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Fighting giants

8/5/2009

Ralph Wilkins headed out in late November alone. Two days spent waiting on the docks in Chatham, Mass., had honed the 50-year-old New Yorker's urge to get back out on the water. It was the end of the bluefin season and he knew it would be his last shot at a fish before winter.

Flush with provisions in the FV Odysea, a 32-foot BHM sport fishing boat rigged for giant tuna (picture a sleek tugboat with a fiberglass hull and a two-story wheelhouse), Wilkins headed out for perhaps his 12th trip of 2008. As he tells of his day, Wilkins echoes Santiago — protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea — albeit in the unmistakable cadence of the Bronx.

"You know, I had a mate that was fishing with me most of the summer," Wilkins says. "But he didn't show up that morning. And I told myself, 'I'll take an easy day, and instead of bait fishing, I'll go trolling.' I figured, being I was by myself, I'd just take it easy and try to catch whatever I could."

Wilkins set out wishing that his mate, Tyler, was there. He ventured some 40 miles east of Chatham, a long way from what he calls the "coastal Americas," relieved that the weather finally had cleared: light winds and sunshine at a time of year capable of spawning Nor'easters.

In a food chain traffic jam, tuna fishermen often search for pods of whales to locate bluefin. The whales and tuna track schools of mackerel, herring and other small fish up the coast. On a hunch, Wilkins stayed clear of the other boats, instead following seabirds drawn, he hoped, by a late-season tuna feeding frenzy.

He had two lines in the water, trolling swimming baits. At 8 in the morning, he got a hit. The 70-incher he reeled in would have weighed in the neighborhood of 200 pounds — but it didn't meet the size requirements specified on his permit. He let it go.

Because the fish is endangered, the National Marine Fisheries Service stipulates that each vessel can harvest only one trophy or "giant" bluefin tuna annually. After being overfished for decades, stocks of spawning-sized bluefin (620 pounds or larger) have declined by 97 percent since 1960, according to estimates by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.

Giants begin their classification at 73 inches and around 220 pounds — the size of a linebacker. At their upper limits, they surpass 14 feet. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) All-Tackle World Record bluefin, estimated to be 30 years old, came off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1979 and weighed 1,496 pounds.

In Wilkins' boat, the rod went off again at 9:30 a.m. He assumed he'd hooked another schoolie, or immature bluefin, but the fish took more and more line. For two hours the fish ran. Wilkins reeled in his second line and then began to try to work the fish back to the boat to see what he had.

"I got him pretty close to the boat and I seen he was about 10 or 12 feet long," Wilkins said. "And so I says, 'Jeez, I'm in for a battle here.'"

The fish battled. If Wilkins got it close to the boat for a moment, he would increase the drag on the line — but the fish would still unspool hundreds of feet off the reel in seconds.

Giants aren't just big; they're powerful and surprisingly fast. According to the World Wildlife Fund, a giant tuna at a dead sprint can beat a Porsche off the line and reach 70 mph for short bursts. They can breach the water's surface and can dive to 3,000 feet.

Wilkins fought the fish into the afternoon, paying out line and reeling it back countless times, not letting pressure off for fear the fish would spin back toward the boat and dislodge the hook or slash the line.

As any experienced fisherman knows, there are several ways to lose a fish once it's on the line, and the chances only increase the longer it's been on. After several hours of fighting the tuna, though, Wilkins' biggest worry became his own endurance.

With the palms of his gloves torn open, Wilkins hands had begun to blister — one from working the line, the other from the rod. His body was beginning a mutiny that quickly swelled ranks with cramps that knotted his forearms and froze his fingers.

"Sometimes you're not sure if you want to continue," he says. "You're three or four hours into it, where you're physically exhausted. It got to the point where I says, 'I've got to get him pretty soon, or I'm going to be shot, you know, I'm not going to be able to finish the job.'"

