A hundred blips of iridescent silver flicker, then, eddying slowly, sink into darkness. Across their path, spilling electric-blue flashes like scout craft in a science-fiction movie, cut streamlined, predatory shapes. In the ordinary world of air and sunshine, three feet above the Bermudan sea, a skinny, barefoot boy of 12 standing in the stern of Tango squeaks with excitement and drops a fresh anchovy bait overboard. Free-floating, it shimmers momentarily in a new trail of silver blips—a handful of hogmouth fry that the boy's father has thrown out—and then is obliterated by one of the dark predators. A mackerel, a four-pounder, come to raid the chum line.
No contest, normally. But Davy DeSilva's 12-year-old muscles are taken by surprise. The mackerel gets its head down and dives for the bottom; only when it has taken out more than 50 feet of line can Davy turn it and manfully begin to pump. Now the others in the boat can see the mackerel hanging deep in the clear water. Then, suddenly, it seems to explode, giving off what appears to be a cloud of brown smoke.
In the water, blood looks brown. Davy has fished with his father long enough to know what to do next. All that remains of the mackerel—head and tattered shoulders—he reels furiously to the surface. Maybe a shark hit it. All morning a big hammerhead has been loitering with evil intent. Or a barracuda. All week the Challenger Bank has been thick with barracuda.
It is neither. Materializing so abruptly that there should be a whiff of sulphur in the air, a magnificent wahoo, theatrically black and silver, lunges at the mackerel head as it clears the surface. The wahoo hangs there for a split second, leers at us and dematerializes.
June 5, 1978
Stumbling in the cockpit, shouting orders at one another, David DeSilva Sr., Pete Perinchief and I scramble to put the mackerel head on a two-hook rig, on something to throw to the wahoo. Sonny the mate hacks fast at another fresh mackerel lying on the bait board. Now not only handfuls of fry drift down the chum stream; great bloody gobbets of mackerel flesh follow, trailing brown blood threads as they sink. Young Davy, escaping the sound and the fury, has climbed to the flying bridge above us, from where he dangles his legs and gazes into the water. "Hey, Dad! Hey!" he shouts.
The wahoo is back, we assume. But no. In the chum stream now, feeding delicately on the mackerel slices, is a beer barrel of an Allison tuna, the sun picking out the gaudy yellow of the finlets that run along its belly to its tail. It is the fish that Perinchief and I have waited more than a week for, a fish that we had almost despaired of finding.
For most of that time, the place we had waited was the Challenger Bank, which lies 15 miles southwest of Gibb's Hill Lighthouse on Bermuda. For almost four weeks before I had joined Perinchief, Allison, or yellowfin, tuna had been plentiful. Now they seemed to have quit. David DeSilva, skipper of Tango, suspected that they had taken it into their heads to follow dense schools of small red squid into deep water. "The run could be over," Perinchief mourned.
Tall and spare, the doyen of Bermuda's anglers, Perinchief was probably in a position to know. Again and again he told me how close the Allison would come to the boat on good days. "Sometimes," he had said, "you could hand-feed them."
It was sad for Perinchief because he had been confident he could find me one. And sad for me also because there can be few other places in the world where one can catch Allison in this fashion. About 20 years ago Bermuda skippers began chumming big fish up to the surface from 30 fathoms and more along the sides of the Challenger and Argus banks. In the early spring, chumming seems ineffective and one has to resort to trolling. But from June on, it works.
And it seemed finally to be working for us now. Our Allison was circling regally, 15 or 20 feet beneath the surface most of the time, feeding selectively, taking maybe three out of five mackerel pieces. "That one, he's goin' to humbug us a long time," ruminated DeSilva. "Like to see a couple more of them out there. Even a little blackfin would fire him up, make him jealous."
By now the head of the unfortunate mackerel that young Davy had caught was rigged and ready. We'd try the tuna with that first, we thought, to see if a really dramatic chunk of bait would stir him. I pulled line from the reel and lobbed the bloody head to the tuna. It turned and was about to take the bait when the wahoo came flashing onstage again. It gave the tuna no chance, engulfing the bait and screaming off with it on a magnificent surface run. And in chorus, with deep ingratitude, we stood and cursed that beautiful wahoo that would have been so welcome half an hour before. All of us except Sonny the mate, who remained at his post, chumming. There was still a chance that the Allison had not been irretrievably spooked, that it might somehow still be there when the wahoo was swung inboard.
However, it was 20 minutes before the fish was rolling beaten at the side of the boat, a long, thin wahoo that belied our original estimate of it when it was in the water. Sixty pounds this one was, in contrast to the 70 or 75 pounds we had guessed upon first sighting it. DeSilva dragged it into the boat and we settled down to see if the Allison would reappear.
Eight days previously, Perinchief and I had begun our Allison hunt, not on Tango but aboard Coral Sea, skippered by Boyd Gibbons, mate Teddy Gibbons. On Coral Sea was the ultimate refinement: a heavy glass panel in the hull, similar to the ones on boats that take tourists on reef trips. But this one had a more serious purpose. Lying full length on the deck one could peer far down into the pellucid water and watch the chum line do its work.
