Beer and Loathing in Walker’s Channel

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Over the years I have heard and read many things about Capt. Tred Barta, I can tell you this much for sure: the boy is a Bulldog with a capital B. Shortly after last year’s tounament, Tred’s wife of many years left him for another man. Tred immediately went on record saying he had made a mistake by concentrating on his fishing and hunting too much and lost the woman he loved. He declared he was unfit to be a single man and forthwith set out in search of new wife, taking ads out in Long Island newspapers...

The 7th annual Barta Blue Marlin Classic was to begin with the Captain’s meeting on Wednesday evening, April 23rd, 2003. Looking for a leg up on the rest of the fleet and seeking some serious R&R, the Tuner fishing team left Ft. Pierce early Saturday morning, April 19. We were met with winds from the NW at 15 knots and a large ground swell generated by a low pressure system centered over Bermuda. A 45’ Ocean sportfish towing a flats skiff ran along near us for most of the trip in silence. The skiff spent a fair amount of the trip completely out of the water. We arrived at the fabled Walker’s Cay at just after 12 noon, secured slip S-8 and cleared Bahamas Customs and Immigration in time to grab a bowl of conch chowder before the Lobster Trap closed at 2pm.

This year’s crew was the same as last year, my wife, Doris and Capt. Sam Crutchfield. A last minute family matter once again prevented Missy Grey from joining us for the tournament. Capt. Sam disappeared to handle some sound equipment logistics and Doris and I climbed the hill to the Hotel to check in and stow our baggage. There was a mix up in room assignments and we were told to find Capt. Tred to work things out. We found Tred relaxing by the pool. He immediately introduced us to Annie Mitchell, his fiancé. Annie is a trim and attractive lady who appears to be as gung ho as Tred. Like I said, the boy is a bulldog and I’m happy for him.

After checking in, Doris, Capt. Sam and I took off in the Tuner to catch some dinner. Capt. Sam guided us to another of his triple secret fishing spots off the North end of the island. There is a ledge with 20 feet of relief off Walker’s Channel that produced several yellowtail, a nice mutton snapper and a 22lb yellowfin grouper in about an hour. As we readied to go, the anchor was fouled in some rocks..I tried every trick I know to free it and was ready to cut the line when Capt. Sam asked for a chance. I was totally unenthusiastic about his prospects but gave him the wheel anyway. After 5 minutes of his steady coaxing, the shiny Fortress anchor popped to the surface. It occurred to me once again that the man in the mirror can always learn a new lesson or two. Capt. Sam’s 40+ years in the charter business are a saltwater encyclopedia. Back at the dock, the team separates into areas of expertise: Sam and Doris head off to clean the fish while I am left to rinse off the boat and make sure the beer is cold enough to drink. I have found that if 24 hours on ice doesn’t do the trick, a little rock salt will drop the temp pretty well. Sometimes it takes three or four beers to get things working right.

Sam delivered the fish to the Hotel’s restaurant and asked they serve it fried, Nassau and Almondine styles with traditional peas and rice.

Thomas Wynn, captain of the Petrel, joined us for dinner along with his wife and two young sons. Thomas is a boat broker during the week and runs the boat on the weekends. With it’s big, pronounced flare up front and tumblehome sides, the Petrel is an original fifty-three foot Sportsman built in North Carolina by Ommie Tillet and is a beautiful example of what a Carolina boat is all about.

The low pressure system near Bermuda is predicted to move off to the Northeast as the week goes by. Sunday morning, it is producing large swells that traveled several hundred miles before reaching the Bahamas. In the space of one quarter of a mile, the water depth goes from one thousand feet to two feet. As the swells pile onto the reef at the edge of the Bahama Bank, they form enormous, cresting waves that crash over the coral. Capt. Sam wants to try out our new outrigger spread and is anxious to get offshore. We eat breakfast at the Hotel restaurant and head out Walker’s Channel toward the thundering surf line that marks the reef. There is a narrow break in the reef where only the occasional wave will break and we are through it in a flash. Looking back, there is only the hiss and froth of breakers as far as we can see in each direction. The ocean becomes more orderly as the depth drops off. As we put out our baits in eight hundred feet, the swells tower twelve to fourteen feet over us. We begin trolling East toward Matanilla Shoal. The wind is light but nothing is happening in the morning.

