Editor’s Note: This fish tale was provided by the crew aboard the Lisa Ann who recently hauled in a massive bluefin tuna. Here’s their story as told by Steven Vanden Heuvel.
Two of us were bent over the side of the boat, grabbing the line and pulling inch by inch up to the rod tip, with our hands stinging from the hundreds of jelly fish tentacles that had been cut off while swimming into our line.
One of us was strapped into a stand-up fishing harness, taking back every inch of the fishing line onto our well-undersized fishing reel. One man helped keep the rod held up, which was straining under the weight of over 30 pounds of maxed-out drag.
One guy stood next to the strapped-in angler as a safety net, ensuring that someone could grab hold of the harness, the angler, or the rod at any sign of danger—a foot slip, a broken fishing line connection, or reel failure. The last guy stood in the back, chugging a bottle of iced cold water, taking a well-earned few minutes of rest after just spending 20 minutes of grueling work fighting the fish from the harness. All six of us were running on pure adrenaline as four hours beforehand we had just witnessed the biggest sea creature of our life annihilate a trolled marlin lure like a bulldozer smashing through a house, mere feet from the back of the boat.
The fishing crew of the Lisa Ann arrived at the dark and wet marina in the wee hours of the morning, before the world had woken up. The marine forecast was calling for 3 footers at 7 seconds, a nice swell that would allow us to smoothly ride the waves up and back down like a mini roller coaster in our 36-foot center console. We puttered out of Destin’s East Pass around 6 a.m. just as the sunrise started peaking over the horizon and pointed the bow of the boat southwest. Our destination was 130 nautical miles away at some of the most prolific fishing grounds in the entire Gulf of Mexico.
We pulled the throttles back a few hundred yards from a floating oil platform. These are massive structures, towering hundreds of feet above the waterline, dwarfing any boats near it. These platforms act like fish attraction devices, giving small bait fish a shelter from a vast sea of predators and on any one platform you could see every level of the food chain. There was only one level we were after on this trip though: the apex predators.
We all shook off the morning run, organized the boat, and got the outriggers extended out so we could start trolling some baits behind the boat in hopes of enticing a blue marlin or a big yellowfin tuna to take the bait. The lines went in the water, dropped back to their right positions, and the waiting game began. After a dizzying number of laps around the first platform with not much showing on the sounder, we pointed the boat in the direction of the other oil platform, about six miles out on the horizon. The team started reeling in the trolled baits so that we could run fast to the next spot and a drag on one side of the boat started their tell-tale ZZZZZZZZZ of the clickers alerting you that a fish has taken the bait and is pulling line off the reel. Immediately another reel went off and we had a double hookup of some green rockets — mahi mahi — that hit a couple of ballyhoo baits on a small mylar skirt.
After gaffing the twin pair of cow mahi-mahi and getting them situated in the fish box, we did a U-turn to go back over the spot where they had hit in hopes of pulling up a few more stragglers that might have missed the first pass of the baits. We pulled the baits back to the original oil platform and did another lap around it, then again pointed the bow back into the direction of the next platform.
Then right there in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico’s deep blue waters, a giant fish had launched itself from the depths at our short flat lure, trolled just 20 feet behind the back of the boat. It came fully airborne and left a hole in the water like it had just done a cannon ball from the highest diving board at the local pool. The reel started singing its usual song as the line came off the reel at an astounding rate. Half the boat saw the full fish, two guys saw the back end, and one guy only caught the gaping hole left in the water after this Volkswagen beetle of a fish tried to get an easy mid-day lunch. The whole crew let out some choice words and went to work clearing the other lines as the hooked fish was moving like a freight train away from the boat and into the 400 yards of 65-pound braid backing.
All the lines were cleared and we quickly turned the boat toward the fish and ran it down before it dumped the entire spool of a Tiagra 50W. The first angler, Jason Haynes, was strapped into the harness with 15-20 pounds of drag on the fish and proceeded to work the fish back to the 80-pound monofilament top shot of line. Thirty minutes of grueling fighting of get an inch-back-it-takes-a-foot the beast dumped almost 200 yards of line like it didn’t even know it was hooked and headed straight for the depths.
