Disclaimer: The author stands behind this story as being true and accurate. However, in the course of SI's standard fact-checking procedures we have been unable to verify beyond reasonable doubt the existence of the marlin that the author calls Oh Magnífica. A source we were able to contact in the Azores commented: "It is a strange tale, indeed, but very, very fishy."
The Englishmen who appear in the story also expressed reservations. "I can assure you that none of this happened." said Ian Kingsley when reached at his home outside London. "I never saw the fish," said Nigel Kirk. "There is no fish," said Laurence Hornsby.
Confronted with the denials, the author responded. "They've taken a vow of silence. I don't blame them. They want Oh Magnífica for themselves."
Nevertheless, we are compelled to present this work as a piece of fiction.
September 3, 1989
At 6:15 in the evening, 400 yards off shore from the Faial airport, just as the sea and sky were squeezing the orange and puce out of the sun and splashing those colors all over the horizon, Ian Kingsley's stinger line snapped—zzzappppp—signaling that a fish had hit his lure.
The sound, somewhere between the cracking of a whip and the snapping of an ordinary quarter-inch rubber band, sent four drowsy, diesel-drugged fishermen lurching into action.
"Out of the road!"
That was me, falling down the boat ladder. I had been trying to climb to my rod, which was secured on the flying-bridge rail, but my feet had fallen asleep in the three hours since I'd last used them. The others took no notice, however, as all eyes were focused on the huge tail fin and dorsal fin behind the boat. A marlin of tremendous size was following Kingsley's purple-and-black Konahead lure, no more than 25 yards astern. You could see the fish's bill swatting at it, trying to stun it, as it would a baitfish. Then you could see something else, something that sent goose bumps across my skin. The marlin's bill was severed. It was half the length that it should have been. "Oh Magnífica!" cried our skipper, Laurence Hornsby.
"Great god, it's her. Come on, baby!" Kingsley yelled. But the fish swerved away, its monstrous wake suddenly pausing behind the green-and-blue Konahead at the end of my line, which danced and bubbled on the surface 30 feet to the right of Kingsley's. The broken bill emerged again. I dragged my numbed feet up the ladder and stumbled to my rod. When I looked back, the fin and tail of the immense fish had vanished, and the marlin had returned to the silent depths of the Atlantic.
Hornsby turned hard on the wheel to make another pass. "Bastard!" he snarled through clenched teeth.
Yes, I thought, rubbing the blood off my feet. Well, at least we saw her. We really and truly saw her; she existed.
I had never been marlin fishing before that week, never been to the Azores; so it was all new to me. But I'll tell you one thing I knew beyond reason or doubt: That marlin, the one the locals called Oh Magnífica, wasn't meant for me. For someone on that boat, perhaps, but not for me.
I had never before felt that about a game fish. And we were not just talking about any game fish here, but a blue marlin of nearly world-record size. The greatest game fish. But it wasn't mine. Not that one. If by some miracle I should hook it...well, I wouldn't hook it. I knew that. Some things run contrary to a man's nature, and the primal enormousness of that disfigured creature ran contrary to mine. If Kingsley and Hornsby wanted to hook into its 1,500 or so pounds; ruin their health by fighting it for eight, 10, 12 hours; blister their hands beyond repair; cramp and cry and curse all night, never knowing if and when the fish might angrily turn and try to tear apart the boat as it had once before—that was their prerogative. I would mop their brows and spoon them chicken broth. But if it was me in the chair, I would cut the line.
We had heard the story of this fish five days earlier, during our very first morning on Faial, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores. Two thousand miles east of New York and 760 miles west of Portugal, these volcanic islands are isolated in the Atlantic Ocean. Settled by the Portuguese in 1431, they remain, 558 years later, administrative districts of Portugal. Columbus took haven here on his return from his first voyage to the West Indies. New Bedford whalers called these islands port. Rich in a history that, some believe, goes back as far as the Lost Continent of Atlantis legends, the Azores are a magical land unscarred by war and unspoiled by time.
We were fishing with Armènio Vander Kellen that first day. Armènio owns and operates a charter service out of the harbor town of Horta on Faial; as we sailed out of the harbor and into the deep swells of the open ocean, he talked about these islands and himself.