Capt. Tred has a new sponsor this year. He is fishing from a thirty-three foot Hydrosport with twin outboards. The boat is good looking and very fast. He is trolling to the East several miles ahead of us and reports large schools of dorado and tuna. After a fruitless morning, we get to Tred’s vicinity around two pm and catch a couple of triple-headers of dorado to thirty-eight pounds. Tred heads around the West end of Matanilla and radios back to be careful coming through the breaking seas. We have no trouble and cover the twenty four miles back to the island in around an hour.

There are several more boats in the Marina than when we left that morning. I drop Sam and Doris off at the fish cleaning station and head back to the slip. The first beer is crackyourteeth cold. Being cautious, I tried a couple more while rinsing the salt off the Tuner. The Walker’s Cay resort uses reverse-osmosis to produce some of the finest tasting water anywhere. It will not leave hard-water spots on your canvas yet mates on the big boats chamois their butts off every day. At $.35/gallon, the cost of water reminds me of gasoline prices when I was a college student. My boat rinsing chores rarely last for more than half a beer so I have plenty of time to reflect on the day’s events.

Sam has brought some beautiful bait to the tournament including fresh caught silver mullet for teasers and well-packed ballyhoo from South America. The six Shimano TLD30 two-speed reels are loaded with fresh Suffix high-vis line and have a maximum legal wind-on leader. We have the outriggers tricked out with double halyards and the teaser reels performed flawlessly. After three years working together, the boat, tackle and techniques have come together. Our bait spread looks great. If we can find some fish during the tournament, we will be a force to be reckoned with.

If it were up to Capt. Sam we would leave the Marina before first light every day.

He is always up at 4:30am, usually knocking on the wall and asking ”You guys awake yet?” I like to fish as good as anyone but this is a vacation as well as a fishing tournament and on Monday morning, Doris and I slept until past 7am.

The agenda for the day is to do some light tackle fishing for mutton snapper. It seems we always buy more groceries than we need so breakfast was aboard the boat as we left the Marina. It was the kind of day you long for while at work….light breeze, warm sun and cooperative fish. The past few days’ Northeast wind had shoved blue water miles onto the bank. Everywhere we went the water was crystal clear. Later in the afternoon, we stopped off at Grand Key and visited Big Rosie’s for fuel. After the crossing and two days of fishing, my little Volvo had consumed 102 gallons of diesel. At $3/gallon, we were in no hurry to get anywhere and used the Tuner’s twenty-knot econo-cruise for most of the trip.

Back at the dock a new Hydrosport was in the adjacent slip. The owner was Jeremy Crews from Virginia. Jeremy and his grandson joined us for dinner that evening at the Conch Pearl Restaurant. He founded CruiseAir back in the fifties and recently started up a new company, LectroTab, that makes electric trim tabs for boats of all sizes. Jeremy did a good job selling his product so expect to see a pair of LectroTabs on my boat before long. After dinner, we helped Tred et al stuff captain’s bags for the tournament.

Tuesday dawned bright and clear and we decided to head out front and troll to the southeast toward Stranger’s Cay. We had good luck there a couple of years ago. Around 15 miles from Walker’s, my analog cell phone rang and I was able to forget vacation for most of the morning. After the last call, I turned that thing off for the rest of the trip. In a long day of trolling, we found a lot of sargassum and some cold water. South was not the direction we would fish during this year’s marlin tournament. The highlight of the day was a floating pallet that had three dozen five to ten pound tripletail hovering about it. We pulled in the trolling rods and had great sport on six-pound tackle, keeping four for the dinner table. Capt. Sam borrowed a fryer and cooked some of the best fish I’ve ever wrapped my mouth around. By the time we headed to the room, the Marina was virtually full.

Wednesday is usually a light day. The Captain’s Meeting kicks off around four pm so we headed out to catch some bottom fish and planned to be back by noon. One of the neatest things about the BBMC is the kids. In our seven years there, we’ve literally watched several children grow into young adults.

Patrick Snipes, an 11 year old we’ve seen for the past five years had watched us come in with nice bottom fish and wanted to go this morning. Patrick was fishing with his father, Ted, and brother, Taylor, aboard the DeDe Dumpling. We took him to the drop off Walker’s Channel and put him on three muttons to 14 pounds using 10 pound tackle. I think we have a friend for life.

The Captain’s Meeting at the BBMC is a laid back affair with most of the time spent renewing acquaintances. Tred has created a tournament with a wonderful atmosphere and takes a little time to crow. He has returned entry fees to over five hundred boats this year. He predicts this little tournament in the Bahamas will net over one million dollars for the IGFA Junior Angler program by the end of this seventh tournament. The Marina, with 82 official slips, has just over one hundred boats crammed into every available space. Tred once again welcomes some of the best captains, mates and anglers in the world. I look around and see several folks nodding as if he’s talking about them. I’m sure he’s not talking about me.

