All photos Marc Montocchio / _www.occhioinc.com._
The taxi plummeted down the dark, steep drive and came to an abrupt halt in front of the entrance to C dock. I paid the fare, collected my mountain of gear and stood for a moment in the orange glow of the light over the gate, its vertical post tattooed with boat stickers. As I looked down the hallowed, weathered boards of the protruding pier, I thought, “So this is it.” If you have the blue fever coursing through your veins, this is the place to be – Red Hook, St. Thomas, under a late-summer moon.
Capt. Matt Mauldwin met me at the gate and we walked back down the dock toward Click Through, a 68-foot Wanchese custom Carolina boat tugging at her lines in the right corner pocket of C dock at American Yacht Harbor. We passed transom after transom plastered with some of the most recognizable names in blue-marlin fishing – names like Uno Mas, The Big O and Tyson’s Pride. They were all here. Looking east to A and B docks, through the endless aluminum forest of stowed outriggers, I could see a snowstorm of upside-down white pennants registering the day’s releases. That’s what brought me here – the blue marlin that arrive in droves each summer and fall. What had begun in my imagination a few years back was now becoming a focused mission. I wanted to photograph a free-swimming, feeding blue marlin.
**With the help of Keith English, the owner of Click Through, and his very able crew of Capt. Mauldwin and mate Courtney Stanley, I began this seemingly impossible task a few months earlier at another epic marlin destination – Bermuda. And since there’s no book entitled Photographing Free-Swimming Blue Marlin for Dummies to be found on Amazon.com, we started on a trial-and-error basis. We took away some encouragement from our lackluster early shots, but they were far from successful. The early technique consisted of me jumping off the back of Click Through as soon as we raised a fish, while the boat cruised along at 8 knots. The mate would drag the teaser lure over my head in the hope that there would be a billfish behind it.
Jumping off a 68-foot boat at 8 knots is not as simple as it sounds. As soon as you hit the water, the violent vortices created by the spinning propellers instantly suck you into what feels like a slinky spring that’s been tossed down the side of a cliff. In a matter of seconds, what looks like a foot-long silver arrow, produced by the swivel, comes straight at you, followed by a bull-nosed, silver mass about 4 inches in diameter and 2 feet long. The lure is inside that silver mass!
Now, this is where I have to tread lightly to avoid getting bogged down by the age-old argument about lure color. From what I’ve witnessed bobbing around in the spread, at 8 knots, there is no color at all! The lure is encased in a sparkling shroud of cavitations tapering off like the tail of a comet. Ever so slight flecks of subtle color can be seen as tips of the skirt try to escape the back of the bubble trail, but nothing more than a mere hint of color on the head or skirt is detectable.
And it was this fleeting aspect of the operation that dictated that I didn’t need to see big fish; I needed to see lots of fish. If I was lucky, the hookless teaser comet trail would be followed, a fraction of a second later, by the bill of a fish pointed straight at me. The entire encounter typically ends as quickly as it begins.
As luck would have it, after winning the Bermuda Triple Crown, English decided to move his boat south to St. Thomas for the August moon and the start of the Boy Scout Tournament. Fishing around the fall moons in St. Thomas presented a great opportunity to continue our quest, and English invited me to join the boat for the September moon. Armed with new ideas and some great advice, I boarded Click Through a few days before the moon, intending to spend seven days zigzagging along the world-famous North Drop, in pursuit of the shot.
**Our plan to get the photographs seemed simple enough. Pull hookless teasers (some lures, some natural baits), raise a blue marlin, and while the fish is intent on demolishing the teaser, take the boat out of gear. Allow it to slow down, and then slip into the water and see what happens next. The difference between this expedition and the one in Bermuda was the speed. How slow could we go and still keep a marlin interested?
As anyone who has fished for and caught blue marlin knows, the cockpit turns into an explosion of motion as a fish is raised, calls are made as pitch baits are dropped back past the offending lure, lines are cleared on the hookup and things get pretty intense as the fish and angler settle down. Our boat was very different.
Mauldwin calmly called the first fish – “right short” – and I slapped on my mask and fins, grabbed the camera housing, and perched, ready, on the left side of the transom – all of which took about 10 seconds. I then got my first opportunity to look out across the spread.
The blue was still there, literally climbing out of the water up to the middle of its back to bite at the Spanish mackerel bait sewn into the back of the pink squid chain. The mackerel would then get snatched back by the forward motion of the boat, but not before tearing off a few turns of the reel against a rasping drag. Again and again, from the left and then the right, the fish kept smacking the mackerel. Stanley and Mauldwin kept calling “Still there, still there, he’s still there!”
About a minute after Mauldwin pulled the boat out of gear, and as the water began to clear, I jumped overboard. The squid chain, with a now decimated mackerel head, drifted lazily past; it was still attached to the backstroking pink rubber squid in the chain, but there was no marlin in sight.
As Stanley started cranking in the left long lure, with the line running just a few inches from the right side of my head, the marlin reappeared in the hazy remains of the prop wash and pounced on the Fathom teaser, determined to eat it. In one second, the fish was just 6 feet away, charging after the synthetic prey being driven hard by the high-retrieval rate of the 80 and Stanley’s pumping right arm. My being in the water – directly in the marlin’s path – didn’t seem to faze the fish a bit. The marlin was now right on top of me, passing a foot from the side of my head as I aimed at him with my camera, shutter release down, firing 10 frames a second. As fast as he had arrived, he was gone – or so I thought.
