Moments of Pandemonium: Fishing the Cape Fear Blue Marlin Tournament

BY Jules Norwood

At 5:30 a.m. the sky is still dark over the marina district but there are pockets of activity on the docks as sportfishermen prepare for the first day of fishing in the two-day Cape Fear Blue Marlin Tournament. As the sky lightens to a deep blue above the rooflines to the east they load the last of the snacks drinks bait and gear onto their boats slip their lines from the cleats on the dock and head for the inlet and the open sea beyond for exactly six and a half hours of fishing for blue marlin white marlin and sailfish.

The stakes are high for the 34th annual CFBMT one of seven tournaments in the 2007 North Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Conservation Series an annual sportfishing series managed by the Division of Marine Fisheries and promoting conservation protection and preservation of marine resources. Bragging rights and large tournament purses are up for grabs. With 49 boats registered for the Cape Fear tournament a first place win could mean more than $80 000 in prize money.

The emphasis is on catch and release; only blue marlins weighing more than 400 pounds are taken for weigh-in.

We head to the Steeples an area about 68 miles southeast of Masonboro Inlet named for its bottom topography a collection of spires where baitfish — and the bigger fish that feed on them — collect. Moving through 4-foot seas at a boatspeed of about 30 knots the Bluewater a 54-foot craft built for one purpose only — tournament fishing — covers the distance in a little over two hours and we’re ready to put lines in the water at 8:30 the official start time.

The dark blue waters of the Gulf Stream stretch out in every direction; the shoreline disappeared over the dawning horizon a mere 15 minutes into the trip. The expanse is broken only by clumps of seaweed that drift past the boat as the crew sets out teasers of artificial squid and a double six-arm dredge baited with mullets trailed by ballyhoo-baited lures. We pull the rig through the water at about five knots with Capt. Harvey Shiflet on the bridge watching for fish in back of the boat and keeping an eye out for anything that might indicate their presence.

“I look for breaks in the water temperature grass lines birds dolphin — anything other than just plain ocean ” Harvey says. “Anything that looks a little different.”

He calls out to the mate down in the cockpit whenever grass catches on one of the lures or teasers or if he sights a fish.

“To get a big blue marlin is the ultimate goal ” says angler Jeremy Edwards. Blues over 400 pounds are scored by the pound at weigh-in while smaller fish are released. Released blue marlins are worth more points than white marlin or sailfish but are harder to hook and bring in.

Our first strike is by an unwanted predator — a big gannet dives at one of the lures and manages to entangle himself for a few seconds flapping and struggling for a few seconds before getting free and flying away.

At about 9:15 we hear Tom Ronner the captain of the Double Shot on the radio announcing a released blue marlin — the first points scored in the tournament.

It’s a nice day — the sky is partly cloudy keeping the morning pleasantly cool and the roll of the boat through the seas is moderate. The day before Harvey says there were 6- to 7-foot seas spaced more closely and a lot of whitecaps. “It was like a washing machine ” he says.

Most of the crew is in the cockpit waiting passing the time when Harvey calls out.

“Hey! Watch the teasers – that’s a blue one ” he shouts.

There’s a flurry of movement in the cockpit as the second call comes almost immediately trailing the first.

“Left short — he’s hit it!” Harvey yells. “There he is! Look at him jump.”

The crew scrambles to reel in all the other lines while Earle Hall gets strapped into the fighting chair and takes up the rod and reel. Harvey slides the boat into reverse backing down on the fish to make Earle’s task a little easier. Somehow in all the action he has reported the hookup on the radio.

“He’s going down ” comes a report from the cockpit.

The fish has been on the line no more than three minutes. Harvey bumps the boat forward for just a moment.

“It helps keep a little pressure on the line to try to get this fish to come up ” he explains.

Before long the marlin does just that. Almost immediately he’s just under the stern. The mate Joel Webb grabs the leader and pulls the fish alongside the boat. For a split second from the bridge we can see his full length flashing brilliant blue just under the surface. Then he’s gone and Harvey reports the catch and release. It’s 10:09 a.m.

“All right we got you ” calls a voice on the radio confirming the release. “Go on and get you another one.”

Only six minutes have passed since the fish was spotted. Three minutes later all the lines are back in the water and we’re trolling again.

The fish followed the game plan perfectly says Harvey who saw him first. “He took a swipe at that teaser then disappeared for a while and came back and hit that short bait.”

Joel estimates the marlin’s size at about 300 pounds — not large enough to weigh in but impressive to see.

The rest of the day is uneventful except for a strike at about noon that turns out to be a barracuda which Joel handles barehanded pulling the hook from the fish’s lethal-looking mouth and tossing him back. We hear a few calls over the radio of hookups and releases but not many considering the tournament’s 49 boats.

“Blue marlin fishermen have got to be the most optimistic people in the world or either the most hardheaded ” Earle tells me. “The definition of blue marlin fishing ” he says “is hours of boredom interrupted by moments of pandemonium.”

Yet as the sun gets hot overhead the crew doesn’t seem bored. We’re perfectly satisfied just being on the water and while we wait we talk about people and places and mostly we talk about boats and fishing — the combined offshore fishing experience of the crew adds up to many decades.

At 3 p.m. the official end of fishing for the day is announced on the radio and we bring in the lines. As far as we know from the reports on the radio we’re one of just four boats that have caught a blue marlin while a few others have caught white marlins or sailfish. We should be in second place as of the end of the Day 1 based on when the fish were caught.

Harvey points the bow toward Wrightsville Beach and the big boat speeds for home her hull creating showers of spray alongside and a swath of wake spreading out behind.