We trolled nearer. There was no rush—by the actions of the crewmen, you could tell that the fish was still a long way from being boated. But an hour later things were not nearly so calm. We moved within earshot as the fisherman, a portly South African named Charles Feller, hauled the marlin alongside, and a crewman grabbed the wire leader. Then the captain sank a gaff into the great fish, and it shuddered. The blood ran down its silver sides as the crewman pulled it up by its bill. As the fish died—and Arménio kills all the marlin he catches, selling the meat—it turned from blue to bronze before our eyes. We had not known how big it was until the men put a rope around its tail and tried to haul the fish on board, a process that took 45 minutes. Eventually, we learned that the fish weighed 869 pounds.
The biggest fish ever caught in the Azores, Arménio told us, was caught in 1988. It had gone a little over 1,146 pounds. But he had hooked some much bigger than that. "As big again by half," Arménio said, frowning. "Two times as big. I cannot say. Very big fishes off these islands." Then Arménio pointed to the hull on the left side of his boat where, just above the water line, a large hole had been patched. "Oh Magnífica," he said. "Big marlin. You have never seen such a marlin as this."
And he told us the story.
Arménio was fishing with three of his former army friends. It was windy that week, just as it was now, and the fishing was dreadfully slow. They had caught nothing for three or four days. Then, a half hour before sunset, when no one was paying attention, they finally had their first strike.
Arménio heard the reel singing and turned in time to catch a glimpse of the fish's tail. It was a marlin, and a big one. But it didn't jump. Not then. Instead, it ran straight out to sea, taking with it 500...600...700...800 yards of line without turning. Without slowing down. Several times his friend tightened the drag, but the marlin didn't even seem to know it was hooked. The reel was equipped with a thousand yards of 80-pound-test line, so it was in no immediate danger of being stripped clean. But it was obvious that they faced a long night. Darkness was falling, and this fish seemed bent on towing Arménio and his friends out of sight of land. And the weather was growing worse.
The line suddenly went slack. "Gone," said Arménio's crestfallen friend holding the rod.
Arménio studied the line. "She's turned," he said. "She's coming back to you. Reel hard."
The man cranked for all he was worth, but the line remained slack...500...400...300...200 yards, and still no resistance. Just as Arménio was beginning to think something had gone wrong, that the line had been cut by a passing school of tuna, the great body of the marlin began to rise out of the water—right there—perhaps 50 yards away. First the bill and the head—up, up, haltingly, in stages—then the dorsal fin and the long body; then, impossibly, the great, scythe-like tail. It hung in the air a long moment, unreal in its hugeness, then gracelessly crashed back into the sea.
It took their breath away. Stunned at the size of this monster, the fisherman had stopped reeling. The fading light, the wind, the immense frothy splashing of the fish, it was all as in a dream. "Reel, my friend!" Arménio shouted. He knew this was the fish of a lifetime.
The marlin didn't sound. Nor did it jump again. Rather, it kept coming toward the boat on the surface. Arménio watched its black back, fascinated at its breadth. He stood frozen, only at the end crying out "Hold on!" as he was jolted off his feet, smashing his head against the ladder when he fell. The marlin, whether by accident or design, had rammed the boat, piercing the hull with its spear.