Armènio, 37, is a Lisboan by birth—of royal blood, in fact. His father was Dutch and his mother was Portuguese, the full sister of the exiled king, Miguel II. If the monarchy were ever to return to Portugal, Armènio's first cousin would be heir to the throne. Armènio did not brag of this. He was, in fact, embarrassed when it came out. But it helped explain his educated manner, and his highly circumspect view of the world. And, perhaps, his exquisite handlebar mustache, which made him a dead ringer for his grandfather, the chap pictured on the Portuguese 100 escudo bill.
We were trolling four lines behind the Pescatur, Armènio's 32-foot sportfisherman. Two lines on outriggers were deployed long, two flat-trolled rigs rode just beyond the boat's frothing wake. The wind had picked up, and the choppy six-foot swells made the fishing unpleasant. We were working back and forth across the strait that runs between Faial and the island of Pico, a channel that exacerbated the turbulence of the water. The odds of our raising a marlin in that sort of sea were not good. Still, around midmorning Armènio pointed in the direction of the Rabo, one of his three other fishing boats. It had stopped moving, and when we looked at it through the binoculars, we saw that one of the fishermen was fighting a marlin.
We trolled nearer. There was no rush—by the actions of the crewmen, you could tell that the fish was still a long way from being boated. But an hour later things were not nearly so calm. We moved within earshot as the fisherman, a portly South African named Charles Feller, hauled the marlin alongside, and a crewman grabbed the wire leader. Then the captain sank a gaff into the great fish, and it shuddered. The blood ran down its silver sides as the crewman pulled it up by its bill. As the fish died—and Armènio kills all the marlin he catches, selling the meat—it turned from blue to bronze before our eyes. We had not known how big it was until the men put a rope around its tail and tried to haul the fish on board, a process that took 45 minutes. Eventually, we learned that the fish weighed 869 pounds.
The biggest fish ever caught in the Azores, Armènio told us, was caught in 1988. It had gone a little over 1,146 pounds. But he had hooked some much bigger than that. "As big again by half," Armènio said, frowning. "Two times as big. I cannot say. Very big fishes off these islands." Then Armènio pointed to the hull on the left side of his boat where, just above the water line, a large hole had been patched. "Oh Magnífica," he said. "Big marlin. You have never seen such a marlin as this."
And he told us the story.
Armènio was fishing with three of his former army friends. It was windy that week, just as it was now, and the fishing was dreadfully slow. They had caught nothing for three or four days. Then, a half hour before sunset, when no one was paying attention, they finally had their first strike.
Armènio heard the reel singing and turned in time to catch a glimpse of the fish's tail. It was a marlin, and a big one. But it didn't jump. Not then. Instead, it ran straight out to sea, taking with it 500...600...700...800 yards of line without turning. Without slowing down. Several times his friend tightened the drag, but the marlin didn't even seem to know it was hooked. The reel was equipped with a thousand yards of 80-pound-test line, so it was in no immediate danger of being stripped clean. But it was obvious that they faced a long night. Darkness was falling, and this fish seemed bent on towing Armènio and his friends out of sight of land. And the weather was growing worse.
The line suddenly went slack. "Gone," said Armènio's crestfallen friend holding the rod.
Armènio studied the line. "She's turned," he said. "She's coming back to you. Reel hard."
The man cranked for all he was worth, but the line remained slack...500...400...300...200 yards, and still no resistance. Just as Armènio was beginning to think something had gone wrong, that the line had been cut by a passing school of tuna, the great body of the marlin began to rise out of the water—right there—perhaps 50 yards away. First the bill and the head—up, up, haltingly, in stages—then the dorsal fin and the long body; then, impossibly, the great, scythe-like tail. It hung in the air a long moment, unreal in its hugeness, then gracelessly crashed back into the sea.
It took their breath away. Stunned at the size of this monster, the fisherman had stopped reeling. The fading light, the wind, the immense frothy splashing of the fish, it was all as in a dream. "Reel, my friend!" Armènio shouted. He knew this was the fish of a lifetime.
The marlin didn't sound. Nor did it jump again. Rather, it kept coming toward the boat on the surface. Armènio watched its black back, fascinated at its breadth. He stood frozen, only at the end crying out "Hold on!" as he was jolted off his feet, smashing his head against the ladder when he fell. The marlin, whether by accident or design, had rammed the boat, piercing the hull with its spear.
