Dollar Bills At the Bisbee's Black & Blue tournament, the Super Bowl of billfishing, it's all about big money, big egos and really big marlins

Oct. 13, 2003
Oct. 13, 2003

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Oct. 13, 2003

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Dollar Bills At the Bisbee's Black & Blue tournament, the Super Bowl of billfishing, it's all about big money, big egos and really big marlins

Gentlemen, we are about to get bit."

This is an article from the Oct. 13, 2003 issue

It is October, 2002, and 30-year-old Scotty Pruner stands
barefoot at the stern of Go Deep, a 31-foot sportfisher bobbing
off the southern tip of Baja. In his right hand, held as daintily
as the handle of a teacup, is a length of 130-pound-test line
strung to a Shimano Tiagra 130 reel and marlin rod, the angling
equivalent of an elephant gun. Pruner is intercepting a
communique from the five-pound baitfish working the sharp end of
the line. It's darting, diving, running up on the boat. Message:
predator on my tail.

"Get ready, Big John," says Pruner.

John Bullo stirs toward the fighting chair.

Captain Gene Vanderhoeck, running the boat from a tower chair 12
feet above the deck, spots the marlin 30 yards out. "She's all
lit up!" shouts Cap'n Gene. When a marlin strikes, adrenaline
causes its skin to flush, which makes the fish glow electric
blue. It's as if it were lit from within.

Pruner gives the line three teasing jerks. The marlin strikes.
"We're bit!" he yells.

Scotty, Big John and Cap'n Gene brace themselves and wait. A
marlin nabs its prey, in this case a mackerel, from behind but
then turns it in its mouth so it slides headfirst down the
gullet. Yank the rod too early, and the mackerel will pop out of
the marlin's mouth. Rookie mistake. And in Bisbee's Black & Blue
Marlin Jackpot Tournament, the richest marlin-fishing contest in
the world, that could be a million-dollar screwup.

The marlin turns. The line comes taut.

"Start cranking!" yells Cap'n Gene. Big John, strapped into the
fighting chair, reels in as the captain throttles up, torquing
the hook through the marlin's cheek.

Szzzzzzzzzzzzz! The fish heads for Japan.

Big John's reel heats up. "It's really peeling line!" he cries.

"It's O.K.," says his fishing partner, 2001 World Billfish Series
(WBS) champion Bruce Bosley. "We've got half a mile of line.
She's not gonna spool it."

Bosley and Bullo, construction equipment brokers from Yakima,
Wash., are the odd couple of billfishing. The trim Bosley stands
at the stern, his pleated shirt tucked neatly into belted shorts,
scanning the horizon like a general surveying a battlefield.
Bullo--Oscar to Bosley's Felix--fishes in an undershirt and a Bud
cap that might have been swiped from a vagrant.

Ten minutes into the fight the marlin shoots straight out of the
water and tail-walks, writhing in an attempt to shake the hook.
"Holy s---!" says Pruner. "That ain't no little rat back there."
No, it ain't. It's a money fish.

By the time Big John brings the marlin beside the boat, the fish
is spent. Half an hour earlier it could have driven its bill
through the boat at 50 mph. Now it lies in the water on its side,
staring up at Go Deep's crew with an eye the size of a golf ball.
Cap'n Gene, peering down from the tower, sniffs danger. This is
when sharks come around for a snack. "Get that goddam fish in the
boat now!" he yells.

Pruner and 29-year-old deckhand Jared Dow slide the nine-foot
marlin through the stern door. The fish is so big that there's
hardly room for them to stand. But time's a-wasting. The Mexican
sun dehydrates the marlin with every passing minute, causing it
to lose weight. In the Bisbee the heaviest fish wins. Twenty
seconds after the marlin is boated, Cap'n Gene has Go Deep
running wide open for the dock, while Pruner bales buckets of
water onto the fish. As the marlin dies, its brilliant blue skin
fades to black.

