Game Changer

socal fishing

A game changer is an event that alters your life’s path in an irrevocable way.

Baja bytesDuring my lifetime there have been many – some so subtle that they were barely noticed – while others were such momentous events that they will never be forgotten.

The following event began with a barely perceptible nudge – a gag gift – and the full ramification wasn’t discovered for several changer

So begins my story.

Sportfishing must have been in my DNA. My first fish, a surf perch, was caught on a single hook on a linen line, hand-dropped down between wooden planks into the water beneath the Monterey Municipal Pier around the end of  WW II, thus beginning my journey into a sport that still continues to dominate my life these many decades later.

water closet
First marlin aboard Water Closet

Blackman Boats delivered my new 23-foot center console, the “WaterCloset,” late in 1977, barely in time to catch the last gasp of the local billfish season, allowing us to score the first one aboard the new boat.

game changer
Happy Birthday Gags

In April of 1978, at my home in Point Loma overlooking the whitewater view of Sunset Cliffs, friends and family joined in celebrating my birthday. One of the most memorable gifts among the presents was one from Steve Soares, a friend and member of a well-known Portuguese fishing family that owned a fleet of tuna clippers. The crowd howled knowingly with laughter as I opened the carefully gift-wrapped package from Steve – a fresh-caught green mackerel (baitfish).

Knowing that mackerel were often difficult to come by, on every trip after my birthday, my gift mackerel from Soares was always in the ice chest on the boat as a back-up bait. Upon return, the bait was once again stowed in the freezer to be used on my next trip.

One of the primary reasons I had decided on the center console was that I wanted to be able to catch a striped marlin alone.

Only a handful of local anglers had accomplished that feat at that time – Skelly Wilbur on his “Six Pak,” Bill George aboard his “Misty Bill,” Don Abrego on his “Jamie III” and a few others who I considered my heroes.

By late July the now freezer-burned mackerel had become more of a good luck charm than a serious go-to bait, and it smelled pretty bad!

July 31 was no different than all of my other scouting trips, and I headed out alone to check out rumors of striped marlin literally showing in my front yard – only five miles off of Point Loma.

Bait was non-existent at the bait receiver and bait fishing had been non-productive along the kelp line. So I decided to troll lures instead. Throughout the morning I scoured the area from five miles off out to the inner edge of the 9-mile-bank, tacking back and forth across the area, with only the “Happy Kanake,” a stick-boat, for company. Owner Captain Ron Costa was out searching for swordfish.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky throughout the morning we crossed each other’s wake searching for bait, birds or maybe a sleeper floating on the oily slick surface. The lures popped and gurgled in the wake as I scanned the horizon with Zeiss binoculars, looking for any sign of life – even a lone kelp patty would have been a welcomed diversion.

swordfish fishing

At last, a few minutes past 11 a.m., I spotted a fin barely tipping on the surface some distance away. As I neared the single fin, it suddenly became two fins, a dorsal and a tail. I must confess, this was early in my bill fishing phase and I wasn’t sure just what I was seeing. Coming closer, I realized my tailer wasn’t a marlin at all!

Still uncertain, and without live bait, I decided my best course of action was to troll past the fish with my lures. Slowly swimming in a straight line, the fish was an easy target. When I came close enough, I saw the telltale flat broadbill, confirming that my tailer was a swordfish; it spooked and sunk out.

My tackle aboard the “WaterCloset,” consisted of two 20-pound trolling rods and two bait sticks – one a 20- and the other a 50-pound rig. Reeling in the lures while scanning the horizon, I spotted the fish back up on the surface once again, this time “milling” in a circle.

Pulling the 50-pound rig out of the rod holder while keeping an eye on the circling broadbill, I rummaged in the bottom of the ice chest for the gift Soares had given me at my birthday party more than three months before.

Carefully impaling the freezer burned talisman (of sorts) on the 9/0 hook attached to the 50-pound rig, I steered the idling boat toward my prey, careful to steer in a circle so that my foul-smelling offering would come close to the fish yet the boat would remain as far away as possible.

In spite of my best efforts, the bait passed on the opposite side of the milling fish’s circle, which only served to spook the skittish fish once again and it immediately plunged out of sight.

Frustrated, I reached for my VHF radio and attempted to call my buddy on the “Happy Kanake.” Flipping from one channel to another, I failed to receive a reply.

Continuing to scan the surface for that telltale sign of the swordy I was rewarded with another sighting. Sure enough, up it popped!

I made another pass at the milling monster. My timing was off and once again the bait was at the opposite side of its circle – however, this time the swordfish made a half-leap across the circle and inhaled the stinky bait before submerging!

game changer

Glancing at my watch, it read precisely high noon. I breathlessly let the fish run, and then run some more, before finally throwing the lever drag in gear. There was no need to reel down to recover any slack; the 50-pound stick instantly bent double and I was tight to the largest fish I had ever hooked. Braced against the helms chair, and keeping my eyes on the fish, I fumbled around with my free hand until I found a butt plate in the console. Backing off the drag, I cinched the belt tight.

Maneuvering the skiff into a quartering position so I could follow the fleeing fish without danger of running over the line, the fight began in earnest. It was a give-and-take game for several hours – gain some line only to watch it disappear again through the guides; it seemed to be an even fight.

By mid-afternoon, it was obvious that my dance with this devil would not end soon. Back on my VHF, I called Yvonne to tell her that I was hooked up to a swordfish and didn’t have a clue when I would be in.

