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Starting out with a bang

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2001


TREASURE ISLAND -- Every captain hopes the first run offshore in a new fishing boat is a success. This voyage often sets the tone for all that follows.

TREASURE ISLAND -- Every captain hopes the first run offshore in a new fishing boat is a success. This voyage often sets the tone for all that follows.

Joe Saunders had done his homework in choosing a boat and the tackle it takes to land big fish in bluewater.

"I was a little apprehensive," the 48-year-old attorney said. "When you travel that far offshore, there are a lot of things that can go wrong."

Saunders and his fishing buddies, Fred Wheeler and Ken Newman, were headed offshore in search of dolphin, tuna and wahoo, the targeted species in a recent tournament sponsored by Treasure Island Charities.

"We looked at the satellite-generated sea temperature maps to find out where the warm fingers of the Loop Current were in relation to a deep dropoff of the continental shelf," Saunders said. "At the Steppes, the water drops from 800 to 8,000 feet over a distance of about 25 miles."

Saunders, an avid angler, hoped to hook into a free-swimming wahoo, the fastest fish in the ocean. But in the back of his mind, he thought a billfish would surely make the trip worthwhile, even though it wouldn't count in the tournament.

"So we left at night, idling out at about 7 knots to save gas," he said. "By sunrise, we were 100 miles offshore."

The tournament rules allowed for lines in the water at first light. Saunders and his teammates got ready for action, then sat back and watched a red ball of fire rise above a plate-glass sea.

"I drank a cup of coffee and I have to tell you, it had to be the best cup I ever had," he said. "There is nothing like a sunrise on the water."

It didn't take long before the soft-headed lures trailing behind the boat started getting smacked by the usual culprits.

"Barracuda and bonita," Saunders said. "They weren't exactly what we were looking for."

After an hour or so, the bite slowed, and the crew of the Viola Belle settled into that trancelike state that comes after a long stretch of no bites on a summer day.

"The sun was climbing higher in the sky and it was starting to get hot," Saunders recalled. "We were all just sitting around, staring off the back of the boat, waiting for something to happen."

Then, without warning, a reel started screaming. The three men stared off the back of the boat, looking for some sign of a fish.

"Then the water exploded," Saunders said. "It looked just like a depth charge going off."

A blue marlin skyrocketed into the air and then danced across the water on its tail.

"It did all the tricks billfish do ... it jumped, tail-walked, then greyhounded across the water," Saunders said. "Then I realized that I better do something quickly before it took all the line off the spool."

While Newman fought the marlin, Wheeler reeled in the other lines so Saunders could start "backing down" on the fish.

"I felt like I drove backward about halfway across the Gulf of Mexico," Saunders said. "The hardest part is when the fish gets close to the boat, because all it takes is one brush of the line and the fish is gone."

After a 45-minute fight, Wheeler got the big blue close enough to the boat for Newman to grab the leader, which made it an official "catch." Wheeler cut the wire close to the hook and the marlin gave one good kick, then disappeared into the depths.

"We used cadmium hooks so we knew it would rust out in a day or so," Saunders said. "The fish swam off no worse for the fight."

Before the day was over, the crew of the Viola Belle (named after Saunders' grandmother, who encouraged his passion for fishing) would hook another blue as well as several dolphin. But Saunders said nothing would ever compare to that first billfish.

"A blue marlin on a new boat on its first offshore trip ... I hope that is a sign of things to come," he said. "I can only hope."

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