Patches of bubbling water appeared on the water's surface, and the mates laid out two bait lures. The crew then readied Tropic Star's secret weapon - a custom-bait, tank-tuna-tube contraption designed to keep six live bonito in the 2- to 4-pound range. When a rod tip bounced with the hit of a skipjack, everyone aboard sprang into action with an efficiency that would have made an Indy 500 pit crew blush.
The stakes were high; boats that filled their bait quotas quickly had first shot at hookups. The fleet zigzagged though the baitballs in feverish attempts to capitalize on the morning bite. Just when I thought we led the pack with baits gathered, I heard shouting and hollering 100 yards off our starboard side. Fish on!
A collective rush of adrenalin surged through the fleet as all eyes witnessed a huge black leap off the lucky boat's transom. We hadn't been catching bait for more than 10 minutes and someone's hooked up! I fumbled for my long lens setup, hoping to get a shot of the majestic fish as it jumped energetically in an effort to throw the hook.
By the time I'd readied my camera, the fish had headed out to sea with its boat in tow, leaving the rest of us in the fleet to our bait-making chores. When we finally boated our sixth livey, the deckhands switched into phase two. Each mate removed a fresh bait from the tube, cradled the dripping skipjack with one arm and threaded fine line from the fish to the massive 20/0 Mustad circle hook. Once secured, the mates tossed the two baits overboard with a splash and deployed one more in the middle of the spread, only four yards from the transom.
This could be good, I thought, really good! With baits this close to the boat, I felt as though I'd been given ringside tickets to the Big Bang! My heart started racing, and I triple-checked each part of my photo gear, readying myself for action. After 30 minutes of no strikes for the fleet, the boats scattered in different directions, staking their claim to the azure seas in hopes of hooking their own trophy. The mates signaled it was time to pull in the baits and run full throttle, so I ambled up the bridge to chat with the captain. Bad move.
No sooner did I reach the middle rung than I heard the captain shout, "Marleeen!" "Marleeen!" I scrambled up the remaining steps just in time to catch one of the baits skittering from side to side in a desperate attempt to find cover from an approaching predator. The line hissed back and forth through the water directly behind us, and then a hole the size of a truck appeared in the water with a giant splash.
One of the anglers jumped into the fighting chair, the rest of us cheering him on. "Reel line! Reel line!" the mate shouted with urgency. The angler's hand ran circles in a blur of motion, finally forcing the line to come tight, and then up came the fish.