The oilman read the cablegram, turned a vivid shade of heliotrope and unleashed a long exclamatory sentence, most of which could not even be printed by Grove Press. Loosely translated, what he said was that he had told those cretinous associates of his that his fishing trip to Pi�as Bay was not to be interrupted for any reason whatsoever—for any reason whatsoever—and now here they were, first crack out of the box, pestering him with a minor business matter. What was the minor business matter? Only that the oilman's drillers had brought in two gushers back home.
It will come as no shock to close relatives of fishermen that the art of angling is followed by as monomaniacal a group of sportsmen as may be found outside of a wet pack, but there are none more given to aberration than those who, like the oilman, follow the black marlin. And of the marlin fishermen, the ones who go to Pi�as Bay in Panama are the ones most likely to lose all touch with reality. The reason is clear: in these warm waters off the northern ebb of the Humboldt Current, the same current that gave Kon-Tiki its free ride to Tahiti, is the thickest concentration of black marlin to be found anyplace in the world.
S. Kip Farrington Jr., founder of Peru's celebrated Cabo Blanco Club (SI, March 19, 1956), has called the black "the most difficult of all the marlins to catch and the most coveted...the glamour boy of all fish." The benighted black-marlin fisherman thinks nothing of trolling day after endless day for the privilege—no, for the honor—of hooking one. And if the fishing goes on for a couple of weeks and at last, at last a marlin is caught, is the trip a success? To the black-marlin fisherman, it is a resounding success, and his words will echo in the halls of the Yale Club or the Union League Club for years afterward with details about his feat, some of them true.
Consider now, for a welcome relief, the carefully documented, validated and witnessed adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Ross H. Walker of Richmond. The Walkers, an amiable middle-aged couple of considerable means, spent 12 days trolling in Pi�as Bay. On one of those days Mrs. Walker landed six black marlin (or a lifetime's supply for many a marlin fisherman) and her husband boated three. Mrs. Walker caught one of 655 pounds; her husband caught one of 723. At the end of their vacation the Walkers had chalked up 47 black marlin, all but 11 of which were released.
The Walkers, of course, are highly skilled marlin fishermen. A more typical Pi�as Bay experience is the one endured by—well—myself. On a recent morning while the Walkers were bringing fish up to their boat with reckless abandon, I began my day's trolling at 9. In two hours I had hooked and lost four black marlin. Two of them merely spat out the bait as not quite to their taste. One simply rolled lazily on the 50-pound test line and snapped it. One hit a bait and, while I was grabbing the rod, nonchalantly cruised over and took the other bait. By the time I could figure out which rod had the action, the marlin was gone, licking his lips over our two fat bonito. The fifth fish hit at 11 a.m. and immediately took off on one of those trademark-registered tail-walking acts so characteristic of the breed. "Se�or!" the captain shouted. "He ees a beeg one." He was, for a fact, somewhat larger than Kelso, and just as fast out of the starting gate. Line stripped off the reel and produced that whine which, to the big-game fisherman, is more beautiful than the Eroica. Occasionally the big fish would pause in his travels and allow himself to be pumped back toward the boat. Five times he was almost to the transom, while the eager mates stood by with the living gaff and a lasso. But the marlin would count the house and take right off, wanting no part of this strange 33-foot floating fish. Each time he made a run, friction on the drag would turn the reel into an ingot of hot steel, and the mates furiously splashed water on reel and fisherman alike. After four exhausting hours, the marlin snapped the 250-pound test leader with one thump of his bill.
"Ay, Se�or!" said the furious captain. "You lose heem."
"Yes," I said. "Just lucky, I guess."
It goes without saying that this fish, like all fish I have lost, would have been a world record. Indeed, the waters of Pi�as Bay have accounted already for 12 International Game Fish Association records for black marlin, amberjack, sailfish, blue marlin and silver marlin, and this despite the fact that the place has been scandalously underfished. Until recently, one had to beat one's way to Panama City, then hire a boat to make the two-day cruise southeast through the Bay of Panama to Pi�as. Once there, one slept on the boat; accommodations were nonexistent. But those fishermen who were willing to make the effort were rewarded beyond all reasonable hope. Webster Merritt, a fishing captain from Jamaica who decided on living at Pi�as Bay after seeing how life was lived in Philadelphia, Miami and Panama City, remembers a customer who fought a big marlin for 17 hours, until long after midnight, only to lose the fish on what was, incredibly, the 49th or 50th jump. Four days later the fisherman boated a 960-pound black marlin in four hours.
All stories about Pi�as eventually get around to the Schmidt brothers, Louis, Ted and John, who have skippered boats in the area for years (it was Louis Schmidt who took the Walkers out on their recent orgy of marlin catching). They tell of the day Louis hooked into a big marlin and fought it for two hours before an ill-fitting harness cut into his back and forced him to give up the rod to his brother John. The marlin weighed 1,006 pounds and was, up to then, the first 1,000-pound black marlin ever caught on rod and reel. Since two men had handled the rod, the IGFA could not certify the catch as a record, but the group did send a certificate of honorable mention to Louis Schmidt who, because of a childhood accident, has only one arm and one leg. Big as this fish was, there are certainly bigger black marlin around Pi�as. Dr. William T. Bailey, a marlin fisherman and specialist in radioisotopes at Gorgas Hospital in Panama, tells of one:
"John Schmidt hooked a marlin off Jaqu� Point, and it came up and jumped right near the boat. When that fish plopped back into the water it was exactly as though somebody had dropped a yacht in there. Everybody gasped, but nobody said a word. They knew this was 'the big one.' You sec him once in your lifetime; you have one chance. Well, John settled back for the fight. The fish began to take out line—zip, zip. John tightened down on the drag. He had 39-thread line, more than 100-pound test, and he knew he could give the fish plenty of pressure. The line kept going out. John gave the drag all he could without snapping the line, and they backed down on the fish as fast as the boat would go. The line settled down to a steady whir. Without the slightest decrease in speed, the marlin stripped the reel and snapped the line. Five hundred yards of line against a 100-pound drag, and he ran it off as if he was just out for a Sunday stroll. You figure out how big that marlin was!"