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Torpedoing from the depths, a swatch of metallic green colour rises to the ocean surface at 60mph, distressed, angry and ready for a fight to the death. First to break the surface of the roiling wake behind us is the black bill capable of beating its prey to death with a single swipe. A millisecond later the tightly-muscled body, shimmering iridescence reflecting the hazy sun, shoots out of the water like a Polaris missile. Fully airborne, its body in a tightly coiled crescent, it throws its powerful neck and head like a frenzied lion shaking a rabbit before streamlining in mid air to point downwards for re-entry, leaving a bruise on the water and continuing to try to throw the hook and gain its freedom. The black marlin, one of the most powerful but elusive predators in the sea, is ensnared.
“Shit,” says Russell Armstrong, the veins on his arms fit to pop, sweat now drenching his wood ash beard, T-shirt and dripping into his eyes causing him to blink furiously. “I can’t lock my legs it’s strong, real strong.” Harnessed to the marlin through the rod and, a reel the size of a winch, he sits in the fighting chair desperately trying to get purchase on the foot plate to straighten his legs and lean back on the fish’s enormous power. All this to prevent the Marlin ripping him out of the boat and down to the sea floor where, as has happened to anglers in the past, his lungs would burst due to the pressure in a matter of a few short minutes. He digs in for a fight which will last several hours and sap his body to exhaustion.
Where the Sea of Cortez collides with the azure blue of the pacific in a dangerous swirl of rips, curls, eddies and life threatening currents around the tip of the Baja peninsula, Mexico, is reputed to be the best Marlin fishing ground in the world. The Gorda bank is known to local Mexican skippers as a place where the sea floor rises several hundred feet and baitfish are feasted on by tuna and in turn tuna are hunted by Marlin in the ocean’s voracious food chain.
Minutes before we sat over the bank on a choppy swell on the After Midnight, a luxury 75ft Michelson sportfishing boat, with cream leather upholstery, a fridge on every deck and a state bedroom that would make a five star hotel look frugal. Worth between $3-4m it belongs to Mike Cromer, a ruddy-faced man with a basso profundo voice who has made millions with his company Manafacturing Technology inc in the dotcom computer boom. Kitted out with more electronic pyrotechnics than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, we drifted with the motors at a low ebb slurping beer, talking about business acquisitions as the asthmatic wheeze of the Fourno sonar seeped out of loudspeakers all over the boat. Live tuna caught earlier in the day were used as live bait and ‘trolled’ behind the boat: attached to line and swimming behind the boat with 6inch sharpened hooks tied to line in front of their mouths.
It was 10.55am when the reel screeched, line ripping off with such force little puffs of smoke came off with the friction. Mike was on the satellite phone to his building contractor discussing business before he slammed the phone down shouting, “We’re bit! We’re bit!”
There was no doubt it was a marlin. The motor was slipped into neutral as line continued to be torn out. “Ready,” shouted the captain before we struck to set the hook in the Marlin’s bony craw. We grabbed the railings and steadied ourselves before the twin Caterpillar engines producing 1400hp were thrown into forward with all their might and 70 tons of boat surged forward jerking the hook and embedding it in the Marlin’s mouth.
Over the next three hours a kaleidoscope of emotions ricocheted around the deck amongst anglers and crew. As the marlin wheeled, bucked, jumped, circled the boat and, dived in a frantic bid to escape, many times we thought it had broken the line or slipped the hook. All the while dehydration, exhaustion and the marlin battled with Russell under a blazing midday sun. Once on the flybridge above the deck everyone whispered that Russell was finished and the Marlin had won. Yet on he battled, each turn of the handle a gargantuan effort. His three team members urged him on like lackeys to a punch drunk boxer staggering around the ring hoping to land that final, fatal punch. “She’s tough Russ but you’re tougher,” they all shouted in unison.
