By Nichole Osinski
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Big Rock,” Pelagic Hunter II Captain John Cruise III says thinking back on the many years he’s attended the tournament.
And in 2021, Cruise took his first step toward that goal by signing up for the Lady Angler Tournament. His wife would be competing, but fate, and foul weather, had other plans and it looked as if the Pelagic Hunter II wouldn’t be sharing the seas with other boats during those two days.
However, John wasn’t ready to leave just yet. “I decided, we’re still going to stay up there,” John says. “My mate and I were talking and I was like…I’ve always wanted to do this. Let’s go look at how much it is to enter and what categories we can afford.”
Being able to enter would also depend on John’s charter boat business and if he could reschedule that week’s bookings. John was able to rework all his clients that week except one. The team would have to take the first day of the tournament as their lay day, but they were in the Big Rock.
“Day one ended up being the nicest day, but you have to take care of your clients first, so that’s how I started,” John says.
On Tuesday morning, John briefed his team on what was happening, and they set out. The crew consisted of first mate Riley Adkins, who tended the left rigger during the tournament and ultimately reeled in the winning fish; Kyle Kirkpatrick, the second mate who would be on the right side; and Norm Bowen who had fished with John in the past, acting as a rover.
In addition to his role as captain, John would also be a free floater, helping out where needed. “I told them if you follow me, let me do my thing, and you guys do the best of your ability, work hard throughout the day, start to finish, we’re going to win this tournament,”John says. “Every time I leave the inlet, in my mind I’m prepared, and I believe that I’m on the best boat in the ocean at that time. I plan ahead and we’re always ready to utilize multiple techniques to give us the best advantage possible.”
In addition to faith in his team, John says he couldn’t have competed without his Contender 35T, a boat he’d purchased almost two years ago. Still, he knew it would take a tough fight to compete with the size and skill of the fleet. “These were the best marlin fishermen in the world we were up against,” John recounts.
Tuesday morning started out with the team almost immediately hooking up to a marlin that made a big run, just as quickly spitting the hook. It was over so fast they didn’t even report it. So, they continued on.
Their luck turned when they hooked into another fish. “He jumped a handful of times. We had him on and we ended up breaking him off so it was a big disappointment. But we were still on cloud nine because we’d hooked a giant marlin,” John says.
At 3 p.m. lines were in and the team had not boated a blue. Then, the Pelagic II crew lost two additional days due to bad weather on Wednesday and Thursday. The team started out on Friday about 50 miles offshore after analyzing a ROFFS report.
Upon arrival, the water conditions were good, other than the temperature being warmer than John would prefer. Around 10 a.m., they made an adjustment to a heading about 1.8 miles from their initial position.
When they were almost on top of the new location, at about 10:30 a.m., a blue marlin popped up in the wash.
“She came in and hit the short rigger, the short right, slammed it, spun around, hit our mid rigger and then turned back around and ate the long rigger,” John says. “The fight was very exciting at first. She jumped ten times, made some very big runs and cut behind the back of the engines several times.
She was on the surface for about an hour and a half and then we had her very close to the leader—about 20 feet from us coming to gaff, getting very close to us, the swivel was just about in our leaderman’s hands and she basically said it ain’t happening and turned and went straight down.”
The fight lasted for about five and a half hours total, with the big fish sounding deep and using the current to its advantage. At 3 p.m. with the call for lines in, the Pelagic Hunter II team was still battling their determined fish. The fight continued for about another hour until the momentum switched.
“We gaffed her, got a tail rope on and—she was already passed—so we walked her around the back of the boat,” John says.
“We opened our door, pulled her nose in with gaffs, and slid her up and right in. Easy as pie.”
Once on board the fish was measured, coming in a little short of 110 inches, about 107 and three quarters. “On the way home I was really questioning myself if she was going to make the 400-pound minimum. I was crossing my fingers when we backed into the Big Rock scales and the weighmaster came on deck. They started hoisting and I thought her tail’s kinda thick, and when they got her up on the scales I just heard, ‘400 and blah, blah, blah.’ We just screamed and yelled and were so excited.”
It wasn’t until the guys were on the dock that they realized their fish was 495.2 pounds and they were, in fact, in the lead spot. It was certainly cause for celebration, but it wasn’t over yet. Moving day saw Sea Striker nearly bumping the Snead’s Ferry crew out of first place after landing a 495-pounder. “People can say luck and I’ll take luck all day long.
However, we put a lot of effort and energy in and our team was dialed in,” John says. “We worked so hard.”
Despite concerns of Covid-19, the tournament was a huge success attracting a fleet of 205 participating boats. Fourteen blue marlin were weighed and a tournament-record 180 billfish were released.