The exclusive bond formed between fishermen during the pursuit of billfish is unique, regardless if you are from the East Coast or Gulf Coast, prefer circle hooks to J hooks, live bait over dead bait, straight-butt or bent-butt rods, fly flags upside down or right side up, or pull single or double hook-sets. That bond brought together a unique group of people to a remote destination for one goal: to deploy 15 pop-up satellite archival tags in blue marlin over a four-day period. Even Alabama and Auburn fans reconciled as they converged on Port Eads, Louisiana.
Ellen Peel, president of The Billfish Foundation, picks me up at the airport in Pensacola, Florida. We discuss just about everything as we drive to Venice, Louisiana, to meet the rest of the team. After five hours of conversation with her, I liken fishing to the ever-popular topic of bipartisan politics: both respectively divisive. Two 37-foot Freemans cart Peel, the two scientists and me down to Port Eads from Venice. Traveling places to fish with strangers is a worrisome prospect, but those I’d already met changed my mind. These people appeared, outwardly so, unbiased and free of judgment. Upon arrival, a small crowd waits to help unload gear and groceries.
“We heard you were kind of a hipster …”
“Are you Austin?” one of them asks as I hand him my camera case. Politely, I reply, “Yes, sir.” “Yeah, we heard you were kind of a hipster and wouldn’t fit in with the rest of us,” “Don’t worry, I brought a pair of sandals.”
It’s interesting to observe how exclusionary the world of fishing can be. I don’t wear a visor. I have tattoos. I don’t sport a perennial sunglasses silhouette around my eyes. Does the blood course through my veins any less when a blue marlin blows up on the short rigger? Nope. Think you can beat me to the flat line? Let’s find out. On land, we all judge — but the moment we leave the dock, none of it matters. This trip reminded me of that. Cliché as it might sound: We’re not divided at all. And that is exactly why this trip was so special.
Setting the Stage
As we all sit in the dining room, the respective chatter turns silent as Scott Cooper, chairman of TBF, gives a short speech. He welcomes everyone and thanks all those who made the trip for their efforts. He keeps it professional and cordial. As dinner progresses, however, discourse heats up. There is talk of tournament formats: Daily calcuttas and prize money dominate for the next hour or three. The fundamental issue with some of the biggest marlin tournaments in the country is that they incentivize killing multiple breeding fish with individual daily prizes. Cooper brings up the brilliance of the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo: The first tarpon weighed wins the biggest trophy. “Know why they did that?” Cooper asks. “So they quit killing 85 of ’em. Once the first calcutta is filled, y’know how many people start tagging tarpon? Every one of ’em.” The scope of Cooper’s argument: What if the first legal blue marlin earned the majority of prize winnings? To maintain the “[sexiness] of hanging a damn fish,” as one put it, but discourage drying off fish daily — doesn’t that sound like a reasonable compromise?
A Pipe Dream
Sport fishing is packed to the gunwales with tradition. Weighing blue marlin is a strange, perverse spectacle that has become, unfortunately, a custom that garners crowds from far and wide. Until these kinds of high-profile tagging projects become commonplace, and scientists are able, as John Hoolihan, associate scientist at the University of Miami, notes, “to say with complete confidence regarding the health of the stock,” we should tread lightly. Stories of billfish tournaments from decades past that involve shoving dead marlin off the dock after the weigh-in appall us today. Collective information gained from satellite tags on blue marlin is not concrete enough. We really don’t know if the stock can support the tournament season’s harvest numbers yet. Belief that the blue marlin population will remain as plentiful as it is today, for future generations, is a pipe dream. Experiencing relative discomfort from harvesting less billfish or going to great lengths and contributing to satellite-tagging projects are both far better than the alternative.
Advancing Tagging Technology
It’s 2016. We want gratification, and we want it now. Can’t we stick a tag in the shoulder of our billfish, grab some popcorn, then watch her migrate in real time on our 70-inch TV? What do you mean the tag doesn’t come with a POV camera? Despite its rising popularity, blue marlin tagging is still in its formative stages with conventional, or “spaghetti,” tags dominating what is known about billfish. Hoolihan says, “The information [we gain] on stock assessments — it’s all baby steps.”
