CAIRNS, Australia — Steve Zuckerman sat in the shade, under the topside of Laurie Woodbridge's sportfishing boat, escaping the blazing Coral Sea sun and reading a Tom Clancy novel.
So far, his quest for a world-record black marlin on Australia's Great Barrier Reef wasn't exactly off to a flying start. On his first day, he'd gone 1 for 7, caught fish to strikes. The six fish he didn't catch were hooked briefly, then lost.
At 10:55 a.m., Woodbridge suddenly went full speed ahead on the throttle. Zuckerman, thinking Woodbridge was trying to set a hook in a marlin, threw down his novel and reached the fighting chair in three strides. False alarm. It was a rat, Woodbridge's term for a black marlin weighing less than 500 pounds.
"He was following the long bait, whacking at it with his bill," Woodbridge said. "I just wanted to get away from him. You don't need him, right?"
"Right," said Zuckerman, a Pacific Palisades builder who has been in fishing's record book a dozen times and wants the 13th to be for the biggest marlin ever caught on rod and reel.
"What I have in mind is a black marlin on the order of 1,800 pounds," he said, smiling and trying not to sound greedy.
"I think there's an 1,800-pound fish out here somewhere, but Laurie doesn't agree with me," he said. "I'm pretty good at estimating the weight of a fish, as soon as I see one jump. I hardly ever kill a fish anymore, but the big ones I've gaffed and weighed in the past, I haven't missed by much.
"But when that big one I want comes out of the water, I'll know exactly if it's the one. The really big marlin, the fish over 1,300 pounds, most of the time tend to have a huge girth. I lost one once that was almost square. I figured him to be 1,400, minimum.
"But sometimes, it doesn't apply. Five years ago I caught a black here I figured to be 1200 pounds, and I released it. It was a perfectly symmetrical fish, and it fooled me. Weeks later, when I got the pictures back of him taken when it was just off the transom, I could see it was much bigger than 1,200."
"I've had three fish on in the 1,400-pound class in my life, and lost all three. So I know what a fish that big looks like."
The all-tackle world record black marlin is 1,560 pounds, a fish caught in 1953 by Alfred C. Glassell Jr. of Houston at Cabo Blanco, Peru.
In a day and a half, Woodbridge's deckhands, David Beaudet and Ross McCubbin, used up almost 20 scad baits, and Woodbridge stopped the boat when he read what might be a scad school under the boat, on his electronic fish-finder.
The deckhands tossed out lines with small scad jigs, and Woodbridge dropped speed to a very slow troll.
"When you get hookups on these rigs, you have to bring these bait fish in really fast, or you'll lose them to barracuda and mackerel," McCubbin said. In an hour, the two deckhands had filled the bait box with 22 baits, the scad running 14 to 20 inches, and three rainbow runners in the 24-to-28-inch class.
Then the deckhands went to work--gutting the fish, then sewing waxed twine bridles onto their heads. The four-inch-long shafts of size-16 hooks were sewn inside the scad bellies, the mouths were sewn shut to prevent drag, and wire leader loops were attached to the bridles.
At 12:17 p.m., Woodbridge hollered, "Right 'riggah!" indicating that a fish had taken the bait on the line running off the right outrigger pole. That sent Zuckerman flying toward the fighting chair, but Woodbridge called him off.
"Hold it, it's a wahoo," Woodbridge shouted. He scowled. The skipper was growing impatient with the Sea Baby II's succession of muffed strikes, interference by barracuda and, of course, rats.
McCubbin brought in the four-foot, torpedo-shaped wahoo, one of the sea's fastest swimmers and also one of its tastiest. Tomorrow, aboard the Esperance Star, the mother ship, the wahoo would become breakfast. 12:55 p.m.--"Right 'riggah!"
There was a huge splash, from a marlin, at the long bait, but there was nothing on the line. Reeling in, Zuckerman and the deckhands observed that the scad had been chewed in half, and the ragged bite pattern indicated that a marlin had been there. Now it was 1 for 8, and a sense of frustration had descended upon the crew of Sea Baby II.
12:58 p.m.--"Right 'riggah!" A marlin was chasing the long bait, slashing at it viciously with its bill. Its olive-black back was above the water line, as it continued to whack the bait. The line snapped off the outrigger, Woodbridge accelerated powerfully--and the fish was gone. Another half-eaten scad was reeled in. Beaudet examined the half-scad with disgust.
"I don't believe that," he said. "This thing was in its mouth."
The scad had not only been bitten in half, but what was left of it bore deep wounds from the marlin's bill.
"They can do awesome damage with those bills," Zuckerman said.