By Keith Bowen
During the 2017 WMO, I fished with Capt. Ricky Wheeler on the Exile 65 Paul Mann out of The Canyon Club Marina in Cape May, NJ. After a classic crashing teaser bite, a plug was pitched on an 80W standup combo and it was ‘game on’ with a decent sized Blue Marlin. I quickly got in my Smitty Built harness and got ready for a fight. Between fishing in Costa Rica and New Jersey, I had caught about 20 Blue Marlin in the past but after one jump, it was clear this was my biggest to date. Everyone was extremely excited during the controlled chaos as there had not yet been a blue weighed in and we were in the right Calcutta’s.
The fight lasted 58 minutes to get her boatside. After measuring her six times, the captain agreed on her being a roughly 110” fish, 4” short of the minimum allowable length. Although from a somewhat disappointed perspective, the crew spoke the rest of the day about what a great experience the Blue was for all us.
Little did we know how much that experience would influence our future plans. No Blue was weighed in that year – ouch but there are more tournament fish in the sea to catch in future years. With the experience of Capt. Wheeler, I was lucky enough to catch and release enough fish and awarded with a 4th place finish for angler billfish points and receive a commemorative ring as well.
Fast forward and as 2018 rolled around, all of the 2017 anglers still agreed that we wanted to have the same ‘good luck mojo’ on the Exile 65. To boost our chances, Capt. Wheeler brought an extremely experienced mate from Trinidad to aid in our 2018 quest. The mate, Matthew, had some tricks of his own with slightly different fishing techniques than I had seen in the past. Having caught hundreds of blue marlin, Matthew and his expertise were a welcome addition to the crew.
The 2018 WMO started a bit slower and like most boats, we had to work hard for our catches. On Friday, our third and final day of fishing, the captain and mate decided to change the spread based on their years of experience fishing in the conditions that we were seeing that day. On the port side, a medium-sized plug was ready for pitch. On the starboard side, Matthew had stitched up a large pitch bait in case a BIG girl showed up.
At about 11, I went inside to make sandwiches for the crew, but was still keeping an eye out for action through the window. I had just spread the mayonnaise on the rolls and I hear some commotion outside. As I looked up, I immediately saw the crew clearing the flatlines and Matthew going for the large pitch bait. I thought to myself, oh my gosh is this really happening? As I exited the salon door and made my way to the cockpit, Matthew pitched her the bait and hooked up. In all my years of fishing, I had never seen a boil this large. As she hammered the pitch bait, it appeared a small car was emerging from the water. I quickly spotted my trusted Smitty Built harness hanging on the bridge stairs and geared up for the enduring fight. After Matthew hooked the fish on the Tiagra 80W custom standup combo, he turned to me and asked if I was ready to have some fun. I gladly took the rod and made my way to the corner of the cockpit to get situated for the fight. Without what seemed even making a swish of the tail, she swam away with ease at 28 lbs of drag.
After about 15 secs, this fish decided to let us see what I was battling against as she jumped about 25 yds behind the boat. What we all saw was the most amazing sight we had ever seen. I had never been on a boat that hooked a fish that size let alone been the one fighting it. Understandingly, there was quite a loud commotion going on throughout the whole boat. I have to admit, for a short time I was wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into. There was some guessing as to how big she was as I could hear the guys talking behind me about what a monster fish this was. I could hear Matthew say “Ricky, that’s the one we wanted” followed by some high fives behind me. As Matthew has guided hundreds of anglers through the end game on large fish such as this, I was intently listening to his advice. Ricky was discussing the job each crew member had with gaffing as this was going to be a total team effort to land the fish and take her for a ride to the Ocean City, Md scales.
The first hour seemed to fly by as I would get one foot of line back and she would take two feet her way headed to the east. The crew were incredibly supportive and encouraging, making sure I was well fed and hydrated along the way. I must have drank a few gallons of water and Gatorade. It was kind of funny having my son telling me, “Come on dad, you can do it!” Although the shoe was on the other foot, it reminded me of being his Tee Ball coach, teaching and encouraging him all those years.
At about 2 hours into the fight, we were trying to get a reaction out of her to make her come up. Ricky ran up in front of the fish in an effort to get her to make a mistake. The captain and mate knew what side the hook was on so we tried to make her react and come up, which she eventually did. At about that time, I remember hearing Ricky say something about three hours. I thought to myself, there’s no way I’ve been on the rod for that long already.
After about three and a half hours, she did make another jump about 40 yds off. Once again, we were all in awe at such a spectacular fish. We did have some boats in the tournament drive by us during the fight so they could take a look at the action. We were all terrified that someone would get too close and cut her off as we were stretched out quite a bit. By now, we had her at full drag on the Tiagra 80W. I had heard of captains speaking about how hot the reel can get from friction in battles like this. While taking a break from reeling, I bumped my hand against the reel body and could not believe how hot it was. From that point on, I periodically poured bottles of water on the reel to keep it a bit cooler so the drag would stay more consistent. I have Tiagra reels on my own boat and now had a new appreciation for why it matters to use high-quality reels when the pressure is on.
I hadn’t realized it but she was taking us a bit too close to being out of bounds so Captain Ricky was doing everything he could with the boat to help and stay legal. This was disheartening at times as I had to give up precious line that I fought to gain over the last few hours. However, I fully trusted the captain and mate so I did exactly as they instructed. Later that day, he let me know that we backed down on her for 7.5 miles which is why we had to have her at full drag towards the end.
After about 4.5 hours, I called up to the bridge for Captain Wheeler to come down. I was starting to see stars in my eyes. I did everything I could to keep fighting and stay on my feet, but it only got more difficult with time. Each second on my feet like an hour slowly ticking by. There wasn’t a bone in my body that wanted to quit, but I knew I couldn’t last forever. My eyes closed for a split second, and the next thing I knew I was on my knees passed out in the cockpit, with the rod resting on the gunnel. Game over for a legal fish in the tournament. The crew grabbed me so I would not get pulled overboard as I was still clipped to the reel with the harness. We still had the fish on the line so one of the other crew took the rod so he could experience the fight.
After a couple of minutes, he said ‘The heck with this’ and passed the rod to a third angler. This third angler was able to bring the fish up to where Matthew could grab the leader. Keep in mind that Matthew has been involved with landing many big fish. Even after what was about 5 hours now, the fish was still in total control and he could not get her up closer. I could hear Matthew telling Captain Wheeler that the fish was still fresh. I was thinking, how can that be possible? I have been fishing with Captain Wheeler for years and it was at the point, that he made one of the most respected decisions I have ever seen. He cut the line to let her swim away and fight another day. I’m sure she was tired as well but why possibly kill such a beautiful fish from exhaustion just so we could get a boat side picture.
After I made my way into the salon, I could not believe how bad the cramping was in my legs. That fished certainly kicked my butt. Needless to say, it was the longest ride back into the dock in my life. There was a Blue weighed in earlier in the week but our fish was certainly one to challenge that.
During that day and the following weeks, I went through a full range of emotions as I reminisced about my experience. I have to admit at first, I was really pissed at myself. Even though I didn’t willingly give in, my body did. I eventually began to think about it as the ‘greatest and worst’ fishing experience of my life. The crew that caught the WMO Blue weighed won in excess of $900K. She was just a big girl and played the game smart!
A few days later, there was a large blue weighed in at a tournament in Pirate’s Cove. I had a few fishing buddies ask me if I saw that fish picture and we all wondered the same thing…