Three Flags in the Rain

A Story of Fish Obsession and Foul Weather

Dateline: August 7, 2012 – Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

Marta, despite the fact that she has caught seven species I have not, is not the woman who has caused me the most consternation. That distinction doesn’t even go to Jaime Hamamoto – it actually belongs to one Val Kells. Val has caused me to lose more sleep than not just Marta and Jaime, but perhaps all other women in my life combined. And why, you ask? Is Val some sort of psychotic relative, disturbed former love interest, or even worse, both? Not at all. Val is a well-known scientific illustrator – she paints those painfully accurate fish for scientific books. And one of her books, A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes from Maine to Texas, has shown me, for hour after painful hour, exactly how many species I have not caught in the Atlantic. This sort of thing makes me lose a lot of sleep.

If you too want to feel my pain, order the book at


An example of Val’s art. It’s an Atlantic beardfish, and no, I have not caught one. Illustration by Val Kells (c) 2012. All rights reserved.

We met through Dr. Kent Carpenter, Professor of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University. (And a superstar who has identified dozens of difficult species for me.) Dr. Carpenter is her co-author on the book, and once introduced, Val and I became fast friends online. I can’t hate her for doing her job. She served as editor for the 1000fish blog for about a year, and so you have her to thank for removing the glaring grammatical issues and the worst of the toilet humor for most of 2011 and part of 2012.

The species game is usually about numbers. I will often pass up a shot at trophy fish to take a crack at larger numbers of less-dignified species – who else would ever admit to catching an Atlantic silverside, let alone spending two hours doing it deliberately? (See next blog post.) Still, there are some trophies that are an essential part of any fishing bucket list, and the white marlin is definitely one of these trophies.


White marlin are the smallest of the marlin species, usually not exceeding 100 pounds. They are supposed to be common in the Gulf Stream off the Outer Banks in the summer, and with another family trip to Duck coming up in August, I knew I had to give it a shot.

Val’s family also takes a summer vacation on the North Carolina beaches. Val and I got talking about offshore fishing early in the year, and Val — just as passionate as I about getting a white marlin — said she had never caught a sailfish and could not die happy unless she did. So we decided to fish together in August, and hopefully at least one of us (well, hopefully me) would get the home run. Val also decided to bring her youngest son, Dave, who shares her sailfish obsession.

Dave, Val, Steve. This was taken before the weather got really nasty – see below.


A lot happened between those calls and the August trip, but it all seemed to go by faster than Guido slipping on a pork chop. (See Suddenly, it was August 6, I had made it to the beach house where we were enjoying fabulous weather, and the marlin trip was the next day.

I didn’t sleep very well, and I ended up leaving early to drive down to Oregon Inlet. As I drove down to the harbor, I noticed it was windier than I would have liked. Where had all the nice weather gone? I passed the Wright Brothers monument, where the first powered flight was late and had bad food, and it began to rain. Just as I pulled into the Oregon Inlet harbor, it hit me that I had never met Val in person. The internet is a strange thing.

We met the skipper, Arch Bracher, and the first mate, Lee, who, like famous models and soccer players, will go by first name only in this article.


Steve and the crew of the Pelican. That’s Arch on the left and Lee on the right. This is a great boat and crew – if you’re planning to visit the Outer Banks, look them up at

The weather was unpleasant in the harbor, and it was flat-out lousy offshore. It rained steadily, and the wind had driven up the seas – nothing mountainous, but it was an unpleasant run out, and trolling wasn’t any nicer. It was a confused, uncomfortable sea, and I could hear rain splattering on the wheelhouse above me.

I took shifts watching the back of the boat pitch up and down, then dozed for a while in the cabin. After four hours on the troll, it didn’t look like the fish were going to cooperate. I was mentally prepared for this – big-game trolling is a waiting game, and usually has a lot more waiting than game.

The great thing about trolling is that an awful day can become a great day in a split second, and Val’s split second happened just after 1 p.m. A sailfish hammered one of the baits and was hooked up. The deckhand yelled, “Sailfish!!!” In pouring rain, she raced onto the back of the boat, and the fight was on. Val is not a large person, but she handled the setup very well, and like a good skier, her body stayed very still as the boat pitched in three dimensions.

