By Guy Harvey
June 2, 2006
Big Black A huge splash off to my right caught my eye as 100 rainbow runners left the water, greyhounding in an awesome shower as only these colorful members of the jack family can. I never saw the fish, but I knew a black marlin had spooked the runners from below. Finally, the big girl showed herself, and the early-morning light flashed on her body as she pursued the fleeing runners.
In one swift turn, she doubled back to snatch a wounded fish in a cloud of spray. All that remained of the drama was shimmering, foaming water and three anglers with stunned looks on their faces.
Captain Alberto spun the Tropic Star around and put us on the spot in short order. As soon as we throttled back, the rubber band in the right rigger clip vaporized. Mate Alexi cleared the left rod as we waited a few seconds for Alberto to give the nod. Angler Charlie Forman pointed the rod at the wake and let the line flow off the reel in free-spool. Since we now use circle hooks when fishing baits, there’s no gunning of the motors, billowing black smoke or yanking repeatedly on the rod to set the hook. Forman gently pushed the drag up into strike and started winding until the line came tight and the fish started pulling drag. As the line began to accelerate off the reel, I already had my trusty Canon ready for the shot ... this was going to be good.
Big Black Fifty yards away, a 500-pound black marlin climbed vertically into the sky, mouth agape with its head shaking in what seemed like slow motion as the hapless bonito bait swung out into the ocean. With a 20/0 circle hook firmly planted in the corner of the marlin’s jaw, line kept pouring off the reel, and my camera shutter clicked off shots at a blistering seven frames per second.
So begins the typical hookup of a black marlin in Piñas Bay, Panama. Early morning on the Zane Gray Reef represents one of the best places to be if you want to witness predator/prey interactions of the grandest kind. I’ve seen black marlin punish the black skipjacks, dorados, jack crevalle, yellowfin tuna and rainbow runners that stack up in huge numbers over this underwater seamount. I’ve never been quick enough to take a photo, but the aggression, speed and energy expended in those brief moments remain firmly lodged in my memory bank and will at some point emerge as a painting.
Black marlin afford the angler/photographer many wonderful opportunities for getting first-class jump shots since these fish love to launch themselves near the boat. They don’t display the blistering speed of a blue, but they make up for it in altitude.
Because the ZGR is small, when the bite turns on it’s possible to see four to eight boats fighting black marlin all at once. This presents wonderful chances to capture some excellent boat-to-boat photography. I’m always quite prepared to give up some fishing time to get a great jump shot of another angler’s marlin from a different perspective. However, if you want, you can keep fishing with your live baits in the water while closely tracking a boat that is hooked up.
I have been to Tropic Star Lodge more than 30 times in the past 15 years. Why? Because the lodge hosts a very consistent fishery. Black marlin frequent the ZGR year-round, but anglers typically fish hard for black marlin between the end of November and the end of April. After that, the sailfish move in, and most anglers target these big sails because of the numbers. Personally, I like to marlin fish at Tropic Star in June and July, because your chances of catching blues and stripes are almost as good as catching a black, and the sails are always there. Big Black
Survivability of billfish has greatly increased since the introduction of circle hooks, especially when targeting sails on strip baits. Terri and Mike Andrews, the owners of Tropic Star Lodge, have consistently maintained the catch-and-release ethic, even encouraging the Panamanian government to implement a 20-square-mile no-commercial-fishing zone around the ZGR.
For my TV series Portraits From the Deep currently airing on the Outdoor Life Network (and now shooting its fourth season), I have always included a show at Tropic Star. Last year we shot the catch-and-release of a magnificent 1,200-pound black marlin fought by Australian angler Neil Patrick, as well as three other blacks that we caught for ourselves.
In January 2006, we returned to shoot another black marlin episode focusing on the billfish research done by the Offield Center for Billfish Studies and the Oceanic Conservation Organization. Paxson Offield fished live bonitos on board his 78-foot Kelsey Lee, providing several PSAT tagging subjects for Dr. Mike Domeier. With the cooperation of the other Tropic Star Lodge boats, we transferred several blacks to our vessel for tagging as well. John Richardson on the Picaflor handed off a fantastic 500-pound black, which gave an ocean-splitting display that only a big black can, providing some great footage for the show.
Preliminary results from that trip show that several of the tagged blacks moved southeast down the coast of Colombia and off toward the Galapagos Islands. This was the route taken by Neil Patrick’s 1,200-pounder, which turned around and came back to the Perlas Islands, south of Panama City, before the tag popped off prematurely after just eight weeks.
Big Black Domeier, president of the OCBS, is trying to determine if black marlin in the eastern Pacific migrate to the western Pacific to spawn. The few blacks that are DOA and end up at the weigh station at Tropic Star between January and March do not have active gonads, ruling out the possibility that the ZGR is a spawning area in the northern spring. Instead, the reef seems to represent a feeding waypoint in their ceaseless migration. However, more specimens are needed from other times of year to determine reproductive cycles of blacks in the eastern Pacific.
Black marlin do not appear to take handling at boat side very well. This becomes a problem when gathering data. Their survivability seems to be poorer than that of blues and other billfish, which is contradictory for such a powerful animal. So my advice to anglers and mates that have a black on a leader is to cut the marlin loose as close to the hook as you can safely manage and do it as quickly as possible.
When the fishing slows down on the ZGR, boats move offshore to fish the 50-fathom shelf and the roll-down off to the west. While anglers still catch plenty of blacks on the shelf, blue marlin also make their appearance in the blue water offshore, and catches of blues can actually eclipse the black marlin action during certain times of the year.
Offshore, the cleaner water allows for more underwater photography. The water around the ZGR is usually clear green, with 30-feet of visibility — not great for photographing billfish underwater. On those rare occasions when the blue water moves inshore over the reef, prepare yourself for some truly amazing action. A fierce bite often develops with blues, stripes, blacks and sails engaging in what can only be described as an orgy of eating.
My best underwater action comes from pulling hookless Softhead lures and then jumping in on a hot fish as it attacks the teasers. And let me tell you, coming face to bill with a lit-up, charging marlin that’s ready to eat would jump-start a dead man’s heart.
TSL A serious consideration when filming black marlin underwater is the number of sharks in the area. Along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the very healthy shark population has become conditioned to the boat vibrations associated with catching marlin, and they invariably show up to see what’s happening. Nowadays I would not consider diving with a hooked black marlin off the GBR.
Commercial longlining in the eastern Pacific has all but annihilated the bulls, silkies, tigers, hammerheads and blacktips that were so prevalent just 30 years ago. Shark attacks on hooked blacks at the Zane Gray Reef are almost unheard of, simply because the sharks are nearly gone. When diving on Neil Patrick’s 1,200-pound black marlin in January 2005, I didn’t once feel the need to look over my shoulder.
After dozens of close encounters at Tropic Star Lodge, I have come to know and respect black marlin. The lodge proudly boasts the most consistent black marlin fishery in the Americas.
While we marvel at the black marlin’s great size, strength, endurance and nobility, we must be aware of the predicament all large oceanic fish face in the modern world of exploitation. It is our collective responsibility to ensure the survival of these magnificent creatures in the face of growing protein demands by an ever-increasing human population.