This column appeared in the Tabor-Loris Tribune on Jan. 1, 2000 and in the Wilmington Star News. It received the first place 2001 SEOPA Excellence in Craft award for Best Weekly Newspaper Column or Feature.
The shout was unnecessary, so loud was the ratcheting of the warning clicker on the big Penn 130. Every angler and crewman aboard knew that the fish stripping away 200-pound test Dacron line against 45 pounds of strike drag was huge, but instinct made Captain Bruce Pollack of Wave Runner holler to let everyone know that battle stations must be manned.
As agreed, Bob Walmsley would be the first angler in the chair. As mate Chris Johnson handed Bob the rod at the end of the giant bluefin tuna’s first run, he stepped up the drag to 70 pounds of tension. Chris reeled in all the other lines while Bob held onto the rod, which was bent over so far it looked like it would shatter.
Bob’s brother, Don, swiveled the fight chair to face the fish as it used brute strength to try to throw the hook. The captain maneuvered the 53-foot Jarrett Bay into the 6-foot seas and shouted encouragement to the gang fighting the fish in the cockpit.
Several times during the battle, the awesome power of the fish lifted Bob from the chair. But the rod was strapped to the chair’s base. Each time, he was able to sit down again, leveraging his body against the weight of the fish.
Often, he was forced to use both hands on the reel handle to gain line. As he let go of the rod and reached across the reel to place his left hand over his right hand, he slid the drag lever back to strike weight and the fish ran off hundreds of yards of bob had to regain.
Don was always quick to slide the drag lever forward to 70 pounds again. Still the fish threatened to get the best of Bob, until finally, the leader was in the mate’s hands.
Capt. John Jenkins maneuvered his Calcutta into a stern-to-stern position with the Waver Runner. A tennis ball with a line connected to a rod aboard the Calcutta was tossed to the deck of the Wave Runner and the leader with the fish attached. The bluefin was then wrestled aboard the Calcutta to be implanted with a special tagging device that will disconnect at a predetermined date and send information via satellite to the scientists onboard telling them how deep he swims, where he goes, and record the water temperature as well as the body temperature of the fish.
The research is headed by Dr. Barbara Block, a Duke University alumnus who is a professor at Stanford University in California. With a price on their heads of up to $90,000 per fish, might bluefin are in trouble from over-harvest. Scientists hope that the new technology will help them formulate a better management plan to insure their future.
The program, called Tag-A-Giant, has been highly successful. Conservationists sponsor tags for $1,000 and receive information on “their” fish in return.
Not long after the initial hand shaking was over after Bob’s fish was set free, a reel screamed again. This time it was Don’s turn in the chair. Three years younger than Bob, he made shorter work of his fish, but was still sweating in the 40-degree air when once again the Calcutta came astern to tag another giant “volunteer.”
Two brothers had quite a day at sea, having caught the only pair of bluefin tagged that day, in spite of the many dozens of other boats making the attempt.
Some saw a 65-year-old veteran, with injuries to arms and legs sustained when his fighter plane was shot down in a Vietnam jungle, winning a battle with a bluefin through gritty determination. Others saw Bob as a soon-to-be-retired manager of a prestigious law firm. They saw him high-five his 62-year-old brother, Don, who is president of a prosperous plastics manufacturing company.
What I saw in the swirling frigid mists were two boys aged 15 and 12, aboard a rocking boat in the Northern Atlantic during a three-hour battle. Howard Walmsley once caught a 575-pound giant bluefin that was the largest landed in New Jersey at the time. The fish was so big that it couldn’t be boated and the boys fought off sharks to save the catch as it was towed all the way back to shore.
Catching that fish hooked Howard, instead of him hooking the fish. He immediately moved to the coast from his home inland and spent the next two years fishing with his sons until he was called up, too early, to the Great Flying Bridge in the Sky.
Before leaving, however, he instilled such a love of fishing in his sons that they fished for big game throughout the oceans of the world. To fuel this pursuit, they worked hard and raised fine families along the way. But until two weekends ago off Morehead City, neither had caught a giant bluefin tuna.
Don had bought a 30-foot boat from Bruce’s partner, Barry Hellar. Barry wanted a bigger boat, and Bruce, a mate for 16 years, wanted to become a captain. So, they teamed up to buy and restore the first Jarrett Bay hull ever built. The Tag-A-Giant tuna trip for everyone was part of the deal.
It took exactly 50 years to close the circle begun by Howard Walmsley. While he kept his fish that long-ago day, his sons released their fish to perpetuate the species for their grandchildren’s future.
Was this trip coincidence? Was it fishermen’s luck? I believe that an outdoorsman assumes the best attributes of his quarry in order to be successful. Giant fish can make giants of men and that was what I witnessed aboard the Wave Runner that day.