by Ken Kavanaugh Film Crew Gets Up Close and Personal with a Black Marlin weighing over 1,000 pounds!
Have you ever rolled out of bed and felt like something big was about to happen? Well, I have too, but this was not one of those mornings. Fatigue and sunburn dominated my senses as we headed into the fourth day of a five-day production shoot of Guy Harvey’s Portraits From The Deep TV series at the world-class Tropic Star Lodge® in Pinas Bay Panama. We came to film two episodes of the show and hoped to get some shots of one of the most majestic species of billfish, the mighty black marlin. Just as it always does at Tropic Star, our wake-up knock came promptly at 5 a.m. My roommate Guy Harvey snapped to and answered the door, ordered black coffee for me and headed for the john.
By 5:30 all 33 guests were up, eating a full breakfast and we stepped onto our 31 Bertram just before 6. I only knew we were on the right boat by its color - yellow - as the entire Tropic Star fleet consists of identical Bertram 31s. (They all sport different colors and borrow names from countries around the world.) Our designated angler that day would be Bill Shedd, president and CEO of AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) and one of Harvey’s long-time friends.
In a cloud of diesel, our boat headed off towards the famed Zane Grey reef to continue filming our quest to deploy pop-up satellite archival tags (PSATs) on black and blue marlin. These particular tags came from PIER (Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research), and its president Dr. Mike Domeier. PIER’s tagging program works with the Offield Center for Billfish Studies and Panama is one the designated tagging sites. Manning our tag stick was Tropic Star’s own Whit Davis, a young gun with lots of big-game experience for his age, and no acronyms.
During the previous three days we tagged and released two black marlin in the 400-pound range, transferred and tagged a caught black marlin from another Tropic Star boat, and had fun with numerous sailfish and large dorado. But nothing could prepare us for what we were about to see.
A Big Girl
As the sun started to rise higher in the sky, the Panama heater inched its way towards full. Just as it happens each day, the radio started to chatter around 10 a.m. signaling the start of the black marlin bite. Minutes later, another boat excitedly reported a hook up. The captain said it was a large fish so we headed their way in hopes of deploying a PSAT.
Angler Neil Patrick from Western Australia hooked the fish on the Miss Spain, and he’s no stranger to fighting big marlin. Patrick’s caught over 200 marlin, including several granders. He also gaffed a black on Sir Garrick Agnew’s boat that weighed in at 1,323 pounds.
On the day prior to this hookup - his 67th birthday - Patrick caught and released two blacks in the 500-pound range right on Zane Grey Reef. Capt. Maso told him on the way back to the lodge that "tomorrow we get you a big one" -- a prophetic statement if there ever was one. Soon after our arrival the hooked fish showed herself. She was big - very big. As the fish sounded, we decided that she was far too large to transfer for a tag shot, but we still wanted to try -- and I wanted to get some good video of her. So we edged in bow-to-bow and I jumped on board Miss Spain with a TV camera. Whit also came aboard carrying the tag stick and PSAT just in case, and Shedd joined us for the thrill. Harvey and my second unit cameraman, Dee ?????? stayed on our boat for a second angle.
Patrick hooked the fish on 50-pound gear, so we all knew this wasn’t going to end anytime soon.
After filming a bit, Harvey decided that he should continue fishing while the bite was hot, but that they would stay close. So Shedd transferred back to the Tropic Star and off they went.
The fish stayed down for the next hour and a half but Patrick kept the pressure on. With the drag lever well past the button, he would often play the line like a guitar with his thumb - the tight string pinging like a fiddle. The fighting chair lacked a footrest, which made the battle much tougher.
The marlin bite on the reef started to tail off, so Harvey told Capt. Alberto to bring the Tropic Star back to the Miss Spain to see how we were doing.
Upon our arrival to the lodge days earlier, Guy visited the tackle shop to select his favorite teasers and lures, but also to lay claim to the only 80-pound combo on the property. This would prove to be a very fortuitious move.
With the battle now in its third hour and showing no signs of ending soon, Harvey suited up in his dive gear, put on his air tank and informed everyone that he was going down to "have a look." Harvey grabbed his underwater video camera and plunged into the greenish blue pacific. We stood stunned, each person’s jaw hanging lower than the next. After a deathly quiet fifteen minutes, Harvey popped up and gave his report like he was recounting an afternoon stroll in the park. "The fish is hooked on the left side right in the corner of the mouth (on a 20/0 circle hook), looks to be in good shape and is very large." He went on to say that he also saw another circle hook, leader and swivel hanging off the right side. (We later discovered that a monster marlin inhaled a 20-pound yellowfin tuna fished from another Tropic Star boat that morning and broke off quickly.)
