The Biggest One That Didn’t Get Away

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

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."

Few creatures are such masters of their natural element. Black marlin hear low-frequency vibrations, and while they may not have a highly developed sense of smell, the fish do have excellent vision. And they are fast. Black marlin may be capable of burst swimming at speeds of over 60 miles per hour. Their predators — apart from each other — include mako sharks, which may reach speeds of more than 35 miles per hour.

The tool of their trade is, as with other billfish, the outrageously elongated bone of the upper jaw, or "bill." The appendage likely evolved, says Pepperell, as a matter of streamlining and reducing friction. "The bill pierces the water, initiating smooth water flow over the body."

But the marlin also uses its bill to bat or ram its prey. Glassell's fish would have been able to bat around a big dolphin with its four-foot-long bill, as reported of another marlin by S. Kip Farrington in 1937. According to another observer, a marlin secures its prey by "rearing back its bill like a club and dealing it a hearty swipe, then watches its stunned prey as it slows its pace, flies into a flurry to face the marlin's massive jaws where it is swallowed whole."

Black marlin also use their rapiers to spear their prey, no matter what the size. Zane Grey found a snapper in a marlin's stomach with a hole straight through its body. A Bureau of Commercial Fisheries research vessel discovered a twice-speared 156-pound yellowfin tuna in the stomach of a 1,500-pound black marlin captured south of the Hawaiian Islands.

Since the days of the Greeks and Romans the swords of billfish have caused consternation and fear in humans because of the fishes' reputed proclivity to ram, attack and even sink ships. In an account from 1618 the Dutch explorer Willem Schouten, on a voyage around the world, noted in the log: "...there was such a noyse in the Bough of our Shippe....[The master] looked out over the side of the Ship hee saw the Sea all red...knowing not what it meant...." Back in port, Schouten reported, "Wee found a Horne sticking in the Ship, much like for thicknesse...a common Elephants tooth...." The "hard Bone" went through three planks and turned upward " our great good fortune, for if it had entred between the Ribbes, it would happily have made a greater Hole and have brought both Ship and men in danger to be lost."

No one knows how many black marlin thrive in the oceans of the world today. Says Pepperell, "All we know is, as many as 40,000 are taken in the Central and Western Pacific. We don't know if that is sustainable or if the catch is increasing dramatically. The reporting of catches has dropped off because long-liner fishermen are nervous."

The black marlin's range includes the Pacific and Indian oceans and occasionally the South Atlantic. Once the mighty marlin may have even considered New England's Georges Bank as an appropriate place to stop and have a meal, as noted in George Brown Goode's account in the report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries circa 1880. Goode got his information from the interviews of one John H. Thomson of New Bedford, who reported earlier in the 19th century, "Of late years another school has appeared southeast of Cape Cod and George's banks about the 1st of August." Said Thomson, "These fish are altogether different [from the local billfish], being much larger, weighing from 300 to 800 pounds gross, and are entirely black."

Known spawning areas are few — the Great Barrier Reef, perhaps the South China Sea, maybe off the coast of Africa. Despite the many large females caught there, Cabo Blanco, Peru, was never noted as a spawning area, says Pepperell.

Now in the name of conservation, sport fishermen, charter boat captains and biologists are working together to promote tagging black marlin instead of killing them. Says Pepperell, some 30,000 have been tagged with a survival rate of 85 percent. Tagged marlin have now been known to cross 10,000 miles of ocean, notably from Australia to Baja California.

Tagging a black marlin poses somewhat different problems than, say, banding a bird. It's all done by darting. "Also, we have to keep the boat moving so the fish can breath," says Pepperell. "But when we let them go, the feeling on board that boat is just wonderful. Fishermen love and respect that big fish."

In Australia, charter boat captain Dennis "Brazakka" ("Wildman," as he is known to the locals) Wallace, whose clients have included the likes of actor Lee Marvin, says, "We haven't killed a fish in 15 years. When we take game fishermen out we try to encourage them to tag their record black marlin ...because when that fish leaves the ocean, it leaves a hole in the sea."

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