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Bay Tripper

Fact or fish tale, he still lost the girl

Fact or fish tale, he still lost the girl

As a sailor, I have accumulated my share of personal sailing stories over the years and written about many of them, but my library of tales cannot match the number of stories accumulated by serious sport anglers who always seem to have at least one great yarn to spin over and over.

Last winter I came across a book of fishing stories, “Jug Fishing for Greazy,” by country music singer Brad Paisley and M.B. Roberts, published by Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tenn. (Paisley wrote “I’m Gonna Miss Her: The Fishin’ Song.”) A short chapter titled “A Fisherman can Never Lose a Great Fish” concerned Richard Stanczyk’s epic battle with a giant blue marlin. Stanczyk is a deep-sea Florida fishing legend and owner of Bud n’ Mary’s Fishing Marina in Islamorada.

I met Stanczyk and read the book when I rented his engineless houseboat for a couple weeks last January on Upper Matecumbe Key. He says the story he wrote was much longer but was edited down, adding that he would send a copy of the original if he could find it. It finally turned up and gave me a fishing story to tell.

Stanczyk has had many deep-sea fishing adventures since, but the one he will always remembers involved a missed high school prom, a lost love, and his first great fish. North Miami High School’s senior prom in the 1960s was to be a big night with his childhood sweetheart, Donna. He and his friends rented a Cadillac limo and a suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

“But there was one thing that always had a pull on me, and that was fishing,” he writes.

Stanczyk grew up fishing with his grandfather and “Mr. Williamson,” who owned a tackle shop at the end of a Miami canal where they all lived. While other teenagers were involved with sports, cars and girls, Stanczyk was into fishing.

Williamson often spoke of a great fish he had battled with and lost after chasing it from Miami to Bimini. “I was enthralled with that story,” says Stanczyk, “and yearned for one I could tell that would [be] half as good.”

He awakened to a beautiful prom day and decided to go fishing in the morning in his family’s 21-footer powered by an 80-hp engine. He called his fishing buddies — Jeff and Tommy — and Donna. They would be back by noon, they promised, in plenty of time for the prom.

Motoring off Florida’s Gold Coast, they caught many dolphin and decided to put out a swimming mullet rig that “swam in the water and put out a different look that might attract a sailfish,” he writes.

“We chose the biggest reel we had in our arsenal, a 6/0 Penn Senator loaded with a 50-pound test line that could handle anything we hooked. I put the bait out, attached it to the outrigger, and ran it up the pole when something knocked it down. I thought it might be a sailfish and gave it the usual drop-back time to swallow the mullet and then locked up the reel and began to wind.

“There was something about this fish. It seemed really heavy and took off at speeds that caused the line to evaporate from the reel. I could not imagine what we had on. We turned the boat around and got up on a plane to catch up with this thing.

“Finally it settled down, and the fight began. I sat down in an old lawn chair rigged as a fighting chair, and I settled in, too, for what might be a long fight. It seemed as if we were winning, but, in fact, we were losing. I tightened the drag to slow the fish down, but nothing had an effect. We were being towed to the north, and I was feeling the strain.”

Stanczyk had read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” and thought of himself as Santiago the fisherman in a small skiff struggling to land a giant fish.

“What if my fish was such a great sea creature?” he asked. “My God, the Old Man fought his fish for days. I might never make the prom, but then I thought, how many times would this chance come again?” The prom began to lose its importance.

Soon it was 11 a.m., and they were supposed to be back by noon. Two hours of battle had elapsed, and they were 10 miles from the start and heading north at a fast clip, farther and farther away from the prom.

“My fingers felt as if they were glued to the rod. My back was on fire. I was getting burned by the sun and dehydrated, and we were running low on water.

“Around noon something changed. The great fish had been swimming steadily in one direction and at one depth in the water column. All of a sudden the fish’s speed picked up, and it began to jolt hard and heavy as if doing a series of head shakes to get rid of the hook.

“The next thing, I heard Tommy and Jeff screaming and to my disbelief on the other side of the boat, the opposite, the opposite direction of where my line was heading, this huge fish exploded on the surface in a valiant series of jumps that went on for hundreds of feet, never going under but staying right on top the whole time.

“Then it began to greyhound away at speeds we could barely keep up with. We chased the line, not the fish, because even though the fish was going to the right, the line was still down and to the left. We finally caught up as the fish resumed his steady move north.”

After four hours and the battle a standoff, Jeff asked about breaking the line so that they could still be back in Miami in time for the prom.

“By 2 o’clock the fish began to change speed again and the line rose up, and right behind the boat this huge fish, this God-like creature, broke the surface in another valiant series of jumps. He did it four or five times in sort of a semicircle right behind the boat. I couldn’t believe the size of the creature, maybe 15 feet, 600 pounds. My friends were in shock and watched in awe. They knew now that this fight would go to the finish. There was no more talk of giving up.”

After six hours and 20 miles up the coast, the fight continued. How would they get this fish on board? They had no flying gaff or block and tackle.

“This was the biggest blue marlin I had ever seen; the only blue marlin I had ever seen. We would tie his tail with the anchor line and tow him in, just like Santiago.”

In lieu of sun lotion, Stanczyk told his buddies to smear his face with peanut butter. They were 30 miles from home, low on fuel, and accepted their fate that they could never make it back for the prom.

Seven hours into the struggle, they tightened the drag and began to lift the great fish, inch by inch, when the line rose to the surface one last time.

“The fish jumped 10, 12, 14 feet out of the water, and the line went limp. The fish was gone, the line broken. There was something surreal about it, like a dream I couldn’t wake up from. Had this really even happened? Could it be the great fish was gone? I slumped over in the chair and didn’t move or say anything.”

Forty miles north of Miami but only seven miles off the beach, they ran out of fuel and eventually drifted into an inlet around Pompano, where they bumped up against a seawall on the Intracoastal Waterway. It was early evening, and the residents took them in and called their parents.

“What would I tell Donna? I would say we ran out of fuel, drifted all day, and were finally rescued. I’d leave out the part about the great fish. So I missed the prom. No tuxedo and no dancing. But we made it to the party at the Fontainebleau.

“In looking back, after more than 40 years have passed and I’ve grown older and wiser, I have come to realize a few things, even though I eventually lost the girl and the fish. But I could never lose that great fish, because a part of him has always been with me, and I will never stop looking for that blue marlin.”

Times also have changed with respect to fishing for blue marlin. If caught, they are now released as a conservation measure.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.