She in turn called Bob Smith, manager of the Mission Bay Marlin Club, to inform him that I was hooked up. By the time he arrived at the club, club members were waiting to hear the play-by-play of the swordfish on 50-pound (because not only was I alone on the boat but 50-pound test is considered very light line for fighting a swordfish). Bob used the club radio to see how the now-lengthy tug of war was going and by the end of our conversation most of the fleet was aware that I was hooked up.

gary grahamSeveral called to offer encouragement; builder of the “WaterCloset,” Don Blackman, was among them.

Meanwhile, I realized that because I had only planned to be out half a day, I had brought only a couple of bottles of water and a small can of peanuts. This was all I had to counter the dehydration as the battle continued into the late afternoon.

Gain some – lose more seemed to be confirming that my quartering strategy was failing. About that time, Captain Gene Grimes of “Legend” fame, called from his VHF aboard the sportfisher he ran for the Birtcher family from Orange County.

socal sword

Grimes’ fishing exploits were renowned as well as his passion for rod and reel swordfish. When he asked how it was going, I explained the fish had been on the surface and that I had been following it, but I couldn’t get very close without the fish sounding.

Grimes suggested that I lead the fish instead of following. Explaining that not only was the fish more likely to wear out with that technique, but considering that I was alone, that might be the only way I could get a shot with a gaff.

Thanking him I attempted to carry out his instructions. Leading the fish seemed like a simple concept. I positioned the Blackman in front of the swimming swordfish until the line from the rod was directly off the stern.

Keeping the boat in idle, the submerged fish followed.

So far, so good! I steered the boat with one hand, holding the rod with the other, and tightened the drag one click at a time as I idled forward, carefully keeping my eye on the angle of the line behind the skiff.

Because I steered with one hand, looking backwards instead of in a straight line while leading the big fish, I was unintentionally steering the boat is a tighter and tighter circle. It soon became hard to discern if the fish was being led or if it was chasing the boat.

fishing stories
Chet Thompson(gaffer) and Gene Grimes

The crowd that had gathered at the Mission Bay Marlin Club was listening to my plight. Sometime after 7 p.m., Smith volunteered to bring Blackman and Chet Thompson, Manager of Stanley Andrews Sporting Goods out to help land the fish aboard the boat, “Alexander 4” confident that with Loran C numbers and a VHF direction finder, they would be able to find me in the dark.

Meanwhile, I was stubbornly battling on, mentally vowing over and over that I just needed to “stay connected” until help arrived.

It turned out, although my original hookup had been inside the 9-mile-bank; when Smith and company found me around 10 p.m. I was nearly 20 miles from the entrance to Mission Bay. The good news was that I was still connected to what had become my nemesis, but how relieved I was to see them!

Over the years I’ve learned one irrefutable fact: No matter what big game fish you are hooked up to, when the sun goes down, they are a different animal and become twice as ornery.

Once Blackman and Thompson climbed on board, we resumed Grimes’ advice and led the now cantankerous adversary.

With deck lights blazing and the fish following in the starboard corner, Blackman took the wheel. Each time the fish came close to the stern, he would dive directly beneath the outdrive, forcing Blackman to turn the skiff hard to starboard to avoid allowing the line attached to the plunging fish to be severed by the prop. For the next couple of hours the swordfish continued the same pattern until almost midnight.

In frustration, the three of us agreed that somehow we had to break the pattern or we would never have a gaff shot. So the next time the fish came close, Blackman was to do something different.

Instead of repeating the same maneuver, he would shift into reverse and back to port. And when the fish came into view, Blackman did just that! The fish passed under the bow of the boat, spinning end for end; the line safely cleared under the bow, and the confused swordfish popped to the surface just long enough for Thompson to put the first gaff in the still fresh fish.

vintage fishing

The commotion of the still green swordfish literally splashed water over the tower of the “WaterCloset.” It took 45 minutes before we finally had it subdued enough to lash it onto the swim step.

My two Good Samaritans jumped back aboard Smith’s boat and headed for the marina. I followed at a somewhat slower pace, weighted down by my swordy securely lashed to the swim step.

Elation, triumph, wonder and amazement cloaked in fatigue surged though my being as I headed back to the marina.

It turned out to be my largest swordfish ever landed on 50-pound tackle and it took the longest time for me to land any fish so far, nearly 14 hours.

solo fishing

It was nearly dawn when I tied up at the Mission Bay Marlin Club weigh station. Later in the morning when the Club opened, the fish was hoisted off the swimstep while a growing crowd watched. When the weigh master called out the weight to be 209-pounds, 4-ounces, friends and strangers cheered and applauded as camera shutters clicked.

gary graham

That life changing solo catch changed me from a customer in Blackman’s eyes to a fellow angler and close friend – a friendship that lasted until his death in 2004.

It also fostered a strong bond with a stranger . . . Captain Gene Grimes, who became a mentor, close friend and fishing companion. He shared his knowledge and skill, and we remained buddies, swapping stories and even fishing styles (my fly fishing) until his untimely death in 1997.

That swordy catch also introduced me to the brotherhood of big game sportfishing in Southern California and ultimately the world.

A gag gift, followed by an accidental encounter with a seldom caught fish on rod and reel, all came together to become one of many remarkable “Game Changers” that altered my life forever.

marlin club

I never dreamed the impact that fish would have on my sport fishing future. Nor did I understand that it was the beginning of a lifelong journey that continues still.

That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world record...