Wilkins missed having a mate to shout encouragement, spell him in the fight, or even get him something to drink.
For nearly five hours at the reel, he pushed, unable to leave the line or step away from the back of the boat. Wilkins described the catch as a zero-sum game.

"I pushed the drag up a little bit to try to put a little more pressure on him," he says. "He came by the boat one or two more times and did some rolling around and I figured, 'It's now or never.'

"Either he was going to die or I was going to die."

Still holding the rod, Wilkins reached for the harpoon. If he missed, the fish could bolt. Under the boat it could cut the line, or, straining against the drag, it could elongate the hole where the hook was lodged and free itself.

"I grabbed the harpoon and threw it at him," Wilkins says. "And actually got him."

The harpoon hung in the beast's thick flesh. The fish rolled, exhausted, dying. Wilkins pulled it alongside the boat.

Wilkins, relieved, had time to marvel. In a test he hadn't expected, he tapped all his expertise, all his patience, all the strength and stamina he had built over that fishing season. The fish was the biggest he had ever caught. He could rest his hands, tend to the blisters, get the soda that he'd been craving, or maybe have a beer to celebrate.

"That was the culmination of the battle, pretty much, but it was about four or five hours of give and take, give and take, going back and forth with the monster in the sea," Wilkins says.

But that wasn't the end of the story, Wilkins explained.

"I was 40 miles out off the coast of the Cape there by myself, and I got a 900-pounder tied to the side of the boat, now what do you do?"

He'd been that far out several times, often staying for days at a time to conserve gas. But the sun was already getting low in the sky, and he hadn't even gotten the fish on board.

He had the hook and fishing line; he had the line attached to the harpoon; he had a winch and a block and tackle rig to hoist the fish. At 5'10" and 200 pounds, Wilkins was half the length and a quarter the mass of his fish.

But Wilkins thought he could get him on board. For three hours, he thought he could get the blasted thing on board.

He tried first by the head, then by the tail. Using the block and tackle and winch, he got the beast as high as the gunwale only to have it repeatedly drop back into the sea. Fearing the lines breaking or the commotion in the water drawing sharks, Wilkins' fatigue and frustration overtook him.

In fact, he'd heard that great whites had been prowling the area, and, despite this, Wilkins put a rope through the fish's mouth and gills, affixing the rope to the boat's mid-cleat — that's all he could do. Then, he started the 40-mile trip back through dangerous shoals, at sunset, at 5 mph, towing the fish alongside, hoping for a fate better than that of poor Santiago, whose 18-foot marlin was skeletonized by swarming sharks on his return home.

"That place is wicked evil out there, off of the Cape," he said. "That's some of the worst navigating seas that there are with all the shoaled water.

"But it actually happened to be a real nice day, so on the way in I had a barbeque and I had a couple of shell steaks on the grill. I put the boat on autopilot and just kicked back and took a ride."

Wilkins wasn't worried about the sandbars or the great white sharks that had fishermen in the area "reeling in heads." He wasn't worried about the eight hours that it would take to get back or the blisters on his hands; he was hungry and he was elated. The TV was on; the cold beer was on the dash board. And Wilkins took the time to savor the moments, relive the battle, and relax his tired limbs.

On the way in, Wilkins called up a fish buyer that he knew on Cape, telling him he had a giant bluefin that was so big, he couldn't get him into the boat.

"He said, 'Yeah, well don't worry about it, I'll be here for as long as it takes,'" Wilkins said. "And the guy was sleeping in his truck when I turned the corner to come into the inlet."

When they unloaded and weighed the fish with the buyer's crane, Ralph Wilkins sold the 12-foot, 900-pound behemoth for $8,400. The buyer shipped the fish to its final destination in Tokyo, where the sushi market brings tens of thousands of dollars for bluefin.

The huge demand and limited supply of Atlantic bluefin drives prices to those astronomical heights. That balance can't last indefinitely. Tales of giant fish will become fewer, and the men who tell them, older.

And Wilkins knows he was lucky. "I think," he says, "I had the only keeper in the fleet."