In Pursuit of the Great Marlin

Last Updated on January 28, 2023 by Chris and Lindsay

It sounded like nearby highway noise. But we were miles from the nearest highway where traffic could produce that rolling, monotone hum. Or perhaps it was distant thunder. Though the early morning sky was dark and there were no signs of lightning to be seen. 

It would be another hour before I realized what it was that woke me before the alarm went off on my phone. Four-thirty is early for anybody. But it’s just barely early enough when you have plans to go offshore fishing for marlin and every minute on the water is another chance to land the dream fish. 

Lindsay and I always dreamed of fishing everywhere we traveled. We love fishing. In fact, we went fishing on a river on our first date and we were standing in waist-deep water surf fishing in the Atlantic when I asked her to marry me. Being raised in Florida helps with that sort of thing. 

But fishing is complicated when you live in your RV full time. Between being required to purchase a fishing license in every new state we visit, to learning that most of the best spots for fishing do not have roads or parking areas suitable for our 31-foot motorhome, we find ourselves taking a pass on one fishing opportunity after another. 

But not this one. 

On June 13th, Lindsay’s father passed away in his apartment in Florida. She wouldn’t find out for another few days, because his body was not discovered until a neighbor reported him missing for several days.

But when she did get the call from her aunt, her father’s closest living relative who also happened to be the closest geographically, she was standing in the employee dining room at a lodge we were managing in South Dakota. 

A few days later I dropped Lindsay off at the Rapid City Regional Airport with only a small carry-on bag in tote. We hadn’t been apart like this in years, living each day together as we’ve traveled tens of thousands of miles in our RV over the past five years.

But it was with good reason as it fell on Lindsay not only to make her peace but also to tend to the final arrangements for her father. 

The latter was a challenge because her father had no will, nor had he ever discussed his final wishes with anyone. He was only 68 years old and charging on as hard in life as he ever had. He had years left before that discussion. So he must have thought. 

The former, finding peace in the midst of grieving and loss, proved to be just as challenging. It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you love when you can’t remember the last time you spoke with them.

It’s not that their relationship was strained. It’s just that time and distance have a way to amplify themselves when you’re not intentional about remaining close to someone. 

As it turned out, Lindsay developed a relatively simple, yet deeply profound way to handle both challenges she faced in one fell swoop. She decided to have her father’s body cremated so that she could bring his ashes back to South Dakota and he would travel with us indefinitely.

One thing Lindsay and her father always did together, of which I had heard many stories from them both over our 8 years of marriage, was to take road trips. We’d give him one last epic road trip that would last the duration of Lindsay’s life. 

And to begin to process the grief, Lindsay decided she would take the only thing her father left behind, an old Acura sedan, and drive it with his ashes to join me in South Dakota. We already had plans to head back to Baja, Mexico – easily our favorite place we’ve ever traveled to together – at the end of our work season in October.

Her father’s ashes would come with us and, though we usually have to pass on opportunities to fish for one reason or another, we would hire an offshore charter boat to head out into the Pacific Ocean for Lindsay to catch and land a Great Marlin. 

Fishing, as it turned out, was the other thing that Lindsay and her father always did together. She had shown me all sorts of pictures and told stories time and again about all of the places they had gone fishing together.

In fact, she had ordered her first passport in order to be able to join her father and his brother in Cabo San Lucas to go marlin fishing. Unfortunately, that trip was delayed indefinitely as her uncle was diagnosed with cancer just days before the flight and he ended up passing away shortly thereafter. 

So we stitched together the idea that we would take Lindsay’s father on one epic road trip that would take him to our favorite place and on down to the southernmost point where he and Lindsay were supposed to go marlin fishing over a dozen years before. We’d hire a boat, head out into the deep blues of the Pacific and find that great striped marlin that had been born for this one moment. 

The plan was that Lindsay would land the Great Marlin and release it along with her father’s ashes at the place in the world where the sea stretches on to eternity. Closure in its most poetic form, a story for the ages. 

But plans always change, sometimes for better or for worse. 

A few minutes before sunrise, Lindsay and I stepped up on the battered trailer tire to board the twenty-three-foot panga that a local fisherman in Adolfo Lopez Mateo had hired out to us for the day. The trailer was hitched to what looked like the same Ford Explorer that my best friend owned in high school, with dents, scratches and rust to show its age. 

There was a flurry of excitement in the street that morning. Although three pangas manned by local fishermen had already gone out before dawn, we were the only tourists headed into the Pacific on a day that we could not yet judge from the blackened sky.

The driver made a few turns through the soft dirt streets of the town and then backed the boat into the water as the sun began to crack above a small cloudline on the horizon. 

A mixture of oranges and yellows contrasted with the deep purple and shades of blue from the early morning sky and the outlines of clouds popped as their white facade became brighter and brighter with the rising sun. 

“At least it isn’t red,” I thought, remembering the old saying about how the color of the dawn and twilight skies can impact the condition of the seas. 

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning.

Though I can’t remember whether or not, or to what extent, the sunset the night before included red hues, I can say that the red held back from the early morning sky. All was calm and peaceful as the captain fired up the engine.

The Yamaha 200-horse power outboard motor seemed excessive for the smaller size of the panga. But once it was cranked up, we powered across the flat water of Magdalena Bay as we skirted the edge of vast, brown sand dunes.

