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It's a mistake to ramble the docks and to see the defeated fish come in before you have fished for marlin yourself. Blue marlin that are strung up for the cameras don't look tough. They look black and dead, so dead it seems they might never have been alive. That they were beaten is obvious by their presence there, upside down with those terse vital statistics painted in white on their sides—the victor's name, the date of the conquest, the name of the marina for purposes of advertising and, if there is room left over, the weight of the fish.
It makes more sense to unpack your bags, inventory your tackle if you have any and wait in a bar like Rumbottom's for the St. Thomas captains to come in. Listen carefully to what they have to say, say little or nothing yourself, and if you are sharp you'll get real insight into the sport from hearing that they love what they do, that they are challenged by it and that, after all these years, it still impresses them. They are like fighter pilots, or better yet, like Navy chiefs. They are open and a little bit cocky or big and quiet and very, very strong. They respect strength and tend to ridicule weakness. They believe in God, and they're not crazy about having their pictures taken. After you have learned all this, if you have any sense, you should be just a little bit scared.
Some drinks are better for staring into than others. Gimlets are very good. Martinis are bad. They're too shallow. Daiquiris are impossible. Trying to dream while staring into a daiquiri is fooling yourself. They are soupy and have little bits of vegetable matter floating around in them. They're too cluttered for dreaming. Good judgment would tell you not to drink at all, but if you're nervous, as you should be, you will seldom show good sense about anything, and the best thing you can hope to do is choose a drink with soul like a gimlet to straighten out tomorrow in.
It will be on you before you are ready for it. You will have to be weaned from your bed, and after tea and the tablet for seasickness you have secreted away, you should walk to the docks, letting the tropics wish you good morning and good luck with smells you do not recognize and sounds you do not know. Your head will clear as you take it all in, and if you can say, "There's a first time for everything," and like what you hear, you'll be ready as you'll ever be for one of fishing's ultimate challenges.
The late charter boat captain Tommy Gifford used to tell of a gigantic blue marlin that showed on the grounds off St. Thomas during the summer months when marlin fishing is best. Gifford was in his 70s then and swore to God he'd take on that fish one day and beat it. Tommy was built like a fire hydrant, cursed profusely and attacked billfishing much the way Theodore Gordon took on trout. He believed the more you knew about the fish, the greater chance you had of beating them. You owed a charter customer no deference, he declared, which was the very best kind of flattery he could offer. To Tommy Gifford, charters were fishing partners, and what you did when you fished with him reflected on the two of you. If you blew it, he'd give you hell, but he'd go to hell to keep you from blowing it.
To Tommy Gifford, fishing marlin wasn't a game. If you didn't know how to accept pain and didn't like it, you could play golf. There was no place on board his boat for you. To make light of marlin fishing was to dishonor the fish, and he'd see you shark bait before you got away with that. Not everybody liked it that way, neat without ice. Not everybody cared that Tommy had done virtually nothing but fish since he was a boy. And fewer still considered it a vacation to be roughed up, hit upside the head with invectives, no matter how colorful, if you acted lazy or chicken or, worse, both. Tommy was the captain of his Caribe Maid, and if you thought you were out for a sail when you shoved off at 7 a.m., you soon found out you'd been shanghaied. Tommy Gifford believed there were "muscleheads" and "anglers," and by the Lord who put you over the big fish, if you were the former when you signed aboard, you'd be the latter when you paid the tab.
Occasional big fish are hooked—and landed—by novices, Tommy acknowledged, but because he could list a hundred ways to lose a marlin, the odds remain very much against it. It would take teamwork and expertise to boat the giant fish he lusted after, and Tommy promised to fish a month with "a big Swede and a little Puerto Rican" he knew well, and together they would prove he wasn't kidding anybody. The Puerto Rican, he observed, had lived with marlin since he was a boy and could talk to the fish. The Swede, he claimed, had never seen a marlin but had hooked many giant tuna from rowed dories on hostile seas and had more courage than any fisherman he had ever met. That promise may be the only one Tommy Gifford never kept. He died before he could get it done and was buried as he wished, at sea, between the Tobagos where he could forever look to the north toward the 100-fathom drop-off where it is certain his fish still swims.
From Redhook you take the Middle Passage to the drop-off, a course between Thatch Cay, Grass Cay and Minage Cay. You leave the turquoise shallows for blue water looking down Drake's Passage west between St. John's and Tortola, where you cross the invisible line that separates American from British territory. You are making north across the grounds where sailfish abound in the fall, and as you come between the Tobagos you give a little salute and look up at the outriggers, proud as peacock plumes, an innovation for fishing marlin by the man who is buried there. You know Tommy Gifford does not sleep. He is with you. A shoal of skimming flying fish that join you on your way tells you it is so.
It takes patience and great faith to troll for blue marlin. The rolling blue-water marlin grounds are vast, and your boat and the baits of cero mackerel or mullet or ballyhoo just 10 yards astern seem very tiny in such a world. You wonder how the big fish can find them, if they can see them, and why they would choose those particular baits when there are so many fish in the sea. If you fish with faith, as you must, you sit in the chair squinting astern, your eyes roving from one bait to another like a good turnpike driver checking his mirrors.
"You're going to drill holes in the ocean," the skipper teases from the flying bridge.