We switched out anglers 30 minutes in and put Jason’s brother, Jesse Haynes, into the harness to get some fresh pressure on the fish and try to gain some line back. We bumped the drag up to 20-25 pounds with Jesse in the harness and the fish proceeded to slowly take line off the reel. After 30 minutes more of not gaining a single inch on the fish and the line slowly moving off the reel, the team made another switch at the harness and strapped in Kevin Berry to see if we could get some line back. Thirty more minutes passed with the line still slowly stripping out at 20-25 pounds of drag. We bumped the drag up past our measured marks and estimate we were putting around 30 pounds of drag on the beast to try and stop it from slowly stripping the line off the reel.
We made another angler switch 30 minutes later to Blake Buxton and then another to Luke Lewis, when the question was posed of do we max out the drag, put the reel in low speed, and just winch the fish in? Or slowly let it strip line off and hope that the fish turns around? The odds were completely stacked against us and during this discussion a free-swimming blue marlin decided to make an appearance 30 feet away from the boat. It was swimming as graceful as Michael Phelps nearing the end of a world record run and was lit up and absolutely gorgeous. The worst thought then came into our heads: what if that blue marlin’s partner was on the other end of our line and it died during the fight? No one on the boat wanted to kill a blue marlin and our stomachs dropped quicker than an elevator.
We made the call to max out the drag and see if we could gain some line back, but there was no lifting the fish with the rod bent from the tip to the butt like a twig in a hurricane. The last angler that had not strapped into the harness yet, Steven Vanden Heuvel, put on some gloves and leaned over the side of the boat to start pulling this dead weight up inch, by inch, by inch. One hand over the other and an insurmountable amount of pressure on the line. It was like pulling on a piece of string that had hundreds of pounds dangling from it, a dead, empty weight.
Steven strapped into the harness with the maxed out drag and immediately got the sense of how big the fish really was. It was one thing pulling from the line and another thing actually being tied into the rod holding the fish. The team worked a grueling two-and-a-half hours and made some hair-raising rod pass offs, where five hands had to be on the rod at any given moment to make sure we did not lose the rod and the beast to the depths of the sea. One slip, one fall, one miscalculation and the fish would be lost. One tiny nick in the line, gone. The urgency was real and the focus on the crew was impeccable. Everyone knew what the job was and not one mistake was made.
It was evening now and two hours into hand winching the dead beast from the depths, Steven and Luke were both bent over the side of the boat pulling line from the water, into the rod tip, with faith that we would soon see the biggest sea creature of our life that had annihilated our lure in the early afternoon. Kevin was taking his second turn at winching this fish up from the depths in the harness, Jason and Blake were helping hold the rod up, and Jesse was taking a well-earned water break after being put in the gauntlet for 20 minutes.
Line was being put back on the reel, we were at the tail end of the 4.5-hour long fight and Luke and I started watching for color. Deep down into the deep blue we peered with a curiosity of a 2-year-old, wondering if we were just pulling up a sack of bricks. There was a tiny streak of color starting to show, Steven’s head played games with him, and he thought he saw a bill on it … a tell-tale sign of a blue marlin. The closer it got, the more the fish came into focus as we continued to inch it up little by little with our gloved hands. We could make out a wide face, big eyes, no bill, a huge head, the unthinkable—a giant bluefin tuna came into crisp focus like your favorite portrait mode photo.
Holy mackerel. Grab the gaff! Jason sunk the first gaff into its bony hard-as-a-brick mouth, Luke held onto the line that held the hook for dear life, and Steven got up and sunk another gaff into the belly to pull the tail up. Blake and Jesse grabbed the tail rope and struggled putting it over the big crescent shaped tail and without hesitation, he jumped in and sealed the deal getting the full rope around the tail. The crew went absolutely bonkers. High fives, cheers, hoots, hollers, and a big son of a gun 670-pound bluefin tuna had been secured to the side of the boat.
Every single person had grins from ear-to-ear as we replayed the last four hours and 40 minutes in our heads. It was phenomenal and unexplainable. Speechless. After everything that could have possibly went wrong, a small mistake, a wrong decision, it all boiled down to having the one thing that made a lasting difference: A Dream Team.