CAIRNS, Australia — "All right, it's heavy artillery time," said skipper Laurie Woodbridge as he looked down from the top deck of his Sea Baby II to his two deckhands below, who were wrestling with three large--and very much alive--kawakawa.
The Sea Baby II needed all the help it could muster, as it began its third day with big-game fisherman Steve Zuckerman, the Southern California builder who was fishing Australia's Great Barrier Reef for his dream fish, an 1,800-pound black marlin.
After two days of fishing the marlin-rich channels of the Great Barrier Reef's ribbon reef system, about 25 miles off the Queensland coast, Zuckerman was 1 for 10, caught fish to strikes on trolled dead bait. Now, Woodbridge decided, they'd try live bait.
Deckhands Dave Beaudet and Ross McCubbin had just trolled up three 10- to 14-pound kawakawa tuna. While McCubbin attached bridles and size 16 hooks to their heads, Beaudet ran seawater through their mouths with a hose to keep them alive.
"All right, get 'em out there, they won't stay alive forever," Woodbridge barked from above. One of the kawakawas was sent out, attached to one of Zuckerman's huge marlin rods, which he calls stump pullers. Zuckerman sat in the fighting chair, his $1,800 Fin-Nor reel in free spool. Carefully, as Woodbridge set a trolling speed of six knots, Zuckerman allowed the line to reel out, slowing it with his palm.
"This is a good way to lose a finger or two," Zuckerman said, chuckling.
"If I were to get a big-fish strike right now, it could drive my hand right through that top bar, and something would have to give. You can also get some deep line cuts with Dacron line doing this. Look at these."
Zuckerman's fingers are deeply scarred in several places, from past battles with big Hawaii blue marlin and Great Barrier Reef blacks.
"Right 'riggah!" Woodbridge yelled from the top deck, indicating a strike at the bait on the right outrigger. He'd seen a marlin's bill slash at Zuckerman's kawakawa. There was a huge splash, a blur of silver and black in the white foamy water, and Zuckerman's reel began to sing. As he dropped the reel in gear, Woodbridge went to full speed ahead, setting the hook.
The big fish jumped once, sounded briefly and was gone.
The live bait had quickly produced a big marlin, but the fish was lost very early in the fight and now there were scowls all around. No one said anything. Beaudet angrily threw a rag into a corner. Zuckerman was now 1 for 11, and no one could explain the poor luck.
Woodbridge, who has little to say during the day, didn't help matters when he said: "That was a nice fish, too. Maybe 700, 800."
In Woodbridge-ese, a black marlin under 500 pounds is a rat. A black in the 500- to 1,100-pound class is a nice fish. Over 1,000, and he'll call it a monster fish. But in every case, Zuckerman says, he sandbags it.
"That was a bigger fish than that," Zuckerman said, smiling. "In the 500-pound class, a black making a run on you will take off line in big surges. That one took off line in a long, steady pull--almost like it didn't know it was hooked. Generally, you're getting close to a grand when that happens."
Woodbridge's 40-foot sportfisher, Sea Baby II, is a familiar name in Australian big game fishing. The boat is 22 years old, and was once operated by George Bransford, the American who in the mid-1960s discovered that huge black marlin migrate to Great Barrier Reef waters in October and November to spawn.
Woodbridge, 50, is a skipper of impeccable credentials. Zuckerman has probably caught more thousand-pound fish in Australia than anyone, and if Woodbridge--who charges $1,000 a day for his boat--is booked when Zuckerman wants to fish in Australia, he doesn't go.
On this day, though, insult was added to injury: At 2:25 p.m., another Cairns sportfisher, the Xphius Hunter, just 500 yards away, was hooked up to a huge black, well over a thousand pounds. The great fish made a series of powerful jumps, leaping clear of the water, and landing with immense splashes. The bright sun reflected brightly off the marlin, making it appear shiny black on top, and gleaming silver on the sides.
Cheers and applause could be heard clearly across the water from the half-dozen people aboard.
On the Sea Baby II, to a crew that couldn't seem to keep a big marlin on a hook, it wasn't a pretty sight.
Zuckerman watched the struggle across the water and talked about the black marlin's style as a fighter.
"They tend to jump closer to the boat than either striped or blue marlin, and at other times they'll sound, go down deep, spread out those pectoral fins and they're murder to pull on when they do that."
Twenty minutes later, Woodbridge yelled, "Right 'riggah!" again and slammed the throttle ahead, accelerating, leaving the Xphius Hunter out of sight. By the time Zuckerman reached his chair, a leaping rat could be seen through the diesel smoke.