Enraged by this new predicament, the marlin went into a tantrum, thrashing the water, lifting and rocking the boat, trying to disimpale itself. The hull around its bill began to splinter as the hole enlarged. But the marlin couldn't work free. The boat was tipping in the direction of the fish, taking on water, and the men splashed and flailed for a handhold. Still, the marlin pitched and lurched.
It's sinking us, Armènio realized. Blood streamed down his face from his fall. In a daze, he crawled into the hold for the ax that he kept to kill sharks, then slid down the crazily tilted deck. He began chopping at the marlin's bill. Four feet of it had pierced the hull, and it was as thick around as his calf. Armènio chopped at it wildly, missing as often as not while the fish thrashed furiously to get free. He must have hit the bill a dozen times before it finally broke off.
When it did, the boat righted itself and the marlin fell away, spinning swiftly toward the stern, a great eye passing a few feet from Armènio's face. Then it disappeared into the darkness.
The man who had hooked the fish, who had been clinging to the fighting chair in terror, pulled the rod out of its holder and flung it into the sea. In any event, they would have had to cut the line. The hole in the hull was taking in water faster than the bilge pump could bail it out. Had the wind not been behind them, they might not have made it back to port at all.
That night, and in the weeks to come, when others doubted the tale, or accused Armènio of exaggerating the fish's size, he had only to show them the four-foot section he had hacked off the marlin's bill to silence them. Oh Magnífica, they named the marlin.
"So where is this Oh Magnífica?" Kingsley asked when Armènio had finished. "We must find him."
"Her," said Armènio. "All the truly great fishes are the females." Then he gestured grandly toward the sea. "And she is out there. Like all men, we must look for her and keep looking. But when the time is right, it is she who will find us."
The weather continued to deteriorate that afternoon, and Armènio grew progressively more somber as the day wore on. It had been 17 days since his last marlin. His other boat, in the meantime, had landed six. Fisherman's luck is a living thing, he explained, that prefers to move from boat to boat. But this was a long time for the luck to be gone. Perhaps it had grown tired of his sandwiches, always onion and tomato and liverwurst. Tomorrow, he would bring a new variety of sandwich.
"Could you bring some bread pudding?" Kingsley asked as we parted. "I'm told that Lady Luck loves her bread pudding."
Armènio smiled at him fondly. Then he said to me, "You must remember one thing about Kingsley. He is very British. Perhaps he is too British, I'm not sure."
We straggled up the hill to the hotel. There were six in our party. Four were Brits: Kingsley, Hornsby, Nigel Kirk and Wilfred Wild (I know this was his name because I read it on the charter papers. As best as I can recall, the man said not a word the entire week). Two were Yanks: photographer Bill Eppridge and me. The Englishmen had fished with Armènio before, going after bigeyed tuna, which run through the Azores between mid-April and mid-July. The marlin run starts in August and lasts until mid-October. It was now the third week of September, so there was reason to hope we were smack in the midst of the run.
We ate dinner that night at our hotel, the Estalagem de Santa Cruz, a converted 19th-century fortress that overlooked the harbor. Inevitably, the talk was of fishing. Hornsby owned his own fishing charter boat in England, operating out of a place called Gosport Hants, and specialized in catching shark on light tackle. That is how he met Kirk, who was a builder by profession. Kirk had set the world record for porbeagle shark on four-pound-test with Hornsby—107.7 pounds. Kingsley, the proprietor of a bicycle shop, claimed to be the only Englishman ever to have caught a tarpon weighing more than 200 pounds, a feat he accomplished off Gabon, West Africa.
To me, these were impressive credentials. I was primarily a trout fisherman. Small trout. Quite small. The three of them had traveled all over the world for practically every sort of fish that could be caught: roosterfish, sailfish, jewfish, bigeyes, rays, dorado, codfish, bream, flounder, mullet and conger eels, to name but a few. In the utterly unsnobbish manner of the British angler, they were not above any sort of piscatorial tomfoolery: bottom fishing, night fishing, surface trolling, snagging, fly casting, bait casting or chumming with dough balls, and anything they hauled in was considered cracking good sport.
Yet even this group considered the marlin to be the top of the evolutionary ladder for game fish, and the Brits had been planning this trip for more than a year and a half.
