Photos by Tom Spencer

The waking hour is early, just after 4 a.m. Only those who work with their hands rise at these hours.

Darkness lingers over the dock as the bridge-mounted floodlights click on, illuminating the cockpit in a blinding glow that bounces off the fiberglass. The coffee pot hisses, bubbling hot water onto the grounds. The deckhand’s mind, however, focuses on different grounds. The continental shelf. The Gulf Stream. The offshore grounds.

The captain is still snoring in his berth as the mate moves by muscle memory. The young man’s body is fatigued from the long day yesterday. They found the bite. The reports were on the money, and the blue marlin chewed. Today, he hopes, will be even better.

The mate leaders a big marlin.

The mate leaders a big marlin.

Coffee is consumed, and frozen bait is removed from the freezer. Today the sportfisherman will pull two dredges. The three-armed teasers resemble big balls of bait trailing the boat. Most days the crew loads the dredge arms with plastic squids and black mud-flap cutouts in the shape of small tuna. Not today.

This is tournament day, and the dredges will hold split-tail mullet and ballyhoo on pin rigs. They’ll also pull naked ballyhoo off the long riggers, with pitch baits ready to drop back to marlin that appear behind the dredges and bridge teasers. The pitch baits are bigger — Spanish mackerel, skipjacks and horse ballyhoo, some naked and some rigged behind chugger heads with circle hooks front and center. The mate’s hands will rig hundreds of baits before the day ends, relying on a mishmash of sewing skills, knot tying and dissection work that would make his high school biology teacher proud.

Leftover baits from the previous day were packed with salt and placed on an aluminum tray that rests atop the ice in the bait cooler. You know the bait cooler when you open the lid. The odor is strong, but the baits are a thing of beauty. He inspects them closely, squeezing their flesh, determining the softness of the bait. Only the best will do. This is not the time to cut corners. Tournament buy-ins are hefty in the Carolinas, and the boss is bringing along some high-rollers. There is no room for error.

The captain emerges from the saloon, grumbles a good morning and ascends the rungs to the bridge. The engines fire, and black plumes of exhaust tornado into the still morning. The owner shows up, having slept on land, his entourage looking more dead than alive. They slap the mate on the shoulders as he extends a hand to help them aboard. One of the guests hands the mate a paper sack with a warm sausage, egg and cheese sandwich.

It’s a 60-mile run to the canyons. The guests sleep. The captain plots the course and works the radio, gaining intel, talking with his network about water temperatures and currents. The mate preps the baits, removing eyeballs, clipping the beaks off the ballyhoo, squeezing out the innards and snapping the backbones so the baits move as freely as snakes. A beer coozie filled with chin weights rests in a cup holder on the rocket launcher. A spool of rigging floss lies next to the lead beads, needles sticking out of the top. Shears, bait knife, crimper and hooks are within arm’s reach from an overturned bucket that serves as the mate’s office chair.

Rigging baits is one of the mate’s most important jobs, as tournament success depends heavily on proper presentation.

Rigging baits is one of the mate’s most important jobs, as tournament success depends heavily on proper presentation.

Two hours until lines-in. The salt stings the cracks in the young man’s hands as he tightens down the gills of another bait with an overhand knot so the ballyhoo will run straight and not spin like a prop. The baits are lined up in the cooler. He hangs a couple-dozen premade leaders by slipping the hooks over the tension rod of the fighting chair about a foot from the cooler so anglers can grab a leader and a bait quickly if the mate is busy. Efficiency is key. Double-headers will carry the team up the leaderboard. A triple-header could win it all.

One hour until the lines go in. The trolling rods are placed in position, the drags having been set at the dock. Extra rods are handed up to the captain. The dredges are connected to large electric reels and placed on the deck. Leaders find their way onto swivels; baits rest on the gunwales.

Thirty minutes until fishing begins. The sun crests the horizon, and anglers roll out into the warming day. The once quiet deck is filled with chatter, smack talk and hopes. Someone says a prayer while another person throws money into the water for luck. The captain makes a final move and slows the boat to trolling speed. This is the spot.

The lines-in call comes over the VHF radio. “Put ’em in, boys,” the captain hollers, then looks up to the heavens, mumbles a few words and traces a cross on his chest.

The waiting game begins once rigs are in the water, followed by choreographed chaos once there is a hookup.

The waiting game begins once rigs are in the water, followed by choreographed chaos once there is a hookup.

The baits swim perfectly. The dredge looks so good that it fakes out the captain for a second, but the morning bite eludes them. The adrenaline of dawn meanders away. The drone of the engines makes eyelids heavy until the line in the long rigger snaps free and a reel zings to life as a mystery fish pulls drag. The angler grabs the rod and pulls it from the holder.

“I didn’t see it,” the captain says. The line stops pulling. The angler reels it in. The captain begins a wide, arcing turn. Nothing doing.

The mate sees a blue flash behind a dredge. “Left flat!” he yells and hands the owner a rod with a Spanish mackerel pitch bait.

“Get ready, boys!” the captain yells as the marlin moves through the spread. The boss drops the big pitch bait into the water, lets it drift back behind the prop wash and holds it in place just past the teasers with his thumb, the reel in free-spool. The marlin attacks from left to right. The water erupts; foam flies. A head-on collision. The boss keeps his cool and lets the big blue swim off for a solid nine seconds before he slides the drag lever to strike. The mate holds his breath. Please come tight, he thinks.

A hot marlin lights up on a blistering run.

A hot marlin lights up on a blistering run.

“Hooked up!” the owner yells. The entourage hoots and hollers, and the madness begins. The blue marlin leaps in a frenzy. The fish shakes its head wildly, trying to unbutton the bait, but the circle hook holds steady, clinging to the corner of its jaw. The owner, who can fish with the best of them, moves to the fighting chair and keeps steady pressure on the fish. The captain spins the boat, helping him gain line.

The tournament purse and a deckhand’s reputation are at stake when a big fish comes alongside.

The tournament purse and a deckhand’s reputation are at stake when a big fish comes alongside.

“Double line!” the mate yells as the first knot crests the tip-top guide on the rod. He pulls on his wiring gloves, itching to grab the leader as he sees it pop through the surface waves. He reaches out and gets a grip, keeping his center of gravity low. The first wraps come easy. The fish launches just off the transom. It’s 500 pounds, all day. He holds tight and regains control. The fish shakes its head, and the mate takes another wrap, moving closer to the fish. Endorphins rage through his body. His muscles tighten. The fish is caught. Phones come out to record videos and photos, but nothing can accurately capture the way the mate feels, knowing that his baits, knots and rigging all held.

Now for another one.  

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