The Inagural Barta Blue Marlin Tournament

The November column started off in the usual manner. Captain Tred Barta was in full dress rant over this month’s item that ticked him off. Captain Tred is the columnist for Sport Fishing magazine who holds several world records for big fish on light tackle. Captain Tred once killed a wild hog with his bare hands and a knife. Okay, it was a big knife. Although I don't always agree with the theories he advances, his column is always an entertaining read. In the November column, Captain Tred was upset about his perception of the current state of billfish tournaments and their associated Calcutta wagering. According to Captain Tred, killing a marlin in order to win a couple hundred thousand dollars is no longer an honorable thing to do. Captain Tred now refuses to catch marlin on double hooked plastic lures at high speed from unlimited class tackle in order to more expeditiously win money. The column went on to propose his idea of an honorable billfish tournament format: Release all billfish on your honor, clean dead bait, no Calcutta and light tackle. In fact, Captain Tred challenged all comers to meet him at Walker's Cay in April to test his new format and to raise money for the IGFA's fledgling youth program. It sounded good to me.

Having spent several weeks fishing off the fabled Walker's Cay over the past few summers without so much as a nibble, I was not too enthusiastic about my chances. I set about assembling a "Dream Team" to rise to Captain Tred's challenge. I first enlisted the aid of past Gainesville Offshore Fishing Club president, Eddie Bell, and GOFC board member, Bob Wallace. Both are solid Florida Gator fans and have caught marlin in the Bahamas when I couldn't catch a cold. Next was Dr. Johnny Cagle from Charleston, SC, an old tuna fishing buddy and a ringer in a dead bait tournament. Examining potential expenses made it quickly apparent that another team member was needed. Crisp Gatewood, the Heineken distributor from Tifton, GA, offered to sponsor the team's beverage needs. He insisted that we take his thirty-four foot Mirage powered by twin Mercury 250s in return. Hummmm, free beer, fast boat......I immediately mailed the entry fee to Captain Tred along with my team's objectives: 1) Have fun 2) Leave some money behind for the IGFA kid's program 3) Beat Captain Tred in his own tournament.

Flash forward five months:

Tuesday, April 22, 9:45 pm. We are huddled in our motel room in Ft. Pierce listening to the wind howling through the palms. The boat is outside in the slip, loaded with five sets of gear, fifteen rods, a case of Calcutta bait and an odd assortment of rigged mackerel. More importantly, there are ten cases of Heineken for the crew and five cases of Strohs for barter with the natives. NOAA is calling for a cold front to push through by noon the next day. With one hundred and twenty miles of open ocean between us and Walker's, I have stopped calculating the probability of winning the tournament and begun looking at the odds of surviving the crossing.

Wednesday, 7:00 am. We depart Ft. Pierce inlet with a twenty knot breeze from the SE. We deviate fifteen degrees south of the heading to Walker's to compensate for the action of the wind, waves and Gulf Stream. The seas build to five to seven feet slightly forward of the beam and we are able to make twenty-seven mph. At fifty miles out, the starboard engine stops running. We suspect a fuel problem and have just begun to inspect the filters as the port engine dies. I think about the caption from the poster for the movie DELIVERANCE which reads "This is the weekend they decided not to play golf." The filters are clean so we swap from the main to the auxiliary tank and both engines roar to life. I reset my survival probability meter which is reading "TILT". We cross onto the Bahamas Bank at seventy miles out. The shallower water has a calming effect on the waves and we are able to make thirty-six mph on into Walker's: Total crossing time is four hours, thirty minutes.

