Joys of Making Television

I recently returned from a television shoot in the fabulous Cayman Islands. The Caymans are famous for their world-class diving (some of the most breathtaking wall dives in the world) and miles of white-sugar-sand beaches. The place is a true island paradise. They also get some pretty decent marlin, wahoo and tuna fishing from time to time if you hit the season right. Just like anywhere, however, you can hit a slow period as well.

The film crew — James Russo, Matt Jackson and Mike Plante — and I started the trip with a 3½-hour drive to Miami from Orlando and an overnight stay in Miami. I was already a little perturbed that I had to give up a weekend for this, especially when there’s a direct flight from Orlando to the Caymans, but I knew that the free tickets we got for the shoot made more sense in these financially strapped times, so I kept my whining to a minimum.

We arrived on Grand Cayman early on Sunday afternoon and got to spend a little time exploring the hotel and going for a snorkel. Unfortunately, there’s nothing better than a short swim to tell you how completely out of shape you’ve become. Years sitting my fat can behind a desk have sapped my wind and increased my bulk to the point that I’m beyond the benefits of the extra buoyancy that the fat provides — a bummer for sure.

After floundering around over the reef behind the hotel for 30 minutes or so, I was questioning whether I’d have the energy to make it back to the beach — a swim upwind — when I decided that I’d seen enough and began the slog back. It was the longest 200-yard swim of my life.

We met up with Franklin Thompson, president of the Cayman Islands Angling Club and our host for the trip. Thompson turned out to be a super nice fellow and bent over backward to help us make this trip a success.

On our first day, we headed out about six miles and fished just outside the reef along the Seven Mile Beach. The water was purple, and the presence of flyers and a few gaffer dolphin told me that there was definitely a chance at seeing a blue marlin, but I wasn’t very optimistic. Due to scheduling conflicts, we were here late in the season.

We were using 80-pound gear on short stand-up rods and fishing from a 60-foot enclosed-flybridge Hatteras — and a pretty late-model one at that. We actually blew a turbo on the way out to the fishing grounds, but had to tough it out anyway … or I did, at least! I caught about a 15-pound dolphin on the heavy stand-up gear early in the morning, and feeling how much pressure that one fish put on me during the dead-boat fight on the short 80-pound, I was worried what would happen if we actually got a big fish on!

About an hour later, I would find out when a nice little blue marlin ate a purple doorknob on the left long! The little scrapper made several jumps in a circle before turning tail and heading for the horizon. I had all the drag I could take on the blue as it streaked away, but the spool was melting faster than I was! Once the little guy was about 500 yards from the boat, we began to creep backward. With all that line in the water, I could barely turn the handle in high gear, so I just shifted into low, put my head down and started cranking — thankful for all the exercise I had the day before.

After 15 minutes of cursing the gear, the boat, the line, the fish and my lack of manhood, I finally winched the now-brown blue marlin to the side of the boat. Not the most exciting television in the world. We did get some nice underwater revival footage, however, and the little blue swam away strong while I collapsed in a heap of sweat.

Unfortunately, that little blue was all we would see that day, and Russo, the producer, was already starting to sweat. The old adage “Any day you catch a blue marlin is a good day of fishing” doesn’t mean squat to a TV producer when the fish doesn’t jump less than a mile from the boat. Sensing Russo’s oncoming panic attack, Thompson arranged for us to hop on a new boat, a 38-foot Rampage, and head out to the 60-mile bank later that night! We’d get back to the hotel, get a couple of hours of sleep, and then take off at midnight so we could chug all night and hit the bank right at dawn!

I was a little leery of committing to heading off into the dark with fellas I didn’t know on a boat I hadn’t seen, but Russo’s face told me that we didn’t have a choice. Once the Rampage came into view — she was only two or three years old and in perfect condition — I felt a lot better about our chances.

After a fitful sleep at the hotel, we headed off into the night for the 60-mile chug. It was a down-sea run, so I actually got a little bit of sleep in the queen berth. The other guys didn’t fare so well.

We started trolling right at first light and caught a couple of blackfin tunas rather quickly on the bait rigs, and there immediately sent back out for marlin bait. As we drifted the live tunas for marlin, our mate, Charles, also put out the chum and chunks for some bigger tuna. Charles kept stripping line off the reel as the chunk slowly sank in the 3,000 feet of water. I figured he must have had half the spool of line on the 80 in the water when the yellowfin tuna ate the bait and then headed for the bottom. He couldn’t pull that much drag for very long, and then the now familiar winching began. I couldn’t hold much drag standing up with the short 80 bent-butt, even with the nice Black Magic harness, so I pretty much had to shift into low and crank that baby to the surface. More cussing ensued, and I figured out that I hate angling for pelagic fishes, and tuna in particular.

After all our troubles, we only got that one 45-pound yellowfin — although a chance encounter with an 8-foot oceanic whitetip shark that ate our GoPro was pretty exciting!
We stayed in close the last day of fishing and were rewarded with the dreaded skunk. We fished hard all day until dark. By now, Russo was a quivering ball of jelly, and we needed to get some footage of some fish in the can no matter what. Thompson and Charles said we could get an "automatic" bite out of some tarpon, so we made plans to fish in the morning of our travel day.

Our first stop was right downtown under a fish-cleaning table that was set up on a beautiful red-sand beach. After a couple of handfuls of fish guts hit the water, the tarpon started patrolling the reef.

I put a chunk of gills and guts on a 5/0 and tossed the mess out past the reef on a spinning rod. About five minutes later, a 50-pounder picked up the bait and headed for the open ocean. Since we were more or less fishing in a marina, I had to take off running, in my bare feet, over a series of limestone reefs. Not the most intelligent thing to do, but the sand felt so good between my toes before I got the bite!

After hobbling and cursing over 20 yards of sharp limestone, the fish eventually wrapped around a piling and broke off.

Our second spot had a lot more open water, and we managed to catch three tarpon and release them in good shape. They jumped all over the place, and we got some great footage that hopefully saved the day.

We got on the plane later that day and eventually made it back home to Orlando sometime after 1:30 in the morning. It was a pretty long six days, but it certainly had its moments. Thanks so much to James, Mike and Matt for putting up with me on the trip. I know I’m not the sharpest TV host in the world.