A Marlin Mystery

A big fish turns the tables

BY Chuck Ball


Wilbur Bonnet handed his backpack to the mate, Squiggy, and stepped down into the cockpit of the Dawn Lee. The sun started to break over the horizon. Squiggy introduced the three men who would be fishing with Wilbur on this charter. The captain was on the flybridge and had the engines running. As soon as the dock lines came aboard, they were off.

Wilbur sat in the fighting chair as the other men disappeared into the cabin and went back to sleep. He watched the water change shades as they got further away from land.

He was hopeful that he would catch a big fish. Even if he didn’t, he thought he could get used to this lifestyle. Fishing all day and having a few drinks at night was far better than dealing with slippery crooks, small town politics and budgets.

He got out his camera and took a few pictures of some of the commercial fishing boats that were also heading out. He was well prepared to capture the action if they caught a big fish. He had developed an interest in photography many years ago when his police department was able to buy a really good camera for crime scenes. Now he owned the best equipment he could afford.

After about two hours of running, the captain pulled back on the throttles. Squiggy began putting out lines. The change in the engine tone woke the other anglers. Squiggy explained that each man would sit in the chair for 30 minutes at a time. That man would fight whatever fish was hooked then rotate out for the next angler.

“You guys figure out what order you want to fish in,” Squiggy said.

Wilbur volunteered to go last, and the other men picked the remaining slots. When trolling, most of the time is spent waiting and watching the baits bob around in the wake.

As the Dawn Lee trolled toward Bimini from the west, the El Conquistador was dragging lines from the east headed for the same fishing grounds.

On any given day there are many boats trolling the waters around Bimini, a chain of islands located about 50 miles due east of Miami that consists of North Bimini, South Bimini and East Bimini. A lot of fish stories begin with, “We were dragging lines near Bimini …” It is an area of myths, legends and lies.

Aboard the El Conquistador, Roger could see that Luis’ mate knew what he was doing. He had local knowledge that had already helped avoid uncharted shallows. He also expertly prepped the trolling rods and rigged the baits. When they reached the fishing ground he knew just by the shade of the water and signaled for the captain to slow. He quickly got the lines out. Now they were fishing.

Roger felt excited about the possibility of catching another big marlin. He thought it strange that he had so much passion about a hobby. He never felt this way about anything else except his airplane.

Luis, the boat’s owner, joined Roger on the flybridge. He was a non-stop talker. Normally Roger would have no patience with endless chatter but for some reason he liked the sound of this man’s accent. So, he just listened to Luis babble about the sky, the water, the birds, and how the baits were performing.

Roger could see boats in every direction. Luis cautioned his captain to stay as far away as possible.

“Cross lines, it’ll be a mess.” He pointed to one boat that was particularly close. “That guy is hooked up. Fish could run anywhere, give him a wide berth.”

On the Dawn Lee, Wilbur had just got out of the fighting chair when the reel sang out from a strike. He had to watch as the next angler fought an unseen fish. He grumbled under his breath. So far this had been the only bite and he had been in the chair twice. He climbed up to the flybridge to get out of the way and have a better view.

The captain radioed the other charter captains that he was hooked up. He also was cursing a boat that he thought was too close.

“Got a darn googan about to screw up my lines,” he said.

Wilbur looked over at the boat that had ticked off his captain. Named El Conquistador, it had a uniformed crew. He saw a tall bald guy scramble down from the flybridge. The man in the cockpit, obviously the mate, rocked back on the trolling rod, setting the hook and handing it off as the tall guy got in the chair. Wilbur grumbled again. Seemed like fish were all around when it was not his turn.

On the El Conquistador Roger got into the chair and the fight was on. Marlin are generally solitary fish, though sometimes a male and female will pair up. Was this one of those times?

It looked like the Dawn Lee had hooked the male and the El Conquistador had the female, which are always larger. The fish tried with all their considerable strength to swim to each other. This was causing the boats to get too close as they ran with the fish.

Wilbur got his camera. While he was aggravated that he was not the angler, he knew how rare it was to see one marlin caught, much less two on side-by-side boats.

The Dawn Lee’s captainyelled at the El Conquistador to move away. Luis steered with the fish that Roger was fighting, and yelled back for the Dawn Lee to yield.

Below the ocean’s surface a life-and-death struggle played out.

The female marlin was over 14 feet long and weighed more than 1,000 pounds. The male was about 10 feet and a little less than 700. While sport fishermen and scientists are puzzled about marlin mating and family habits, it is quite simple. They hunt together. They protect each other. They procreated. Now apparently, they would die together.