Once during the fight I went down on the lower deck to calm my nerves with a Marlboro Light before Mike shouted to stub it out, a freakish stray cinder could burn the monofilament line through and the fish would be lost he said. And several times with the marlin dictating the boat’s direction we veered perilously close to a panga (a local Mexican fishing boat) before Mike offered them $500 to cut their anchor line and leave the area. They did hesitantly and motored off. For what was on the line here was not merely a Marlin but a million dollars, maybe more to the crew who caught it…
“Oh yes,” gushes Maria, tottering on platform heels in a tight luminous pink boob tube which shows off her cleavage to full effect, “We love the tournament. Lots of rich, horny American men.” Maria and her friend are outside one of Cabo San Lucas’s five lap dancing clubs where they are plying their trade as prostitutes. They have flown in from Guadalajara drawn by more money than a Mexican prostitute could make in several life times. Their normal rate of 50 pesos (five dollars) is upped to $300 for a night in expectation of the punters they are likely to meet this week. “We love the fishermen,” they coo, whooping in excitement.
They stand along the main drag of the tiny town of Cabo San Lucas. It’s a curious place: transformed from the small fishing town it was twenty years ago. These days it’s a playground for the Californian rich but its Hard Rock Café, Burger King and other totems of the American way on the high street hide the barrios and crushing poverty which begin just four blocks back. It’s whole economy runs around the Marlin and the fish’s image is everywhere you look from inflatable Marlin tat to bars and restaurants, like the Giggling Marlin, who all take its name.
In October every year the town comes alive and almost every mooring in the marina holds boats worth millions owned by some of the wealthiest men in the world. In a bar called Squid Roe, Charlie, a successful businessman from Oregon, hunkers over a Bloody Mary. “I make a lot of money, I mean a lot of money,” he says grandly. “But when I got here I realised I wasn’t a pimple on a dog’s ass.”
Every year the world’s rich elite descends here for the Bisbee Black and Blue Marlin jackpot. It’s advertising slogans proudly proclaim it to be the biggest, most illustrious and ‘richest’ marlin fishing tournament in the world. All are here to outdo each other and bring the biggest marlin to the dockside scales over three days. As the governor of Baja California, Leonel Cota Montano, a man in pastel colours with a spiv moustache and a voluptuous brunette on his arm fired the start cannon from the deck of Mr Terrible, an $8m gin palace owned by Jerry Herbst, president of the Terrible Herbst oil company from Las Vegas, he grinned realising the $8-10m the anglers would spend in Cabo and what it would bring to his parched desert fiefdom. For the 961 anglers and 234 boats who blasted off dangerously close to each other from the start line just outside the town’s harbour in a thunder of high powered marine engines and fug of diesel smoke had all paid $16 000 for the privilege. All were after the prize money: $2.3m. A sort of aquatic Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Except almost everyone here is at least a millionaire if not multi-billionaire and the prize money merely adds a frisson of further excitement – merely chump change.
Yet the rise of big money tournaments is causing fierce controversy, many claiming it denigrates the mystical Hemmingwayesque allure of marlin and the sea. “Some would argue it is tarnishing the sport,” says David Ritchie, editor of Marlin magazine whose average readers’ net worth is $2.2m. “They would argue that if affects the gentlemanly, roots of the sport and it is about bravado and competency on the line and nothing more.” Every year the tournament gets mired in increasing controversy. Indeed this year the mood at the Black and Blue would change by the time we left. Talk would be of conspiracies, deceit, cheating, xenophobia and even dark mutterings of violence and kidnap would be whispered sotto voce around the marina.
Yet these are halcyon times for Marlin fishing. David Ritchie explains big money tournaments started in the 80’s when the economy boomed. “I would say more people are marlin fishing because the economy is good. It’s a very expensive recreational activity. Only those who are extremely wealthy can afford to do this. But at the same time those who do it are so wealthy that the world economy really makes little difference to them.” In fact the amount of money expended on catching a marlin in a tournament is $45 000 per pound. Many spend thousands on marlin fishing trips and while most boats burn 100 to 120 gallons of fuel an hour, most would-be anglers return to the docks with nothing time after time. The marlin with its saucer-like eyes, acrobatics, speed and stealth is also highly evasive.
