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Billfishing with JABA

Alaskans travel south seeking sailfins, marlin

Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2002

I had been looking forward to this trip since early March when I met Mal Linthwaite at the Rotary Club Boat Show.

I was sitting at my Taku Reel Repair booth when Mal asked if I worked on Penn International reels. I said I didn't see too many because they were typically used for billfish - marlin and sailfish. We got to talking and Mal told me about JABA, the Juneau Alaska Billfish Association. It didn't take much convincing before I joined the association and signed up for the JABA tournament to be held in early October.

Now here I was almost eight months later in Los Barriles on the southern Baja Peninsula overlooking Mexico's Sea of Cortez and trying to keep the Pacifico beers to a manageable number so I could get up at 6 in the morning. The word at the bar wasn't encouraging: Billfish were pretty scarce. We'd have to work for our fish.

My fishing partner, Chuck Gasparek, woke me at 6 the next morning. We grabbed some breakfast and wished luck to the 14 other JABA members in the tournament. Then we walked to the beach where we boarded a skiff that took us to our fishing boat, a 32-foot Bertram cruiser.

We ran northeast for about an hour before we put out the lines. The lures we were using, standard marlin baits called jetheads, look much like the salmon hoochies except they were almost 2 feet long with a large, hard plastic head. We trolled at about 6 knots with the lures skipping on the surface trying their best to look like flying fish.

It was a delight to see sea turtles and hundreds of dolphin but the fishing was slow, so slow that I broke one of my rules and had a beer before I caught a fish. About then it happened: A sailfish rushed into our spread of lures. It was lit up in the vibrant, electric blue color they get when feeding but it would not hit the trolled baits. But when the captain stopped the boat, it jumped all over a live skip jack tuna tossed out on my pitching rod.

Something was wrong: Sailfish have been clocked at almost 60 miles per hour but this one was sluggish. On his second jump, not 20 feet behind the boat, I saw the problem: He was bleeding profusely and would certainly die. When we got him in, we tried to revive him but couldn't. Once we got to shore, I gave the fish to Lupe, the fish cleaner, who said it would be great in machaca (hash) and burritos. At 90 pounds, it was the largest billfish caught by anyone in the tournament on Day 1.

On Day 2 we made a 50-mile run with the hope of picking up a billfish cruising with schools of tuna known to be in the area. We were trolling when the captain gunned the engines and headed for some birds in the distance. When we got there I saw why the captain was in such a hurry. There were hundreds of 50- to 80-pound tuna crashing bait on the surface. I tossed out a live bait and got a strike almost immediately. It was Chuck's turn, so I passed him the rod. Chuck put on the fighting belt and it was all he could do to hold on to what turned out to be a 65-pound yellowfin tuna. Believe me: Tuna fight. It took us over an hour to get that fish in.

About the billfish association

FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

The Juneau Alaska Billfish Association was established in 1996. It now has 80 members in 11 states and four countries. It holds an annual tournament in Baja California and JABA members take trips around the world throughout the year.

The next scheduled trip is to New Zealand in early 2003 to fish for black marlin and swordfish.

Lifetime membership in JABA costs $30 and is open to all people interested in billfish regardless of their experience or expertise. Members are put on a distribution list for upcoming events and can fish in JABA-sanctioned events.

Perhaps the chief benefit of JABA membership is friendship and networking. How else does someone in Alaska find out about billfishing around the world?

For more information on JABA, contact Mal Linthwaite at 789-3289 or malburro@aol.com.

We picked up two nice dorado of about 30 pounds before we decided to move elsewhere to try for a marlin. It was the right decision. About 30 minutes before we had to head back, a blue marlin came in and crashed our baits but didn't stick. I tossed him a live bait and he took it. As blue marlin go, this was a small fish - about 220 pounds - but plenty of challenge on my 40-pound test pitching outfit. The fight lasted about a half an hour but, unlike most marlin, he only jumped a couple times. He was hooked deeply, but we were able to revive and release him. It was the only marlin caught on Day 2 of the tournament.

When we got back to the shore, we had the tuna and dorado cleaned and packed for our trip back home, and I took a chunk of tuna to the bar so the bartender could fix some sashimi. Fresh sashimi from large fish is simply spectacular. It was then that I discovered a local tradition: Those who shared our sashimi were obligated to buy drinks for the fishermen who caught the tuna. Fortunately, the next day was an off day and I could sleep in.

On the last day of the tournament we got into a school of 30-pound tuna that couldn't say no to our offerings. We caught several and were about to ask the captain to move somewhere for marlin when it happened again: A huge blue marlin smashed the starboard outrigger and began screaming out line.

I grabbed the rod and set the hook several times, then watched the fish - every bit of 400 pounds - scream off 300 yards of 80-pound test line. We chased it and I got back some line before it ran off even more line and nearly spooled me. I got back about half the line before the fish sounded and I gave the rod to Chuck. Chuck and I fought that fish for the next hour and a half. We got him close enough to see the leader knot before the hooks pulled.

A fish story, but not a catch. I'll get him next time.

Bill Brown can be reached at 789-2448 or wsbrown@gci.net.



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