PSATs on blue marlin cannot be as glamorous as, say, shark tagging. Sharks have a distinct advantage to blue marlin when it comes to tagging. Why? Air-to-air contact. It’s an apples-to-oranges thing. “Blue marlin are not on the surface long enough,” Hoolihan says. “That antenna has to be out of the water and make contact with the satellite. That’s why Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting [SPOT] tags are so successful on sharks, whales and turtles.” Jim Franks, senior research scientist at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, is with us, detailing how the tags work. “The tags for this particular project pop off the fish at a preprogrammed date,” Franks says. “So we don’t get any information until the tag pops up and comes to the surface.” Of these 15 that he catalogs, he says, “We programmed two for 30 days, three for 90 days, five for 180 days, and five for 360 days.”
“Right short! That’s her.”
We split the two scientists up on each of the 37-foot Freemans with five additional boats — Cotton Patch, Sea Mixer, Gear Up, Lady Bev and Psyco Fin — working together as part of our group. Our plan was to tag our own share of fish and, if other boats felt gracious enough, run over and tag theirs too. It’s 8 on the first morning; we’re trolling the BP West Vela. No more than 15 minutes pass and there she is, big as a house, on the short-rigger lure. She tries it a half-dozen times and fades. I watch the lure through my lens, anticipating the next bite, when the right short goes off. Cooper’s 13-year-old son, Ryan, catches his first blue marlin on stand-up gear. It’s a nice fish too. I can see the pride almost oozing from Cooper. From midmorning on, we tag three other boats’ blue marlin. The majority of the boats fishing in the area stay out overnight, either drifting or putting out a sea anchor. Seeing as the 37-foot Freeman Triple C makes 50 knots (with ease), we’re able to stay until last light, beating the sunset back to Port Eads to sleep on dry land — all to wake up at 4 a.m. and do it all over again.
A Glimpse of the Action
“Triple C, we’ve got a blue one on,” the VHF crackles. “He’s ’bout halfway down the spool.” Cooper locates the hooked fish and puts all 1,200 horses on the pins. Hoolihan loads the PSAT. Courtney Stanley, our mate, clips on the tennis-ball rig to our bent-butt 50. I have to make sure my lens is clean — we often beat the fish to the boat. Once the other boat wires him up, Stanley hurls the tennis ball into their cockpit. They clip the tennis ball onto their leader, then either cut or unclip their snap. We do this partially because it’s easier than transferring people, but also, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure that fish is what Hoolihan considers a healthy specimen. Hoolihan says: “Remember, our main objective is to gain information on vertical use of habitat, not post-catch survival rates. That’s why I would prefer to not tag fish from any tournament boats. They have different agendas and may not want to waste time futzing around with us.”
Fishing agendas certainly differ throughout the fleet. Scientific research motivates a few; others charter fish, and some tournament fish. Southpaw, a 62-foot Bayliss from Tierra Verde, Florida, fishing the tournament, comes on the radio:
“Triple C, Southpaw here. We’re hooked up.”
Cooper comes back: “Do y’all mind if we come over and tag it?”
“Absolutely not. Come on with it.”
Southpaw was fishing the Yellowfin Billfish Classic — a tournament out of Sarasota, Florida. “It was a 320-nautical-mile trek,” Greg Quisenberry, part of the Southpaw crew, tells me. I’d seen them release a white earlier in the day. If they release this blue, they’ve slammed. I figure, once we transfer the fish over, they’ll haul ass, set back out, catch another one, right? Wrong. Every single boat — not only Southpaw — helps us, then stops to watch the whole process. After we release the fish, a tremendous amount of hooting and hollering ensues: pure, unadulterated excitement. Whoo Dat, Sea Mixer, Conundrum, Team Supreme, Lolita, Mary P., Born2Run, and a host of other boats all contributed a great deal of time and effort to help.
Home Run, a local charter boat from Venice, asks if we’d tag their fish caught on their trip. Their blue marlin comes up, and we think she’s doomed — very dark, very stressed, very tired. “We’ll swim her,” Cooper insists. We do just that. The coolest part about the experience is not that the fish lights back up after a half-mile’s worth of water pushed through her gills, but that the 36-foot Yellowfin stays beside us, spectating and watching the teamwork.
A Contagious Effort
After the dust settled, the group had tagged 11 blue marlin. Optimistic: We were certainly that. I still think, deep down, that the project was exponentially more successful than all of us expected.
The excitement from everyone involved was palpable. During those four days, high-fives, thumbs-ups — hell, even hugs were in surplus. We discovered that maybe we weren’t, in fact, strangers at all. Threading us all together, even in the slightest way, is the pursuit of catching billfish. What began simply as an idea morphed into a contagious conservation effort. Both Freeman boats walked away from the dock on the last morning with promises to cross paths again soon. For that week, the group synthesized into a team — and a skilled one at that. Billfishing might be a universal pastime, but it’s a shockingly small world.