"A few years back the Azores were the hottest spot for marlin in the world," Kirk told us. "In one 32-day stretch, Armènio caught 50 fish. One marlin landed for every three hours fishing time."
"I say, Kirk, where do you get your figures?" Kingsley asked skeptically. "From Armènio? The man who drove off the Atlantic's biggest marlin with a hatchet?"
"You don't believe him, then?"
"Paaah!" Kingsley scoffed.
"Load of rubbish."
Kirk shrugged. "Anyway, I got the figures from Graeme Mullins as well. He wrote an article on it. I can show it to you if you like."
"Mullins?" Kingsley asked incredulously. 'Our Graeme Mullins? He's nothing but a worm-drowner, he is."
"Well, I've got the article if you care to see it," Kirk said, a shade testily.
"You can't believe everything you read, baby boy."
"Particularly when it comes to fishing stories," I agreed. "But I'd still like to see the article."
Later, when we had retired to the bar, Kirk brought it along. Mullins belonged to the same society as the four Englishmen, something called the Sport-fishing Club of the British Isles. The club published its own magazine, and in its most recent issue was an article by Mullins on marlin fishing in the Azores, entitled "The New Eldorado."
Eppridge, silent until now, looked up from his glass of scotch. "The reel screamed," he said.
"Only way to start a fishing story," he said. "Absolutely. 'The reel screamed.' "
"That's not how Mr. Mullins begins this," I informed him.
"Then it's trash," Eppridge declared. This much you must understand about Bill: For a man who makes his living taking beautiful color pictures, he lives in a black-and-white world.
I read the first paragraph of Mullins's article aloud: "Some say the group of islands that go to make up the Azores was once the lost city of Atlantis. After my first trip there I know different. It's the new Angler's El Dorado. I propose to you that here is the finest blue marlin fishing in the world."
"I propose to you that any article that does not begin: 'The reel screamed..." is a pack of lies and not worth the paper it's written on," said Eppridge.
"I propose to you it's time we go to bed," said Kirk, with unerring instinct. The night was in danger of degenerating into a finger-pointing, chest-thumping, scotch-fueled fiasco. We didn't, of course, go to bed. But Kirk was absolutely right in proposing it.
We couldn't fish the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. A near gale-force north wind settled in, so that even the harbor was frothing with whitecaps. For the next three days the only screams we heard—reel or otherwise—came from the hotel kitchen, where the cook and the waitress waged a daily battle at breakfast. Plates, cast-iron skillets and full-volume epithets were hurled back and forth like loose peppercorns, after which the waitress would emerge in a fury to take orders, her face streaming with tears. The choice between fried and scrambled eggs becomes strangely insignificant when the girl before you is sobbing and gagging for air. But we managed. A person must eat.
After each battle we would put on our rain gear, walk down to the boat, watch the waves crashing over the breakwater for an hour or so, then walk back. "Every day is a lesson," Armènio would say wisely. "You can be beautifully organized—the boats are full of gas, the hooks are sharp, and the fishes are hungry. But if the weather doesn't cooperate, you must wait."
To pass the time, we toured the island. At its highest point, Faial had a dormant volcanic crater 500 meters wide, 400 meters deep, the guide books told us. That we believed. We also tried surf casting from the shoreline. We had heard rumors of bluefish but found no evidence of them. And. hour after hour, we took shelter in the Cafè Sport, the most renowned watering hole in the Azores. Peter Azevedho runs the cafe, which had been in the family since his father, Henrique, founded it in 1918. The top floor of the cafe is a museum, in which Peter displays the family's collection of scrimshaw, a priceless assemblage. Intricately detailed pipes, cigar holders, pie cutters, salt and pepper shakers, dice, eggcups, thimbles and crocheting needles had all been carved out of whalebone. And, of course, whaling scenes etched onto the ivory teeth. Originally, Peter explained, scrimshaw was the work of American whalers who carved the pieces at night while at sea. When their ships put in to the Azores for repairs, or to stock up on supplies, the sailors would trade the carved teeth to Henrique Azevedho for brandy. Some of the scenes reflected a certain homesickness on the part of the sailors: The sad face of a wife left alone; a mother and child peering seaward from a window: a child waving.
