The Biggest One That Didn’t Get Away

A real fish tale hangs on a monster marlin caught nearly a half-century ago

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An excellent fish is the immense black marlin whose golfball-size blue eyes stare down from its simulated "waters" over the doors of the executive conference room of the National Museum of Natural History. At 1,560 pounds, it is officially recognized as the largest bony fish ever caught on rod and reel, a record that has stood since August 1953, when donor Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., caught the 14-foot-7-inch female eight miles off the steep shoreline of Cabo Blanco, Peru, where the Andes plunge into the Pacific. Glassell chose this fishing ground because that's where the cold Humboldt Current meets upwelling eddies of marine life. More than 30 large females were hooked in the area at that time.

Glassell's record "grander" — meaning a black marlin weighing more than 1,000 pounds — was one of four he caught there. His success prompted S. Kip Farrington, a well-known fishing writer, to call him the "rod and reel Young Man of the Sea." Sports Illustrated put Glassell and his big fish on the cover in March 1956. Big game fishing had definitely "arrived" as a competitive sport.

Topping the elusive 1,000-pound mark was the goal among billfish game fishermen then — and still is. It had taken three decades to beat the mark set by Capt. Laurie Mitchell, western-novel writer Zane Grey's fishing captain and friend, who hooked a 976-pounder near New Zealand in 1926. Grey, himself, had actually managed to land the first 1,000-pound-plus game fish taken on rod and reel — a Pacific blue marlin — but it was eventually disqualified by International Game Fish Association rules as a record because it had been "mutilated" by sharks before it was brought to the boat.

Glassell's "Mount Everest" of a fish was caught with a five-pound mackerel bait — a mere bonbon for a fish known to down a 200-pound yellowfin tuna in one fell swoop. Soaring out of the water 49 times, Glassell's big marlin "greyhounded" and "tailwalked" along what was known then as "Marlin Boulevard." It took Glassell an hour and forty-five minutes to catch his fish.

Perhaps the big fish's aerobatics were designed to "show" Glassell "how big he was," as protagonist Santiago thought his black marlin was doing in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. (Hemingway, whose story was based on fact, speculated that Santiago's fish was a 1,500-pounder.) However, Glassell's black marlin had practiced these maneuvers many times, like its distant cousin the swordfish, who, as Aristotle observed, "leaps out of the sea as high as the dolphin" to purge itself of parasitic copepods. The "little worm ...which resembles a scorpion, and is about the size of a spider, causes them to suffer." More likely, Glassell's grander was trying to rid itself of the hook. Billfish, including black marlin, also have the ability to regurgitate their stomachs and reswallow them without ill effect — as they are constantly assailed by the spines, barbs and bones of their prey as well as the hooks of fishermen.

The black marlin is one of the largest bony fish: long-liners — commercial fishers whose lines may stretch for 50 miles and trail 3,000 hooks — have reported catching 2,600-pounders. Zane Grey described one an estimated 23 feet long that got away in 1928, and the "twenty-eight-foot one the natives had seen repeatedly alongside their canoes" at Tautira. Australian gamefish charter captains now say that they've seen Glassell-record-beating marlin off Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Glassell — who concedes these giants are out there — says, "It's one thing to see one and quite another to land it on the dock." Time has proved him right.

Although usually it's the potential record fish that is lost, the same fate almost befell Glassell's massive marlin a few years after he donated it to the Smithsonian. It was 1989, and part of the National Museum of Natural History's Sea Life Hall, where the fish had been displayed, was dismantled for renovation. Glassell, visiting the museum and failing to find his fish, returned home to Houston and wrote to then-director of the museum Frank Talbot. Talbot, who was new on the job, said he had no idea where it was. A search was launched. Meanwhile, a concerned Glassell met with the Smithsonian's then-Assistant Secretary for Science, Robert Hoffman. The museum staff found the big fish — too big to store — hanging in the halls of the museum's Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. More recently it moved back to its present home in a museum display area.

Often referred to as the "bulls" of the sea, the trophy black marlins are really females. "Males," says Australian ichthyologist and billfish expert Julian Pepperell, "only reach 400 pounds at most." Still, some writers, filmmakers and sportsmen have referred to the big marlin as males. Even Hemingway, who you'd think could figure out the sex of anything, referred to Santiago's big fish as a male — unaccountably so, as he had written in 1935, 17 years before The Old Man and the Sea, "I believe the black marlin are old female fish past their prime...." When Zane Grey snared his off-the-record thousand-pounder, he wrote: "Out he blazed again, faster, higher, longer, whirling the bonito [bait] around his head."

But in the marlin world a bigger mother is better. From a biological perspective that makes perfect sense. A black marlin female has to haul around between 80 million and 250 million ova, according to Australian scientists. And despite broadcast spawning of several million eggs at a time, only ten in a million survive. Starting out pin-size, the young marlin and its multitude of siblings seek to grow to 75 pounds in their first year. They must. They have many enemies, including parents, siblings, sponges, jellies, birds, mammals and other fish. The larval fish look completely different from the adults. The larvae are armed with spines which, says Carole Baldwin, larval fish specialist at the National Museum of Natural History, "may make them seem bigger or unpalatable." They grow for as long as they live, which may be for decades once they reach an intimidating size.

Glassell's black marlin is thought to be 30 years of age. But aging a black marlin is guesswork. "No one really knows for sure," says Pepperell. "It's not as if you can cut off its bill and count the rings."


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