At the weigh station, tournament director Wayne Bisbee hoists the
marlin on an enormous scale. He double-checks the electronic
readout, then announces, "We have a new tournament leader." A
crowd of sunburned gringos cheers, but before anyone can
congratulate the Go Deep team, it scrambles for the boat.

"We'll celebrate later," says Pruner. "This tournament ain't
over." There is a bigger marlin out there.

Every October the marlin world's biggest names and most outrageous
characters converge on Cabo San Lucas to battle bow-to-stern
(this year's tournament begins Oct. 21). The stakes are high: You
pay $5,000 just to enter. The optional daily pools--"That's where
the real money is," says Bosley--can run a team's entry fee to
more than $18,000. The payouts, however, are spectacular. Two
years ago the winning team, with a single fish, walked away with

The egos outweigh the money. During Bisbee week 60-foot yachts
choke Cabo harbor; private jets idle at Los Cabos International
Airport; and the sidewalks swell with CEOs, world champion marlin
fishermen and young tycoons puffing Cohibas, knocking back $40
tequila shots and snapping up $125 custom lures. Testosterone
wafts down the malecon, Cabo's boardwalk, like secondhand smoke.
A magical aura surrounds the idea of the money fish. Oh, what a
man could do with that cash. Problems solved, dreams fulfilled,
wrists Rolexed.

"They all think they're gonna be millionaires," Wayne Bisbee,
whose father founded the contest in 1982, says with a laugh.
"'Course, most of them already are."

Of the 148 boats, about 40 with seasoned teams have a legitimate
shot at landing a money fish. "The veterans plan all year just to
fish these three days," says Bosley. "This is the Super Bowl of

Ah wanta lobstah! Biggest y'all got!"

Rick Kolander, captain of the Texas Marlin Maniacs, who won the
previous year's Bisbee, is ordering dinner. "Aw, that 'un's a
snack," he says of the waiter's first offering. "How about steak
to go with it? You got filet mignon?"

This is what it means to win the Bisbee: lobster, steak, and ...
what was that last item, senor?

"Shivus!" Kolander says. The waiter doesn't have a clue. "You
know, Shivus!" repeats the diner, a Texas car dealer.

A consultation with the maitre d' solves the riddle: lobster,
steak and Chivas Regal.

The Texas Marlin Maniacs--Kolander and his Sour Lake, Texas,
buddies Scott Monroe and Bobby Turner--are on a mission. They
feel their $684,265 victory in 2001 wasn't given due respect.
"This is a Southern California tournament," says Kolander. "They
like us Texas boys to put up our money and get out of the way."
This year the Maniacs came to represent, amigo. All week they
prowl Cabo in matching TEXAS MARLIN MANIACS shirts, dine well and
talk a little Lone Star State smack. "Nobody's ever won it
twice," says Kolander. "We aim to repeat."

There are 147 teams aiming to stop them. Chief among them is the
Go Deep duo, Bosley and Bullo. They followed up Bosley's 2001 WBS
championship by ripping up the billfishing circuit. Bosley and
Bullo are one of the hottest fishing teams in the world. What
they need is money. "It's an expensive habit," says Bullo, who
figures it costs about $8,000 a day to fish the Bisbee. He and
Bosley are small-town businessmen in a rich man's sport. They
need a win to stay in the game.

If the Maniacs are fishing for respect, then Picante Dream and
Picante Pride are out for redemption. Winning the Bisbee is a
matter of pride for these flagships of Cabo's leading charter
fleet. This is their home court. Their captains are Mexican--no
small thing in a contest dominated by swaggering norteamericanos.
Last year Picante Dream had the leading fish until the last hour
of the tournament, when the Maniacs hooked their 518-pounder.
This year second place will not do.

Day 1: Ten seconds before the 8 a.m. starting gun, 148 boats
jockey for position along an imaginary line stretching from El
Arco, the postcard arch at the tip of Baja, across the
two-mile-wide bay toward the Sea of Cortez. Go Deep, one of the
smaller craft in the contest, runs tight circles around the
lumbering yachts.