Robin Anderson of the World Billfish Series and one of the organiser’s of this years event explains that aside from “ a little drinking and a little testosterone” the tournament has another standing. “If a nuclear bomb was ever dropped on Cabo San Lucas during this week, Wall Street and the entire stock market would crash,” she says. “There are so many corporate decision makers here in this week that it becomes the financial nerve centre of the world.” Oil billionaires from Superior Energy and Terrible-Hearst along with corporate US household names like U-Haul and McDonalds are all here to compete on boats with names like Done Deal. Many have motored thousands of miles from Texas, the US east coast and the Caribbean through the Panama canal to be here. Boats like My Chelle woth $6m (the owner wanted to remain anonymous) have not only a full-time, year round crew with the captain alone probably paid somewhere between $40 - $100 000 a year but, in My Chelle’s case, a full time chef too. As the local Mexicans love to say, “El jefe (big boss) is in town.”
Yet el jefe also brings his lawyers to fish the Black and Blue and the organisers are currently fighting several law suites over caught fish that were disqualified but the anglers who caught them say should have won. As the rules are tightened with increasing alacrity, this year the organisers are taking no chances.
Fisherman will have to do rather better than holding their hands apart in ever-increasing distances to explain the fish they caught. When we were met at the airport by limousine a diminutive, white haired man was also flown in from Charlotte, North Carolina carrying a mysterious black case. He was also hurried into the plush back seats of the car too. TV is a former police officer who now makes his living as a polygrapher and applies his lie detector to rapists, murderers and child molesters. But by far the biggest part of his operation these days is testing the veracity of anglers at fishing tournaments where the stakes are getting ever higher. “I’m the guy who says you will get your money,” he says proudly before going on to explain how anglers are wired up and diastolic blood pressure, heartbeat, algorithms and pupil dilation are all taken into account among other factors to see if an angler is lying.
The incentive to cheat has never been stronger and not only is TV there but also a biologist to examine all fish brought to the scales and weighed. In other tournaments around the world marlin have been cut open and beer bottles and lead weights found inside which had been forced down their throats to make them heavier. At a recent tournament in the Bahamas one fish was opened up to be found with towels in its stomach. The anglers had then put a hose in its mouth and saturated the towels to give a huge increase in bodyweight.
Yet for those who get to fight a marlin, epic battles can last for hours and take a terrible physical toll on the angler. At the Black and Blue a few years ago one competitor was towed for twenty miles as he fought his marlin for 21 hours, long into the night and through to the next morning. Throughout that he had to urinate in his shorts while being pulled over the ocean as he couldn’t leave the fighting chair. A supply boat motored out to hand over fuel, water and food. He returned to be greeted by the whole town standing on the docks at 7am, they had been listening to every nuance of the fight over the radio. He won the tournament but came in, his body blistered, burnt and utterly wrecked. The physical demands on men whose only workout is on a mobile phone to their brokers can be catastrophic. Another angler spent several hours landing a marlin and came into the dock lying down, got vertical to pose for pictures and duly died soon after. No wonder one company boss I met had his own cardiologist on board in case his heart and not the marlin’s gave out.
Those exposed to most danger are the crew members: the native Mexicans who had flocked to Cabo in the hope of getting a job as crew on the boats. On the After Midnight, Pepe, from La Paz a city further up the peninsula already had a septic gash of five inches on his inner arm from a marlin that ripped his arm open with its bill. He has the job of ‘leadering’ the fish which is when all the line is in and the fish has to be pulled to the boat manually to be ‘gaffed’ – killed. At 48 he has fished all his life and seen friends pulled overboard or maimed by the ferocious strength of marlin and shark. “It is very dangerous,” he says. “You have to be like a surgeon when handling them. If the fish swims away let it go and try again.’
Yet for Russell Armstrong on the After Midnight, a restraunter from Avalon, California and an angler who has spent thousands entering billfish tournaments for years, the sweet taste of victory was now twenty yards away after three hours winding in line. As the crew stood on the fish step at the back with ferocious steel hooks known as gaffs, the marlin came within striking distance. Pepe grabbed the leader (the last few feet of line) to hold the fish to the side of the boat and the gaffs were sunk into its flesh. A small baseball bat known as the priest (to dispatch the fish) was wielded and the marlin expired to be hauled aboard.
