"You want some water?"
Captain Pete asked me the question as he started back up the ladder to the flying bridge. He had to keep the customers happy. I wasn't even sure if he was talking to me. I had hoped he was. I wanted water. But to drink it, I thought, I'd have to take at least one hand off this damn fiberglass rod.
"And which hand would it be," I asked myself outloud, "the one you'll need any minute to haul in more on the reel, or the one you're using to keep the captain's cheap rod from being pulled out of your lap, overboard?"
Pete thought of everything I wouldn't have. He had one of those squeeze bottles with a feeder tube, like the ones only boxers used to use. I opened my mouth and the water hit the back of my throat and I swallowed. I pulled my head away to the right as I felt I was drowning and Pete took the squeeze bottle back up the bridge with him. The water had been cool, not cold, and just what I needed.
"If you'd had a marlin, we'd throw a wet towel on you," Pete said, laughing over his shoulder from the helm on his elevated, swaying bridge. "Just like ol' what’s-his-name. 'Course, you can't have a marlin this early, and the sun's barely out."
I heard his swivel chair creek behind and above me and I felt him watching over my shoulder, staring the same direction I'd been staring since the now down-angled line had slipped from its clothes pin on the outrigger and peeled from the old Penn reel on the cheap fiberglass rod. The rod was cheap only in quality. I'm sure if it had gone overboard, it would have cost me a fair amount. As it was, my ride in the open water was probably nearly enough to rent a boat myself for a month.
"What d'you think I've got," I asked Pete, following the taut line down into the green-gray water and as far back behind us as I could guess a hundred and fifty feet of line might stretch.
"No tellin' until you haul him in," Pete said. He was sipping something on his bridge. Probably some of the beer I'd brought.
"I've been trying."
"I know," Pete said. "I just pray to God you don't get so damn anxious and excited the minute he slacks that you start reeling in like a hungry kid. If that fish - or sand bar, or whatever it is you've hooked into - spits that hook with the tension you've got on it, any one of us could be in a world of hurt come next mornin'."
The rod felt ready to whip the line on board any minute. Pete wasn't kidding. The fish, or whatever it was pulling in the opposite direction, took the ballyhoo we used for bait more than an hour before. I happened to be sitting in the fighting chair, staring into the waters off Key West, thinking of how much the fishing excursion was costing me, how much my hotel room was costing me, this being Easter Break, and of how little I was learning about my craft when the clothespin on the outrigger clicked and the weighted deep-line began running out with a sound like a sewing machine on overdrive.
Pete's first mate, Gary, grabbed the rod out of its socket on the gunwale of the old, teak-trimmed cabin cruiser and started reeling in and adding drag and muscled the rod over to my chair, putting the rod butt into its holder right between my legs and saying: "this one's yours."
There were two others on board, a young father and his son. Both were seasick. Pete was already talking about putting in only a half-day and refunding us some money when whatever it was struck the ballyhoo.
I had dreamed of this moment for years, except I wanted marlin - the only deep-sea fish I'd ever heard of besides a shark - and no marlin was out in those waters that early. But the rod was in my hands, and I was hunting fish.
Both my shoulders felt dry, stiff, ready to snap as the line, despite my best efforts, kept slowly unwinding from the Penn reel. Gary the mate had warned us earlier that when we got a fish, we'd better not have the drag too tight or the line might break.
So it was me and whatever wanted to get away. A tug-of-war with a reel that had a handle like a flour cutter, a rod that looked too fragile for its job, a line that looked like something out of a fiber optics lab, and whatever was way down and back there, far back there in the green-gray sea.
I had read about it. I had prepared for it. I had a friend who had pulled a striped marlin out of the waters off the Great Barrier Reef -- she sent me a post card -- and I was determined to do no less. I knew it might be like this, holding a rod, hauling in, pulling in a fish like bringing up a load of bricks with a hand-crank reel. I did push-ups. I did sit-ups. I ran, to get the lungs ready for the strain. I worked my back, carrying packs, until I thought I was ready.
When I made the walk down to Garrison Bight Marina, I chose a boat that had no fancy fish finder, just a sea-smart captain. A boat that wasn't the fastest, that had older, less wieldy equipment, so I'd know I had hauled in the fish, not sat there while a bunch of pulleys did my work.
But my vacation time came before the marlin started running, and I was not ready. I knew that now. I learned it the first time I took in line, my wrist tiring after the second turn, my forearms bulging, getting stiff as I pushed the crank up, pulled back, and pushed out on the reel.
And this, the holding the fish, not losing too much line, this was the real test. I felt as if I had long since stopped sweating. My eyes were almost blind with salt and staring. The worst part was knowing that this could go on, and I could still lose the fish, or find it was something small, light and smart that had taken my bait, tied up my line and long since departed, leaving the reel only with the drifting of Captain Pete's boat.
My neck hurt. I had a headache. My arms held the rod as if my body were in shock. I felt no power left in my shoulders. My feet pressed against the white lowered stern of Pete's twin-diesel cruiser, leaving marks from the soles of my old running shoes.
Then the rod felt light.
"Reel in! Reel in!"
Gary the mate rushed up to my seat in case I needed help and I cranked the reel, up and toward me and down and away, up, in, down, away, over and over and faster and cleaner and this shadow under the now blue-green getting closer and looking long and me deciding to lean forward to see what the hell had given me such a fight, half-thinking it might be a marlin, and the rod sprang toward me, hitting my chest. Then came the sound of air ripping and water falling and a whipping past my head and up and clinking and tension on the line again. The three-inch hook caught the strut of the canopy of the flying bridge and rested there.
Causes Terin Miller Supports
Civil and Human Rights.
Amnesty International; March of Dimes; Operation Smile; Medicines Sin Fronteras; UNICEF