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Sea quest

Big-game billfishing began off the coast of Southern California more than 100 years ago. Today, the hunt is still on.

October 04, 2005|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

SUMMER turns into autumn and the ocean warms and the great predators appear offshore. Striped marlin, the noble billfish, muggers of the high seas, ride the basking currents up from Mexico to feast on mackerel. Their arrival each season in Southern California draws another predator to the saltwater beyond the horizon.

Us.

It is a ritual clash a century old. Indeed, historians say the ritual began here, with fishermen first embarking on a quest for big-game billfish in these waters.

There is a ring to the words -- marlin fishing. Sometimes the ring is followed by a question mark, for billfishing is a specialized, demanding, introspective and costly absorption, and one that requires bountiful tolerance for coming home empty. It is possible to spend a lifetime here on the edge of the ocean and never meet a billfisherman. They are a rare sort. And it is likely that if you do meet one, the fisherman will keep the secret to himself.

What secret? That few creatures are as lovely as a striped marlin when it lights up its iridescent flanks. That few fish of this size and ferocity rise from the deep to be hunted on the surface where you can see them and they can see you. That nowhere on the planet is the country any wilder than the vast oceanic currents where the marlin roam. That late summer and early fall are the loveliest time of year to be here, in the scrubbed-fresh salt air far out of sight of land, with the sway of ocean underfoot and your heart alive with anticipation.

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A salty pair

FOR half of the storied 100-year history of Southern California billfishing, Bill Von Henkle has had a line in the water. He caught his first marlin here when he was 10, or maybe 12, hard to remember exactly. He is 68 now, the owner of a Newport Beach insurance agency, a partner and skipper in a two-boat Cabo San Lucas sport-fishing business and an angler with a swaggering reputation.

This year, he has covered more miles in a boat than he has in his car. "If you've been doing it for more than 50 years, it gets to you," he says, a grin spreading across his sun-weathered face. "You gotta keep doing it."

At the moment, he is: rigging marlin rods in at the stern of the 38-foot sport fishing boat Wrens' Nest. The vessel is owned and skippered by Von Henkle's 15-year fishing partner, 70-year-old Bill Wren, a retired Chevron executive who lives in Balboa and has hunted marlin in these waters for just under half a century. Two Bills; 10 decades billfishing.

There are two contradictory things about this salty pair, perhaps not unlike others of the breed. Their commitment is huge, in time and money and drive -- all this gear, fuel, hard-won experience, and the physical effort of putting it to use 12 to 14 hours a day. Yet their pride and their determination is not so large as to blind them to the fact that this is still just fishing, and catch-and-release fishing at that.

"Fun," Von Henkle says. "It's about fun."

That's the argument behind most obsessions, but, as we know, it takes more than steady feet on a strong sea to keep you in balance over the long run.

One by one, Von Henkle sends four artificial jigs streaming into the water to bounce in the froth of the boat's trolling wake. His expression changes. Muscles tighten in his face and he assumes the look of a hungry hawk. His jaw moves slowly in and out; he scans the ocean with the unblinking squint of a South Sea sailor.

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Of jigs and lines

FISHERMEN call this place the "One Eighty-One." Here, between San Clemente Island and the mainland community of Carlsbad, an undersea ridge rises out of deep water. The depth reaches 181 fathoms, 1,086 feet below the surface. The warm-water Davidson current surges against the submerged mountain chain and propels nutrients upward -- thus serving to concentrate the food chain.

On the surface, dawn emerges, moist, gray, cool and breezy. It is Friday, the week before the autumn's equinox, the opening of the two-day Master Angler's Billfish Tournament sponsored by the Balboa Angling Club. Fifty-six boats from Southern California's big-game fishing clubs pick their spot in 1,000 square miles of ocean and drop their lines for the 6 a.m. start.

Twenty marlin will be caught by this fleet today, and all will be released in accord with tournament rules. This is a contest for bragging rights, not for meat. The winner gets a trophy as Master Angler of the Year.

Fishermen are allotted 240 points for a marlin brought to the boat on 12-pound test line, 210 points for 16-pound test, 180 for using 20-pound test and 150 points for 30-pound test. In the event of a points tie, victory goes to the first angler to catch a marlin. Scoring is on the honor system.

These, however, are details for later. Right now the world comfortably collapses to a space no larger than the wrinkled surface of the water within eyesight. Billfishing, perhaps all fishing, arouses the primal and focuses the mind.

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