Suddenly the line went slack. "Forward! He's coming toward the boat," Barta shouted. But he seemed puzzled. "I can't figure out where he is. I can't even tell for sure if he's still on. Wait, yes, he's down deep. There's a great big bow in the line. I'm afraid he's not hooked too well."
Barta began reeling frantically, hoping for a hint of something solid on the line, and he seemed to feel it. "Is it the weight of the line?" he asked, "or is it the fish? Wait, I don't think it's the fish. Yeah, he's gone. He had 250, 300 yards out. There was nothing I could do. Water pressure broke it. But I still feel great. That was maybe a record yellowfin, and I had him on 40 minutes. We're really cooking. Let's do it again."
It was a classic sample of Barta's joyful losing. "Ninety percent of the enjoyment I get from fishing, and the reason why I'm not frustrated is that almost every fish I have on is a world record," he said. "That's why I've poured my life into this."
And how. In the last two years Barta has spent $30,000 on rods and reels. Sometimes late-night bathers at the swimming pool in his mid- Manhattan co-op apartment building are startled to see him at pool-side with rod and reel, his line disappearing in the water. They edge closer. What's that scuba diver doing five feet down clutching a chunk of balsa wood with a hook embedded in it? Barta is finding out how hard he can strike and how deeply he can set the hook without breaking his line. "I've gotten so I can set it with six-pound line at 5.5 pounds of pressure," he says. "That's consistently, with no line breakage."
Sometimes the diver holds a small scale. Barta's rod is bent. He is fiddling with the reel drag, trying to judge how much pressure he is putting on the line. The diver keeps surfacing, issuing reports. As Barta tells his companions on the Randi-Strike, "I know the difference between one, two, three, four and five pounds of drag; I can tell by the feeling in my hand and by the angle of the rod."
To enable him to make such determinations reliably, Barta's rods in each line class must flex the same and weigh the same. He selects the blanks from groups of 100 or more, sometimes discarding 98 before he finds two that match closely enough. The drags on all his reels, all of which are of the revolving-spool variety, must be identical; he never knows which one he will have to grab. Sometimes four will be just right but a fifth will be a shade off, and he will have them all taken apart and reassembled until the five match perfectly. The reels have custom-made lightweight aluminum spools, which spin more easily than the heavier stock spools, and the drag mechanisms have been completely rebuilt to Barta's specifications. He says that for ultralight lines there is no reel drag on the market worth using.
Now the Randi-Strike was moving north along the canyon. Barta had been breaking off great lengths of line, in case the morning's fishing had frayed them; he uses 500,000 yards of six- and 12-pound-test each year, given him by the Cortland Line Company in exchange for his advice. All his lines are braided Dacron. On this day the yellowfins had been popping the four and sixes like sewing thread, and, of course, Barta was thrilled. But now the two 12s snapped down from the outriggers. One broke instantly, the other held. Barta grabbed the rod and called out, "What's the 12-pound yellowfin record? A hundred and forty-five, right? This fish is 70 pounds at most but it could be a bluefin, and that record's only 42. So let's get a good look at it."
He fought the fish for an hour and 20 minutes. Again and again he got it close to the boat—but not close enough to see the color of the fins—only to have it plunge hundreds of feet off. Finally, as it passed near the stern, the mate grabbed for the wire leader with his gloved hands. He struggled briefly, the tendons in his neck and arms stretching taut, and the leader went slack. "Yellowfin," he said.
The hook had been straightened. Barta said that nothing less than 180 pounds of pull could have done it; no one aboard the boat could so much as bend the straightened hook an eighth of an inch. It was dramatic evidence of how quixotic Barta's quest is.
"I don't know if you noticed," he said, "but I made a mistake with that fish. When he had a lot of line out I kept the drag a little too tight, and that made the fish go down deep. With a lighter drag it might have stayed on top."