In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway writes of a heroic battle between man and a giant marlin. For 50 years, the novel's grandiose vision of aquatic struggle has stood as the last word on sport fishing. It's about time somebody else got a few words in. Here goes: Sport fishing is deeply, irredeemably lame.
I discovered this for myself on a recent pilgrimage to the Oregon Inlet, a saltwater mecca on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Unless you already have an $800,000 fishing boat, a license, and expensive gear and tackle, you'll need to pay $1,500 to spend a day with guys who know the waters well. I prepared for my impending clashes with the underwater beasts by stuffing coolers full of microwaveable breakfast sandwiches, lunch meats, and ice. I gathered dozens of CDs and DVDs in backpacks. I bought lots of beer. Nothing I packed had anything to do with fishing.
We arrived at the dock well before dawn on Sunday and loaded the coolers onto a 50-foot vessel. We were met by the captain and first mate, unassuming guys with thick Carolina drawls decked out in T-shirts, visors, board shorts, and sandals. They told us we would be marlin fishing 60 miles offshore near the Gulf Stream.
Shortly after we left the marina, the first mate got to work. He baited the hooks of each fishing pole with a 9-inch ballyhoo, a small baitfish that's used to land larger game. He threaded fishing line through the eye sockets of the fish and wrapped the line tightly several times around its nose, tying it off tight. He also baited an enormous trawler that held roughly a dozen teaser fish and readied the plastic teaser bait to fasten to the boat's outrig. We watched the first mate do this for an hour. We started drinking beer.
Atlantic fishing craft traveling at top speed are loud. Conversation is impossible. My friends and I sat on the stern deck, looking at one another. We did this for another hour.
Shortly before we reached our fishing spot, the mate called us all together at the back of the boat. Finally, after two hours, I was about to learn the secrets of big-time sport fishing!
"If you see a fish hit one of the lines," he told us pleasantly, "don't do anything." This seemed an odd order, so I waited to hear more. "You don't know what you are doing," he informed us, smiling. "That's why I'm here. If you see something, come get me."
A moment later, one of the fishing rods began shaking wildly. Several of us started pointing off the rear of the boat and blurting nonsense: "Fish … jeez … pole … got one … back … hurry!"
The mate darted from one side of the boat and picked up the rod. He let out line for about five seconds—ptthhhzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!—then slammed a lever shut. The rod and reel hissed and snapped. With that deft manipulation the mate hooked the first marlin of the morning. A very pissed-off 75-pound fish shot bill-first out of the blue about 40 yards behind us. His high arc was a thrilling and beautiful spectacle.
At this point the first mate called my friend Craig over and told him to put an absurd-looking plastic contraption around his waist. He placed the butt of the pole into this "fishing girdle" to steady it. Craig and the rest of us eschewed the ship's "fighting chair," a horrifying metal throne that looks like a dental chair you'd find at Abu Ghraib. Sitting in the chair makes it significantly easier to reel in a fish. We took the honorable route and reeled them in standing up.
Dragging a white marlin through half a football field of ocean water is physically grueling. Craig pumped the reel maniacally. But the end result was not much in doubt. The mate had hooked the fish. The rest was just brute force. We admired the fish as it neared the side of the boat. Then the mate cut the line and released the marlin back out into the Atlantic.
It must have been right after I exhausted myself reeling in a 100-pound marlin that it hit me. What I was doing—sitting in the sun, drinking, listening to music, getting a tan, eating, drinking some more, marveling at the fish as they jumped out of the water—was fun, in a way. But it wasn't really fishing. There's no skill involved for us paying customers. It's as if you went goose hunting and your guide shot all the birds down; you just paid for the privilege of lugging the sack of birds back home.
Sport fishing fans will argue that there is a lot riding on your performance. During a fight with a fish, it's important not to let the line go slack, since the fish can use the slack to maneuver out of the hook. But this is not complicated: Just keep cranking the reel to keep the line taut. Sometimes the fish will pull away, so it's important not to crank the reel if the line is spinning away from you. If you know those two things—and if you don't succumb to muscle fatigue, which I nearly did—you're all set.
Good fishermen can pick up on little signals in the water that might indicate where fish are swimming. You can't. The real skill is in the elaborate masquerade orchestrated by the captain and mate. Sitting next to the captain for part of the trip, I realized how he and the mate cleverly morphed the boat—with the outrigs and trawler as well as the baited fishing lines—into a simulated school of fish that attracts big-game swimmers like marlin, dolphin, and tuna. All I could do to help with this elaborate setup was stay out of the way.
Traditionally, sport fishing boats hoist flags that indicate how many fish they've caught. As we cruised back into the marina, we hoisted seven blue flags, each one adorned with a white marlin. The captain and mate told us that their boat had never had such a haul.
As we approached land, several sport fishermen started clapping for us as they caught sight of our flags. These folks were genuinely impressed with us. As we pulled into the slip, people at the marina started snapping pictures. Folks buzzed about the big day we had, pointing at us and stealing glances. Sunburned, tired, and a little drunk, I couldn't help but puff out my chest. Imagine how proud I would've been if I had actually done anything.