Out of concern for the animal’s survival, Harvey suggested to Patrick that we help raise the fish, tag it and release it. Not an easy decision I thought, but then again, this wasn’t Patrick’s first rodeo. As an IGFA Trustee and chairman of the IGFA Fisheries Conservation Committee, a life-long member of the Perth Big Game Fishing Club, a life member of the West Australia Game Fishing Association, a past president and life member of the Game Fishing Club of Australia and chairman of the largest Australian lure manufacturer, Halco Tackle Company, Patrick’s not easily impressed with big titles or big fish. "When we got a close look at the fish I guessed that it was bigger than my previous best of 1,097 pounds and the thought of a possible world record did go through my mind," said Patrick. "But this was negated by the knowledge that we would be tagging the fish with a popup satellite tag." Patrick agreed to let us help him raise the fish.
Now things really started to get interesting. Capt. Alfredo again brings the Tropic Star bow-to-bow with Miss Spain and Shedd hops aboard wearing a stand-up harness and carrying the 80 wide. Guy puts his tank back on and jumps in while Shed takes his position standing next to Patrick in the chair. Shedd then yanked some slack out of the reel and tossed the leader in the water. Harvey grabbed it, gives a thumbs-up to the still slack-jawed crew and disappeared to chase down the struggling marlin. Harvey snapped Shedd to the swivel trailing Patrick’s fish so now both men could work to raise her quickly. A few minutes later, Harvey emerges victorious and climbs back into Tropic Star, towels off and grabs his still camera -- just another day at the office. Meanwhile Shedd sets his knees under the low transom and slowly reels in the slack.
Harvey then chimed in with a hearty, "Come on girls, get that fish up!" signaling the start of the synchronized fishing. After 30 minutes of aggressive boat handling by Capt. Maso and with two grown men putting on as much pressure as they could stand, the two lines suddenly changed angles and started cutting water.
I’m not sure anyone onboard was prepared for what we were about to see as the fish broke the surface. First, its huge head parted the water with its mouth open wide, a gaping chasm bigger than any I’d ever seen. Time stood still as she arched over to crash back into the water, but the only sound I remember came from Harvey’s camera shutter clicking rapidly in the distance.
She gave us some spectacular jumps in her final flurry to escape, but came quickly to the leader and rolled over on her side. Whit got a clean shot with the PSAT tag and planted it perfectly. Mate Vidal, certainly hanging onto the largest fish of his life, gladly cut the leader. The monster kicked her tail and headed back down into the deep, weary but otherwise okay.
Back at the lodge the chatter ran pretty thick that afternoon. Several cervezas later we all sat down and took a good look at the underwater footage Harvey shot as he tried to attach the second line to the leader. He shot some truly amazing images.
On his first approach the sheer mass of the fish startles you. She swam with her bill directly into the current and her massive tail stayed in constant motion, smooth and mechanical with seemingly little effort. As Harvey moved in closer she spooked, and with one small flick of her tail moved well away into the distance.
As Harvey struggles to catch up you can see how fast he had to swim to catch her as plankton and other tiny debris whiz past the lens. But he soon catches up again and is now able to stay close.
From his new vantage point above the fish you can clearly see the line, swivel, leader and circle hook from the fish’s yellowfin breakfast. You also get a good look at the fish’s awesome girth.
Judging by the leader length witnessed on the video footage, and the girth of the fish, we determined that this black marlin weighed around 1,200 pounds, making it one of the largest ever caught out of Tropic Star Lodge®. (Several top big-game skippers saw photos of the fish at the Miami Boat Show and all agreed that the fish was well over 1,000 pounds.) Mike Domeier at PIER has since confirmed that the fish is still alive and well, and thanks to Mr. Patrick we will soon know many more details about this amazing creature’s life. The day that Guy Harvey, Neil Patrick, Bill Shedd and a very large black marlin came together over the famed Zane Grey Reef truly represents a grand encounter by any measurement.
Ken Kavanaugh is an Emmy Award winning producer and head of World Productions. He currently produces several fishing shows including Sport Fishing Magazine TV, Guy Harvey’s Portraits From The Deep and the Chevy Florida Fishing Report.
The OCBS tagging satellite program began in 2000, and has grown to become the largest billfish tagging program in the world. Dr. Guy Harvey is just one of many scientists involved in this research, and the group’s findings sometimes play an integral part of his television series as he traverses the planet.
The technology integrated into these relatively small tags is truly amazing. Basically, they are microprocessors designed to release from the host fish at a predetermined date, float to the surface and transmit stored data to an Argos satellite. The satellite then downloads the information to the lab. PSAT’s record depth, temperature and light-level data that reveal a great deal about these animal’s life patterns. They can also signal when a fish fails to survive the catch and release. If the fish remains at a constant depth, either on the surface or on sea floor, the PSAT releases automatically.
To sponsor a PSAT satellite tag, contact Mike Domier at OCBS, 760-721-1440; Ellen Peel at the Billfish Foundation 305-202-9267; or Joan Vernon at 305-361-9258.