There we were, a crew of six, in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico hooked up to a dead weight with two of our crew bent over the side of the boat, grabbing an ultra-tight fishing line with gloved hands and pulling inch by inch up to the rod tip. Their hands were stinging from the hundreds of jellyfish tentacles that had stuck themselves to our fishing line while we drifted miles away from the location that we had first hooked this fish.
One of us was strapped into a stand-up fishing harness and his only responsibility was to turn the handle of the reel each time that the line was grabbed and brought up to the rod tip. One of us helped keep the rod held up for the angler, which was straining under the weight of over 30 pounds of maxed out drag. This kind of pressure made our stiff trolling rod look like a limp noodle that you would find at your local pool.
One of the crew stood next to the strapped-in angler as a safety net, ensuring that someone could grab hold of the harness, the angler, or the rod at any sign of danger—a foot slip, a broken fishing line connection, or reel failure. The sixth man stood in the back, chugging a bottle of cold water that he took from the bottom of the ice chest. He was taking a well-earned few minutes of rest after spending 20 minutes of grueling work being tied into the fish from the harness. The entire crew was running on straight adrenaline as four hours beforehand we had just witnessed the biggest sea creature of our life annihilate a trolled marlin lure like a bulldozer smashing through a house, only feet from the back of the boat. –
The whole crew of the Lisa Ann arrived at the dark and wet marina in the wee hours of the morning, before the world had woken up. The marine forecast was calling for 3 foot waves at 7 seconds, a nice swell that would allow us to smoothly ride up and back down the waves like a mini roller coaster in our 36-foot center console. We idled out of Destin’s East Pass around 6 a.m. just as the sunrise started peaking over the horizon. We pointed the bow of the boat southwest with our destination keyed into the GPS. We were heading 130 nautical miles away to some of the most prolific fishing grounds in the entire Gulf of Mexico.
We pulled the throttles of the triple 300 horsepower engines back a few hundred yards from a floating oil platform. These are massive structures, towering hundreds of feet above the waterline and dwarfing any boats near it. These oil platforms act like fish attraction devices, giving small bait fish a shelter from a vast gulf of predators. On any given platform you would be able to witness every level of the food chain. There was only species we were after on this trip though: a big blue marlin that we hoped would take to a trolled bait.
The crew shook off the morning run, organized the boat, and extended the outriggers out so we could start pulling baits behind the boat in hopes of enticing a large blue marlin to take the bait. Each of our five hooked lines went in the water, they were dropped back to their right positions, and the waiting game began. We made a dizzying number of laps around the first platform with not much life showing on our sounding machine, we pointed the boat in the direction of another oil platform that you could see on the horizon about six miles away. The team started reeling in the trolled baits so that we could turn the 900 horses loose and run fast to the oil rig in the distance. The clickers of the reels on one side of the boat started the tell-tale ZzZzZzZ sound of the reel alerting you that a fish has taken the bait and that line is leaving the reel. Not even seconds later another reel went off and we had a double hookup of some green rockets — mahi mahi — that hit a pair of ballyhoo baits with a small mylar skirt.
After gaffing the twin pair of mahi-mahi and getting them situated in the fish box, we did a U-turn to go back over the spot where they had taken the bait in hopes of hooking a few more stragglers that might have missed the first pass of the baits. They were not home, so pulled the baits all the way back to the original oil platform and did another lap around it. We decided that instead of running to the next platform we would troll all the way there and the crew settled in for an hour long peaceful troll to the next platform.
Then right there in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico’s deep blue waters, a giant fish had launched itself from the depths at our short flat lure, trolled just 20 feet behind the back of the boat. It became fully airborne and after hitting the water it left a hole like it had just done a cannonball from the highest diving board at the local pool. The reel started singing its usual song as the line came off the reel at a rate that not a single person on the boat had seen before.