"Five ... four ... three...." Radio announcer Rico Torres counts
down the seconds, but the roar of 100,000 horses drowns out the
shotgun pop. Cabo harbor churns. Vanderhoeck threads Go Deep
between two yachts and sprints for the Outer Gorda Bank, a shelf
25 miles due east of Cabo San Lucas. Three minutes into the
tournament, the entire field trails in her wake.

"She's small," says Cap'n Gene, smiling, "but she's fast." Speed
is key to Go Deep's game plan. "You need a fast boat and a crew
that knows how to handle really big marlin," Bosley says. He and
Bullo found their crew when they went fishing with Pruner three
years ago in Kona, Hawaii. Cap'n Gene, 48, boasts 33 years of
marlin experience. Twenty-seven world-record fish have been
caught on his boat. Remember Quint, the old shark-chaser played
by Robert Shaw in Jaws? Cap'n Gene is like his socially adept
younger brother. With Cap'n Gene come his proteges, Pruner and
Dow. All three are "granders," which is marlinspeak for
thousand-pound fish and the men who have caught them. Bosley and
Bullo flew the Kona boys to Cabo to captain and crew Go Deep. The
team could have chartered a bigger boat, but Bosley chose speed
over comfort.

Team Go Deep is live baiting marlin by 8:45, before most boats
reach the fishing ground. Forty-five minutes later, pay dirt.

"Bit!" Pruner yells. "Guys, we're bit!"

Bosley and Bullo alternate in two-hour shifts. Bullo drew the
opening session, so he straps into the chair. It's a quick fight.
Eight minutes after hookup, Bullo releases a 275-pound blue
marlin. Most marlin tournaments are tag-and-release, but because
the Bisbee is a "kill tournament," it has a strict weight
minimum. A team that boats a sub-300-pound fish loses both points
and honor.

Only humans hunt marlin. Sharks won't take one on unless it's
wounded. Cap'n Gene's boys have watched a 600-pound marlin club a
shark with its bill, then spear it and shred it. Two years ago a
small blue marlin Bullo had hooked in Bora Bora jumped into his
boat, slit the captain's belly with its bill, then knocked the
man unconscious by cracking him across the head with the lure.
(Stitched up, he was back on the boat that afternoon.)

When marlin men dream, they dream about beating one man: Alfred
C. Glassell Jr. Fifty years ago Glassell, then a 40-year-old
Houston oilman, boated the largest bony fish ever caught, a
1,560-pound black marlin hooked off the coast of Peru. The fish
was 16 feet long. Bigger marlin have been spotted--2,000-pounders
are said to lurk off the coast of Australia--but none have been
caught. What's mind-blowing about Glassell's fish is that to see
it, all you have to do is visit the local video store. The marlin
that shreds Spencer Tracy's hands in The Old Man and the Sea?
That's Glassell's grander-and-a-half. Glassell had a filmmaker
aboard and allowed the footage to be spliced into the 1958 movie.

The rest of the day passes slowly aboard Go Deep. Glassell's
record is safe for another day. One boat brings in a 408-pound
marlin, but most of the field comes up empty. Picante Dream
releases a small black marlin. The Texas Marlin Maniacs catch
nothing but tuna and dorado.

At five o'clock Radio Rico announces the day's end: "Hooks out!"
Pruner stands and watches a school of flying fish hiss across the
evening chop.

"This is the spot," he says. "I can't f------ wait to get back

Day 2: As Go Deep sprints back to the Gorda Bank, the 72-foot Go
Fisch lumbers out of the harbor at a more leisurely pace. Among
the fleet's biggest yachts, Go Fisch has an air-conditioned wet
bar, and the strategy of its team is suitably relaxed. "Let's
have fun, and if something crazy happens, it happens," says boat
owner Chris Fischer.

