CAIRNS, Australia — After an hour's uneventful trolling aboard Sea Baby II off ribbon reef No. 4, skipper Laurie Woodbridge decided to break with the conventional trolling practice of dragging a scad far from the boat and a small tuna near the boat, on the surface.
"Let's run a downrigger," he told deckhand David Beaudet. Out came a downrigger, a contraption involving an eight-pound weight and a cable that runs a trolling line straight down under the boat to a clip, then allows the bait to be run straight back and deep, presenting the bait to a prospective marlin at a depth of about 20 feet.
On surface strikes, Southern California big game fisherman Steve Zuckerman, after three days on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, was 2 for 12.
The downrigger provided no improvement. For 30 minutes, not so much as a nudge. Put it away, Woodbridge ordered.
The trolling baits went back on the surface, and then, finally, some big game fishing excitement began, although not the kind the fisherman had anticipated.
As Zuckerman was telling a story of a marlin he'd once caught that swallowed a bait three times. . . .
"Left 'riggah!" Woodbridge shouted. "Nice fish!"
For the first time in four days, a marlin had struck at the short bait, a 12-pound kawakawa tuna. The marlin was visible only for an instant, then, with the bait in its mouth, disappeared in an enormous splash.
Zuckerman was handed the rod, but there was a problem. A rope tying the rod to the boat--to prevent a strike from yanking the rod into the ocean--had somehow become wrapped around the deck hose. While Ross McCubbin, the other deckhand, scrambled to free it, Zuckerman had to stand and wait for a perilous few seconds, holding a rod to which was attached a furious marlin weighing more than 500 pounds.
Finally, Zuckerman got into the fighting chair, and the quarter-inch steel safety cable was clipped to both sides of the reel. Almost before it was secured, Zuckerman was standing on the footboard, using his weight and the leverage generated by his legs to try to pull the marlin's head around.
The fish made a long, powerful run, and the line rose to the surface.
"Here he comes!" Woodbridge shouted, alerting a photographer to a jump by the fish. The marlin cleared the surface completely, twisted and turned, its head violently slashing the air. The fish landed full length on the surface, pancaked and sent up an enormous splash.
It sounded immediately, and Zuckerman tightened his drag, shifted to a lower gear on the reel and tried to turn the marlin's head.
Suddenly, there was a sickening crack, loud as a rifle shot. The only immediate certainty was that something important had broken. The rod was torn from Zuckerman's, hands and he was flying out of the chair, as if about to go overboard.
Beaudet, standing to Zuckerman's left at the transom, had his hands up, though, and somehow grabbed the rod with both hands as it flew past his face.
McCubbin discovered that the chair harness' steel cable had parted. The harness is supposed to secure the rod--and its $1,800 reel--to the chair. Zuckerman, back in the chair, was handed the rod again, and McCubbin quickly produced a backup harness.
Zuckerman, fighting the marlin once again, was trying to gain line on the fish when the line suddenly went slack.
Amid groans all around, another fish was gone, and nobody knew quite why.
"Very dangerous animals," Zuckerman muttered, still slightly shaken by the experience with the harness. "It just shows you how strong these big fish are. I thought the chair had broken in half. I've never had a harness break on me. I had the drag set on 45 pounds, and all of a sudden the rod was just ripped out of my hands.
"I wasn't in any danger of going over, I was just trying to grab the rod. Dave just happened to have his hands in the right place to grab it. The butt or the reel could have knocked him in the head and injured him.
"Fishing with heavy tackle like this is much more dangerous than light-tackle fishing. With all the force you're putting on all the connecting points, if something breaks, look out."
Looking up at Woodbridge, Zuckerman asked: "How big was it?"
"Seven, eight," Woodbridge said. Zuckerman laughed, wanting a bigger estimate. "Laurie, you're too tough," he said.
With new baits out, Zuckerman was telling why Mrs. Zuckerman never accompanies him on his Australian fishing adventures.
"At our wedding years ago, she turned to someone in the reception line and said, 'Thank God. Now I don't have to go on any more of those awful fishing trips.' "
Twenty minutes later, Zuckerman had dozed off in the fighting chair. Woodbridge awakened him with a start by nudging the throttle, suggesting a strike, and Zuckerman not only woke up but jumped out of the chair, to laughs all around.
Woodbridge hates it when fishermen fall asleep--particularly a fisherman who says he wants to catch a 1,800-pound marlin.