The great fish—notably the tunas—that migrate through the open sea are built for speed and stamina, and so are the sportfishing boats that chase them, costly craft with cavernous gas tanks, a fact that bodes well for the future of the fish. But that is another story. Those who can still afford to go after the great fish nearly always do so with five-pound reels, rods like broomsticks, 80-to 150-pound-test lines and heavy ropes for displaying their catch at dockside. And then there is Tred Barta of New York City, admirer of tunas, swordfish, marlin and mako sharks, an extreme conservationist, though he didn't plan it that way, and the originator of a philosophy he calls "the joy of losing fish."
The 27-year-old Barta courts joy with wispy lines. His favorite fish to not catch is the yellowfin tuna, a very tough little number. For five years Barta had a perfect record with yellowfins; he hooked 110 of them on six-pound-test and lost them all. Meanwhile he was spending up to 25 hours a week studying kinetic-energy tables, test strengths, hook designs, reel drags and reel-spool dynamics. In August 1978 he hooked yellowfin No. 111. He fought it for three hours and 27 minutes, and he won. The loser weighed 63¾ pounds, a world record—by an astonishing 30¼ pounds—for six-pound line.
"No one understood what I was doing out there all those years," Barta says, reflecting on that feat. "In our society the only thing that counts is a fish on the dock—results. So I really had to have my act together. When I'd come back and say, 'I had the greatest trip of my life. I blew a 350-pound mako shark on six,' people just didn't understand."
People never have.
September 30, 1979
In the spring of Barta's senior year at Maine's Hinckley School, as part of an independent study program, he set out for two months alone in the wilderness north of the Rangeley Lakes region. A paper about the experience was to have been entitled What Is Man? It wound up What Am I? "I was confused," Barta recalls. "I figured that by isolating myself from the outside world I would establish a more meaningful set of values than the ones I had."
For two weeks he cried every night and then one morning he woke and said to himself, "I'm miserable, and I'm going to be here another 45 days, so I'd better start doing things differently." He discovered that even the most menial chores, making lean-tos, for example, could be rewarding. "I had to make them so that I was proud of them," he says, "because there was no one to tell me how good they looked.
"I'd known nothing of true personal satisfaction. I didn't know who I was. I was what people said I was, captain of the ski team, captain of the tennis team, what others wanted me to be. Six-pound-test line? Ha, the Tred Barta of those days would be out there with a harpoon, filling the boat with sharks, to impress the people on the dock."
Barta enrolled in the University of Colorado, mainly for the skiing. He was a business major, but, he says, "They were training people to be accountants, to fit into corporate niches, and I wanted to be an entrepreneur." So he quit after his sophomore year and went to work for his father's firm, Joseph T. Barta Associates, Inc. of Armonk, N.Y., dealers in used—they call them prior-owned—executive aircraft. Tred handles all the purchasing, he has logged more than 4,500 hours as a pilot, including eight crossings of the Atlantic, and he loves his job. But he has come to love his days at sea much more. "Business doesn't offer you the essential conflict that nature does," he says. But nature doesn't offer you the essential means of purchasing $60,000 custom offshore boats with cruising ranges of 320 miles, such as Barta's 2-year-old, 32-foot Forest and Johnson Prowler, Randi-Strike.
After work on a recent Friday Barta flew a company twin-engine Beechcraft to Westhampton, on Long Island, where he and his wife of three years, Randi, had a house for the summer. He sharpened hooks until 1:30 a.m., set the alarm for 3, and at 4 the Randi-Strike passed through nearby Shinnecock Inlet—minus Randi, as usual—heading southwest. Barta's destination was the Hudson Canyon, a deep cleft in the ocean bottom at the edge of the continental shelf. Randi-Strike would be all alone out there. Few other Long Island boats ever make the 80- to 110-mile run. "Some people call me crazy for going out so far, that there are plenty of fish closer to land," says Barta. "But I know what the capabilities of my boat are, and besides, there's something very romantic about being out there. I feel sorry for those people, and they probably feel sorry for me."
