I challenged Angus Phillips, the Post's outdoors editor, to what seemed a simple $10 bet: Who could boat the heaviest bluefish on six-pound-test line. Rules promulgated by the International Game Fish Association were to govern the all-day match, which had more than a smidgen of grudge to it.
In football, basketball, boxing, tennis, golf and you name it, absurdities such as "a tie" do not exist. That given, we proceed to the match and the macho that attended it. Imagine George Carlin (Phillips) and Walter Matthau (Hoffman) dueling on the bay, each a bit bewildered by the who, when, how and why of the contest.
Bewildered, yes, Baffled, no. For there's a kind of wild-eyed competitiveness and takes hold when men embark upon efforts like the Great Fools' Six-Pound-Test Bluefish Tournament.
Competitive fervor leads them, as it did us, to great sacrifice. Long tangled hours we spent wrapped up in shreds of line, leftovers from failing efforts at complicated knots like the Bimini twist and the spider hitch.
Knots we didn't know and in the end never learned. But I know something of bluefish and so does Phillips.
There is no more ravenous fish in the ocean than the bluefish. When provoked to a feeding frenzy, the blue will gobble and vomit, gobble and vomit, almost anything.
This free-ranging predator will mouth the bait and speed away with it but when you lunge backward to set the hook, nothing responds to your tug. Nor is your bait marked by a single tooth mark. Don't ask why.
Lest anyone doubt the temperamental character of the bluefish, which may run upwards of 30 pounds, consider the case of a 17-year-old surfer, James Knapp. It was in April 1974 when Knapp, atop his board saw what he described as "great dark shapes" rolling in the surf. Suddenly, he was bitten on the foot.
Simultaneously, the beaches north of Miami became the playgrounds of fighting bluefish. After Knapp's first bite, at least 50 surfers returned with lacerations from bluefish, some suffering severe blood loss.
Capt. Charles Nicholson is a stolid, humorous man who tries to please his parties. Just as Phillips would have conspired against me, I conspired against Phillips. I called Nicholson the night before The Great Fools' Six-Pound-Test Bluefish Tournament and asked that he net, personally, all my fish. I also solicited advice as to how the most successful anglers had approached their quarry in the days and weeks beforehand. Phillips was doing other sneaky things.
It is irrelevant whether you like the taste of bluefish but please consider the ludicrous situation of two full grown men (he, 33, and I, 46) allowing bluefish after bluefish to gobble and leave with the tackle that was required by The Great Fools' Six-Pound-Test Bluefish Tournament - some $50 worth. Worse, we were being laughed at by Nicholson and assorted guests.
Example: "Which comes first, Hoffman, cardiac arrest, the drowning of your fish or heat stroke," Nicholson babbled.
Yet there is a tactile, delicate, almost sensual relationship between a fisherman connected to a bluefish by six-pound-test line. His rod tip must be angled correctly. His knots must be tied to perfection. The hook must be honed to hypodermic sharpness. The reel's drag must be set with precision. There cannot be a fleck of rust inside the rod tip or the fish will break off.
I took these limitations into consideration, and so, too, presumably, did Phillips. The net result: Two identical 4 1/2-pound bluefish whose disgusting resemblance caused The Great Fools' Six-Pound-Test Bluefish Tournament to end in a tie. The Fat Lady was muzzled.