CONGRATULATIONS ON DELIVERY OF YOUR NEW 985-POUND BABY TUNA, the telegram read, WAS IT A BOY OR A GIRL? The recipient, an exhausted 40-year-old New York obstetrician named Richard Hausknecht, was too dazed to look. He had just boated the largest bluefin tuna ever taken on rod and reel. Men have dedicated careers and fortunes to catching such a fish, and perhaps it is right that great sacrifices precede great victories. Fish, however, know nothing of justice. It was only the third day in his life that Dr. Hausknecht had fished for giant tuna.
It was a day begun with hope, as are all fishing days, but then everything went wrong. For a while it even appeared that the tuna might land Dr. Hausknecht. In the company of his wife Ginny, son Michael, daughter Laura and Captain Joe Moore, Dr. Hausknecht left Montauk Point, on the extreme east end of Long Island, at 8 a.m. on Aug. 30, heading south in his 36-foot sport-fisherman, Galatea. He had done well aboard Galatea this year with bluefish and school tuna. Still, until that morning the largest fish he had ever caught was a 94-pound schoolie. His destination was the dragger Northern Dawn, a source of fish for chumming and a lunch counter for giant tuna, which would be feeding on escapees from its nets. Lenny Babin of Northern Dawn filled a two-bushel net with small ling, butterfish and whiting and sent it over to the Galatea. Tied to the net was a little jar for "contributions" and Dr. Hausknecht inserted a few dollars for good luck. He would shortly need about $1 million worth.
Two rods were inserted in the Galatea's stainless steel holders. One rig, spooled with 130-pound test, was baited with whiting, the other with ling. Inside of 15 minutes a large tuna appeared in the chum slick. "The fins were so far apart I thought it was two fish," Dr. Hausknecht said later. The tuna, in a feeding frenzy, quickly hit the whiting. The force of its strike ripped the rod holder out of the gunwale, screws and all. Hausknecht lunged for the rod and then had to back off on the drag to keep from being yanked overboard. Joe Moore slammed the Galatea in reverse, helping to ease the pressure.
Dr. Hausknecht hurried into the fighting chair, a lightweight sailfish model that wasn't bolted to the deck and suddenly seemed wholly inadequate. His 12/0 Penn reel was adjusted to approximately 25 pounds of drag, and after 20 minutes of fighting the fish his arms were rubbery. He was also anxious about the light fighting chair's gimbal, the swiveling socket that supports the rod butt. There was no hope at all without the gimbal, he thought. Just then its supports splayed and it popped out and hit the deck, leaving Dr. Hausknecht with 11 pounds of unsupported rod and reel in his hands and a wild, 985-pound tuna on the end of his line. Desperate now, he tried to brace the rod beneath the chair, which promptly lifted right off the deck. Again Moore put the Galatea into reverse. This time, however, he also radioed Bob Firno, skipper of Max Hoffman's Tomcat, three miles away. "Bob, our gimbal broke," he said. "Can we put our angler on your boat?"
It was clearly one of the most resourceful moves in the annals of big-game fishing and Firno agreed to it. Moore kept the Galatea in reverse and soon Tomcat was alongside, flying two flags, Israel's and the Black Hand, for its Jewish owner and Italian captain. Tomcat's stern came up against Galatea's side. Luckily, it was flat calm. Dr. Hausknecht loosened up on the star drag and, hanging onto his rod, clambered into Tomcat's cockpit. He had fought the fish for an hour at that point. Firno beckoned Moore to the flying bridge. "Your fish," he said, and Moore, coming aboard, proceeded to show why those all-day-and-night ordeals with giant tuna are largely episodes of the past. He backed down and turned in circles, neutralizing the tuna's runs.
After three-quarters of an hour in the Tomcat Dr. Hausknecht saw his tuna for the first time. "I swear it looked like a two-man sub," he said. "It was the biggest thing I'd ever seen in the water." But it was still very green and, as Moore said, "it took off for China." Fifteen minutes later, though, Firno grabbed the wire leader and Hoffman sank the flying gaff. Then Firno got a line around the immense tail, or caudal I'm, and the tuna was hoisted head up on Tomcat's gin pole by means of a block and tackle. Ginny Hausknecht backed Galatea alongside, her fisherman-acrobat husband jumped into his own boat and soon the great tuna was wrestled aboard Galatea where. Dr. Hausknecht says, "it damn near tore up the cockpit." It also disgorged some of the fish in its stomach. After the weigh-in, all involved were convinced that when hooked the tuna must have weighed over 1,000 pounds. As it was, it was still eight pounds heavier than the current all-tackle world record, a 977-pounder caught by Commander Duncan M. Hodgson of the Canadian Navy in Nova Scotia's St. Ann Bay on a September day 20 years before. (Curiously, only a week after Dr. Hausknecht brought his fish to gaff, a 980-pound tuna was taken off Prince Edward Island.)
There was no more fishing from Galatea that day. "We'd broken the chair and broken the angler," Dr. Hausknecht said. "We had what we came for and, besides, there was no more room in the boat." Champagne was in the refrigerator, and when Ginny got a good look at the fish she put another bottle on ice. On the way in they stopped by a few boats to show off the catch and evidently a lot of ship-to-shore radio conversation ensued, for 30 or 40 people were waiting at the Montauk Deep Sea Club dock. The fish was hoisted on official scales, and when club weighmaster Bob Darenberg announced "985" the crowd buzzed and, as though in an old MGM movie, someone yelled, "The new world record!"
The next morning Dr. Hausknecht called the International Game Fish Association in Miami. His record was nowhere near official yet and he was worried that switching boats might have disqualified him. IGFA President William K. Carpenter said he didn't think so and that there were no rules against broken gimbals, either. He would send out the application forms immediately and Dr. Hausknecht felt optimistic.
Still, he knew there were people who wouldn't want him to have the record. "There are $200,000 boats here," he said. "They've gone out every day for years and here I come with the first tuna I've ever caught. I understand how they'll feel. I fished for striped bass for years without catching one. I remember all those nights I stood in the surf freezing my butt off, water inside my boots. Sure I felt angry when some 12-year-old went out on a Sunday afternoon and caught a 40-pounder, but that's what fishing is all about."
From 1951 to 1955 Dr. Hausknecht attended Tufts Medical School in Boston. "I literally lived on Cape Cod in those days," he said. "I'll bet there are over $1,000 worth of my hooks and lures and sinkers on the bottom of the Cape Cod Canal." He told how, after his medical boards, he went to bed for two hours, then left for the Cape. "I studied for those boards while fishing for bass," he said. "It's part of my life. I do crazy things."
Dr. Hausknecht's tuna hung above the dock for nearly 48 hours. It wasn't very pretty to see by this time. The sun baked it. Tourists gaped at it. The skin became stiff and the carcass, when poked, had no more give than a fully inflated football. Finally the tuna was taken down. A man cut off the tail and the head behind the pectoral fins to send to Al Pflueger in Florida for mounting. The remainder would be taken to a dump and buried. It smelled very bad now, but still, it didn't seem a proper ending for such a fish. A couple of days earlier Dr. Hausknecht had watched people bringing in small tuna and leaving them to rot on the dock. "It seems to me that only potential record breakers should be brought in," he had said. "I know that if you fight a fish to exhaustion it may die, even if you release it. Still, I'd rather leave it where it belongs, in the ocean, where it can do some good."
So one thing was sure. If there is any basis to the law of averages, even if Dr. Hausknecht fishes for tuna the rest of his life, he will never take another one ashore.