It was an epic battle that lasted more than eight hours and ended in dramatic fashion with a knockout blow and a huge blue marlin slipping below the surface, just 30 feet behind the boat.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, and it happened 40 years ago,” says Sunny Briggs, 73, a North Carolina boatbuilder and former charter skipper who cut his teeth at the tender age of 12 on fishing boats out of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina.
This is the story with a twist.
Let me set the stage. It was 1972 or ’73, and Briggs, who was in his 20s, was running the 42-foot charter boat Sea Fever, built by Sheldon Midgett, one of the Carolina legends. “I helped him build it, but he was the brains behind it, not me,” recalls Briggs, who learned fishing and boatbuilding from some of the best Carolina crew.
There were just three on the boat: Briggs, his mate and the client. “His name was Mel Stewart from Virginia,” Briggs says. “Red-headed guy. Real gentleman who fished with me regularly.” The angler was in his early 50s, and in all likelihood has since gone to his reward.
“We were southeast of the Diamond Tower down in Hatteras,” maybe 20 miles off the beach, remembers Briggs. “It was a cloudy day. Not what you’d call a real pretty sun-shining day. And it was, I don’t know, midmorning when we saw the fish. It was one of those classic, here he comes, and he’s all mouth, and it was an easy hook-up, double-hooked squid. And we knew we had the fish if we could outlast him. But the problem is it kept getting a little rougher and a little bit rougher. That seems to happen consistently when you hook a big fish.”
The fish gods like to tip the odds toward the fish, Briggs maintains.
“Rough days are tough on a single engine because you can’t get on the fish as quick,” says Briggs, who owns Briggs Boatworks in Wanchese. “You have to go ahead, kick your stern around and then back up. And then just as you get going where you want to go, the fish goes the opposite direction.”
The fish sounded, and thus began an exhausting 8½-hour slugfest. But the angler, captain and mate, boat and tackle were up to the challenge.
“If I remember correctly, it was like a 10/0 Penn, which I know by today’s standards is an obsolete thing, but in those days it was a great rig,” Briggs recalls. “And it probably had 130-pound on it. Probably had a 120-pound rod or 130-pound rod. The leader was 300 mono.”
Until the very end, the angler did everything he could do.
“We did get the wire — actually it was monofilament, but old fishermen still call it wire — a half-dozen times, but you couldn’t hold it unless you wanted to take a chance on breaking him,” Briggs says. “And you didn’t want to pop him after so long. You’d make a wrap, but you couldn’t get the second wrap. And if you thought you were going to get the second wrap, he’d take off and run out there 50 yards. And you could see him underwater, but you couldn’t do anything with him. He was short and fat. It was a beautiful fish. I think he was probably 850 or so.”
And even though the line and leader didn’t look frayed — nothing looked wrong — the line finally parted at the swivel knot.
“We thought we really had the fish, and then the knot broke,” says Briggs. “It was out of the water. We could see the fish. We could see the swivel. It was not 30 feet from the boat. The gentleman, he was just exhausted. You imagine eight hours on one fish. And he was sitting in a bucket harness, and he made a cardinal mistake.”
“You never, never take your left hand off the rod. Never,” Briggs says. “That’s to keep the rod from coming back at you. Well, he didn’t do that. He was so beat and worn out, he just grabbed hold of both armrests to hold on. And when the knot broke, the rod came back like a slingshot and just cracked him right between the eyes and knocked him cold as a cucumber.”
Briggs and his mate picked up the outriggers and started heading in, with Stewart out cold in the chair.
“We started steaming in about 20 or 30 minutes when he woke up and wanted to know what happened,” Briggs says. “I told him, ‘You wouldn’t believe it,’” he says, laughing at the memory. “It was a great story but a shame. The gentleman had caught quite a few blue ones with us before. He was an experienced angler. It was just a matter of hard luck. I don’t think I ever broke a knot before.”
He still ponders the knot failure.
“It almost had to be a bad knot, but I can’t imagine after eight hours it being a bad knot and breaking,” he says. “I would have thought it would have broken a long time before then. I don’t know. I’ll never know.”
One thing Briggs didn’t do is crow about the one that got away, at least not over the radio. Remember, an 800-plus blue marlin was a rare catch in those days, and skeptical colleagues would have pounced.
“You would never have made the remark on the radio because someone would have laughed at you,” Briggs says. “In Oregon Inlet lingo, they cough. If you said, ‘I got an 800-pound blue marlin on,’ you’d hear in the background, ‘cough, cough, cough.’ But you couldn’t tell who was doing it. It was just an Oregon Inlet thing.” It was their way of saying bull.
A lot of water in his wake since then, but the memory still shines in Sunny Briggs’ mind.
“The fish was lying right on top of the water,” he says. “He wasn’t over 30 feet from us. Whenever that happens, they just slowly glide down. It’s a real sickening feeling. Especially this fish, which was extremely fat. It wasn’t extremely long, but it was extremely fat. And the ones that really weigh the most are the short, fat ones. I’ll never forget it.”