In short, it was not a bad island for sight-seeing. But when you have come to a place to fish and you cannot fish, nothing is very satisfactory. We were getting antsy, and the name of Graeme Mullins, champion of the Angler's El Dorado, was used more than once in vain.
On the fifth day the breeze slackened, and we were able to fish. Hornsby, who, as I have mentioned, ran his own charter service in England, became our captain, while Armènio stayed ashore. Armènio had talked to Hornsby earlier about staying on to work for him until the end of the marlin run. I suspect the timing of the change may have had something to do with Armènio's string of bad luck.
We fared little better with Hornsby at the wheel, catching only one dorado for the day. It was a long, long day. Here is the problem with marlin fishing: The dead time stinks.
I mean, it really does stink. The diesel fumes are literally sickening. When you are using lures, you troll for these fish at a very fast pace. The boat creates some sort of a vacuum as it plows through the wind, and the smell of diesel fuel swirls in to fill it. The fisherman has nowhere to hide. So he breathes in the exhaust gas and eventually almost passes out. The captain, up on the flying bridge where he's inhaling nothing but fresh sea air, looks down and thinks, "Isn't that nice, they're all sleeping."
And let's face it, there's a lot of dead time in any kind of fishing. Maybe 5% of the time are you actually catching fish. But the quality of the dead time in marlin fishing is so poor that you might just as well pass out. You can't converse without shouting, so loud are the engines. You can't listen to the lapping of the waves or the singing of birds. There's no peace, no silence. No exercise. Nothing very interesting to look at, Just wave after endless wave, and once in a while there's a distant roiled speck which might, or might not, be a school of baitfish working the surface.
We never found any baitfish working the surface, though the captain was continually looking for them. That is the other thing about trolling for marlin: It is the captain who does the real fishing. The captain decides how fast to go, where to go, when to go. There is no casting involved. No stalking of the prey. On the contrary, the commotion caused by the engines actually lures the marlin to the surface, the great fish thinking it has stumbled on a huge school of baitfish. The marlin is without fear of the boat.
The actual fight is a tremendous show and very exciting. But it is the captain—and the marlin—who are calling the shots. The fisherman just hangs on and cranks. If he is too slow—or even if he is not—the captain can choose to back the boat to the fish and speed things along. It is his choice whether to kill the fish, or to release it. It is his fish. The fisherman in the fighting chair is a body.
I bring this up now by way of explaining what happened later. At least I think there's a connection. But this much is certain: A lot of people have caught and killed marlin without knowing how they have caught them or why they are killing them. It's not just marlin. Lots of trout fishermen are like that too. I don't happen to think that's so great.
That evening we tried to wash away our troubles in the Cafè Sport. Five days of "the finest marlin fishing in the world" had yielded one lone dorado. It was not that we had never seen bad fishing before. We had all experienced similar stretches of luck.
The thing was, our hopes had been so high, what with Mullins's article about the Angler's El Dorado; the 869-pounder caught by the South African the first morning; the story of Oh Magnífica. We had felt that this would be the week. Seeking a scapegoat, we turned on Mullins, tearing his character to shreds as he slept innocently, presumably in England. It greatly improved our mood.
Not for long, though. Ted Fleming joined us later that night, and he as much as told us that the marlin were gone. An American who's from South Dartmouth, Mass., Fleming had his own charter boat on Faial. In 27 days of fishing that summer, he had caught more than 50 marlin (and he had released all of them). But he feared they had moved out with this latest northeaster. "I have chartered 16 years, fished for marlin all over the world and never caught one in water under 73 degrees until last week," he said. "We caught three here in water 68.5 degrees. They're cold-water marlin, these here. It makes them very aggressive. The weight and muscle and tenacity of these fish amaze me. But the water temperature's dropping every day. These fish don't get here and stay here. They're moving through."
We asked if he had seen the fish they called Oh Magnífica.
"I heard about it," Fleming said, winking. "But I happen to know, for starters, it'd take two days to chop off a marlin's bill with a hatchet."
"Load of rubbish," Kingsley agreed.
A cast-iron something was rolling around on the kitchen floor when we came down the next day for breakfast. The swinging door flew open and out stormed our waitress.
