"When he came rearing up out of that water he was something to behold," recalls Bill Feagans, a jeweler of 30 years from Charlestown, West Virginia. "He tore into that bait something awful, then ran about 400 or 500 yards of line off the spool and leaped way out of there. I turned to my two sons and brother-in-law and said 'It's gonna be a long fight, boys.'"
Though he lives on a ten acre patch of land and works a three acre "garden" that keeps him in better shape than most other jewelers, Feagans was drained when he finally pumped the fish close to the boat.
Little did he know that the blue marlin had immense reserves. The fish ripped half the line off the reel again in a sizzling run. Feagans pumped and muscles, Captain Dietmar Kossman helped with the boat, and eventually the fish came close once more.
Again it stripped the bulk of the line from the spool.
The third time he worked him in, Feagans thought sure the magnificient fish was tiring. Again the massive marlin made a headlong rush: Line burned from the spool.
Finally, his muscles virtually drained of stamina, the jeweler pumped the fish close for a fourth time. The marlin struck after a long July day's trolling with only one tuna to show for their efforts.
Three hours later, Feagans worked the fish near the boat for the fourth time. Now things were clicking. Mate Brian McKibbon lunged, and sunk the gaff into the first blue marlin of his life. Pandemonium erupted as the fish raged. With Feagans' sons and brother-in-law lending a hand and the Captain joining in, the six strong men began to get an edge.
Feagans himself discarded the rod to help haul the massive marlin aboard, but they couldn't get the fish's head in. "The spear went right through the side of the boat," he said. "I couldn't quite fit his head in, and it jabbed right through the boat."
The battle was over. The Escapade forged proudly back to Ocean City from the Poor Man's Canyon. Sprawled across its decks was the 539-pound blue marlin, the spear still imbedded in its side.
There are two types of marlin anglers: the rich and the non-rich. The rich own luxurious ocean going-craft. They hire the cream of charter- captains to run their boats while they sit back with their friends and enjoy the ride, and later the fishing.
Then there are the rest of us. We've thought about marlin fishing, seen pictures of those marvelous blue fish tailwalking across the surface, but hedged when it came down to chartering a boat.
When Bill Feagans first decided to take the plunge, he found it exciting enough to go back every two or three years. But he never caught a marlin, not even a white. Then, on July 8th, Big Mama struck. The decade of off and on trips suddenly was worthwhile.
That's the imprecise crux of the matter the prospective marlin angler must come to terms with. You could go out and catch five or go out and get skunked. We take such risks every time we fish, even in the local farm pond, but not for $100 or more a trip.
What are the odds of hooking and landing a marlin? There aren't any pat answers.
At Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, among the best white marlin spots, one to two marlin per boat has been the recent average.
Farther north at Virginia Beach, a spokeswoman says the boats are averaging close to two marlin per boat on their scheduled 13-hour days that often slip into 14 and 15 hours.They are also bust days, when the fish won't cooperate. And there are spectacular days like last year when eight boats netted a record day's catch of 78 white marlin. One charter accounted for 20.
The fleet at Wachapreague is tiny, but four boats equipped to venture out to Baltimore and Washington Canyons account for their share. Veteran Captain Ray Parker had five marlin up one recent day, caught three. The next day he had four up and none aboard.
At Ocean City, which bills itself the White Marlin Capital of the World, up to 300 boats may go trolling for billfish on a given day; a lot of boats won't get the smell of marlin on their decks.
At William Bunting's Talbot Street Docks a spokeswoman said, "All the boats are coming in with at least one fish landed or released, some as many as four or five."
Naneny Carter of Ocean City's Bahia Marina said one boat last week "had 11 fish on and lost all but one." Likely they considered themselves lucky. Since most fish are released, strike and fight is the essence of the sport. These anglers had a good taste of it.
The risk of not getting a marlin is inherent in the sport and not a sign of hard times in the blue water. Indeed catches have burgeoned of late, thanks in part to the 200-mile fishing limit and more emphasis among sport anglers on releasing the catch.
Almost all boats in Maryland and Virginia must travel 50 to 60 miles to reach prime trolling grounds in the Gulf Stream. At Oregon Inlet and Hatteras, boats may run as little as 25 to 30 miles offshore some days.
Twelve hours is average for a marlin trip in Virginia and Maryland; The shorter runs of N.C. charters may only take 10 or 11. Boats leave the dock between 5:30 and 7. Figure a minimum of two or three hours for the trip out in Maryland and Virginia, one-and-a-half to two hours in North Carolina.