Boats were everywhere on opening day of Maryland’s 2015 spring trophy striped bass season. It was calm for April, warm and sunny, so even the punters in glorified jonboats were trolling safely on the Chesapeake’s big water.
Anglers by the thousands came in pursuit of the Maryland state fish. Bright stripers on the march from the sea to the spawning grounds offered locals a rare crack at 30- to 50-pounders. But the fisherman who can lay claim to being the most famous and skilled troller in the state wasn’t much interested.
Oh, he went out alone for an hour and a half in his old Bertram 35, Caribeña, but Carlos Bentos wanted to be back by 10 a.m. to watch a Barcelona Football Club match on television. At 74 and happily retired from the rat race, Bentos can do whatever he wants.
“If I can’t fish where I want to, then I don’t go,” he chuckles, decrying the crowds. Anyway, he finds the quarry lacking. “It’s a dull fish,” Bentos says of one of the most sought-after prizes of coastal fishermen from Maine to North Carolina. His words are unemotional — a matter of fact, to his mind, but blasphemous nonetheless. Really? The fish we all grew up revering is dull?
To Bentos, who 19 years ago was honored for the “most outstanding achievement in the history of the White Marlin Open” in Ocean City, Maryland, it’s an open-and-shut case. The striper doesn’t jump, doesn’t light up, rarely strikes on the surface, doesn’t fight with speed or persistence or exceptional power. Yes, it’s nice to eat, but Bentos doesn’t fish for food. He fishes for sport, and even now this lion in winter has standards. Stripers don’t make the cut.
These days Bentos is a doting grandpa who goes out on the water for fun, often for croakers and white perch with his two granddaughters. However, two decades ago he was the king of the billfishing world, a one-name wonder known by his given name alone wherever big-game fishermen gathered. In baseball there was Reggie (Jackson). Basketball had Michael (Jordan). In billfishing, there was Carlos, and he towered over the crowd.
Here’s why. In the summer of 1996, 237 boats registered for the Ocean City Marlin Club’s White Marlin Open, one of the biggest and most prestigious billfish tournaments in the world. They came from New England, the Carolinas, Florida, Bermuda, the Bahamas and points beyond in gleaming 50- and 60-footers crewed by professional captains and mates, with eager sportsmen footing the bill and wagering hundreds of thousands of dollars for a shot at the top prize.
Bentos, 55 at the time, was a curiosity in their midst. He didn’t bet the calcuttas, and he fished alone, in the same modest 35-footer he has today. Where his rivals could blast to distant fishing grounds at 25 or 30 knots, he was restricted to closer places he could reach at 15 or 20 knots.
As the visiting sportsmen lived it up at dinners and parties the night before while professional crews rigged their baits and gear, Bentos was busy rigging his own. When rival anglers slept on the run to the fishing grounds, he was up on the flybridge running his boat. And when lines went over at 8:30 a.m., it was Bentos who put them in, steadied the boat, then monitored the baits from the cockpit while running the controls.
That he did it at all — this business of single-handed billfishing — was a phenomenon unseen anywhere, and even those who thought he was nuts conceded it was an amazing feat. That he did it well was astonishing. That he might just do it better than anyone else was unthinkable. But that’s exactly what he did that year. He beat them all.
On the first day of the tournament, as Bentos recounts in his thoroughly enjoyable memoir, A Crew of One (Penguin- Putnam, 2002), he fished Poor Man’s Canyon in perfect weather. Poor Man’s is the closest canyon to Ocean City at 53 miles out, which gave him time on a fair day to make it easily from the 5:30 a.m. start to the fishing grounds by the official lines-over time of 8:30.
He put out five lines — four with ballyhoo for white marlin and one with a bigger bait for blues — but he never got a look until well after lunchtime. Bentos can take it from here in this passage from his book:
Finally, the dark, rounded and unmistakable dorsal fin of a white marlin broke the afternoon lull, slicing in two the tiny, narrow wake left by the trolled ballyhoo on the starboard side. I jumped to the rod. A second later, it was ready in my hands. I pointed its tip to the fish. The white marlin broke the surface, closing the gap between itself and the bait. I could see its dull colors changing into bright hues of electric blue as it took the bait in its mouth.
I dropped back the bait, lifting my thumb off the reel to free it. The boat went forward, and the bait and the fish stayed in the same place as the line of my reel flowed out in free spool, allowing the marlin to mangle the bait in its strong jaws. I paused while the line fled from the reel. I would feel the right time — a matter of intuition, instinct, vibrations, changes of speed. NOW! I engaged the reel, and the line tensed. I saluted the marlin in two or three hard jerks on the rod. The rod bent, and the fish, as if surprised, leapt into the air.
Over the next seven minutes Bentos fought the marlin. He reeled in any other lines in the way, maneuvered the boat, backed down to shorten the fight, got the leader to the rod tip, wired the fish, took the time to implant a tracking tag on it, which earned him an extra five tournament points, grabbed it by the bill, removed the hook and set the fish free.
That was it for Day One.
You fish three days in the White Marlin Open and can choose those three out of five. On Day Two, Bentos planned to stay in, but he couldn’t sleep when he heard the boats firing up outside his condominium. The weather was fine again, so he made a snap decision. This time he aimed for Baltimore Canyon, a little farther out.