As his boat headed for the canyon, Barta outlined his strategy for the day. He would troll five baits, ballyhoo on two 12-pound-test lines and squid on two sixes and a four. That meant some quick decisions would have to be made. As Barta said on the way out, "If a yellowfin takes a six and I know it's under 64 pounds, the record, I won't think twice about breaking it off. If we see a swordfish about 200 pounds we'll try to get it with a 20-pound outfit—we've got those; the record is 196 pounds. But if it's much smaller we'll go to six, because the record is only 106. And if we see a big sword, say 700 pounds, we'll break out the 50-pound-test; the record on 50 is only 450 pounds." Barta fishes only for records, of which he holds three, with two pending.
Four hours out of Shinnecock Randi-Strike reached the head of the canyon. Barta began a zigzag trolling course, first along the canyon's edges, where the water is 260 feet deep, and then over its depths, where there is 2,000 feet of water and more. Bouncing around in the wash with the baits was the "Barta Wedge," a bizarre cluster of teasers, hookless artificial squids, brightly hued plastic blocks called Kona Heads, mop-like nylon skirts, even two Hebrew National salamis. There were more than two dozen of the teasers, which are designed to lure large fish in close to a trolled bait. Barta needs the teasers because a short baited hookup is vital when fishing with ultralight lines. Suddenly yellowfins were slashing at the squids and salamis. Barta was on the flying bridge at the time, and when the four-pound line went taut, he all but flew to the cockpit, his feet and hands barely touching any surface. Sometimes, at dock-side, for an hour or more he practices moving around the Randi-Strike, to learn how to get where he has to be, instantly. As he landed on the deck in the cockpit, Barta shouted, "May be a record."
The reel spool was whirring away, hardly affected by the three-quarter-pound drag pressure that is the safe maximum with four-pound line, which actually tests at only 3½. Official four-pound records aren't kept by the International Game Fish Association, but any fish caught with it would be eligible in the six-pound category, and using it is a challenge, Barta says.
The boat was moving after the fish now, the line peeling off more slowly, when a patch of weed floated over it. "Get that weed," Barta ordered the mate, "but don't touch the line. IGFA rules." By the time the mate had carefully lifted the weed off, the fish had started diving. Two hundred yards of line were gone, and Barta warned, "More than 300 and the line will break from its weight alone. I know. I've spent hours trolling with no hooks just to see how much water pressure lines of different tests can take."
His touch on the reel was feather light. He constantly adjusted the drag, decreasing it in increments of a fraction of an ounce in pressure; as the line streamed out he reduced it gradually to half a pound, then a quarter, then to nothing at all, thumbing the reel spool lightly to prevent backlash. "In the first eight seconds that yellowfin was going 40 miles an hour," he said. "If you hook up at three-quarters and don't start backing the drag down right away—pop—there goes the line. It's a question of reel-spool dynamics."
He told the mate, "Go up to the tower and discuss with the captain what we're going to do if we get the fish in close." He knew that wouldn't happen soon, but he wanted nothing left unplanned.
He turned to a friend. "Want to make a bet? How long before we see this fish?"
"Another 25 minutes."
Barta shook his head. "If this is the one I think it is, we'll be here at least three hours, maybe four."
He asked for a cup of fresh water and poured it over the reel. The sides had felt warm. Friction was expanding the spool, and that would tighten the drag plates. There was no margin for error.
The yellowfin had been on half an hour, and the line was moving out tentatively when Barta said, "This fish is like a 300-pound mako I once had on six. He was still feeding in the chum line. He didn't even know he was hooked."
Suddenly the line went slack. "Forward! He's coming toward the boat," Barta shouted. But he seemed puzzled. "I can't figure out where he is. I can't even tell for sure if he's still on. Wait, yes, he's down deep. There's a great big bow in the line. I'm afraid he's not hooked too well."
Barta began reeling frantically, hoping for a hint of something solid on the line, and he seemed to feel it. "Is it the weight of the line?" he asked, "or is it the fish? Wait, I don't think it's the fish. Yeah, he's gone. He had 250, 300 yards out. There was nothing I could do. Water pressure broke it. But I still feel great. That was maybe a record yellowfin, and I had him on 40 minutes. We're really cooking. Let's do it again."
