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Top Billing

2/17/2009

After his fishing accident, Ian Card is a touch more cautious whenever he hears "Fish on!"

"Every time I work the boat with a blue marlin, it's sticking in my mind," he said. "If the fish looks like it's going to jump by the boat, it just knocks me off stride."

Three months removed from emergency surgery, Card was particularly leery the first time a 1,000-pound marlin was brought alongside the boat.

"He was gun shy for that first one," said his father, Alan. "He was standing behind a chair."

Understandably so. The previous time Ian tangled with one of the ocean's top predators, he was nearly killed. An 800-pound, 14-foot long blue marlin leapt from the waters off Bermuda and skewered 32-year-old Ian like a kabob, taking him overboard into the Atlantic.

"I don't really think about it that much," he said. "You remember it every day, but you try to forget about it."

A freak accident, certainly. But it was far from the first time an angler has caught the sharp end of a billfish.

Struck by fate

Surviving a life-threatening predicament brought on by mistakes and miscalculations is one thing. It can require a hearty constitution, good fortune and strong will.

No one could foresee or fathom the fluke that befell Card, and there wasn't anything he could have done differently to avoid it or help himself. He was, as they say, in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time.

"I tried to duck from it but it just wasn't quick enough," he said. "Some 14 feet long looking at you in the face is kind of scary."

A charter boat captain who is arguably the most prolific in putting clients on marlin in Bermuda, Alan Card had almost lost his son because of his vocation. He and the crew could only hope his injuries weren't fatal.

"It scared the hell out of me," Alan Card said.

On June 29, 2006, the Challenger had four passengers aboard competing in the Sea Horse Anglers' Club Bill Fish Tournament. They were in calm waters about 15 miles south of Bermuda with angler Leslie Spanswick in the fishing chair, fighting a marlin that was hooked around 11 that Saturday morning.

Normally, reeling in a fish that size takes two hours. This fish was near the boat within 10 minutes, still full of fight.

"We did try to take the fish rather than release it," Alan Card said. "Ian was in the process of tending the gaffe. The fish at that point was close to the boat. Without any warning whatsoever, he just jumped completely across the cockpit. Ian was on the opposite side of the boat. Just speared him and took him over.

"I was on the bridge watching, and at that point, I figured he's gone in the water. The fish has obviously speared him. I look off to the side of the boat and I can't see him and I can't see the fish. Ian pops up about two boat lengths behind us."

Getting slammed by 800 pounds of a fish that can reach speeds over 60 mph, Card was knocked out.

"I don't remember going into the water," Ian said. "I remember seeing the fish. I remember feeling it. But I woke up I was probably 10 feet under water and I just swam to the surface."

The line was cut, and a frantic but composed Alan Card backed up the boat to retrieve his son, who was bleeding profusely as he bobbed in the ocean.

"He had a hole in his chest about as big as my fist and one in his back about the size of golf ball," Alan said. "The fish actually hit him just below the collarbone on the right-hand side and went right through him."

"The hardest thing, I didn't realize how not severe the injury was," Ian said. "It was a severe injury, but it wasn't life threatening to me. It could have easily killed me. Because it didn't, you're not sure what was going to happen to you."

Bermuda run

As they raced to help, family friend Dennis Benevides stuffed a towel in the wound to stem the bleeding. About an hour later, Christian Wilmsmeier, who arrived in Bermuda only three weeks earlier, prepared to perform surgery at Bermuda's King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.

"The surgeon who worked on him was a chest wound specialist from Germany," Alan Card said. "He said (Ian) was a fraction of an inch from losing his main artery. He said you couldn't push a sword through your chest without hitting something."

The hole left by the marlin's bill, which was estimated at 3-feet-long and an inch-and-a-half in diameter, took three hours to fix. Yet it required only a dozen-odd stitches on his chest.

"He was disappointed in the size of the scar," Alan said. "The only side effects he's had from it, he gets some lower back pain. Other than that, three months later he was back in the boat fishing."

In a Times Mail article at the time, Ian's mother Elizabeth was quoted: "He was very lucky — it was a very serious injury. I was very surprised that a fish could make such an injury."

Out of the blue

Alan Card, 58 at the time, was surprised, too. The boat captain and expert marlin guide was raised in Bermuda and fished all his life. In catching probably 2,000 marlin, including more than half of the largest taken near the island, he's seen his share of scratches and bill rubs.

"I've had fish spear the boat. I've had them jump in the boat over the years. It's the first time I've ever had one get even remotely close to someone," he said. "I've heard stories of people getting speared. Usually, when something happens like that, it's when the fish is on the leader, they're actually manhandling it trying to release it. When handling, you expect something to happen — the fish is jumping or going crazy.

"As far as a fish jumping for no apparent reason, he never gave us any warning. What the fish did was something you don't even visualize. Everything was all hunky-dory and all of a sudden the fish jumped across the cockpit ... We didn't have any time to scream."

The image of his son being speared is one that will be hard to erase from Alan Card's mind.

"It literally picks Ian up out of the back of the boat — he never even touched the side the boat," the father said. "The fish hit him and literally picked him off. When he went in the water, he was on his back and fish on top of him, pushing him down under water.

