Tales of the one that got away are rampant in fishing circles. Fish long enough and you’re going to lose one. It could be that doormat fluke lost at the net, or the 50-pound striper that made that last ditch dive at the boat, or a 250-plus pound bigeye tuna lost at the gaff. These are certainly frustrating, but more disheartening are the unseen mystery fish that breaks your heart and your spirit.
You are fighting what you think is a big tuna. There’s a ping and the fish is gone – unseen. Or maybe you’ve had your rod doubled over, heart pounding, and the net man ready when the fish shakes its head and is gone – unseen. You’re speechless, you can hear a pin drop in the cockpit, or maybe an expletive sums up your frustration.
We were trolling in the Claw south of the Dip in 500 fathoms at a spot known for producing bigeye tuna when the lines went screaming off as three 60-pound yellowfins hit our spread. As they were being gaffed and secured, the starboard outside rigger line with a green spreader bar was sitting on the surface of the water out-of-the-way. Suddenly the rigger line exploded and down went the rod as line peeled off at a mile a minute. Patrick, grabbed the rod, and the fight was on. Over and over again line peeled from the reel. Nearly an hour into the battle, Patrick called for the harness but the stubborn Irishman would not give up or pass the rod. Sweat was pouring off his brow but still he would not give up. Slowly he began to gain line as the fish showed signs of tiring. There was no doubt he was into a very big fish. All aboard were filled with anticipation and hoping for a glimpse of the unseen quarry. And then in a flash it was over.
Several years before we were overnighting in the deep south of the shelf. It was a beautiful, clear night and we had two sword lines out with lights and squid and one with a small live porgy caught on the way offshore. Everyone was sleeping except Pat and I; we were enjoying a cigar and a glass of red on one of those still Canyon nights when you do not need to tie up. A million stars lit the sky. In the distance we could see a boat coming our way trolling. What was remarkable was the multicolored underwater lights it displayed.
As it cruised slowly by, the line with the live porgy goes off, and of course it’s a 30-class outfit. “Who put that out?” I wondered as we all stood by helplessly watching as the reel was rapidly being spooled. It was immediately obvious there was no stopping this one. We rushed to fire up the engines but in a flash there was the sickening sound of parting line as the spool ran out. Whatever fish that was haunted us for a very long time. The one that gets away seen at the boat is part of the game, but the one that escapes without being identified breaks your heart.
Mystery fish can and do break your heart offshore but it’s also a phenomenon that occurs inshore as well. Last fall I was fishing the Pocketbook about eight miles east of the Montauk Buoy. I was in a spot where a friend had recently caught an 11-pound fluke. I was alone – a mistake on many counts – and the day was nearing its end. “One or two more drifts and I’m heading in,” I told myself. I had a whole squid teamed with Gulp! on the hook as I prepared for my last drift. A fall chill was in the air, and fluke season was winding down. I knew this could very well be my last shot at a doormat this season.
I had two lines out – holding one rod and dead-sticking the other in the starboard rodholder. Suddenly the dead stick doubled over. I admit I panicked because I realized that this was a big fish and my net was on the opposite side of the cockpit. The fish lunged for the bottom and shook its head but I managed to slowly gain line as I worked my way to mid-ship. My heart was racing – that damn A-fib – as I eased my way toward the landing net on the port side. The fish was still unseen but nearing the surface. As I inched my way closer, there was a heavy shake of the fish’s head, and my prize was gone. The doormat I had dreamed of since fishing from that rowboat with my Dad in Reynolds Channel as a boy was gone.
I suppose it could have been a wandering cow striper, but it fought the battle of a big fluke. The only question left in my mind was just how big was it? Another mystery – another heartbreaker.