The big female sensed the male was nearby. She swam hard. She jumped, she tail-walked, she shook her head trying to dislodge the hook. She emitted a panicked signal to her mate.

He was trying to close the gap between them too. He charged through the water and rocketed upward, spinning, rolling and flipping. Then he dove deep as did the female, some instinct taking them down into the dark cold depths.

The Dawn Lee and El Conquistador were no more than 25 yards apart now. Both lines were straight down. The chaos of a few minutes before seemed to take a break.

“Think we got us a pair! They will try to get close to each other. They do and we lose ‘em!” the Dawn Lee’scaptain yelled.

The mate of El Conquistador agreed. He had heard tales of a pair being hooked by one boat on two lines but being hooked by side-by-side boats was a new one.

“What ‘cha got in mind, captain?” Luis yelled.

“You turn south, I’ll go north. Try to force ‘em apart before they wrap our lines.”

Luis nodded and his captain turned the wheel. The El Conquistador slowly moved south. The Dawn Lee turned north. The boats now were stern to stern, still only about 25 or 30 yards apart.

“Roger, that fish is gonna come straight up when it feels the pressure. Be ready to reel,” Luis yelled down from the flybridge.

Just then the surface burst in a blur of iridescent blue and ocean foam. Both fish came soaring out of the water simultaneously. They hung in the air, sizing up their enemy, and disappeared into the same hole. Everyone saw the lines were wrapped and tangled.

“Go to neutral!” the Dawn Lee’scaptain yelled to El Conquistador as he pulled both throttles back. “You gonna have to cut your line.”

“Cut yours!” Luis challenged.

Wilbur was capturing all the action on his camera. He knew he was witnessing something special. Ironically, Roger was thinking as he waited for his fish to jump again that no one from his little hometown of Frostville, North Carolina, would believe this tale.

With the lines crossed, each angler was now tied to almost 2,000 pounds of raw fury. Neither boat was willing to cut its line.

There was all kind of danger. The boats were too close, the two fish together exerted more power than one man could possibly reel in, any mechanical malfunction could cause a collision, sinking one or both boats, and who knows what else could happen. Marlin have rammed boats and even impaled fishermen. Their spears are 4-foot weapons of destruction. But the stubborn fishermen were not going to yield.

The fish went deep again. In the lull before the next action, Wilbur swung his camera toward the El Conquistador. With the boats stern to stern the camera was focused on Roger. Wilbur could see the intense concentration on the angler’s face. Just then Roger picked up the rod tip and reeled hard. Some gut reaction in Wilbur made him stay with the shot. He recognized the man!

The fish again exploded through the surface, coming up only a few feet from the El Conquistador’s stern. The mate was startled and stumbled backward, falling to the deck.

The two fish slammed the transom with their full weight. The male slid off to the port side. The much larger female’s spear came halfway up over the stern and impaled Roger in his face.

There was a momentary pause and then the heavy fish slipped back into the water, dragging Roger with it. The mate scrambled to his feet and grabbed for him, but he was gone. Just gone.

Wilbur gasped but kept filming. The guys on the Dawn Lee were at the stern looking into the water. Nobody moved.

The captain of the Dawn Lee shouted for Squiggy to throw a life ring toward where Roger had disappeared. When the ring hit the water, it automatically activated an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). He came off the flybridge and jumped into the water. The El Conquistador’s mate went in too. They dove under but knew it was futile. The weight of the attached rod and belt would have taken Roger down even if he wasn’t mortally wounded from the stab in the face.

Squiggy told the man who had been fighting the male marlin to reel in to see if it was still on the line. He did but the fish was gone. The fish had definitely won this round.

Wilbur and Squiggy pulled the Dawn Lee’scaptain out of the water. Luis came off the flybridge and helped the mate climb back on the El Conquistador. They rafted up the boats side by side. The activation of the EPIRB would bring swift action.

The Dawn Lee’scaptain stood in the cockpit drying off.

“Ain’t never seen nothing like that,” he said. “I’ve had people fall overboard before but could rescue ‘em pretty quick. That fish looked like it meant to kill that man.”

‘‘ A freak thing, it was,” Luis offered. “Been ‘round the water all my life and know stuff can happen, but ain’t never seen nothing like that. What are we gonna do now?”

“Gotta wait for the Coast Guard. I called to tell ‘em and they want us to sit right here.”

Wilbur had been listening to this exchange and his police mentality kicked in.

“Think we should notify the man’s next of kin?”