Half the crew had seen the entire fish launch itself, two of the guys saw the back end, and one guy only caught the gaping hole left in the water after this Volkswagen beetle of a fish crashed our spread for an easy mid-day lunch. We all let out some choice words under our breaths and we went to work clearing the other lines as the hooked fish was moving like a freight train in the opposite direction of where the boat was going – a quick way to lose all of the line on your reel with just a blink of an eye.
We had all of the lines cleared and the boat was quickly turned toward the fish. We ran straight towards where the fish had sounded down deep and gained a little bit of line back before it had a chance to dump our entire spool. The first angler was strapped into the harness with 15-20 pounds of drag on the fish and proceeded to work the fish back to the 80-pound monofilament top shot of line. Thirty minutes of grueling “get an inch back while the fish takes a foot” later the beast dumped almost 300 yards of line like it didn’t even know it was hooked. She headed straight for the 8,000 foot depth of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
We switched out anglers after this spool dump to get a fresh body on the fish and try to gain some line back. We bumped the drag up to 20-25 pounds and the fish proceeded to still slowly take line off the reel. Twenty more minutes into the fight the team made another angler switch to see if we could get some line back. Line continued to go off of the reel at a much slower pace than the beginning of the fight and it began to pose the obvious question to the crew: do we max out the drag in hopes that we can stop the fish or do we let it continue going in hopes the fish turns around?
The odds were completely stacked against us due to our grossly undersized reel for this caliber of fish and while the crew was having the drag debate a free-swimming blue marlin decided to make an appearance 30 feet away from the boat. It was swimming as gracefully as Michael Phelps nearing the end of a world record run and was lit up like an electric blue lightning strike. The worst thought then came into our heads: what if a big female blue marlin was on the other end of our line and it died during the fight? It made sense with a smaller free-swimmer coming up near our boat to check out what was happening, but it would discredit the fish that half the crew had seen destroy our bait. No one on the boat wanted to kill a blue marlin and our stomachs dropped quicker than an elevator.
The call was made to max out the drag and see if we could gain some line back, but there was no way that we could lift the fish because the rod was bent from the tip to the butt like a twig in a hurricane. The one crew member that had not taken a turn in the harness yet decided to put on some gloves and he leaned over the side of the boat to help the angler by grabbing ahold of the line and pulling up to the rod tip. This allowed us to gain line back inch-by-inch for what was over 1000 feet of line that had left the reel.
It was evening now and we were two hours into hand winching what we had determined to be an extremely large fish that had died and sounded. There were two crewmen now bent over the side of the boat lifting the line with faith in their hearts that they would soon see the biggest sea creature of our lives in just a short moment. Line was being put back on the reel and the time clock read four hours and 30 minutes.
The two guys on the side of the boat began to peer into the deep blue with the curiosity of a two year old that had just opened a brand new toy on Christmas. There was a little color beginning to show about fifty feet down and our hearts started thumping through our chests as we realized we would soon see the fish we had been fighting for the last five hours. The fish inched closer and closer with every glove pull and we could start to make out a wide face, big eyes, no bill, and a massive head. The unthinkable for everyone on the boat – a giant bluefin tuna came into crisp focus like your favorite portrait mode photo.
We sunk two gaffs into the fish and one of the crew members jumped into the water to secure a rope over the giant crescent shaped tail. The crew went bonkers. High fives, hoots, hollers, and a big son of a gun 670-pound bluefin tuna had been secured to the side of the boat. Every single one of the crew had grins from ear-to-ear as we replayed the last four hours and forty minutes in our heads. The fish was unexplainably big and we were left speechless after hauling the fish over the back of the gunnels and into the cockpit of the boat. With everything that could have possibly gone wrong, it all boiled down to one thing that made a lasting difference: a Dream Team.
Steven Vanden Heuvel, Luke Lewis, Jesse Haynes, Jason Haynes, Kevin Berry, and Blake Buxton
The Lisa Ann
36’ Yellowfin Center Console