Wednesday, 7:00 pm. We are once again huddled, this time in the main lobby of the Walker's Hotel as Mother Nature lashes the island with torrential rains and forty knot winds. We are surrounded by seventy other fishing teams from several different countries as far away as South Africa. Captain Tred, resplendent in his usual starched khaki uniform, is conducting the obligatory captain's meeting in order to lay down the rules and answer questions. "I am proud to say we have several world-class anglers fishing this tournament," he begins. We look at each other and nod knowingly. As the lightning flashes through the windows, Captain Tred explains that this is a captain's choice tournament. It is up to each team to decide whether on not to fish, but all three days will be counted in the tournament. We decide after much deliberation to be far too hung over to be remotely interested fishing in the morning's anticipated thirty knot winds. A Heineken front approaches as one team member is heard to shout "GO GATORS" many times during the meeting.

Thursday, 9:30 am. After a good night's sleep, we head down to the boat where breakfast is the first order of business followed by bait rigging and repairing the main fuel tank. The wind is a constant twenty-five knots. Our pennants are flapping wildly from the outrigger halyard. Apparently most of the other teams have decided not to fish the morning of the first day. The marina is bustling with activity. There are prizes in this tournament for the "best bait box". We were not sure upon what merits a bait box might be judged, but Captain Tred peers into ours, laughs, and yells "Next!" The main fuel tank has trash in the line and is easily repaired.

By 12:30 the wind has calmed and we take the boat offshore to check out the sea conditions. In fifteen hundred feet of water about a mile and a half from the marina are ten foot swells, but they are far enough apart to be comfortable. We put out the 'hoos and within minutes are into a big fish on the center rigger. Johnny Cagle grabs the rod from his spot in the tower and the fight is on. Our species speculation ends when a large bull dolphin makes several jumps before settling down to a game of tug. Nearing the boat we estimate his weight at forty pounds. Eddie grabs the leader, I plant the gaff and swing the fish aboard and toward the fish box that Gatewood has forgotten to open. He has been too busy videotaping the event to think about it. Now there is a sizable fish on the loose in the cockpit with a gaff in his shoulder and mayhem on his mind. The video does not do the scene justice. Gatewood's skills as a cinematographer are matched only by his fish-box-opening-skills. The radio is curiously quiet for a tournament. Later, before we head in, we weigh the fish only to have him bottom out our fifty-pound scales. There is a beautiful trophy for the first place dolphin and we know we have a mortal lock on first place. Upon our arrival to the marina, we learn to our surprise, that fishing has been canceled for that day. The word went out while we slept in that morning. What a letdown. Our big dolphin weighs 52.5 pounds.

We go hunting for the tournament director. Captain Tred is truly sorry. He says he knows more about catching fish and killing hogs than running tournaments. We agree. "We didn't want to give the big boats an advantage or have anyone get hurt." We reluctantly agree with his logic. Captain Tred can feel another Heineken front easing in on the crew and leaves to attend to other matters. We eat dinner dejectedly but rally to the thought of doing it again tomorrow.

Friday, 5:30 am. Lines are not allowed in the water until 7:30 am. Our baits are rigged, rods ready, and the trip time from when we leave our room to the fifteen hundred foot depth where we intend to start trolling is approximately twelve minutes. Bob is up and insisting we be among the first to leave the marina. He wants to go to the boat NOW. We all groan and place pillows over our heads to muffle the sound. The name of Bob's boat is Totally Nuts. The others are beginning to understand why.

We leave the marina around 7:15 am and arrive in fifteen hundred feet ten minutes later. The wind is twenty knots from the SE and seas are four to six feet. Trolling offshore, Bob is in the tower, driving and scouting for fishy water. We once again deploy our spread of four rigged ballyhoo, one triple secret Eddie Bell-rigged tinker mackerel, and two ballyhoo teaser chains. The radio is busy reporting the first marlin hooked up before 8:00 am, along with assorted dolphin and wahoo. About 8:30 Bob spots a nice weed line. By this time there are three marlin releases on the tournament board including one by Captain Tred. A rogue wave hits the boat broadside and Bob is thrown from his feet. A strained knee is the diagnosis. We help him down and in short order Bob is resting and directing traffic in the cockpit.

