In the words of American Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, “Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.” This could very easily apply to what happened to the crew of Boat No. 249, the 73-foot Bayliss Shark Byte, in the MidAtlantic tournament on August 18, 2020. They say karma’s a bitch, but as it turns out, irony is too.
The highs and lows of big-game tournament fishing are all too common. Lost fish from broken lines, pulled hooks, or angler and crew mistakes can keep you up at night for years. One of the largest blue marlin ever caught by Rumson, New Jersey’s Peter Cherasia slipped through his fingers on that fateful day in August. Even though the crew made no blatant mistakes, the fish wound up being disqualified. The crew of Cherasia’s Shark Byte are seasoned and fish the US East Coast to the Dominican Republic each year. So, what caused the disqualification is a clause in the IGFA’s International Angling Rules that the MidAtlantic tournament—and many other tournaments—use as a guide for the event. To fully understand what happened, we should start at the beginning.
While competing on Day Two of the 2020 MidAtlantic tournament, Shark Byte captain Rich Barrett successfully teased a blue marlin into their spread. “She came up on the left teaser; I grabbed a 50 [pound-class outfit] and dropped the bait back to her,” says Cherasia, adding that the crew initially thought it was a much smaller fish, but “once we got a look at her, I grabbed the 80 and dropped it back. She took three swipes at the bait, her massive bill swatted it the first two times, and on the third swipe, she swallowed it.”
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What was expected to be a long battle was relatively short for a marlin of that size. “I fought her for about 20 minutes—all on stand-up—and I was able to keep a good angle and put some heat on her,” Cherasia says, crediting Barrett for playing a major role in keeping the battle short. “She stayed on the surface for the whole fight and put on an awesome series of greyhounding jumps. Rich’s boat handling was superb.”
As the battle wound down, the endgame was near, and the Shark Byte crew found out just how tough this old girl was. After several grabs of the leader, the attempt was made to sink the gaff. “The first time we had her to the boat, Jake [Flynn] grabbed the leader and put about half-pressure on her but couldn’t hold her, and she took about 150 or 200 yards of line off,” Cherasia says. “On the second try, he put about 75 percent resistance but still couldn’t get her close; this time, she took about 100 yards out on us.” The third time was a different story. “We could see she was getting tired, and Jake got a good wrap on her, guiding the fish across the transom. Blaine [Champlain] sunk the gaff, but the head of the flyer didn’t come out [of the pole]. He was in a bad spot on the covering board and got pulled in over the side.”
Now all focus had shifted to Champlain, and crewmembers Dickie Campbell and Pete Hargett rushed to get him back into the boat. At that same instant, a very large shark appeared from below Shark Byte and took a large chunk of flesh out of the marlin. Moments later with Champlain safely back aboard, two more flying gaffs were sunk into the marlin by Hargett and Cherasia, and the fish was secured next to the hull of the boat. No blood could be seen in the water, but as the crew pulled the fish through the door, it became clear that indeed an attack had occurred.
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As the fish was unloaded at Sunset Marina for the weigh-in, the wound was noted by tournament officials and discussed for possible impact on the eligibility of the fish. While the crew and tournament officials discussed the situation and reviewed the video footage, the huge marlin was weighed just in case it would qualify—she tipped the scales at 791 pounds. It was determined that the shark attacked the marlin while it was in the water alongside prior to being boated, which, unfortunately for the Shark Byte crew, is a disqualifying situation.
Although they were undoubtedly disappointed, the team understood the ruling and accepted it as such.
Tournament president Rick Weber summed up the situation: “Disqualifying a fish is never easy, especially a magnificent catch like this, but the Shark Byte team was polite and professional through the entire process. That shark may have cost them their prize, but the story and the memories, they’ll have those forever.”
And even though the team may have lost out on a good payout for Cherasia’s fish of a lifetime, they were able to successfully retrieve Champlain unharmed and shark-bite-free, which is ultimately more important than tens of thousands of dollars. And that, my friends, is a blessing in and of itself. —By Jeff Merrill, as told to Capt. Jen Copeland