The 35-year-old Fischer doesn't need to win to keep fishing. A
Louisville native, he retired from the family business, a vending
machine company, at age 29 when the family sold it for $70
million. The kid answered the What Next? question by purchasing
this floating mansion, a long-range cruising yacht with three
staterooms, a gourmet kitchen, a carpeted dining room and
satellite TV. Now Chris and his wife, Melissa, produce an ESPN
show, Offshore Adventures, based on their free-floating

Fishing from this boat feels like hunting deer from a
Rolls-Royce. The owner, however, seems to do little actual
fishing. Fischer tries to stay out of the way of his crew, to
whom, he admits, the Bisbee means much more than it does to him.
"It's a chance for them to match themselves against their
colleagues and make a big paycheck," he says. Yet when a marlin
strikes there's no question about who'll reel it in: Fischer.

This upstairs-downstairs dynamic isn't limited to Go Fisch. The
Bisbee may be the most purely capitalist tournament in all of
sports. The angler, defined as the guy who reels in the fish, is
expected to do two things: finance the operation and not screw up
in the fighting chair. The crew finds the fish, baits the lines,
works the boat, maneuvers the leader, gaffs the marlin and hauls
it aboard. Most anglers make a point of spreading the credit.
It's a team sport, they say. It's all about your crew. Well, it
is all about your crew--until it comes time to divide the

The agreed-upon split aboard Go Fisch is typical. After
subtracting expenses (primarily fuel and his $18,000 entry fees),
half the boat's winnings go to Fischer, and the other half is
divided among the captain and crew. It's a principle as old as
Adam Smith: He who risks the money reaps the rewards. Here's
another ancient truth: The money means the most to those who
receive the smallest shares. What happened to the Texas Marlin
Maniacs' jackpot? Kolander built himself a new swimming pool.
Monroe and Turner banked their dough. For their crew, however, it
was a life-changing payday. Before the tournament, Stimulator
owner and captain Jay Bush faced having to sell his boat because
post-Sept. 11 travel fears had wiped out his business. Now he's
the hottest captain in Cabo. One deckhand put his son through
college. Another moved his family from a shanty to a new house.

And sometimes, who doesn't win the money can be as important as
who does. Consider the saga of Blackfin Donnie Lovett. The
52-year-old skipper was scheduled to fish the Bisbee on the
Felina, a renowned Cabo marlin boat. Blackfin Donnie, like a lot
of locals, doesn't compete on his own boat because the $5,000
ante is too rich for his blood. On the eve of the start, however,
the Felina's captain booted Donnie and gave his slot to a friend.
While processing his grief at a local cantina, Donnie ran into
his friend Jerry Muntz, Go Fisch's gruff deckhand. Muntz relayed
Donnie's predicament to his boss. Fischer didn't hesitate. "Bring
him aboard," he told Muntz.

It is a joy and a privilege to fish with Blackfin Donnie. An old
hippie who wandered down to Cabo in the 1970s and forgot to
leave, he cheerily tutors a couple of passengers on the subtle
attractions of marlin lures while, hour after hour, they fail to
attract marlin. On the radio, though, the action is heating up.
Go Deep reports a hookup at 10:30, and 45 minutes later it's
running to the dock with a 418-pounder. Picante Dream and Picante
Pride both release small striped marlin. The Texas Marlin Maniacs
are conspicuously quiet.

In the late afternoon a strange call comes over the radio. A
boat's hooked up with a marlin; details to come. An hour later
comes the follow-up. The radio is full of snow, so it's hard to
make out, but it sounds as if the captain is saying, "We have the
fish.... Tournament is over." Which is about the ballsiest thing
anyone associated with this ballsy tournament has ever heard.

"Somebody is f------ with us," grumbles Jerry the deckhand. "Who
called it in?"

Go Fisch captain Brett McBride hesitates. Finally he says it,

Blackfin Donnie turns as white as a ghost. If this is the
tournament winner, the true money fish, it could mean $50,000 for
each member of the Felina crew. One of whom was Blackfin Donnie.
Until yesterday.

