Every fisherman worth his salt - as well as many who are not - has a story about
the one that got away.. A common thread to all of these stories is that the fish
is always very big. Small ones never escape.
Good stories are, for the most part, a result of great fishing conditions, and
some of the wildest fishing that ever took place here in Montauk was during the mid
sixties, before the United States enacted the Magnuson Act, which gave us control
of the waters up to two hundred miles offshore. Previous to that, any country was
free to fish the waters as close as twelve miles to shore.
Huge combination fishing/processing ships from the Eastern Bloc countries would
spend the summer in the waters off our eastern coast, taking unbelievable amounts
of fish. These ships, as long as two to three hundred feet, were capable of catching
ten to fifteen tons of fish in a single haul. As devastating as this was to our groundfish
stocks, it had its reward when it came to the sportfishing community.
While these boats were dragging their nets, the smaller fish would be squeezed
through the mesh and leave behind a trail of dead and dying. And just like ET with
the candy, there would be giant tuna following closely behind, picking up an easy
meal. These fish are called giants for good reason. Ranging in size from six to eight
hundred pounds, they are considered the prize fish of our area, and are undoubtably
the strongest fish in the ocean.
When the factory ships would pull their nets, the sport boats would all jockey
for position at the ships ramp, waiting for the net to be brought to the top. The
small fish dribbling out of the net would float on the surface, due to gases in their
bodies that expanded as a result of being brought up from the two hundred foot depths.
Hooking a tuna was no big deal. You would simply scoop up a couple of these floaters,
put a hook in one of them, throw it back in the water and wait. Generally, within
a couple of minutes all hell would break loose.
There would be giant tuna all over the place, chowing down on the free meal.
To see these fish feeding is a sight you could never forget. Giant fish eight feet
long and eight feet around would crash through the water within yards of your boat.
I've always thought that they probably looked similar to what the ball looked like
to the head pin in a bowling alley. Moving just as fast, and impossible to stop.
During those days I owned a twenty five foot Bertram inboard/outboard and thought
I was a pretty good fisherman. The boat wasn't really suited to fishing for giant
tuna, but that was no reason not to try and catch one. We had no fighting chair in
the boat, only what is called a fishing chair, more suitable to bluefish trolling.
For fishing tackle, the heaviest rod and reel that we had was an eighty pound outfit,
suitable for fish up to about three hundred pounds or so.
Our crew was made up of a high school friend, Bob Weaver who fished with me
quite often, and two other friends who knew nothing about fishing. What we lacked
in experience and equipment, we made up for in youthful enthusiasm. Our inexperience
led us to believe that we had a chance to catch one of these monsters.
As I said, hooking the fish was no problem, and within fifteen minutes we were
finished with the easy part. A giant tuna is extremely fast, and capable of stripping
all the line off the reel we were using in less than a minute, so it became a matter
of chasing the fish, and keeping up with it before that happened. This was panic
time. The fish would take off in one direction, and we would take off after him at
full speed. This would create a belly in the line, and we would have no idea where
the fish was. We would then stop and try to reel in all the slack, until we were
tight to the fish, and he would take off again in a different direction. Skill played
very little part during this portion of the fight. It was all luck, and we were lucky
enough that after about twenty minutes of this we were still attached to the animal.
Then the work started. Reel in line. Lose line. Follow the fish. Slow down and
reel in some more only to lose it again.
Weaver fought the fish. I ran the boat. Our friends, Eddie and John, took turns
pointing the chair in the right direction, getting something to drink and eventually
napping. Fighting a fish is fun for about a half hour. Then it starts to get old.
After an hour it becomes nothing more than hard work. Picture yourself sitting in
a chair with a barbell in your left hand that you have to raise up to your chest
every fifteen seconds or so for an hour. Then picture yourself standing by and watching
someone else do it. Borrring!
After an hour and a half, the chair broke, and we had to jury rig Weaver with
a rod belt around his waist and a life preserver underneath it to protect his vitals.
That lessened the pressure we were able to put on the fish thereby extending the
Six hours later we were still connected to the fish, and incredibly, Weaver
was still fighting it, when we got the first indication that we had a chance to land
the fish. All of a sudden we were gaining ten feet of line and only losing nine.
Things were starting to go our way.
We started to organize ourselves for the final stage of the battle, the most
critical part. Normally, a well equipped boat would have one man at the helm, one
man fighting the fish, one man to grab the leader and a second to sink the gaff into
the fish, all being experienced. We set things up a little differently. John would
grab the leader.
At the moment that I saw John touch it, I would put the boat in neutral and
run to the rear of the boat where Eddie would be holding the gaff at the ready for
me. I would sink the hook and the fight would be over - theoretically.
Finally, after six and a half hours the moment of truth came. The leader came
within reach, and John grabbed it. I left the helm and ran aft, to hear John yell
" Holy #!*?, we'll never get this in". At that moment he let go, the fish swam under
the boat, chaffing the line and our fishing day was over.
Nobody said anything. Weaver went below to sleep, and I headed the boat home.
Later on we asked John, who had never seen a tuna that didn't come from a can, how
big the fish was. He gave as accurate an estimate as you will ever hear from someone
who just lost a big fish. It was somewhere between enormous and gigantic.
And so all we got from our adventure was another fish story about the one that
got away. Except for Weaver, who also got a couple of days off from work.