Russ shouted in glee to be joined by the team and the crew. Frantic approximations of its weight were made and most agreed it was between 5 and 600ib’s – the biggest fish of the tournament so far. The mood was electric. As we carried on to fish the rest of the day the banter was exuberant and talk of the million dollars in prize money all-consuming.
Amid the high fives, Hughbert Lauffs, one of the angling team, clapped me on the back beaming to say, “Now do you understand why we do this?” A wealthy private investor from San Diego, Hughbert puts one in mind of an American general as he puffed on a huge cigar and told how he had tried to buy an island near Panama and has banking interests in Zurich and Geneva. His love is hunting and he has hunted bear and antelope in Wyoming with a bow and arrow and was due to fly to Africa hunting lion for a month. “But shooting an animal with a rifle is anti-climatic,” he confided. “Marlin fishing is so gratifying and you remember every minute of it. It’s my passion.”
That evening we motored into Cabo like conquering heroes. Eric Clapton’s ‘After Midnight’ boomed out of the boat’s Technics sound system as we reversed to the scales. The docks were teeming with boat crews and onlookers here to see who had caught the biggest fish. Ours was hauled up and weighed in at 500ib’s – the biggest so far. The team punched the air triumphantly. A million dollars was almost in the bag. Half a million was already the After Midnight’s for the fish that day alone.
I was taken on as a token talisman. Amid the superstitions of marlin fishing it is considered unlucky to have someone on board who has no role to play. When we arrived in Cabo we asked at least thirty boats if they would let us on board to write first hand of the tournament. They all declined. Eventually the team of the After Midnight relented and as I met them at the marina in the morning, all eyed me with suspicion. “He says his lucky,” said Steve on the angling team, a Californian tanned businessman from Malibu with a storage company in LA and a production company he runs as a sideline. Everyone else had exhaled and gave withering smiles, most refusing to answer any questions. But now I became the ‘lucky mascot’ and was ordered on the boat the following day.
The last day was never-wracking. All day we sat glued to the two-way radio – any news of another boat’s ‘hook up’ making the team and crew shudder. As the fish were taken in to be weighed and their weights broadcast over the radio the whole boat would erupt in cheers as not one failed to beat 500ib’s. Lines were to be out of the water at 5pm and as the time neared the atmosphere became charged. Steve Lassley, the captain, spoke of the new house he was going to buy; others of the cars, holidays they would acquire and the joshing continued. When a static voice crackled over the radio that all lines were to be in a huge cheer went up. Vodka and beer were passed around and hazy, faraway grins took over from the worried looks the team and crew had belaboured under all day. We had forgotten though about a small Mexican-owned charter boat, Minverva 111, which was still fighting its marlin.
Yet back at port amid the canapés and champagne on the boat news came through that the Minerva 111, was bringing it’s fish to the scales. It was the very last fish of the tournament. A hush descended on the deck and the vodka was stowed. An hour later at around 9pm someone came running back to say that the fish weighed in at 534 Ib’s. The After Midnight had been beaten. The mood turned to philosophy one minute, bitterness the next.
Yet the controversy deepened. At the awards banquet the following night word filtered back that the Minvera had been disqualified because a crew member had touched the line and not waited for the leader. After Midnight were the victors after all.
The awards banquet became a bitter fiasco and the controversy over big money tournaments reared up with a vengeance. The dramatic ten foot high video screens around the marina, thundering rock music blaring through the PA all began to take on a different sheen. The Minerva team, comprising four mainly rookie marlin anglers who had come down to charter a local boat left in disgust when the cheque for a million dollars was handed out to the After Midnight. Jim Grimes, a retired police officer from Alaska and a rookie marlin fisherman who thought he had won the tournament was back in his hotel room throwing up, according to his team mates.