The boat continued to drift and was now a few hundred yards away. The fish continued to follow the boat. I lifted my head in time to watch and hear the shouts and hollers from the crew on the now stopped boat, as the fish continued to attack every piece of rubber and bait still in the water. Stanley kept the fish lit up with a hookless ballyhoo on a spinning rod, getting the fish to switch from one side of the boat to the other, and doing figure eights a few feet off the transom. Amazingly, the fish stayed with us for a total of five minutes, making one last swim past me, bobbing out in the blue on its exit.
As my eyes followed the disappearing fish into the distance, I noticed another large visitor joining me from deep below. The shape was very familiar – it was a bull shark. The lone shark cruised straight up to me and turned about 10 feet away from me. Every time I turned around to swim to the boat, he would follow until I turned to face him, in which case he would swim away again. This choreographed dance continued all the way back to the boat. It wouldn’t be the last time the men in the gray suits would escort me out of the water in St. Thomas.
**That first interaction was fast and furious. The speed of the fish caught me a little off guard, but I had my first free-swimming blue marlin shots and was ecstatic. We raised 11 more over the next three days. Most of the fish showed the same indifference to my presence, sometimes passing just inches away from me. On more than a couple of occasions after getting too close to the teaser, I ducked behind my camera housing, closed my eyes and braced for impact as the charging fish swerved past, turning at the last instant and narrowly missing me with its bill. Each time, the fish bulleted past me – close enough that I could have easily run my hand down its side.
One of the most interesting differences I noticed among all the fish was their color – or lack of it. Complex patterns of colors and shapes flashed and radiated from some fish; others were clothed in the singular dark color of their outer layer. This dark pigment seemed to permeate deep into their skin, making it look almost like thick, brown velvet. The color even covered the skin on their eyes, causing them to nearly disappear against the fish’s broad flank. The neon-blue of their tails and pectoral fins showed consistently even on the dark fish, but a few of the marlin put on the most incredible displays of color I’ve ever seen.
The best of those came on the second-to-last day. With calm water and clear blue skies, I jumped in from an almost-dead boat after an aggressive blue. The timing was perfect. As soon as I entered, I could see the fish striking the teaser at 90-degree angles, grabbing it with its mouth and trying to crush it in the corner of its jaw. Each time, the lure would rocket off in a miraculous escape. After each angled strike, the fish would follow through with a perfect 180-degree roll.
The marlin stayed in a roll slightly behind and below the lure pointed upward, the eye on the approach side of the head locked on the teaser as its body continued the rotation through the turn. Before the fish even straightened up, the next strike began, with the marlin hitting the lure at the apex of what was now looking like a series of figure eights.
At one point, I happened to be perfectly positioned a few feet from the base of one of these turns. The fish flashed a magnificent parade of luminous blue stripes, and an even more impressive gallery of silver, turquoise, and shimmering green metallic hues on its head, gills and eye – all now just inches from the lens. I was so close, I could see the texture of the blue marlin’s skin and even the tiny purple copepod parasites crowded along the gill plates, far from camouflaged by the iridescent explosion of bright color. I got the shot!
**From everything we learned that week, there were a few things that stood out to me. If the blues received the correct signals from the initial strike, whether it be texture, taste or behavior of the bait, they developed a fixation and a focused intensity to find the prey they had just wounded. Once they reach that frenzied point, it wouldn’t matter if you threw in a mackerel pitch bait or a tennis shoe – the fish was going to pile on it!
English inadvertently illustrated that point perfectly by pitching a rigged ballyhoo from a dead boat to a marlin that I was swimming with at the time. The marlin actually swam around me to get at the bait drifting slowly behind. It was lit up and aggressive – even after hanging around a dead boat for four minutes. English hooked the fish, I was picked up and we fought and released it several minutes later.
Probably the lesson that had the biggest impact on me was seeing the difference between slowing the boat down after raising a fish and continuing to troll at the same speed. While the numbers may not be significant, out of the 12 fish we raised and stopped the boat for, only two failed to show a lot of enthusiasm. But we got more than one strike out of those two fish as well. Continuing to troll along at the same speed after a strike gave us a much higher ratio of one-hit wonders.
After the first time I saw a marlin twist and turn, backtracking to find the injured bait as the spread was trolled out of the game, I couldn’t help but wonder how many marlin must lose track of the target during a strike and are left searching the wake. It’s no wonder that many of the best captains spin around on their path after a missed strike to get a second shot at a fish still looking for the prey that it just whacked.
In my experience, as the boat decelerated, the clearer water and slowing spread gave the blue marlin a much better opportunity to attack the baits over and over again with precision. The secret was to sell the initial fake, and that boils down to using well-rigged, high-quality natural baits or correctly swimming lures.
In St. Thomas the fishing is all about big numbers, which means there are a lot of chances to get it right. I’m certain this won’t be my last trip to this amazing blue marlin destination, since I plan on continuing to experiment with new ways to understand and control these incredible animals – and the only way to do that is to spend more time with them in the water.
To order a print of one of Marc’s amazing underwater blue marlin shots, or to take a look at some of his other game-fish photos, visit www.occhioinc.com.