“You awake yet?” Its quarter to five in the morning and Sam is ready to go. I promise to be at the boat before seven and pull the pillow over my head to muffle the sound. A rum front snuck up on yours truly during the Captain’s Meeting and Sam’s voice has a nails-on-chalkboard quality to it. A quick shower and three Advils later, things are looking better. I am a believer in a better life through chemistry. We had decided to fish the Northeast hump the previous evening until Capt. Sam got a look at a fax from Roffer’s. It showed a big warm water eddy around twenty miles north of the island and that’s where we headed. Lines in is at eight am. When we came off plane, there was sargassum in every direction and the water temp had dropped four degrees. I don’t mind fishing in grass if you’re getting bites but this was almost unfishable. Another boat asked where we were and Sam replied, “Two thousand feet of weeds with scattered water!” After thirty minutes of frustration, we pulled the baits and headed back toward the humps.

By eight forty five, Tred has released a blue marlin. We put the baits back out just off the hump and in ten minutes we’re hooked up to a white marlin. Sam runs the boat, Doris handles the rod and I admire their work until its time for a long arm to grab the leader. Release time is well under five minutes and the Tuner is on the leader board. Suddenly there are several other boats around the hump. Tred appears off the starboard side and trolls west alongside us. I hear Sam mutter “What the hell!” and turn in time to see an enormous explosion of white water behind Tred’s boat. Tred comes on the radio to announce the hookup and is barely understandable, he’s so excited. Tred says the fish is easily in the four to five hundred pound class. We have a ringside seat to watch as the Makaira alternately spins, runs and backs down trying to gain line on the fish. Early in the fight, Tred jumps overboard to unwrap the thirty-pound test line from one or both of the props. This is an important point later in the tournament. Tred released the fish after thirty minutes, estimating it a four hundred and fifty pounds. It appeared to be every bit that large from what I saw. His two blue marlin releases have Tred in the lead with one thousand points. We finish the day catching three yellowfin tuna near the break in the reef called Walker’s Channel and two of the larger boats follow us to the dock using Capt. Sam’s patented shortcut.

The auction was Thursday evening under the big yellow striped tent and Capt. Sam was in rare form as the auctioneer. Eight artists including Guy Harvey, Carey Chen and Carin Stevens were present and completed original works during the tournament for auction. Even in this down economy, over one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars was raised on the art and other donated items to push the tournament’s donations to the IGFA Junior Angler program to over one million dollars during its seven year history.

Friday we ate breakfast on the boat and were out of the marina by seven thirty. At eight am we dropped the baits in right where we got the bite the day before. At nine thirty, Tred reports releasing a white marlin. The boy is white hot and looking for more. We are in the same general area and troll by to congratulate the Makaira. As we pass twenty yards apart, Tred hold up three fingers and points to the water. Without using the radio, he is telling us he has seen more fish here. Just after ten, a decent marlin crashes our short right rigger and spits the hook. Sam drops back several times and while he is working, a smaller blue grabs the long rigger and hooks up immediately. He looked to be around sixty pounds, perfect for a release tournament, and we get him in quickly. A blue marlin release is worth five hundred points. Added to the two hundred for our white and we’re suddenly in third place. A few minutes later, a nice fish hits the long rigger. Sam drops back four times and each time the marlin inhales the bait but does not hook up. Finally he leaves to attend to other matters. When the line is reeled in, the hook point has buried in the ballyhoo’s head leaving no way for a hookset. Its hard to bitch about the two that got away, but either fish would have won the tournament for us. As the day wore on, the wind picked up from the Southwest and made the ride in a bumpy experience.

There are two other boats from Gainesville in the tournament, Larry Newman’s End of the Line and Jerry McCoy’s First Look. They are slipped next to each other on the North dock and have set up camp with freezers, coolers, picnic tables, grills, fryers and a well used blender. Dubbed Skeeter’s South, we spent considerable time enjoying the fine cuisine and refreshments served well into the night. Next year we may try to get a slip closer to these guys.

