The Keys to marlin fishing

Conch Republic tournament aims to help conserve resource

 KEY WEST, Fla. — Tim Greene, in his distinctive baritone voice, is telling stories of past fishing success. And failure.

 A time is recalled when a small boy of 6 was being helped as he reeled in a fish. When a fish hit another line, the guide left the boy's side. That is the only time he lost a rod.

 The stories go on as the retired jewelry store owner guides his Beachcomber back and forth between 5 and 10 knots. Eyes of everyone onboard scan the water for signs of billfish.

 Vrrrrrrr. Line screams off the reel.

 The anglers spring into action, breaking the lull of trolling. As Greene hollers to clear the rear deck, Lisa Key rushes to strap on a fishing harness while Frank Kirwin hurries to reel in the other lines.

 "Beachcomber. Fish on!" is radioed in to the tournament committee boat — and any other competitor boats listening.

 Tightening like the line between his craft and the fish, Greene changes persona, from relaxed story-teller to authoritative order-barker. In seconds, a peaceful cruise through the deep waters of the Straits of Florida has become an adrenaline-surging flurry.

 Greene, tournament director of the Drambuie Key West Marlin Tournament, admits there are long periods of inactivity — even boredom — followed by a rush of heart-pumping action as the huge predator can pull the boat, make spectacular jumps and even tail-walk across the water.

 This is marlin fishing.

 The Papas and the big mamas

 Key West is loaded with Hemingway lookalikes. Around 150 men sporting white beards and khaki safari shirts hit the southernmost Florida Key each July for Hemingway Days, celebrating the Nobel-prize winning author's literary prowess and zest for life.

 The Conch Republic is ripe with Hemingway-related events near his July 21 birthday: literary readings, a theatrical premiere, a short story competition judged by Hemingway's granddaughter Lorian, and the marlin tournament.

 Papa wannabes converge at Sloppy Joe's on Duval Street, Hemingway's favorite haunt, for its world-famous contest. The spirit, and sometimes spitting image, of Ernest Hemingway clearly lives on in the town he once called home.

 One former winner is on the Beachcomber: John Stubbings, a North Carolina realtor, visited Key West in the 1990s, was approached and talked up by a Hemingway hopeful. Attending the event the following July, eight years later he became the "2004 Papa." His shirt says so.

 Looking like the original himself might have more than a half-century before, Stubbings was hoping to help land a marlin. Although the marlin tournament was moved from October 10 years ago to coincide with Hemingway Days, Greene said both Hemingway and his fishing legacy is behind the tournament.

 Most people don't realize he was a very avid fisherman," Greene said. "Go the IGFA in Dania Beach, Fla., Hemingway is real prominent. Besides being a big-game hunter, he was a very avid fisherman."

 Living in Key West in the 1930s, Hemingway chased and caught huge marlin, the size and number of which are rarely seen today.

 "To Have and Have Not"
Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and The Sea" from his experiences marlin fishing, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

 It is the story of an old, down-on-his-luck Cuban fishermen, Santiago, who endures a long, lonely battle with a huge marlin and the sea. Greene said the short novel was instead about Hemingway himself and his experiences.

 "Most people think of that piece as really a fable," Greene said. "Anybody who is a marlin fisherman can associate with that story. That was Hemingway. That was his saga of marlin fishing.

 "It wasn't about Santiago, it was about him. The time he spent, the trials and tribulations to get the fish and to try to get it in before the sharks eat it."

 Greene credits Hemingway for the origins of the Key West Marlin Tournament. He said on his travels in 1933 aboard the Pilar to Havana, Cuba, Hemingway discovered the hotspot competitors fish today.

 "The trouble was that that marlin fishing ground, for almost 30 years — no one locally knew where it was," Green said.

 That was until 1972, when tournament founder Norman Wood, Capt. Wayne Hunt and sportswriter Jim Hardie caught six blue marlin in half a day.

 Hemingway's spot was found. The area, about 22 miles south of Key West, is an east/west ridge where the depth drops from 900 feet to nearly 2,000 feet in about a mile.

 The Gulf Stream and currents bring nutrients and create weed lines where baitfish congregate, which in turn bring game fish like dolphin, wahoo, tuna and marlin. The underwater shelf features cracks — the east, west and middle — and to locals is known as Wood's Wall.

 Up against the wall
As they troll, Greene and Kirwin, veteran marlin anglers with 60 years experience between them, watch for birds, weed lines — any sign of baitfish that could draw marlin. Kirwin sends out a teaser dredge, which holds 20 or so fish-shaped reflectors to give the appearance of a school of fish.

 Before currents form a weed line to run alongside, Greene trolls in what he calls "Lazy 8's," which speeds and slows lures in his spread. He's marked his waypoints along Wood's Wall, but remains a believer in reading the water.

 Some younger captains, such as Greg Eklund of Islamorada, employ the latest technology in their search.

  "We use a lot of our knowledge that we've got from fishing years and years in the Keys," Eklund said after taking the

Cajun Queen to the lead with a marlin and dolphin on Day Two of the three-day tournament. "Then we're going to use some satellite photos of the Gulf Stream current tonight and pick the right spot to get started in the morning, and hopefully hang another one."

 Eklund says he studies sea surface temperatures, current movement and isotherms, which are changing temperatures and current breaks.

 "Those focus baitfish and indicate upwellings of the current running in the underwater structure," he said, "and those places concentrate bait, which in turn concentrate big fish."

 Today's the day
One of the biggest catches of the tournament was by Key West's Jason Jonas, who released a blue marlin estimated to be between 450 and 500 pounds.