Gatewood and Cagle head up the tower. The left rigger pops and Eddie grabs the screaming reel. Another large dolphin. Closer inspection reveals a size similar to yesterday's fish. With two in the tower, Bob incapacitated and Eddie on the rod, I need to leader and gaff the fish. As I take the first wrap on the leader, the guys above start yelling "SHARK!". No one sounds more authoritative from the tower than Cagle. The bull dolphin detects the large predator as well and tries to run, cinching the leader into a knot around my fingers from which I cannot extricate myself. The gongs start going off on the survival meter. SHARK! SSSHAAARK! Their screaming only serves to make me struggle more violently against the leader. The dolphin senses tragedy below and a comedy above. He suddenly likes his chances closer to the boat. Eddie sees my problem and drops the rod, grabs the gaff, and appears to be hoeing an imaginary garden in the water before the gaff finally strikes the wildly thrashing fish. Bob remembers the previous day and opens the fish box just as Eddie swings the bull aboard. Whew!

We've all read of mates being tangled in the leader and subsequently pulled overboard by large fish. I had no desire to join the "underwater wireman's club". The shark is miffed at having breakfast snatched from his jaws and follows us for a short while in case someone goes for a swim. We exchange high fives and get back to the business of beating Captain Tred. The rest of the morning and part of the afternoon passes with several smaller dolphin brought to the boat including one quadruple header. About 2:30 the left rigger and the center long bait become twangled, which is Charleston slang for twisted and tangled. Eddie and I get the mess into the cockpit and each have two handfuls of mono when I spot a large shape just beneath the left teaser. A blue marlin is lit up in neon feeding colors and is shopping the skipping, hookless ballyhoo chain. All I can do is point and babble. Cagle jumps from tower to cockpit and tries to feed the left short line to the fish but he is gone as quickly as he appeared.

Tournament rules dictate that fishing ceases and lines are to be out of the water at 4:00 pm. Bob exhorts Gatewood to "See what this baby will do!" The trip to the marina is quick. Today's dolphin weighs forty-nine pounds on our scale and forty-eight and change pounds on the official IGFA scale. We sweat as a couple of forty-five pounders are weighed but at the end of the day we are in first place for dolphin. Captain Tred catches several tuna, none of which place in the tuna category. His marlin release on thirty pound test line has him in second place overall. It is the first billfish for the angler fishing on Captain Tred's boat and as is the custom, the angler is tossed into the water back at the marina. The people doing the throwing suddenly think it would be a good idea for Captain Tred to swim as well. They must have forgotten about the bare handed hog thing. We held our breath as he went in. There is enough starch in the epaulets of his pressed khaki shirt to coagulate the water in the marina. Shortly thereafter he is standing in the middle of our room. He is still dripping from his dunking but the epaulets are board flat. Captain Tred supplies us with the details of his fishing for the day. He seems pleased that we have once again caught the largest dolphin.

Friday, 7:00 pm. There are prizes in this tournament for the best dockside hors d' oeuvre. The rest of the teams are hopping boat to boat, sampling each other's appetizers. We retreat to the hotel restaurant to plot strategy, smoke cheap cigars and drink Heineken, not necessarily in that order. There are six trophies for the overall tournament and six marlin have been released today. In order to win or place, we would have to release two marlin on the final day. The restaurant staff has prepared a platter of our dolphin in various Bahamian styles including fried-almondine and Nassau. It rivals any fish I have ever tasted.

Saturday, 7:00 am. Bob's knee is very sore. He is taking advantage of all the rest he can get before fishing starts today. Yesterday's sunny skies and fifteen to twenty knot winds have given way to dark clouds and twenty to twenty-five knot SE winds. The seas are a sloppy five to seven feet. It is a miserable day to fish. Our morning and early afternoon consist of a few smaller dolphin, a lot of spray and listening to others on the radio.