Rain, wind, and a big smile. That’s what it’s all about.

The fish hurtled into the air six or seven times, but Val stayed with it the whole way, backing off as needed, putting on the brakes when she could. Slowly, the fish got tired and started getting close. This is always the “hold your breath” part of the fight when so many fish are lost, but Lee was an expert on the wire and had the fish in hand quickly. Val let loose a primal whoop of joy.

Val and her big catch – an Atlantic sailfish.

I figured that it was cool that we got at least one fish, and loathe though I am to be glad for others when I haven’t caught a thing, it was fantastic to see her pure joy. It was so much like my own, and it hit me – Val was like the sister I never had.

Oh, wait – I do have a sister. Scratch that.

Settling back into the cabin, I was rooting through another box of Nutter Butters when the right side bait went off. The clicker screamed over the crashing waves and wind, the deckhand yelled, “Fish! Fish! Fish!” and I sprinted out onto the back deck into the deluge. I had brilliantly left my rain jacket in the trunk of my car, and I am not exactly suitable wet t-shirt contest material.

We couldn’t tell if it was a sail or a white marlin at first. I tried to look out over the waves under the brim of my cap, but the rain blew right into my eyes. A few minutes later, as I saw a fish jumping in the distance, the deckhand told me “That’s your white. Take your time.” A lot of people had done a lot of work to get me to this point – on with a white marlin – and I was going to do my best not to lose it.

My white marlin makes one of about a dozen jumps. I purposefully chose a picture that didn’t show much of me – the wet shirt material didn’t leave much to the imagination, and this is supposed to be a family blog. Still, I might be a big hit on prurient websites that cater to this sort of thing.

It’s a strange pressure to deal with – I knew I would have one chance at this, and I just focused on one crank at a time. The fish, probably about 75 pounds – jumped and ran and did everything it could to throw the hook, and I just focused on one crank at a time. The whole fight was around 15 minutes, but it seemed like two hours, and the longest part of it was at boatside, with the leader in the mate’s hand, knowing I had credit for a release but wanting that photo so darn badly.

Lee was taking in about two feet of leader at a time, and I held my breath until his hand came back holding a bill. We both reached down and gently lifted the fish over the side for a quick photo session.

If you’re going to catch one fish all day, this would be a good one.

Only two species to go for the IGFA royal billfish slam! I felt exuberant, but also humbled and lucky. To go out and get a white on the first try doesn’t always happen. I wandered the back deck, high-fiving anyone who came near, content that my week of fishing was already successful.

But Lee was all business – we had a little while left to troll, and he was not going to miss it. He was already rigging baits and getting them back into the water. Dave was up next. Could we turn a rotten day into a tripleheader? (Could Dave pull a Jaime Hamamoto and catch a blue marlin under my nose?) It didn’t take long – a sailfish pounced on one of the ballyhoos, and Dave, who was bright enough to bring his raincoat, was on.

Oh, to have the presence of mind to smile while fighting a fish.

Dave’s sailfish. We released it at boatside.

With that fish landed, we began the long run back in to port. Arch passed down the release flags we would fly on the way in to port, symbols of both our triumph against the odds and the fact we had let everything go to fight another day and fulfill someone else’s dream. Months later, as I think of that day, I can remember exactly how the fight felt, and exactly how the fish felt when I held it up, but I don’t recall the seas being all that rough. Selective memory is a wonderful thing.

One day, three lifetime dreams. What rain?



Apparently, my pain over the Hawaiian species Marta has caught and I have not is downright funny to some of you. Sadists! No sooner had I shared my deep anguish over the red cornetfish Marta caught in 2006, when reader Dom Porcelli just HAD to write in and share that he too had caught one. Dom is an avid angler based in Cincinnati, but now I shall never cheer for the Bengals again. I’m sure Jaime Hamamoto is somehow behind this.

Nobody likes a smartypants, Dom.