Heavyweight Fights!

Reel-screaming line-smoking battles that took these rod-holders to the very edge.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

At some point on a special day, a fight with a fish becomes more than just an effort to get it in the boat. Whether it's because of the fish's size or its determination, the act of subduing it transcends mere physical labor. The battle becomes a test of man's will to overcome whatever obstacles nature sets before him.

Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea knew that a fight with a big fish helps define a person. These fishermen know it, too. Here's how they learned.

Taking a Dive for a Marlin
It was guy harvey's idea. After almost four hours of tug-of-war with a world-record-class black marlin last January off the west coast of Panama, angler Neil Patrick decided it was time to subdue the fish, tag it and let it go. Either he or the 1,200-pound fish had to have relief, and the marlin seemed ready to fight to its death.

Harvey, a noted Florida artist who specializes in saltwater fish portraits and is host of the television series Portraits From the Deep, offered a solution. Although Patrick had not been able to coax the marlin close enough to tag it, the 15-foot leader was practically within reach.

As Harvey saw it, all he had to do was put on his scuba gear, dive into the water, hook the line from another fighting rig to the swivel of the leader and give Patrick some help by double-teaming the marlin with two rods. The plan would eliminate world-record consideration, but it was in the best interest of the giant marlin if it was to survive.

Despite improbable odds, Harvey's plan was set in motion. He was aboard another boat, where he and his fishing buddy Bill Shedd made ready to join the fray. Patrick was battling the marlin with a 50-pound-class outfit, which was a bit like taking a knife to a gunfight. At least Shedd was equipped with a stouter 80-pound-class setup. The skipper of the boat on which Harvey and Shedd were fishing eased closer to Patrick's boat. Shedd and a mate leaped into its cockpit.

Harvey went under the boat for a look. Swimming back topside, he instructed a boat mate to hand him the running line of Shedd's rig. He then followed Patrick's line down some 40 feet deep, where he would attempt to attach the snap swivel of Shedd's line to the swivel that connected Patrick's line with his leader. All the while, Harvey had to keep a wary eye on the enraged marlin and swim fast enough to keep up with the boats. It took seven attempts, but he finally accomplished his mission.

Thirty minutes later Shedd and Patrick had the marlin boatside. A mate attached a tracking tag high on its back before another mate cut the leader.

Shedd, president of the American Fishing Tackle Company (AFTCO), can't say what impressed him more, the size of the fish or Harvey's intervention.

[pagebreak] "There's no doubt in our minds that the marlin would have been a record, and it put up an awesome fight," says Shedd, of Irvine, Calif. "But Guy doing what he did to help ensure that the fish could be tagged and released was really something special. It's hard enough to attach a leader to a line in a moving boat without having a fish on, but doing it underwater in the middle of a fight like that is just phenomenal."

Incidentally, the 50-pound-class world record for black marlin is 1,124 pounds. Patrick, an Australian who has caught other "granders," figured the black he fought weighed more than 1,200 pounds. Everyone else who was there agrees. And that's not just a fish story. Harvey, Patrick and Shedd are among the 21 members who compose the board of trustees of the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the registrar of world records for freshwater and saltwater fish.

The Log That Moved
tim pruitt, his wife, Carla, and their friend Tony Pfeiffer had been fishing the Mississippi River since 6 o'clock on the evening of May 21, 2005. By 11:30 they ha't had so much as a nibble. Lightning was beginning to flash, and the rumble of distant thunder grew louder. It was time to go, Pruitt decided; the catfish weren't biting anyway.

Just as the Illinois angler was about to reel in the last line, baited with the forward section of a foot-long skipjack herring, the rod tip suddenly began to arch under the weight of a steady pull. "I grabbed the rod and felt for a fish," says Pruitt, who lives in Alton. "My first thought was that I had snagged a log. The current was really rolling. But then the log moved."

Pruitt instantly realized two things when he set the Gamakatsu 10/0 Octopus hook: The log was indeed a fish, and it was huge.

"I must have hit a nerve in the catfish's mouth when I set the hook because it ripped off a hundred yards of line before we could get the anchor up, crank the motor and go after it," remembers Pruitt. "All I could do was hang on. When it decided to go, it went." Pruitt, whose bait-casting outfit was loaded with 40-pound-test line, fought the fish for almost 45 minutes, until a quarter past midnight. When he and Pfeiffer tried to net it, the catfish was so heavy it broke the handle.

The anglers then manhandled the fish into the boat as best they could and headed for the nearest set of certified scales. The blue catfish weighed 124 pounds, or 2½ pounds more than the previous world record, caught in Lake Texoma, Texas, in early 2004. The IGFA has since certified Pruitt's fish as the new world record.

Pruitt wasn't exactly surprised that he caught such a fish, because that's all he goes after. His previous heaviest blue weighed 95 pounds.

[pagebreak] "You can catch catfish any time of day, but I'm not just interested in catching catfish; I'm interested in catching the biggest," says Pruitt. "That's why I almost always fish at night, especially in the summer. That's when the biggest blues like to come out and play."

Just as Pruitt's father and grandfather taught him how to fish, Pruitt is teaching his 12-year-old son Brian how to lure big whiskerheads. This fall, Brian hauled in a 55-pound blue catfish while night-fishing with his dad.

The Fight of His Life
flyfishing legend billy Pate has set several saltwater records, including the previous world-record tarpon of 188 pounds. He was the first flyfisherman to catch a blue marlin, too. But the fish he remembers best, and the one that is still talked about around the docks at Homosassa, Fla., was a tarpon that didn't set any records.

Pate, of Islamorada, Fla., encountered the fish that gained him more fame than any other on a spring morning in May 1991. Pate usually fished the flats near the mouth of the Homosassa River on Florida's west coast with a guide or a friend. This day, the guide couldn't go, so Pate fished by himself.