By 2:00 pm two more marlin have been released, along with several dolphin and at least one very large wahoo. We are trolling up sea about four miles from the island when something crashes the right rigger. The fish behaves like we think a marlin should before spitting the hook after thirty seconds. We re-rig and turn to hit the spot again with the same results. The mystery fish refuses to be caught. Forty-five minutes later, again heading up sea, a large fish nails the right flat bait and line melts off the reel. Cagle is on the rod in a flash and appears to be well hooked when the line goes slack. After five seconds of furious reeling the line comes tight again and the fish is headed toward the front of the boat. This is a large and very active marlin. In the blink of an eye the line is under the boat and in the props. After the inevitable ping of the line parting, there is silence.

In two days of fishing, we have had shots at two blue marlin. The first caught us unprepared and snickered at our futile efforts. The second dealt himself a get-out-of-jail-free card from the bottom of the boat. Dead bait fishing for marlin may take a little more practice.

Saturday, 4:30 pm. Bob and Eddie head off to clean the day's catch. Even though we missed the marlin, Bob is feeling better because we were able to outrun the fleet back to the marina. I head over to the weigh in to check out what will surely be smaller dolphin. After all, we are a lock to win the dolphin category. Everything progresses smoothly with a seventy-seven pound yellowfin tuna and a ninty pound wahoo weighed in. No one has anything close to even a thirty pound dolphin until late in the session. On the far side of the dock, I can see a mate hoist a large green fish into a wheelbarrow . The tension mounts as the fish nears the scale. The bull is hoisted up and the weight called out. Forty-nine point three pounds! Aarrrrgggg! Beaten by just over one pound. Oh well! We were wondering how we were going to chop that beautiful trophy into five pieces anyway.

Saturday, 7:45 pm. There is a carnival atmosphere under the huge open air tent in the middle of Walker's Cay. Seventy teams have survived the Gulf Stream crossing, one lay day and two days of fishing. The awards banquet is about to begin. Captain Tred is feeling good and with good reason. He has locked up second place in his inaugural tournament. Through sponsorships, entry fees, an event long auction and donations, the first Barta Blue Marlin Classic has raised in excess of $63,000. Before turning the money over to the IGFA, Captain Tred makes the President swear in front of the audience that every cent will be spent on the kid's fishing program. There have been eleven new world record fish caught by junior anglers. In spite of the weather the BBMC is a great success. Toward the end of the banquet the winds kick up and rain pelts the tent. Everyone goes to bed dreading the crossing back to Florida.

Sunday, 5:30 am. In an effort to beat the crowd, I am at the hotel's front desk haggling with a sleepy clerk about the charges added to our bill. It is a Bahamian game we both know well and by 6:00 am I am back in the room packing my bag. The rest of the crew has already left for the boat. We struck a deal with two larger boats last night to follow them across the Stream and they want to leave early. The weather forecast is twenty-five to thirty knot winds from the south with eight to ten foot seas. I run into Captain Tred in the hall. The man who killed a hog barehanded has opted to leave his twenty-six foot Albemarle at Walker's and hitch a ride on a seventy foot Striker. At the time I wish I could join him.

The skies are threatening and the mood somber at the marina. Everyone is wishing each other a good crossing. We head out behind a forty-seven foot Viking captained by a friend of Cagle's from Charleston. They are headed to Ft. Pierce also. After three or four miles at twenty-five mph, we decide that we will run ahead to the edge of the bank and take a look at the deep water. We cover the forty miles to the edge in about an hour and nose out into the Gulf Stream. The seas are on the beam from the south at six to eight feet with an occasional rogue. With no fuel tank or other problems, the survival meter is quiet. We reach Ft. Pierce just before noon and ten miles ahead of the larger boats. Bob is pleased because we have once again outrun someone. Gatewood has a sweet boat. At the dock, we kiss the ground, clear customs, and begin the long tow home.

We went two for three on our objectives. We had fun and we gave some money to the IGFA kid's program. Captain Tred put on a good tournament. He also beat us badly in the standings. We borrowed a phrase made popular by Tennessee football fans as we passed the 70' Striker earlier in the day, "Wait'll next year!"

Copyright by Capt. Wiley Horton