Helen Allen had been pumping iron for 1 1/2 years to get ready for last week's deep sea date with a long-billed beast. But nothing prepared her for the sight of a fish three times her size, tail-walking its way across the horizon.
"After half an hour my hands were covered with blisters," said Allen, a Baltimore bank examiner and novice big game angler. "My back started aching. Then I pulled a muscle in my neck. Every time I reeled in some line, it seemed like more was going out. It got a little discouraging."
Eighty minutes after setting the hook, the 116-pound Allen had boated a 389-pound blue marlin. The catch was good enough to keep her name at the top of the leader board for three days during last week's $25,000 White Marlin Open.
Then the big fish started weighing in.
Among the 151 boats that competed in last week's 10th annual open were a few that looked vaguely like fishing boats you might charter for a day on the Chesapeake. The rest were gold-plated fishing machines, with teakwood decks, brass fixtures and electronic equipment that would make NASA envious.
The owners of these boats, some valued at $2 million, were not competing as much for the prize money, which totaled an estimated $100,000 if you included under the table calcuttas and personal side bets, as they were for the pride.
"For a lot of these owners, the money doesn't mean a thing," said Pete (Flash) Gordon, who is employed full time to captain a fishing boat that spares none of the luxuries.
Gordon is a member of a fraternity of professional fishing captains who carry their owners, or business clients those owners are trying to impress, around the world in search of saltwater trophies. Next month, those boats will begin moving down the East Coast, following billfish to Florida, the Bahamas and beyond. It's a tough life if you get seasick.
"If you're good at it, you can write your own ticket," said Jerry Milko, a 30-year-old captain who grew up in Silver Spring. Milko is very good at it, if you believe the praise of his peers. And a few days before the start of the tournament, he had a chance to prove it.
Milko and a party of five were about 65 miles off the coast of Ocean City when something very big took a hook baited with squid.
"We didn't even get a look at it for the first 10 hours," said Stan Karlin, a Bethesda lawyer on board. When it did surface, they saw a blue marlin that looked to be the size of a nuclear submarine.
For 26 hours Milko and the marlin fought a tactical battle, while the anglers took turns trying to horse it in. When it finally broke off, Milko would not even guess how much it might have weighed.
"It was just awesome. Too big to even try," he said.
If the loss of the fish left Milko and his party with a particularly empty feeling, it did a great deal to encourage the directors of the White Marlin Open, which had suffered through two years in a row of extremely poor marlin fishing.
"Something unusual is happening out there," said Jim Motsko, owner of an Ocean City fishing tackle shop and one of the tournament organizers. "We don't normally get big blue marlin up this high. It's either something to do with the water temperature or the marlin are following bait fish. Either way, it's added some flair."
After the first day of fishing, Allen had bagged her big blue while Bud Hurlock, a roofing contractor from Delaware led the white marlin category with a 78 1/2-pound catch. For the next two days, both kept their positions and an ear to the radio reporting other catches.
On Thursday, Allen heard what she thought was a joke. Someone reported catching a blue marlin that weighed more than 700 pounds. It was true. But that fish kept the lead for less than an hour.
Butch Zigman, a painting contractor from Lewes, Del., brought back an 870-pound blue marlin. That catch broke the Maryland record by 280 pounds.
"You wouldn't believe the whitewater it threw," said Zigman, who weighs 210 pounds himself. It took five men to pull the fish into the boat, two inches at a time. The marlin did get one small measure of revenge by poking a hole in the side of the boat with its bill.
There were 42 white marlin caught during the tournament, but none bigger than the one Hurlock caught the first day.
"It was terrible," he said. "Those were the longest four days of my life."