Two coyotes nodded in approval of our mission as they looked up from a fresh kill at the water’s edge to see us off. And a handful of pelicans glided past, seemingly forgetting to flap their wings, as they hovered just feet above the water next to us. 

The hum of the engine and the whipping wind made conversation impossible. But as I sat at the rear of the boat facing Lindsay I could see that she was as lost in thought as I was, enjoying the beauty of the sunrise and contemplating the moment the Great Marlin would hit the ballyhoo being dragged by thick monofilament line behind the boat. 

Moments later I realized what caused the mysterious rumble that had awakened me earlier.  The captain had slowed the engine and at idle I could hear, and now see its source. There were massive waves crashing into the shore along both sides of what we call a “cut” between the barrier islands that shielded the bay from a barrage of Pacific ocean swell. 

The swell itself, having traveled thousands of miles across the open ocean, was trying to squeeze itself between the islands through this narrow gap maybe half a mile wide. This cut was the only way water could enter the bay. And it was the only way for us to get out into the Pacific where the Great Marlin lay in awaiting its destiny. 

The cut was a turbulent sliver of water, where the swell formed into nearly ten-foot-tall waves that crashed into both adjacent shorelines. Remnants of the swell that made it through the cut slammed into the shore behind us and bounced their way back. As waves nearly ten feet tall broke on each side of us, a gentle but gigantic swell lifted us upward ten to fifteen feet between the crest and trough.

I watched the captain as he kept a calm eye on the breaking waves in front of us. I knew as much as he, that waves tend to travel in sets and soon we’d have a break in the waves. And though I learned to read waves in order to surf and he watched them to escape the surf, the reality remained that we’d get our break soon. 

The captain’s mate, who just a day before had told me the conditions were perfect for fishing and that striped marlin were abundant even this late in the season, was holding fast to the center console of the boat while filming the situation with his phone. Clearly, we were about to do something that was not very common. At least, it was rare enough that it deserved proper video documentation.

When we caught our break, the captain hit what seemed like full-throttle and we thrust and rolled our way through the cut. 

The sea was calmer once we cleared the narrow break. But the giant swell continued to roll gently through in front of us, lifting us and setting us down in regular intervals. Although Lindsay and I agreed it was great to be back on a boat in the open ocean, we were both a little concerned that the fishing conditions were not as great as we were told it would be.

The Thetis Bank, home to some of the largest gamefish on the planet, was around two hours away by the time we made our way through the swell. In the final moments, the captain’s mate began running hooks through thin and bloody ballyhoo to secure them to the lures. 

Lindsay and I looked at each other with excitement. The bigger the bait, the bigger the catch. I could see she was thinking the same as me. 

We trolled three lines from the panga – one from each side and one from the top of the center console – and I could see each of the lures slapping around the surface of the water just a hundred or so feet behind the boat. The marlin were on the top of the water lately, the captain had said. There was no need to set the lines for deeper water. 

An hour later none of the ballyhoo-baited lures had delivered the Great Marlin to Lindsay. But our hope never waned. The captain had us bring in the lines and the mate reset the bait with different lures. We added a fourth pole to the top of the center console and set two of the lines to deeper depths. Then we got back to joyriding around the Pacific. 

I can’t tell you when the top of the fishing pole slammed down toward the water. But as soon as it did Lindsay reached out and took the rod from the holder and began to crank against whatever was on the other end of the line. She was all smiles. As was I. 

When you fish in water that is hundreds of feet deep you can’t tell the size of a fish until it reaches the boat. As I looked down beneath the boat a silvery shape slashed its way from one side to the other.

Lindsay continued to crank one time after another and the shape moved closer. I couldn’t tell what it was. But I could tell that it wasn’t a marlin. It was not long and slender enough.

Still, this is the most exciting part of fishing in the ocean. You can catch nearly anything and you will not know what it is until you land it. 

The mate gaffed the first of what would turn into a five-tuna day. Pacific Yellowfin tuna can grow to several hundred pounds in the course of a few years. Ours were around 20-30 pounds each, which was more than enough for us. And each one put up a great fight that reminded us how much we loved to fish. 

But as happy as we were to find ourselves fighting one fish after another, I began to realize that the longer we hauled in tuna the less time we had for Lindsay’s Great Marlin.

The once early sun had risen overhead and was beginning its descent toward the horizon. We had a two-hour ride back to the dock. There wasn’t much time left for the marlin. 

Lindsay’s father’s ashes remained inside the bag we brought with us. And I began to wonder, would this be enough to Lindsay to honor her father? Or would she be as disappointed as I was that the day had not gone anywhere near the way we had hoped it would?

The answer to that question didn’t come until late the next day. We drove to La Paz, the capital city of Baja California Sur, and settled into a campground for hot showers and the chance to do laundry. La Paz, the “Peace,” is our favorite city of any we’ve ever visited. And it is true that we find a sense of peace there as we find nowhere else. 

It was here, overnight, that Lindsay was able to process the fishing trip from the day before. We never caught the marlin that we were told was so abundant in the waters of Magdalena Bay.

Yet Lindsay was not as disappointed as I was. In fact, as she returned from walking the dogs through the campground she opened the door and looked at me with a smile. 

“I found another way to honor my father,” she said. “And I think you’re going to like it… “

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