Dark mutterings that the tournament was rigged and the prizes only went to Californian friends of the organisers with more accusations of cronyism than Blair’s government began to be heard. Minerva Saenz de Smith, owner of the boat and of a small tackle store in the town staged a protest on the awards stage. “”I’m Mexican and have been here for 25 years,” she said. “And this is a terrible embarrassment to my family. There is real anti-Mexican feeling here and I’m heartbroken as a Mexican. We caught the biggest fish and everyone knew that.” She was close to tears. The underdogs had been pushed aside.
A day later the After Midnight crew were warned to stay out of town and certainly not to wear the boat’s T-shirts. Russ disappeared and everyone feared he had been kidnapped by Mexicans and held to ransom in a bid to get the prize money. Other rumours were that the organisers had been attacked. And indeed, as we walked back from a bar one night the occupants of a passing car hurled a bottle at us. There were allegations that the only reason the After Midnight had won was because they had a journalist on board and it was good publicity for the tournament. My chances of being on the winning boat, after all, were at least 234 to one. All boats while trolling for marlin had gone far enough to circumnavigate the globe twice and only 250 billfish were caught in the whole tournament. Others claimed the After Midnight had cheated and I had been paid off to turn a blind eye. All lies, but the controversy deepened. I remembered what Charlie from Oregon had told me, “Sure I love fishing but there’s nothing like fishing for a million dollars though.”
For two years I have been obsessed with Marlin fishing. In my youth I had even so much as looked at a goldfish but some friends and I growing bored of the fug of London’s clubs had chartered a small boat to catch small blue shark off the south English coast. Although I caught nothing I was hooked and dreamed off catching the ultimate prize – a marlin. Yet it’s an impractical sport for a poverty-stricken freelance writer but I have pursued every chance I’ve had to catch a marlin. After the tournament I fulfilled that ambition. We chartered a boat and I got lucky and caught a 340Ib Blue marlin aboard a weathered and barnacle encrusted boat called Reel Action with a Kiwi skipper who reminded one of Les Patterson .
It’s thrilling, frightening and comparable to tying a rope around your waist and the other around a double decker bus and trying to stop it. The swell of the ocean, the screams and shouts of the crew “Marleeen! Marleeen!”who would rather cut off their hands than lose a marlin and, that when your body is exhausted and stinging from the salt spray in the fighting chair, somehow you must carry on winding is utterly intoxicating. And the moment of utter despair when all the line you have wound in is ripped out again as the marlin swims away and you have to begin fighting all over again is when your heart sinks. Anglers are never tied to the boat or chair, merely harnessed to the rod, which adds an extra frisson of fear that if you don’t lock your legs you will be ripped out of the boat. Catching a marlin was one of the most life-affirming thing I have ever done – a million dollars seemed the least of it.
So why have big money prizes for something that is magical in its own right? The tournament was started by Bob Bisbee, a tackle store owner in California for a few of his friends twenty years ago. Today it is run by his son Wayne, a voluble exponent of the event who is amazed at how it has grown exponentially but defends the monstrous sums of money involved. “The money is a total attraction,” he says. “Look at the programme who wants to be a millionaire. Everyone wants a shot at a million dollars. If you could have that shot but have a whole lot of fun doing it for a three day period and get a suntan to boot or if you ask “Would I rather sit in a studio in New York sitting across from Regis Feldman?” I’ll take the sunshine any day.”
Yet at the time of writing Wayne Bisbee has been served with another writ and some locals in Cabo have vowed the tournament will never be held there again. “We were robbed,” says Bob Hunt, a hotel developer from the disqualified Minerva team. Yet Wayne Bisbee is apologetic but holds the line that rules are rules. “I’ve always liked underdogs and we’ve had a lot of underdogs win this tournament. But there was no intent on their part to cheat – they just violated the rules.”
At the awards ceremony, Pepe a native Mexican but whose loyalties were torn as he was on the winning boat, misted over. “We are the best Marlin team in the world,” he said whimsically, his eyes beginning to prick with emotion. He was to take home more money than he had ever earned in a lifetime but that seemed to not matter one jot. And Hughbert an immensely wealthy man but one who loves the sport summed it up thus. “I have a lot of money ,” he said wrinkling his nose. “I have no respect for money. It’s about coming first place.” Any other time I would have laughed cynically, this time I stayed silent.