Almost always, mackerel would come up first, sometimes with the species of small mackerel that Bermudans call sea robins. Hanging on the flanks of the schools of small fish would be barracuda. Following them through the day came a carnival procession of fish: almaco jacks, known as horse-eye bonito to the islander; Bermuda chub, with their small, pursy lips and flattened bodies; blackfin tuna; rainbow runners with flashing yellow tails; Allisons that were not big enough to count as Allisons. White marlin have come into the chum line and been hooked, but that is very rare. Sharks blunder into it, mainly duskies and blues, sometimes a hammerhead. While you wait for the aristocrats of the chum line, the big wahoo and Allison, there is ample fishing entertainment, though at times one feels little compulsion to fish, being content to watch the passing show through Polaroid sunglasses.
Swiftly one becomes better at identification at long range, distinguishing, say, between barracuda and wahoo, both of them elongated, dark shadows to the novice. One learns, for instance, to identify species by the way they move before you see them plainly. In few forms of fishing, certainly infrequently in salt water, is it possible to be so intimately aware of' the fish you are seeking.
The glass panel was not the only refinement aboard Coral Sea. Like everything else Bermudan, the craft was precisely run according to regulations. (If' they could enforce the rule, one suspects that the islanders would have the Allison tuna wearing jackets and ties after 7 p.m.) Light a cigarette and the smoke acted as a kind of chum trail in itself. Within seconds, Teddy Gibbons would glide, up silently, like a perfect butler, with an ashtray. It was very stylish.
But, then, the Gibbons brothers' fishing was nothing if not stylish. Each morning a picket line of white sportfishermen formed up along the edge of the Challenger Bank, anchor line astern. Coral Sea, though, did not join the file. Keeping well south of the other craft, we would home in on a red buoy, the Gibbons' marker for their personal, well-respected patch where the fish—day in, day out—were kept in a state of simmering expectancy. Just locating the buoy, though, was not sufficient. On the Challenger Bank, currents are difficult to predict, having strange patterns. Wind conditions are also a factor in determining just where the anchor should be dropped so that the chum streams along the bank instead of dissipating uselessly.
And for the four days that we fished with the Gibbonses, they always raised fish for us. Frequently they were tubby little blackfin tuna, to 25 pounds or thereabouts, that hurled themselves clumsily at the plugs and fought with dogged power. But the only Allisons that showed were minor fish. We were not alone in our failure to raise the big ones. The Bermuda International Light Tackle Tournament was being fished at the same time and its eight boatloads of expert anglers had so far failed to hook a good-sized Allison. When we docked after our fourth session, Perinchief declared a day off—for fishing, of course. "Tomorrow," he said, "let's go after bonefish."
Around the shores of Bermuda there are several bonefish patches. Or that is how Perinchief, a man who abhors exaggeration, likes to put it. The truth is that while there are no extensive flats, as in the Bahamas for example, there are pockets of white sand—some no bigger than a suburban backyard, others up to the size of a football field—that the fish visit. And they are larger fish, on average, than those that make up the divisional-strength schools of Andros or the Exumas. The Bermudan bonefish are also considerably harder to catch, probably because of a lack of competition for the abundance of natural food. Which is why Perinchief said we would go after bones, not go catch them.
It was another handicap that our day off from the Challenger Bank fell on a Sunday, when, on top of the tourist population, the better part of the 53,000 native Bermudans come out to play on the water. As we crept along the shores looking for a sand patch to call our own, Perinchief glared malevolently at the water skiers, the pleasure craft and the full-throttle jockeys that shared the sea with us. But he reserved his main contempt for a couple of small boats patrolling the reef half a mile offshore. "Barracuda trailers!" he snarled, in the tone of a medieval cardinal who has sniffed out a particularly revolting heresy.
He cut the motor and we drifted inshore, assuming the heron-like posture of bonefishermen. Could that be a patch of weed? Or was it moving? Yes, a moving, breathing bonefish, quite alone, a seven-pounder finning steadily on a course that would take it across our bow, right into casting range. Also, we immediately realized, wading purposefully through the shallows in pursuit of our bonefish was an angler who had been concealed from us by a spur of rock. Like an old brown trout that has seen a thousand artificial mayflies float over its head, the bonefish made no splashy fuss but indicated its lack of interest by slowly changing direction and heading out to the dark grass and the deep water.
The Sunday armada seemed to be continually recruiting new craft that sent a steady swell across the flats. Time to try something different, Perinchief decided. So we went to look for barracuda.