 "It was my first marlin, actually," the smiling 22-year-old said. "Actually, my first Drambuie, too.

 "It was just taking line, screaming line. Hit it hard. Screaming line. Got it back to the boat, screamed line off again, a couple times. It was hot, sweaty. The sun was beating me down. But it was fun. I enjoyed it."

 Jonas and father Don just launched a new charter business with High Stakes, their 50-foot Striker. Don is a longtime captain in Key West, and has worked for famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher.

 "I treasure-hunted for him for 20 years, and we found silver and gold," Don Jonas said. "Key West is world famous for smugglers, and pirates, and treasure."

 Fisher, whose mantra was "Today's the day," brought up more than 40 tons of silver and gold from Spanish galleons that sank off Key West during a hurricane in 1622.

 "I was the captain of the boat. Jason was out there at 12 years old finding this stuff," Don said. "There's $400 million worth of silver and gold down at the (Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.)"

 There's also a bit of the treasure around Jason's neck — a Philip II coin on a necklace.

 Conserving their resource
Activities for the 26th year of the marlin tournament were to open with Mote Marine Laboratory's blessing of the living coral reef that parallels the Keys.

 "We donated quite a bit of money over the last two years, ," Greene said. "Last year, the money went basically for the reef preservation project. The reef is an important element in fishing, because it's the source of the food chain."

 A non-profit marine research organization that is the tournament's beneficiary, Mote Marine Laboratory operates a Tropical Research Lab on Summerland Key and recently opened a living reef exhibit at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West.

 "One of the things that I'm working on very diligently is to join Mote with other tournaments and other entities to do marlin studies," Greene said. "And what it takes is money.

 "We've had talks with Mote extensively on basically doing marlin research, and they're open to it, yet until we feel like we can raise significant funds — we're talking in the millions — I can't really go ask them to do it."

 Following a seven-year break due to a downturn in the economy, the marlin tournament returned a decade ago with a twist: Greene said it's a modified release tournament, meaning only a record fish, which would net the angler $100,000, can be brought in.

 "In the last 10 years, there has been no marlin killed, because unless the marlin exceeds 684 pounds, it is a disqualified fish if it is killed," Greene said. "So it's a points tournament. That has been the saving grace.

 "Today, most marlin tournaments have changed from the biggest dead fish on the dock to a release tournament. And we feel very proud that we're probably the pioneer in getting people to pay money and win big prizes based on photographs and polygraph examinations. "

 The National Marine Fisheries also mandated in 2007 that all billfish tournaments are required to use non-offset circle hooks, which reduces hooking mortality for released marlin and sailfish by approximately 66 percent.

 "They're trying to preserve the resource, the blue marlin," Greene said. "And all marlin tournament participants are really conservationists. They are really protective of the species."

 And the winners are ...
A major setback on the final day of the tournament didn't deter Danny Coll of Cudjoe Key, Fla., and Bernard Davis of nearby Big Pine Key. The two-man team aboard Risky Business was informed the fish they released on Friday was not a marlin: Photographic review showed it was instead a sailfish, which lowered their point total by 350 and set them on a new strategy to use lures only.

 "We knew this was a marlin tournament and went out (Saturday) expecting to catch fish," Coll said. "I have no words to describe this. It is amazing,"

 Two marlin releases and a dolphin catch on Saturday gave the Risky Business team 865.5 points and the $25,000 first prize.

 Eklund and the Cajun Queen, with anglers Bob and Brad Whitlock of Ft. Myers, Fla., was second with 458.7 points. Third place went to the B.F.B team with Captain/Angler Paul Barret of Gulfport, Fla., scoring all 417.5 points on the final day. Six other teams released a marlin to score 400 points.

 Fun Fish Division awards went to Reel Conch with a 42.2-pound dolphin; Kingbird with a 41.8-pound dolphin; Cajun Queen with a 33.65 dolphin; Last Dance with a 20.45-pound tuna; Outer Limits with a 73.3-pound wahoo; Koko with a 67.55 wahoo; and On Course with a 20.15 wahoo.

 Coll and Davis fished as many as eight lines as a time, keeping Coll hectic at the stern.

 "You're really busy, and it's very tiring to fish all those lines," Coll said. "It doesn't allow you to drink a lot of beer."

 Back on the Beachcomber
With back harness holding the rod and the weight of the fish, Lisa Key lets go of her death grip and shakes out her fatigued arms. She's been fighting a 250-pound fish for almost 40 minutes.

 Greene has been coaching her the entire time, alternately barking commands to Kirwin to move the boat back or forward several feet, or to disengage the propellers.

 "Shark" is the initial call when the first flash of grey appears from the deep blue.

 Seconds later, it is identified as an ocean sunfish, or mola mola — the heaviest known bony fish in the world. Adults average about 2,200 pounds, and its main diet is jellyfish. Lots of them.

 "In 30 years of fishing, I have never caught a sunfish," Greene said.

 Trying to retrieve the $50 lure, Kirwin grabs one of the two giant hooks snagged in the sunfish's fin with his finger. Blood streams down his finger. With the line cut and the fish free, he grabs a napkin and applies pressure.

 "Wrong species," Greene radios in to the tournament committee.

 After a quick look, Greene said Kirwin has had much worse injuries; the storytelling then turns to a time when Kirwin cleaned about 400 fish with razor-sharp gills that left his entire hand cut and bloodied.

 A calm returns to the boat. The Beachcomber cruises by the weedline between 5 and 10 knots. The hunt continues. And all eyes once again return to the water.