"Bom dia," Eppridge said cheerfully. She was in no mood for his, or anyone else's, good mornings, and without further amenities we ordered. Then she spun on her heels and charged back into the kitchen, her young body quivering in anticipation of the fray. The cook was ready for her. A wooden spoon came hurtling through the door.
"Ah, restful, peaceful Faial," said Kingsley, yawning.
After a long wait, the girl barreled back out of the kitchen with our regular order of juice, coffee and toast. She had forgotten our eggs. She slammed everything down, pushed it across the table wordlessly, then caromed off a chair on her way back to the kitchen.
I sipped the juice. Something hard and slightly salty floated against my lips. It was a wristwatch. Eppridge's, I discovered, as his long, hairy fingers delved in to retrieve it. He smiled as he shook off the flecks of orange pulp and studied the timepiece, pushing buttons.
"Sixty-one degrees," he reported. "Just testing the built-in thermometer."
"That's swell, Bill," I said, amazed and repulsed.
"I thought I might take the temperature of the ocean today," he said.
"How about my coffee?" I said, offering him my cup. "Please. I don't want to burn my tongue."
"Never mind your coffee. Look at the time. We have to get down to the boat." Eppridge is not much of a breakfast person.
"I say—what about my eggs?" complained Kingsley. "The boy needs his nourishment to fight marlin. How long does it take to fry two eggs?"
"Frying them is easy," Kirk said. "It's getting them cold that takes time."
Eventually the eggs arrived, delivered by the busboy. The waitress had quit. As Kingsley prepared to pepper them, Bill dropped his watch onto one of the yolks, which was cooked enough to easily survive the blow intact. "Seventy-one degrees. Bom apetite"
The ocean was 68°. At least that's what it was in the harbor. When we asked Eppridge to take a reading on the open sea, he tied a line to his watchband, attached a sinker and flung it over the stern. He never saw the accursed contraption again. The boat was at full speed, and the water pressure snapped his watchband in about two seconds.
Sixty-eight. Didn't sound too bad to a trout fisherman—a little warm, actually—but for marlin it was positively Arctic. "What do you fish for when the marlin have gone?" I asked Hornsby, who was again captaining for Armènio.
He squinted at the sea. "I guess you fish for the marlin that have gone."
So we did. We had little hope. We ranged farther from shore than we had on any other day, but saw nothing. The sea might as well have been dead. Finally, in the afternoon, we happened on a giant school of porpoises. They were "balling" a school of sardines, herding it together so they might feed on the little fish more efficiently. All the while the porpoises leapt playfully along beside us, diving under our bow, chattering excitedly. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. We were so happy to see marine life around us that we stayed with the school for an hour, abandoning our search for marlin. Then, when the light was fading, we headed back to port, following a route that took us past the airport.
Which was when Kingsley's stinger line snapped, and the next thing I knew I was falling down the damn ladder. At first I just lay there, waiting for someone to see me and laugh. But something had changed. Something was seriously different. And then I saw it too—Oh Magnífica—and, my god, what a fish! I had never expected to see a fish that large. It was unsettling. And to imagine it bucking and thrashing at the side of the boat, its great spear sticking through the hull. Armènio whaling away at it for his life with a hatchet—well, I couldn't imagine it. Not now that I'd seen the fish. "It's her. It's truly her," Kingsley said—even Kingsley—in awe.
Hornsby turned the boat around. Kingsley reeled in, put on a new lure, a Konahead of a different color, and reset his stinger line. Less than a minute after the marlin had disappeared, we trolled back over the same spot. Nothing.
We tried it again. This time I peered overboard, half fearing to catch sight of something as I looked down into the emerald depths. Once more, we found nothing. "Bastard!" Hornsby cursed.
He circled the boat. We were silent now, alert, surveying the sea for some sign of life. Around and around, in ever-widening circles we went. At 6:40, 25 minutes after the great fish had struck at Kingsley's lure, Hornsby spotted four gulls hovering above the water, 100 yards away. "There's a fish under them." he said.
As we neared, we saw the huge fin and tail slashing clearly above the waves. The marlin may have been feeding, or it may have been sunning itself, hoping that some bird would dart down to pluck the sea lice from its back. Hornsby steered straight toward it and, suddenly, the marlin vanished, creating barely a ripple as it submerged. As the boat reached the spot where the fish had been, we scanned the water left and right. We looked ahead. Then—zappppppp!—a stinger line snapped. It was Kingsley's again. The fish was right behind the boat, its mouth open, slapping at the Konahead with that awful clublike bill. It was so close you could see its black empty eyes.