Not lovable-looking fish, but in Perinchief they had a deep admirer, which was why he held the small-boat trailers in deep contempt. Out on the Challenger Bank, making a nuisance of themselves, barracuda were one thing. But casting to barracuda lying over the shallow reef was something else. "A different fish," proclaimed Perinchief, and of course he is entirely right. We took a little time to find a 'cuda pack—because of the predations of the trailers, claimed Perinchief—but when we did, the 12-and 15-pounders made up handsomely for the absence of bonefish. They single-mindedly chased surgical-tube lures in fluorescent red and chartreuse, fished very fast. They leapt about all over the reef when they were hooked and, when released, glowered at us before steaming away.
Since the tournament anglers reported a continued absence of Allison, the next day we went reef fishing again, deep reef fishing this time on the Argus Bank 10 miles farther out.
The carnival of fishes the Gibbons' chum line attracted was even more populous than that of the Challenger Bank, though most were smaller. First came Bermuda chub, tiny-mouthed, exasperating fish that swarmed into the chum line mopping up fry, boldly chasing the slip of mackerel that floated in the silver cloud. They would bump it; you would try to ram the hook home and it would fly, baitless, close to Teddy Gibbons' new straw hat. Perinchief got the hat squarely in the end. It floated off spiritedly to eastward in good shape to clear Bermuda and fetch up on the beach at Casablanca.
We had got down to tiny No. 4 hooks and were finally hooking chub when triggerfish invaded, causing the Gibbonses to curse steadily as the parrot-beaked fish rasped through leader after leader. So we went deep and caught a galaxy of weirdos—scarlet barberfish, groupers in varied and brilliant mottlings and something that Boyd Gibbons called a porgie but which looked like nothing that ever came out of Sheepshead Bay. It was while Teddy was unhooking this one that I looked out over the sea and observed a couple of strange dark birds sitting on the water. They quickly resolved themselves into the dorsal and tail fins of dozing marlin.
Bermuda does not have consistent marlin fishing but it now became clear that it was experiencing a distinct run. That evening, rumor ran on the jetty that a 7-year-old boy had caught a 600-pound blue. Or a 6-year-old had caught a 700-pounder, nobody was entirely sure. There had been sightings all over, from the Argus Bank to close in to the home reefs. We decided to postpone the Challenger Bank once again—we would still have two days left—and catch ourselves a blue.
By normal Bermuda marlin standards, our day was packed with incident. Around noon, a blue came up and looked at our mullet bait, took it and spat it out. Four hours later another marlin came up and stared at a bonefish we had on offer. No sale. Enough of this shilly-shallying, we told each other. Next morning we would be back on the Challenger.
We were not. The wind came howling out of the north, the seas piled up, the rain came down. We punched out to sea but had to turn back. One day left for an Allison, and then only if the weather cleared.
We were lucky. In the night, the front passed through. There was still a big heave on the sea once we were out of the shelter of the hook of land that Somerset Parish makes at the western end of the island, but David DeSilva, to whose boat we had switched, was not unhappy with this. "You need some life in the water to bring the Allisons up," he said. We braced ourselves in the swells and tried to believe him.
And so on that last day we chummed and young Davy caught the mackerel that drew the Allison and the wahoo that had gate-crashed the party. And now, with the wahoo stiffening in the fish hold, we kept the chum line going. An hour passed, with visitations from rainbow runners and small amberjack. And then, quietly, DeSilva said, "He's back."
He was, or another one like him, very close in size, and he acted, too, like an Allison of some experience.
He was not there all the time. Sometimes he would slide out of the trail and not reappear for four or five minutes. When he did, he fed sparingly on the chum, always ignoring the hooked offering. We varied the size of the mackerel strip. We tried a single anchovy instead. Nothing. For close on half an hour the siege continued. And then we got him.
It was an old trick and I had seen it work before on a deep, narrow gut of a trout stream in England, so heavily overgrown with willows and hazels that the only way to get to the fish was by winding the line, with the kicking grasshopper bait attached, around and around the rod tip until it was possible to poke it through the greenery. Then you twisted the rod the other way so that eventually the bait was hanging just over the water. The trout were fat and sophisticated. Mostly, they would ignore the grasshopper. But sometimes, if you plopped the bait right behind a trout's tail, it would swing around and take it in an angry, unthinking reflex.
We discovered that the same guile works on Allison tuna. As I held the rod in free spool, DeSilva hand-lobbed the bait on the fish's tail as it moved out of the chum line. It swung and crashed it.
This tuna, it turned out, weighed 87½ pounds. It took about 45 minutes to land on 30-pound test line. These are mere statistics, and the fight itself, in terms of drama, was not like that of some other game fish. No leaps, no runs that kill a fish quickly. But the adjectives that came to mind were indomitable, brave, unyielding, backbreaking, armcracking. The Allison had one idea—to get over the edge of the bank and descend into the abyss that is 4,000 feet deep.
One Allison in a fishing day is enough. After standing to fight it, your knees tremble, your wrists are jellified. You luxuriate in the fact that the fighting belt no longer cuts into you. Then Perinchief is yelling, "Get over here! We've got another one up!"
There is just one thing to do. Hand him the belt. And one thing to say: "Be my guest...." There is, after all, a matter of style to be observed.