"When you consider the mass, Ian is a big boy, 6-foot, 240 pounds, probably just the weight and restriction of Ian on the front of the fish, I visualize the fish basically just turned or bent himself off and just kept going.

"Ian is not aware of how far down he was, or how long he was down. He said he remembers the fish hitting him but doesn't remember going in the water. He was sort of aware of a floating sensation. When he was swimming toward the surface he reached up and put his hand on his chest, four fingers disappeared in the hole."

Back in the boat
The Cards are prolific marlin anglers, winning the 1993 Marlin World Cup and the inaugural Bermuda Big Game Classic in 2001. Alan Card has caught eight of the 11 largest blue marlin taken near Bermuda, with six topping 1,100 pounds. The Cards' biggest was 1,195.

The 1,000-pounder that sent Ian instinctively behind the chair was brought to the boat quickly and didn't jump; it just circled under water slowly. The Cards were ready to gaffe it when Ian thought better of the situation.

"He said, 'Turn him loose, turn him loose, turn him loose,' " Alan said. "I reached down and cut the leader on the fish and let him go. I think in the back of his mind, he was probably worried about if we gaffed the fish there alongside the boat, he would have probably exploded because we caught it very quick. It was probably only 10 minutes."

Ian downplays his father's version.

"It was like should we wait and let this fish calm down a little bit so we can kill or should we just release and let it go," he said. "I was like, 'Let's just get rid of the fish.' "

Alan said it was just as well. To help preserve their fishery, the Cards and most others release marlin the vast majority of the time, keeping only extremely large fish for research purposes. He said most of the tournaments today require release, and fish are judged by observers or cameras.

"It's a good thing. Years ago we used to kill them all. Nowadays, we tag and release them," Alan said. "It's a good thing. It takes a lot of work away from us."

And potential danger.

It has happened before

Capt. Peter Wright, possibly the most noted marlin angler in the world, is member of the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame who estimates he has caught 3,000-4,000 marlin, including 77 that weighed more than 1,000 pounds. Wright lives in Stuart, Fla., and hasn't missed marlin season in Australia since 1968.

With that many fish on his resume, perhaps it's no surprise he, too, has had to make an emergency run with a speared angler.

"In 1972, Jimmy Burns was fishing with me and got speared in the chest by a 600-pound black," Wright told Florida Fishing Weekly. "He broke some ribs, punctured a lung and the spear missed his heart by couple of millimeters.

"I could actually see the lung tissue coming out of the wound. We were 14 miles from Lizard Island, Australia, which was basically a dirt strip and a guy living in a tent. The nearest hospital was Cooktown, which was 60 miles away. We got him to the hospital and didn't get back to the motherboat until well after dark."

Joan Vernon, who was inducted into the Big Game Room Hall of Fame this past weekend, acknowledges that there are inherent dangers to bill fishing. The immediate past chair of The Billfish Foundation who is a renowned angler, captain and tournament director, Vernon said injuries in the sport are rare but well-publicized because of their unexpected and spectacular nature.

"There's an instance of a lady fishing and a marlin impaled her in the chest," Vernon said. "Her breast implant saved her life — it deflected the bill somehow."

Stories like that, which was sold to the National Enquirer, are more likely to happen with amateurs, she said, but one must not throw caution to the wind when pulling a 1,000-pound flailing creature toward the boat.

"So you have to be cautious. You have to be aware. There is potential danger. I'm speaking as an angler; listen to the crew," she said. "It's a frightened animal and sometimes they actually attack the boat. These incidences are so minute, and so infrequent, but if you go bill fishing, you should be with a good crew. The Cards are the best of the best."

And both the Cards have more respect for the inherent danger of their chosen livelihood.

"On a daily basis, a blue marlin fish is pretty dangerous," Ian said. "There's just a whole bunch of little things that can go wrong.

"Guys have been pulled overboard because the leader has been wrapped around their hand. We've had people trying to release a fish that had two hooks in the lure and they reach down and end up getting a hook through their hand, so they're attached to the fish."

Exclusive club

Alan Card is not the only father to see a marlin attack his son. On the first deep-sea fishing trip to Panama with his family, Bob Schulz watched his son Steven take a black marlin bill to the mouth.

Steven was in the chair fighting when the huge fish turned and leapt toward the cockpit. The transom stopping the behemoth's charge that otherwise would likely have killed the teenager. See the video here.

"Bob called me up from California and he told me the story about his son," Alan said. "He said, 'I heard the story about your son and I want your son and my son to fish together because they're two of the luckiest marlin fisherman in the world.' "

The Schulzes did travel to meet up with the Cards, and one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet, the marlin survivors, teamed up for a marlin catch.

"What happened to me and Steve is pretty rare," said Ian, who never thought of quitting. "I just love to fish.

"It's like a surfer getting bit by a shark and they still go back and surf. I would never do that. My biggest fear in the ocean is a shark bite. That little girl who lost an arm and she's still surfing, that's amazing."

So is surviving his marlin attack, and Ian Card does realize that.

"I'm fortunate. I'm lucky I'm able to talk to you right now as far as I'm concerned," Ian said. "You definitely appreciate day-to-day things more."

Read more from writer Mike Suchan at his ESPNOutdoors.com blog "But I Digress"