Muntz tries to console his friend. "No matter what happens,
buddy, you and me are gonna be drinking beers on the beach and
laughing at the end of the week." Donnie listens slack-jawed.
After a while he steps to the stern rail and pisses into the

The Bisbee advances like evolution: nothing, nothing, then
enormous changes in an instant. At five o'clock, while the Marlin
Maniacs pray for a miracle, and the Go Deep team waits to see if
its fish will take the daily pool, and Blackfin Donnie ponders
the karmic bus that just ran over him, the radio crackles with
news from the weigh station.

The Felina has hung its fish. It is shamefully underweight. "Two
hundred fifty-one pounds!" says Blackfin Donnie, beaming. He
performs an exultant jig. "Two hundred fifty-one, verified!"

Day three: Will Go Deep's fish hold up?

"Four-eighteen is a medium-size fish," says Pruner. "You've got
148 teams. It's not going to be devastating when it happens."

It happens early. The Go Deep team hasn't even made bait when it
hears the call: Picante Dream has boated a big one. At 10:30 it's
official: 439 pounds. "Well," says Cap'n Gene, "now we gotta
catch a bigger one." Nobody's crying for Go Deep. Its marlin
swept yesterday's daily pool. Regardless of what happens today,
the boat will keep $387,000. If it holds second overall, it'll
walk away with another $100,000.

"Rico, Rico!" The next call comes at one o'clock from the RO.RA.
III, a boat owned and fished by a family from the central Mexican
city of Leon. It's got a contender. But 60 minutes pass. Then 90.
By the time the RO.RA. III's fish hits the hoist, it's curled
from dehydration. Wayne Bisbee checks the scale. "This fish is
...four hundred and...seventeen pounds."

Elation on Go Deep. Pruner's fist punches the sky. Bosley allows
himself a smile. Speed. The difference between second and third
place: $34,040.

The Picante Dream's fish holds up. The locals are redeemed. With
open arms Picante fleet president Phil Gentile greets Hank
Deviney, the Houston businessman who reeled the fish in. "You
have no idea what this means to us," Gentile says. To captain
Eulogio (Gallo) Zumaya, who has just become Cabo's hottest
skipper, Gentile says, "We're sending your family to Disneyland!"

There will be no repeat for the Texas Marlin Maniacs. "It's
O.K.," Kolander says. "We decided if we can't win it
back-to-back, we're gonna win it every other year."

Deckhand Jerry has gone AWOL from Go Fisch. Word has it that he's
on a beach somewhere laughing and drinking beer with Blackfin

Go Deep's winnings: $486,530. The team will fish another day. In
fact, because the Picante Dream wasn't entered in all the daily
pools, its team takes home less money--$470,420--than Go Deep's.

Cap'n Gene is already hungry to get back at it. As the sun sets
behind the scrub hills of Cabo, the old marlin man drains a
bottle of Pacifico and ponders the monster blue that may one day
break Alfred Glassell's record. "A 400-pounder is a wonderful
thing to catch at the right time," Cap'n Gene says, "but in the
big scheme of things, that's small. Godzilla's still out there."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL LEWISTWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL LEWIS HANG TIME This 417-pounder was reeled in by the RO.RA. III on Day 3. After morning's full-tilt start, the waiting game began (inset).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL LEWIS WAYNE'S WORLD Bisbee, whose father founded the Black & Blue tournament in 1982, presides over the event that annually brings scores of high-rolling hopefuls to Cabo San Lucas.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL LEWIS SWORD FIGHTER Marlin, which can swim at 50 mph and put a bill through the side of a boat, are fierce battlers when hooked.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL LEWIS NOT-SO-LONE STARS Champs in 2001, the Texas Marlin Maniacs were back on the Stimulator in '02 and fishing for respect.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL LEWIS HITTING THE JACKPOT Hank Deviney (center) rode a winner in Picante Dream, but runner-up Go Deep also got a big check.

"They all think they're gonna be millionaires," Bisbee says of

Humans are the only animals that hunt marlin. SHARKS WON'T TAKE

The Bisbee's payouts are spectacular. Three years ago THE WINNING

The competition advances like evolution: nothing, nothing, THEN