Any fish will bite if you've got good bait

-- Singer Taj Mahal

This week's amazing fishing news comes from North Carolina's Outer Banks, where skipper Arch Bracher took live-bait fishing to a new level and wound up with a huge blue marlin to show for it.

Bracher was enjoying a late June, blue-sky day in the Gulf Stream off Hatteras, surveying the action from the flying bridge of his 53-footer, Pelican, as a party of charter anglers led by Jesse Waltz of Virginia Beach caught yellowfin tuna and dolphins (mahi-mahi). Suddenly, from the depths of the cobalt sea arose a monster.

"I could see black in the water," said Bracher, perennially one of the top-producing skippers at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. "I told my mate, Jordan Blount, 'That's either a pilot whale or a big blue marlin.' "

The big fish was chasing a smaller fish and the smaller one was scared. "We had hooked a yellowfin tuna about 30 pounds and the big one was following it in. The tuna ran under the boat to get away. He must have tucked himself right up under the propeller because we lost sight of him."

Bracher said once or twice a summer, he sees a big blue marlin try to eat a tuna or dolphin that's been hooked. Usually, he's ready to try to exploit the situation with a "pitching rig," a big, size 12/0 hook on heavy tackle suitable for fighting a giant fish. The idea is to get the tuna or dolphin in the boat quickly, hook it on the heavier tackle and pitch it back out to the billfish before it loses interest. It's a long shot, but it can be done.

But it's still early in the season, and Bracher didn't have a pitching rig organized. So he did the unthinkable and scrambled down from the control tower to put one together on the fly. He dug a hook and leader from a drawer and grabbed a heavy rod with 80-pound-test line from an overhead rack. He hastily assembled the rig and was ready. The tuna was still hiding.

Bracher nudged the boat in gear and out popped the tuna with a hungry blue marlin still in hot pursuit. Before the marlin could make a move, Blount gaffed the tuna and hauled it aboard. The two veterans ran the 12/0 hook into the live fish and pitched it back over, but the tuna ran back under the boat. What now?

"I sent Jordan up to the bridge and had him nudge the boat forward a little. When he did, the tuna popped out again and the marlin was still there waiting, and that's when he ate it."

Waltz, the charterer, was strapped into the fighting chair. Bracher was pleased to have a strong, 240-pounder in the seat of honor. He set the hook on the big fish, popped the rod into the gimbaled rod-holder and Waltz bent to the task. The battle was on.

Here the story gets complicated. When the marlin struck, it apparently missed. As the big fish ran astern, Bracher said he could see the tuna. It wasn't in the marlin's mouth, but dragging alongside. The marlin evidently was foul-hooked and had become entangled in the leader, a length of thick, 500-pound-test monofilament that connects the running line to the hook.

"It never jumped," which is unusual for a marlin, Bracher said, "and it stayed close to the boat, near the surface. We never lost sight of it the whole time."

Twenty minutes into the fight, Bracher backed the boat down hard, but Blount couldn't quite get his hand on the leader before the marlin made another run.

The idea was to get an official catch-and-release by touching the leader, then cutting the big fish free. In 16 years as a charter skipper, Bracher said he had brought only one marlin back to the dock, a blue that was gut-hooked and died in the fight. He's a strong advocate of catch-and-release and had no intention of killing this blue.

But circumstances conspired against him. Anyone who has fought a foul-hooked fish knows the difficulty. Instead of pulling against it head-on, you're pulling it in side-on. The weight seems to double and the toll on fish and fisherman can be terrible.

Drenched in sweat, Waltz, a building contractor by trade, pumped and reeled for an hour and a half. Blount steadily increased the drag setting to increase the pressure, hoping to shorten the fight. But sadly, by the time the fish was close enough for Blount to grab the leader again, the marlin was belly-up, dead.

It took six people to drag the great billfish through the Pelican's transom door. And there it lay, vanquished king of the tractless depths, brought down by an unfortunate turn of events.

Blount and Bracher took some measurements to confirm what they already knew -- that this was a spectacular trophy. The fish measured 130 inches, almost 11 feet, from the jaw to the fork of the tail, and was 74 inches in girth. "The odds of catching a fish like that, the way we did, and getting him in, it's like the lottery," Bracher said.

The skipper phoned the folks back at Oregon Inlet to let them know he was bringing a big one in, and hundreds of gawkers assembled at the Fishing Center. He backed into the slip where the gantry stands, where they used to hoist trophies back in the bad old days before catch-and-release, when folks brought in everything they caught. Strong hands manned the block and tackle to raise the giant up, tail-high, and get the weight.

It was 915 pounds, just 85 shy of the heralded 1,000-pound mark. Only three "granders," as 1,000-pounders are known, have ever been caught at Oregon Inlet, and the last one more than 900 pounds was five or six years ago, Bracher said.

What to do with all that fish? Marlin are not particularly good to eat, which is why almost all that are caught are released to fight again. The blue was too big to mount in one piece, said Waltz, so he's going to have it double-mounted. "We're redoing our house next year. I'm going to get the head mounted to go over the new fireplace and the tail will go somewhere else."

Waltz gives all credit to Bracher and Blount for the catch. It was his first marlin. "It was their quick response that made it happen," he said. "I didn't even know what kind of tackle I was using." Like Bracher, Waltz is sheepish about killing the grand fish, but reckons it couldn't be helped.

Catch of a lifetime?

"I'm going to win some points here and say no," Waltz said. "The catch of a lifetime was my wife, Stella," who snapped scores of pictures while her husband fought the great fish. "But it was definitely the fish of a lifetime."

The blue marlin hooked off the coast of North Carolina last month battled Virginia Beach's Jesse Waltz for an hour and a half. It measured almost 11 feet and weighed 915 pounds.