We sat on the flying bridge of Carlos Bentos's 35-foot Bertram, Caribena, last week, gazing back at the brilliant blue of the Gulf Stream swirling in the prop wash and at trolled baits skipping along in the sunlight. Everything changed in an instant.
Bentos said nothing but his eyes narrowed. Suddenly he was gone. You wouldn't think a 58-year-old could move so fast. He shot down the ladder to the cockpit, barely touching the steps, yanked a rod from its holder, poised thumb over reel and stared intently at a tableau unfolding 75 yards back, visible only to him.
It was man vs. fish and no room for error. A big one had whacked one of the ballyhoo baits, knocking the line from the outrigger. Now the wounded bait, under Bentos's deft control, wobbled in the bright clear water, sinking like some stunned, shiny morsel toward the sandy bottom 300 feet below while the fish that had whacked it circled for the kill.
Bentos felt the pickup and lifted thumb from reel. Line spun off as the fish made its run, bait tucked in its jaw. There is a moment in the run, he explained, when a fish turns the bait so it's aimed directly down its gullet and opens wide to swallow. That's when you strike.
"A fish has no tongue, you see," said the veteran angler, winner of so many billfish tournaments he no longer has room at home to display all the trophies. "So he positions the bait and uses the force of the water to push it down his throat."
That was the instant Bentos had to sense by tiny vibrations, bumps and speed changes in hundreds of feet of monofilament line stretched through moving water. He felt it, snapped the reel out of free-spool and struck.
Bang! Bang! Bang! He jerked firmly on the rod three times to set the steel hook, sharpened to a razor point. Bentos felt the weight of a serious fish and turned to beckon me down. I flew down the ladder just as he had and jammed the butt of the rod into the fighting belt I'd strapped on. "What is it?" I asked.
"I don't know yet," he said.
Almost as the words left his mouth he had the answer. Far astern, the sleek, tropical-hued shape of a billfish broke the surface of the roiled water. It launched clear of the sea and shook in fury, the first of a dozen spectacular jumps. It was a big one. Line shook, spray flew but the hook held.
"White marlin!" Bentos said. The battle was on.
All this was on the very day we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway's birth, and it made sense to celebrate with a bigger-than-life, Hemingwayesque figure like Bentos--writer, singer, translator, restaurateur and big-game angler of historic proportions.
It was Bentos who in 1996 won the prestigious Ocean City White Marlin Open by boating five white marlin in three days--all by himself. He fishes alone, like Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," while rivals take mate, captain and crew. As a result, when Bentos won, he singlehandedly took every category--top captain, top mate, top angler, top boat--the only time it's ever happened and probably the only time it ever will, unless he does it again.
In three years since, Bentos has retired from the business that brought him prominence in the Washington area, selling his popular restaurants, called El Caribe. But he's kept busy typing in his Annapolis bachelor apartment, completing a wonderfully musical book about his seagoing exploits called "A Crew of One," which he expects to publish this year.
The book is in English. He also is well along on a book of poems about the sea in his native Spanish. "Poems I cannot write in English," he says. Meantime, he's completed a course and passed the test to become a licensed charter fishing captain, while continuing to work a day or two a week voicing narratives for the Voice of America.
And he sings in Spanish--grandly and operatically--from the bridge of Caribena whenever the spirit moves him.
Bentos moved to Washington 30 years ago from his native Uruguay to work for VOA. He discovered billfishing on a trip to the Outer Banks and has been at it ever since. He's a stalwart of the Ocean City Light Tackle Club and the White Marlin Club. He's caught hundreds of white marlin and scores of blue marlin over the years, but the thrill has never diminished.
He stood at my shoulder coaching as I fought the white last week--the only billfish of the day and first of the season for Bentos. It's a good omen in advance of his year's White Marlin Open, which runs next week out of Ocean City with Bentos once again signed on as the only singlehanded entry.
He coached me through the leaps and runs of the glorious gamefish and laughed when I rubbed my forearms, grown weary from pumping and reeling. It was a pleasure to have him at the engine controls, backing the boat down to gain line when the marlin took a rest, nudging left or right when the fish overtook us to one side or the other. Suddenly, after 10 minutes or so, it was over. "There is the leader," Bentos said.
I cranked hard one last time to get leader past rod tip. He seized it, took two careful wraps of the leader around his left hand and lifted. The sword-like bill broke the surface first, followed by a bright, nervous eye, then the great, colorful form of the king of the open sea.
We carefully released the marlin and watched it roll, sweep its tail and shoot away. It was, Bentos reckoned, one of the biggest whites he'd ever boated, 75 pounds or so, probably a big money winner if it had come a few days later in the White Marlin Open.
But no regrets. "Congratulations!" Bentos said, extending a hand. And at that moment, with his gray beard creased by a happy grin, eyes alight, hands slick from the great fish, and the Gulf Stream's gin-clear waters rolling by, 60 miles out in the wild Atlantic, I might as easily have been shaking hands with century-old Papa himself.