With his late departure, he didn’t get lines over until 9:15, 45 minutes late. It was slow going. His baits didn’t get a look. He tried everything he could think of, changing baits, changing speed. At 3:15, he resorted to a desperation technique, dropping the big Caterpillar 3208s in and out of gear to slow the troll to 3 knots. It worked. At 3:20, with 10 minutes of fishing time left, a white marlin struck the port short rigger.
Bentos snatched up the rod, threw it in free spool, then noticed action on the other side of the boat. He thought the marlin had dropped the bait and moved over. No, it was a second white. (The full report of the dance that ensued is too long to excerpt here, so you’ll have to buy the book for the play-by-play.) Suffice it to say, it was a fast and furious fandango. Bentos managed to hook both fish and, while fighting them, call the committee on the VHF to report the hookups, run the boat while battling both whites to the leader, and tag and release them. To complicate matters, the second one was tail-wrapped.
The third day of the tournament was Wednesday. Bentos says he can’t remember three straight days of more glorious, settled weather, but as often happens in too-fair conditions, the fishing wasn’t good — at least not for anyone but him. Only a handful of marlin were caught the first two days. He aimed again for Baltimore Canyon, where his success the previous day had now drawn a crowd.
For once, that wasn’t a bad thing. A hint of skepticism had crept into the field. Indeed, even today, folks wonder how Bentos could have done what he said he did, all with no one around to verify. So when one marlin, then another, struck his baits at 1:30 on Wednesday and Bentos went to work on his second doubleheader in two days, he was not displeased to have witnesses close by. An Albemarle named Careless was near enough to watch. On board were Paul Kingston — tied at the time with Bentos as top angler in the tourney — and Alexis Care, the captain’s daughter, who brought along a camera and photographed the battle for verification.
Back at the dock, Bentos checked in with tournament directors Jim and Chuck Motsko, who told him that after three days, 237 of the best-manned, best-equipped billfishing teams in the nation had caught a total of 80 marlin. He was the leader by a lot, but he still had to wait two days to see if his five-fish tally and 370 tournament points would hold up atop the leader board.
Two days is a long time to wait. On Friday, the tournament’s last day, Bentos was too wired to stay still, so he took out a film crew from the Public Broadcasting System. They’d been there all week to film a marlin being caught but struck out. Bentos gave them what they needed with a single-handed catch-and-release that made their broadcast and his week complete.
Back at the dock that evening, he learned that only 118 marlin were caught in total, the biggest a 73-pounder that earned its angler $414,000. Bentos won no money — he wasn’t involved in the big-fish betting — but at the prize-giving ceremony he was the undisputed king, earning Grand Champion Angler, Captain of the Year and Mate of the Year awards. The humble Caribeña was named Top Boat. Organizers officially recognized the feat as the “most outstanding achievement in the history of the White Marlin Open.”
Bentos has a one-page printout of his billfishing achievements that shows the ’96 Open victory was no fluke. He began winning trophies and tournaments out of Ocean City in 1989 and continued through 2003, when he was named Top Angler of the Ocean City Marlin Club. But all good things must end. In 2004, he and Caribeña left Maryland for a year to help a friend develop the marlin fishery at Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas. When he returned he brought the boat to the Chesapeake, intending to take it back to Ocean City when marlin season opened, but he never got around to it. In his 60s, he didn’t fancy getting beaten and bashed on the 60- to 80-mile runs offshore, and he had other matters to attend to.
“I am now the definition of a has-been,” he says, with a laugh.
Yet even in his 70s, Bentos remains a remarkable figure, clambering up and down the flybridge ladder with ease and grace. His white Hemingway-esque beard encircles a broad, tanned, smiling face, and he greets everyone with the same booming cry: “Ameeee-go! So good to see you!”
Bentos grew up in Uruguay. He came to the United States when he was in his 20s, after breaking into South American radio as an announcer with his rich baritone. He was hired to do Spanish-language broadcasts for Voice of America and the U.S. Information Service in Washington, D.C., but he was so disappointed in the restaurant food he found that he opened his own eatery, El Caribe, in the funky neighborhood of Adams-Morgan. It was so successful that he wound up quitting his day job to open more restaurants. At one point he owned seven and employed 200 people.
The restaurant trade turned him into a solo angler by necessity. “I tell you, my friend, it’s not easy to get someone to fish with you on Mondays and Tuesdays at 4 in the morning,” he says. “So I started going by myself, and I find I like it.”
He grew up fishing the Rio de la Plata and the Rio Uruguay with his mother, catching black drum and red corvina. When he came to the States, he heard about billfish and booked a day charter out of Hatteras, North Carolina. He caught a small blue marlin on that charter — his first billfish — and so it all began.
These days, this “has-been” spends much of his time tending to two adopted granddaughters — Isabella and Alessandra, 8 and 4 — whose parents once worked for him. All five share a house outside Washington. He also helps Spanish-speaking immigrants work their way through the U.S. immigration process. “It pays well,” he says. “And I like to help people.”
In summer, you may find Bentos out on the Chesapeake with the girls, catching croakers or white perch on the bottom. The croaker, he says with a puckish grin, is a much more sporting fish than the striped bass, pound for pound.
“I tell you, my friend,” he says, “I am not finished with fishing yet. I still chase the whites and the blues, but now it’s only white perch and bluefish!”
It’s called aging gracefully, and it’s rare.