Saturday morning thunder woke me up a little after four. Capt. Sam got up at four thirty. I told Sam I was not interested in fishing in lightning. He grunted and said, “See ya at the boat.” Around five thirty a band of thunderstorms shook the hotel. I went back to sleep and woke up a little after seven. The sky was still very dark and rain was coming in sheets. After a shower, Doris and I dashed across the courtyard to the restaurant. The pungent smell of strong coffee greeted us. Several teams were already seated eating breakfast. Dean Travis Clark and the WorldCat team joined us at a large table and Capt. Sam appeared walking up the hill from the Marina under a table umbrella. Sam confirmed that Tred had called the tournament until eleven am in order to evaluate the weather. .After breakfast, we sat aboard the DeDe Dumpling and listened to Ted, Thomas and Capt.Sam tell tall fishing tales. At ten am Tred came by and said we were about to get a lull in the weather but there was some very bad weather coming behind it. His plan was to call the day’s fishing off at the eleven am announcement. We heartily agreed. The wind died out and the rain stopped shortly afterward. At eleven, we were still talking on Ted’s boat when Tred came on the radio and declared lines in, the weather was going South of us and we would count fish until lines out at three pm.

We scrambled to the Tuner and headed out of the Marina before most other boats heard the news. At eleven thirty, we put out the baits in eight hundred feet and headed toward our spot. By twelve we were about eight miles off the island. The wind steadily picked back up out of the South until it was singing through the spreader wires. The sea went from a three-foot swell to a solid six feet in what seemed like seconds. We turned into the wind and back toward the island. There was a lot of speculation on the radio as to how hard it was blowing. A clipped voice with a British accent came on saying it was a sustained thirty-five knots at the oil platform with gusts well over fifty. I told Sam screw the fish, I’m headed for dirt. He wondered aloud what took me so long. We are now seven miles from the island headed South into the teeth of the wind. We can’t get to the protection of the reef and have to come in through Walker’s Channel. The tide is running onto the bank and against the wind. In six hundred feet, the waves are seven feet and growing. Capt. Sam predicts it will get better when we reach shallow water. In eighty feet, the opposing forces of the wind and water create seemingly square waves eight feet tall and eight feet apart. We have yet to reel in the baits or lift the riggers. In twenty feet of water, I come as close as I’ve ever come to taking a wave over the bow. We have to turn and troll beam to with every gust bringing a waterfall over the top of the boat. This is another dimension in fun I am not anxious to experience again. After an hour and a half, we reached the lee of the island and got the riggers and rods squared away. At 2:30pm we were sitting in the Lobster Trap eating conch chowder and listening to everyone else bitching and moaning via my handheld vhf. Sneaky Pete, a sixty-five foot Viking, has caught two sailfish and broken one of his triple spreader outriggers in the process. A thirty-four foot Yellowfin has taken several waves over the bow. They are briefly awash before regaining buoyancy. We hear later that the two boats, pushing hardest that morning to declare lines in, don’t even leave the dock. It takes an extra long time to rinse the salt off the boat although I used very little water in the process. Most of the time is spent regaining my land legs and drinking a few beers, opposing actions to be sure.

At the BBMC, the International Game Fish Association rules are relaxed slightly allowing rods to be passed once and assistance to be given to junior and small fry anglers. There are tons of trophies to be handed out and Tred is hoarse from talking too much but that will not deter him. The awards party started early, at six pm. Tred’s first order of business is clearing up a misunderstanding. When he entered the water on the first day of fishing to clear the line from the props, the angler was not a junior or small fry. He counted the marlin and was in first place. The angler was Annie’s son Ian. Ian is eighteen, but looks far younger. This was a clear rules violation and to his credit, Tred pointed out the mistake and disqualified the fish. The first and second place boats each had two blue marlin releases. Makaira and Tuner tied for third place overall with a white and blue marlin release each, the tie going to Tred on time. Doris won first place in the ladies division. My original entry form seven years ago had my three objectives listed in order: 1) have fun, 2) leave some money behind for the Junior angler’s program and 3) beat Capt. Tred at his own tournament. We were tied at three each going into this year and Tred squeaked by on time. Wait til next year! Arrrrrgh.

Once again the Walker’s Cay Resort and Marina was a hospitable and comfortable place to hold a tournament. Since downturn in tourism following Sept. 11, the natives have come to more fully recognize and appreciate the value of visiting strangers. Besides….we’re a fun group, not caught up in the tension of fishing for big money. Thanks to Capt. Sam, I have learned a lot about fishing in the islands and some pretty cool navigational techniques. GPS numbers are nice but he has an uncanny knack for triangulating us through rocky passages and directly onto fish. Capt. Tred’s tournament has become a haven for manufacturers, magazine writers and marine artists. It could very well be the blueprint for tournaments of the future as people fish for the fun of fishing and enjoying each other’s company. It reminds me a lot of our own Big Bend Bashes on a grand scale and in an exotic locale. I’ll be back...

Copyright by Capt. Wiley Horton