ‘swing” with the rod that can be hard to execute on a kayak. Circle hooks are also the choice of many conservation minded anglers because their cam-action almost always results in the hook becoming lodged in the fish’s jaw or lip, rather than the stomach, a common by-product of the old fashioned j-hook. If the fish is hooked in the jaw, the hook can be easily removed, which increases their survival rate by not interfering with the fish’s feeding process.
Not long after Captain Juan announced we were “on the grounds”, we saw birds diving on a mass of bait. Phillip and I launched the kayaks and began to paddle around in hopes of hooking up with the predators that were driving the bait to the surface, but it wasn’t as easy as plopping the kayaks in the water and waiting for a hookup. The mass of bait with diving birds was a fast moving entity, which we quickly realized upon entering the water. In less than a minute, the swirling bait ball, which reacted to the submarine strikes from its attackers by shuddering and undulating in spasmodic waves, had moved hundreds of yards from us. There was no way we were going to be able to catch up, so we decided to slow troll around the area with mackerel in tow, hoping to get a blind strike from a passing fish.
This slow trolling only worked for a bit. Invariable bait balls would come closer to us, and we’d get all excited and paddle like the devil in hopes of catching up, but these mad dashes only succeeded in raising our hopes and tiring us out. After 45 minutes passed with no luck, I was beginning to wonder if we would ever get hooked up. If the only way to strike gold was to be in the midst of a bait ball, we’d have to get incredibly lucky and basically get run over by one. Not only that- our mad dashes were wearing our baits out. Just as I began to reel in my bait to see if it was even alive, I felt a slight pull on the line, and then nothing. Was I imagining something? Good thing I still had my thumb on the spool though, because the next thing I know, line is racing off the reel. Hookup!
I slowly increased pressure on the spool, and when I tightened down the drag and the line came taught, the bow of my kayak swung around 180 degrees. Seconds later the line goes slack- which either means the fish is off or it’s changed directions- and then I see it- a marvelously lit up striped marlin, bursting out of the water 75 yards in front of me in a sea of spray, furiously waving his bill and twisting furiously in midair! The line was still not taught, and I wondered if he had shook the hook loose- but not to worry! The fish took off again at an even faster pace, the line finally came taught, and I was treated to the famed Nantucket Sleighride that all kayak fishing enthusiasts live for.
I took my submersible vhf marine radio from my lifejacket’s pocket, and radioed in to the boat that I was hooked up. I wasn’t the only angler on the water; I was about 500 yards away, being towed in the opposite direction by the magnificent marlin. Every so often the line would go slack, and my heart would sink, since I thought he came off, but each time I was rewarded with the incredible sight of the marlin once again breaking the surface in an amazing aerial display.
Part of the purpose of the trip was to get pics and video for the upcoming article in Sport Fishing Magazine, but we hadn’t a proper photographer with us. Instead, I had left my cameras with the deckhands, hoping for the best. When the boat caught up with me, Captain Juan announced, “Jon, I can’ take any pic-chor- I heer a alahrm when I poosh de button!” (Jon I can’t take any pictures, I hear an alarm when I push the button). Despite his broken English, I was able to understand him completely- being married to a Mexican woman helps.
In either case, I knew there was nothing I could do to fix the cameras right then, so even though we might miss some good shots, at least they were able to take some video. The fish was still dragging me all over the place, and changing directions. One moment the boat would seem too far away to get footage, and then the next moment he would go right for the boat, and I was worried that the line would get caught in the prop. I kept thinking, “Get closer…no…wait….go away!”
Something else was happening that was kind of funny. The kayaks that we were using were meant to be used with a rudder, but I thought that the line might get caught on it, so I disengaged it, and in doing so, made the kayak track, or stay on course, very poorly. Usually on big fish, when they swim away from you, you can turn your bow in the direction of the fish by tugging on the line, but this kayak wasn’t cooperating. I felt like I was in a salad bowl with no front or back to it, like those circular bumper cars that have no steering. It just kept sliding sideways towards the fish, and since I had no intention of fighting the fish like this, I sat side-saddle on the kayak. Even so, the fish was pulling me and the kayak, sideways, at a decent clip!
By the time I got the fish close to me, it had calmed down quite a bit, so I wasn’t worried about getting attacked or impaled. Fortunately, I had brought it in quickly enough so that it still had enough energy to swim away, and I grabbed the leader and cut it right at the hook, which was wedged perfectly in the outward edge of his jaw. I could have chosen to remove the hook, but I sensed that the fish was too “green” and he would go nuts if I grabbed him, so this was the best solution, the hope being that the hook would rust out within a short amount of time.
To see video highlights of the last few minutes of the fight with this marlin, click here.
As I paddled back to the boat to get another bait, I noticed through the drizzling rain that bait balls were still on top, but the predators weren’t on the surface anymore, so I put a 4oz olive sinker on my line so that my bait would drop to where the big ones were still lurking. For the next couple of hours, I did a lot of paddling, with no luck. The rain started to come down horizontally and the wind picked up, but since I came prepared with the proper wetsuit gear, I felt fairly comfortable, as long as I kept paddling.
At some point, one of these crazy masses of bait and big fish appeared again in the distance. It didn’t seem to be moving and I was able to catch up with it. I paddled right into the middle of it, let my bait drop in free spool, and soon the line starts smoking off my reel, and I’m on to something big and fast. It wasn’t a marlin, for sure- it was heading for the bottom, then changing directions on a dime, and shaking it’s head ferociously underwater. I fought the beast for several minutes, but it was all I could do to stem the flow of line racing off the reel, and when I applied pressure, the line snapped. Once the boat caught up with me and they saw the frayed leader, they surmised that it had been mako shark- lots of them in this area.