It was a classic sample of Barta's joyful losing. "Ninety percent of the enjoyment I get from fishing, and the reason why I'm not frustrated is that almost every fish I have on is a world record," he said. "That's why I've poured my life into this."
And how. In the last two years Barta has spent $30,000 on rods and reels. Sometimes late-night bathers at the swimming pool in his mid-Manhattan co-op apartment building are startled to see him at pool-side with rod and reel, his line disappearing in the water. They edge closer. What's that scuba diver doing five feet down clutching a chunk of balsa wood with a hook embedded in it? Barta is finding out how hard he can strike and how deeply he can set the hook without breaking his line. "I've gotten so I can set it with six-pound line at 5.5 pounds of pressure," he says. "That's consistently, with no line breakage."
Sometimes the diver holds a small scale. Barta's rod is bent. He is fiddling with the reel drag, trying to judge how much pressure he is putting on the line. The diver keeps surfacing, issuing reports. As Barta tells his companions on the Randi-Strike, "I know the difference between one, two, three, four and five pounds of drag; I can tell by the feeling in my hand and by the angle of the rod."
To enable him to make such determinations reliably, Barta's rods in each line class must flex the same and weigh the same. He selects the blanks from groups of 100 or more, sometimes discarding 98 before he finds two that match closely enough. The drags on all his reels, all of which are of the revolving-spool variety, must be identical; he never knows which one he will have to grab. Sometimes four will be just right but a fifth will be a shade off, and he will have them all taken apart and reassembled until the five match perfectly. The reels have custom-made lightweight aluminum spools, which spin more easily than the heavier stock spools, and the drag mechanisms have been completely rebuilt to Barta's specifications. He says that for ultralight lines there is no reel drag on the market worth using.
Now the Randi-Strike was moving north along the canyon. Barta had been breaking off great lengths of line, in case the morning's fishing had frayed them; he uses 500,000 yards of six- and 12-pound-test each year, given him by the Cortland Line Company in exchange for his advice. All his lines are braided Dacron. On this day the yellowfins had been popping the four and sixes like sewing thread, and, of course, Barta was thrilled. But now the two 12s snapped down from the outriggers. One broke instantly, the other held. Barta grabbed the rod and called out, "What's the 12-pound yellowfin record? A hundred and forty-five, right? This fish is 70 pounds at most but it could be a bluefin, and that record's only 42. So let's get a good look at it."
He fought the fish for an hour and 20 minutes. Again and again he got it close to the boat—but not close enough to see the color of the fins—only to have it plunge hundreds of feet off. Finally, as it passed near the stern, the mate grabbed for the wire leader with his gloved hands. He struggled briefly, the tendons in his neck and arms stretching taut, and the leader went slack. "Yellowfin," he said.
The hook had been straightened. Barta said that nothing less than 180 pounds of pull could have done it; no one aboard the boat could so much as bend the straightened hook an eighth of an inch. It was dramatic evidence of how quixotic Barta's quest is.
"I don't know if you noticed," he said, "but I made a mistake with that fish. When he had a lot of line out I kept the drag a little too tight, and that made the fish go down deep. With a lighter drag it might have stayed on top."
On the way back to Shinnecock, Barta said, "A successful day would have been getting two yellowfins up on six, and based on experience we would have had them on for less than five minutes. Total. So we did very well."
That evening Barta was back in his Manhattan apartment. He was reminiscing about his days at the University of Colorado, when he had climbed some steep and dangerous cliffs called the Flatirons outside Boulder with no ropes. "It was foolhardy," he admitted. "I didn't know what I was doing. I could have been killed. But when I made it to the top I experienced such a tremendous sense of self-realization that I burst into tears. I'd never felt so unburdened of superficial values, so in control of my destiny."
He glanced out the window, suddenly subdued. He gazed at the cliffs of Manhattan, their windows shimmering in the twilight. He could easily become a misfit, he said, more lost in the middle of the city than he had ever been in the wilds of Maine, were it not for the great ocean wilderness he escapes to every weekend. "You know," he finally said, "I'm hardly ever going to land one of those fish, but I've developed so much respect for them it's unbelievable."
For himself, too, he might have added.