“How we gonna do that? All I know is his name was Roger.” Luis shook his head.

“So where’s his stuff? Must be some ID or something.”

Wilbur climbed over to the El Conquistador.

“Don’t know that you oughta be messing around with his gear,” Luis said.

“Well, we have time to kill and I’m a cop. So, unless anyone has a better idea, I’m going to look.”

None of the men objected and Wilbur entered the salon.

Luis followed him. “He was staying in the guest cabin on the port side. I’m coming with you.”

“No problem. I’m not going to steal nothing. But that guy looks like someone I know. You say his name was Roger?”

“Yeah, Roger’s all I know.”

Wilbur knew he had no jurisdiction and since he was retired he wasn’t technically even a cop. But he was sure Roger was from Frostville. He might have been bald and beardless but when Wilbur looked at his face through his camera, he knew it was him.

He opened some cabinets and pulled out a few drawers. He found some neatly folded clothes. In the bathroom a passport was stuck in a shaving kit. He carefully opened it so if there were any fingerprints they would be preserved.

“I can see he entered Bimini on August 15. Says he’s American, name of Dan Willis from Danville, Virginia. I thought you said his name was Roger.”

“Well, that’s all I ever knew him by,” Luis said.

“Curious. It says he was 5-feet-4 and had brown hair. That Roger guy was over 6 feet and bald. And this picture, don’t look much like him either.”

Luis was getting upset.

“Look, you may be who you say you are, but this is my boat. So, let’s go topside and wait for the Coast Guard. Let them sort this mess out.”

When Luis turned to leave, Wilbur pocketed the passport.

The radio on the Dawn Lee crackled and the captain answered. The Coast Guard was handing the accident over to the Royal Bahamas Defence Force because the signal buoy indicated the boat was in Bahamian water. The instructions were to wait.

The RBDF mostly patrols Bahamian waters for immigration and poaching violations. When the patrol boat finally showed up, the officer in charge had no idea what the situation was. Communication from the home base was sketchy. It took a lot of explaining to get the story. The fact that a fisherman died after he was stabbed by a marlin is difficult to believe. And there was no body.

Fortunately, Wilbur’s video had captured the bizarre occurrence. The RBDF captain suggested strongly that the Dawn Lee and the El Conquistador follow him to the Bahamas.

The Dawn Lee captain objected because he would have to pay the fees for entering and leaving the Bahamas, overnight accommodations, and lose the next day’s charter. The RBDF officer was stumped. He did not think he could force the American boat into a Bahamian port for what was essentially an accident investigation.

Wilbur had been in law enforcement his whole adult life. He knew the situation had the potential to escalate. Since he had the video and was an eyewitness, he volunteered to go with the El Conquistador, which sailed out of Harbor Island in the Bahamas.

The officer nodded. “This is a good plan. Take the El Conquistador and this gentleman to Harbor Island and we will come to see you in a day or two.”

The three boats separated. The Dawn Lee headed back to Islamorada in the Florida Keys with no fish, but one heck of a tale to tell. The RBDF patrol vessel headed south on another call. The El Conquistador went east for the long run to Harbor Island in the Bahamas.

Wilbur sat on the flybridge passenger seat while Luis leaned against the rail. He remarked how strange it was to see a man killed by a marlin. He also wondered what would become of Roger’s possessions.

“Well, the man didn’t just fall out of the sky. He must have some family somewhere,” Wilbur said.

“Maybe, but when we were drinking, I got the feeling that he was pretty much a loner,” Luis said. “‘Course lots of guys that come through these islands are running, ya know?”

Wilbur was thoughtful for a minute. “I could see this would be an easy place to get lost if you had a mind to. I guess you just need a wad of cash.”

“Seemed Roger had that,” Luis said. “He paid a chunk for his boat and stays over on Spanish Wells, a lobster fishing community not far from where I keep my boat. The boat yard manager is my mate’s cousin. Roger gave him enough cash to get the Catch ’Em, that’s the name of his boat, to the head of the line for an engine refit. Everybody knew that this Roger guy was spreading a lot of money around and was always in a hurry.”

“He sounds like a man on the run.” Wilbur stood to stretch. “You say the name of his boat is the Catch ‘Em?” Luis nodded. Wilbur immediately saw the irony.

“How much longer?”

“About three hours.”

This fish tale is about the recently retired police chief from Frostville, N.C., Wilbur Bonnet’s first-time fishing for Marlin out of Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Wilbur Bonnett and Frostville, N.C. are fictional. Like all good fish tales this story is part truth, part fiction.

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