By now it’s about 3:30, we’ve got maybe 90 minutes left of light, and I really wanted a shot at a second marlin. As far as I know, no one has hooked and landed more than one in a single day from a kayak, and I thought I had a good chance at setting a record that might stand for awhile. I rebaited at the boat, and paddled off. After some more time on the water, I spotted another bait ball with diving birds, bigger than any I’d seen yet, and paddled towards it. This thing was moving helter skelter all over the place and eventually I just stopped paddling and threw my paddle down in frustration- no way I could catch up. Of course by this time my bait was half dead from me dragging him through the water. As I sat there with my head hung low, feeling dejected and trying to regain my breath, I heard a tremendous roar- the very same gigantic bait ball, with free jumping porpoise and scads of diving birds-was heading back straight towards me!
By the time this cavalcade of craziness overtakes me, I feel like I’m in the middle of an episode of Blue Planet. Huge porpoise are free jumping all over the place, and striped marlin are all around me, slashing the surface with their bills, putting on what looked like some type of medieval cross-swords display. I counted at one point a minimum of six marlin slicing the surface within 30 yards of me- and the craziest thing was, all I could do was watch!
They had plenty of live bait to choose from, and even though I pitched my lifeless bait right next to them, they would have none of it! I radioed back to the boat “Guys! Get over here now! Marlin all over! Hurry up!” but it turns out that tons of marlin had erupted next to them as well and they had decided to take a break from kayak fishing and fight a couple from the boat. I sat there alone in disbelief as the display went on for another five minutes, and when the frenzy abated, made my way back to the boat about ½ a mile away.
By this time the deckhand Fernando decided that he wanted to give this kayak thing a try. This was the first time that I’d ever seen a local Mexican get in a kayak, let alone try kayak fishing. Phillip, Fernando, and I all baited up and started trolling bait behind out yaks, and about ten minutes later I get hooked up- another marlin! It’s dragging me all around, tail walking, and then the guys on the boat radio me to tell me that we’ve got a triple kayak marlin kayak hookup- Phillip and Fernando are on too!
The three marlins were all evidently pulling us kayakers in different directions, and the boat stayed with me because it seemed I might land mine first. After another classic sleigh ride and some more awesome aerial antics, the fish and I slugged it out in a vertical battle, and I got him to leader. This marlin was more exhausted than the first, and knew I had to work to revive him, so I pulled him up to me to remove the hook from his mouth, and then gently placed him back in the water.
He wasn’t healthy enough to swim off, but rather was looking like he might go belly up so I decided to try something I’d been dreaming about…...
I jumped in off of my kayak, swam up next to him, gently grabbed his fins with my gloved hands, and held him upright. He seemed to appreciate the gesture and within a minute or two he was wagging his tail happily and the iridescent glowing stripes on his sides had returned, indicating he was ready to swim away on his own. I grabbed his rear fin and gave him one last big push and he swam off with vigor. What a thrill that was!
Several people have seen the photos of me doing this and asked me if I was crazy. My response is, I never felt in any danger at this stage of the game. People watch videos of freshly hooked giant marlin rushing the boat and almost skewering people and assume that that’s the way these fish always act. This one just wanted to get away, and by the time I was in the water, he needed help to simply remain upright.
I got another bait from the boat to try for marlin number three, and the boat took off after Phillip and Fernando, who ultimately both landed and released theirs in good health. Although Fernando and Phillip were both new to kayaking, they had spent years being mates on sport fishing boats, so they had no problem dealing with the fish.
We had about 45 minutes more of light to go, and got back in the boat to take a break and get us back in a better spot. Within 10 minutes Fernando and I are on the water again, and guess what happens next? We’re both hooked up, and the fish are going in exactly opposite directions! The boat followed me for awhile, but after 25 minutes or so, it became evident that whatever I was on was a different type of fish entirely- it wasn’t surfacing, and was taking long, punishing runs that were really sapping my strength. By this time the sun had set, and since I had a VHF radio on and Fernando didn’t, the boat decided to take some pictures of me and then take off and track Fernando down and get him aboard before nightfall. So there I am, all alone in the middle of the ocean in near dark conditions, on some type of mystery beast, and let me tell you, I am getting worked. I considered cutting the line because it was towing me farther and farther from the boat, and I had no flashlight, so I decided that I was going to try and hasten an end to the fight by upping the ante and applying maximum pressure.
Oh, I forgot to tell you one thing. Remember when I went swimming with the marlin? Well, my reel had fallen in the water when I jumped off the yak to do that, and now, just when I need the reel to perform flawlessly, it is jamming, only giving out line in spurts and jolts, and I am afraid the line in going to break, so I lessened the drag pressure and … get a wretched backlash!!! Now I’m really in trouble, because if the fish takes any line and gets me down to this tangle on the spool, the line will snap, so I go into hyper drive and crank on the reel for all it’s worth, managing in several minutes to get enough line on so that I can weather a run or two from this mystery monster.
Finally, I managed to get the fish to leader, and I start thinking, now what? I had a small gaff with me, but this fish is still full of energy, and it’s too dark out for me to see what he is even though he’s only 6-7 feet away, so I crank on the line to get him closer, hoping to get a better glimpse of him, and the very second that I start to make out his huge silhouette, he turns away from me and makes a last run, snapping the line! I never did figure out what it was.
Disappointed? You bet- but to tell you the truth, not terribly so. I have been lucky enough to land some really large fish before on kayaks, and whatever this was, it was huge, so I don’t think I could have handled it with the gaff alone. Now if I had only had the spear that I had thought about bringing down!