But it didn't hook up. "Sonofabitch!" Kingsley yelled when the marlin again disappeared. He slammed his fist against the gunwale. "Take it! Take it, damn you!"
Hornsby spun the wheel, turning the boat around. He was calm, concentrating. His eyes scanned the sea. "She's coming back," he said. "She's coming back. I know she is." He was looking for the birds again, sweeping the sky for the gulls.
"She's on the outrigger!" Kirk shouted.
The marlin was back, its great wake closing in on the outside lure. My lure. My heart rose into my throat as I watched it take. "No!"
Zappppppp! The stinger line snapped. Then—zzzz-zzzz-zzzz—the line was spinning off the reel.
I didn't move. I watched the reel numbly, full of dread.
"Strike it! Strike it!" the others yelled. We had been over it many times. So I leaned back on the rod and struck, once, twice, three times, with all the strength I could muster. The great tail fin was still visible, slashing through the water, putting up a fine spray. The others were shouting and cheering. There had been so little to shout about. And now this.
Zzzzzz-zzzzzz, the line spun out faster as the marlin gained speed. But she was hooked. There was no question about that. I eased up on the drag, as I had been told.
"Listen to that reel scream!" shouted Eppridge, laughing. "I told you, man. Didn't I tell you."
"Let her take it!" Hornsby yelled, exhilarated. "Let her rip!"
My thumb was on the drag as I watched her. It was a natural place to rest it. All of a sudden I was pressing the lever forward, increasing the drag slowly until it was back to the strike position. Zzzzz-zzzz-zzz. The speed that the line was going out didn't change. There is a button on the reel that prevents you from accidentally increasing the drag too much. I depressed the button and pushed the drag lever up still farther. And farther. The rod bent slightly at the tip. Then the line snapped. It sounded like the springing of a tightly strung bow.
There was silence at first. Everyone stared disbelievingly at the piece of broken line that danced in the wind from the rod tip. Then they stared at the fish, which was still raising a spray in the distance. "What the hell happened?!" Hornsby finally shouted, screamed, just warming up, cursing and shouting and banging the wheel. He was the captain, you see. It was his fish.
I eased the drag back to its proper position. "The line broke."
Then he gasped, and resumed his inventive torrent of bellowed curses.
We looked back, and the fish was jumping. Three times it came out, shaking its immense body furiously, the foam spilling off its sides like flames in the orange light of the sunset. Three times. Then it was gone.
"My god, what a magnificent animal," Hornsby said.
I don't analyze things very much. I don't feel bad about what happened, and I don't feel good about it. It just happened. I'm writing it down for Hornsby, mostly, so that he'll know that it wasn't rotten line or anything like that. I don't want him to blame himself, as captain, or the gear. To be honest with you, I don't think he felt very bad about it after the initial disappointment wore off. I don't think he thought I deserved that fish either.
I got a letter from him a month after I got back to the States.
Here I am back in sunny England after returning from that well-known El Dorado. The only problem was, after you and Bill left, the Azores turned into just that. Pity that you missed it.
I will list just a few of the gory details. Our first marlin landed was caught by a 60-year-old Swede called Sven. It weighed a mere 796 pounds. In the next three weeks, even though we had no experienced anglers except a chap called Graeme Mullins, we managed the following results: 70 strikes, 42 hookups. Landed: 17 marlin, 7 yellowfin tuna, 2 bigeyed tuna.
It always seems to me that fishing is a great leveler. When you think of all the nasty things we said about Graeme, it was some kind of justice that he himself landed three marlin during his week.
Maybe if somebody (Armènio) can afford to employ me, you and Bill can come back to the Azores sometime and see the fishing at its best rather than its worst. Because I have to tell you, the reels do scream. Some of ours even started to smoke. But that's life.
And your fish, Oh Magnífica, is still out there somewhere. She's calling for you to return.
P.S.: Graeme asked me to send you his latest article. He has signed it for you. It's called "El Dorado Revisited." It's slightly exaggerated, I'll grant you, but as Graeme once told me in a moment of weakness, "Who needs truth if it's dull?" Cheerio.