After making the short run to the fishing grounds, Pate saw that guides and their clients were fighting tarpon just outside the river's mouth. He gave them a wide berth and came in south of the armada of fishing boats. Killing his engine, Pate watched the action from a distance and noticed that the other boats were getting closer. He could tell by the way the flyfishermen were casting that tarpon were moving toward him. No sooner had he climbed into the forward casting platform of his boat than Pate saw the shadows of a dozen or more tarpon sliding through the shallows within casting distance.

"I always like to cast to the biggest tarpon in the bunch, and in this case it was the lead fish," recalls Pate, who dropped a 5-inch tarpon streamer in front of the school.

Immediately, the foremost tarpon swirled on the fly and inhaled it. Pate reared back on his heavy rod and the fish went airborne. Though it wasn't long, the tarpon looked bigger around than a beer barrel. As it fell back to the water, Pate began to wonder if he had bitten off more than he could chew.

Guides and anglers in the nearby boats quickly saw that Pate was tethered to a tarpon that he couldn't hope to beat by himself. In fact, Pate had no intention of boating the fish until he saw it leap for the first time.

"I thought it might be a record. It looked every bit as big as my world record at the time [BRACKET "188 pounds"]," recalls Pate. "So I decided, 'What the heck, I'll just see how it goes and if I can get it in the boat somehow, I will.'"

Pate, who controls his flats boat with two electric trolling motors mounted on either side, managed to keep up with the tarpon as it towed him to sea. Luckily, the fish turned and headed back toward shore. The other boats gave Pate a wide berth, and the tarpon eventually played itself out with a series of prodigious leaps and runs. Three hours into the fight, Pate had the fish on its side. His rod was bowed like an arch, but the angler managed to hold onto the tarpon while he retrieved a lip gaff from under the front deck.

[pagebreak] Pate was convinced he had a new world record and that he needed to weigh the tarpon on certified scales. To do that, of course, he had to boat it. "I thought, 'How in the world am I going to get this tarpon in over the side by myself? It would be tough enough with two men,'" says Pate. "I looked over my shoulder and saw that one of the guides was coming toward me as fast as he could go, but he was still a ways off. Without waiting, I put both my hands on the gaff handle, planted my foot against the gunwale and pulled. About the same time, the tarpon got its second wind and rushed forward-right into the boat."

Pate figures that he's fought more than 5,000 tarpon during his fishing career. He estimates that "ninety-nine point nine percent of them swam away to fight again." Not this one; he had to dispatch the tarpon with a billy club. By then, the helpful guide had arrived.

"We measured the tarpon's girth and it was forty-four inches. My world record was forty-three inches around, so that was good," says Pate. "But it was several inches shorter than my record, and I knew that was going to hurt."

Back at the dock, the tarpon was hoisted on the scales. It weighed 173 pounds-no record, but still quite a catch for a solo angler.

"I've never been prouder of any fish than I was of that tarpon," says Pate. "When it was over with, after we'd weighed it and everybody had drifted off and I was headed home in my boat, I thought to myself, 'Now, that was really something.'"

Too Tough to Quit
louie spray was a stubborn man, even by Wisconsin standards, and he might never had had his run-in with "Chin Whiskered Charlie" had it not been for Cal Johnson. Spray was a native son of Hayward, Wis., before it earned the well-deserved designation as the Muskie Capitaltten off more than he could chew.

Guides and anglers in the nearby boats quickly saw that Pate was tethered to a tarpon that he couldn't hope to beat by himself. In fact, Pate had no intention of boating the fish until he saw it leap for the first time.

"I thought it might be a record. It looked every bit as big as my world record at the time [BRACKET "188 pounds"]," recalls Pate. "So I decided, 'What the heck, I'll just see how it goes and if I can get it in the boat somehow, I will.'"

Pate, who controls his flats boat with two electric trolling motors mounted on either side, managed to keep up with the tarpon as it towed him to sea. Luckily, the fish turned and headed back toward shore. The other boats gave Pate a wide berth, and the tarpon eventually played itself out with a series of prodigious leaps and runs. Three hours into the fight, Pate had the fish on its side. His rod was bowed like an arch, but the angler managed to hold onto the tarpon while he retrieved a lip gaff from under the front deck.

[pagebreak] Pate was convinced he had a new world record and that he needed to weigh the tarpon on certified scales. To do that, of course, he had to boat it. "I thought, 'How in the world am I going to get this tarpon in over the side by myself? It would be tough enough with two men,'" says Pate. "I looked over my shoulder and saw that one of the guides was coming toward me as fast as he could go, but he was still a ways off. Without waiting, I put both my hands on the gaff handle, planted my foot against the gunwale and pulled. About the same time, the tarpon got its second wind and rushed forward-right into the boat."

Pate figures that he's fought more than 5,000 tarpon during his fishing career. He estimates that "ninety-nine point nine percent of them swam away to fight again." Not this one; he had to dispatch the tarpon with a billy club. By then, the helpful guide had arrived.

"We measured the tarpon's girth and it was forty-four inches. My world record was forty-three inches around, so that was good," says Pate. "But it was several inches shorter than my record, and I knew that was going to hurt."

Back at the dock, the tarpon was hoisted on the scales. It weighed 173 pounds-no record, but still quite a catch for a solo angler.

"I've never been prouder of any fish than I was of that tarpon," says Pate. "When it was over with, after we'd weighed it and everybody had drifted off and I was headed home in my boat, I thought to myself, 'Now, that was really something.'"

Too Tough to Quit
louie spray was a stubborn man, even by Wisconsin standards, and he might never had had his run-in with "Chin Whiskered Charlie" had it not been for Cal Johnson. Spray was a native son of Hayward, Wis., before it earned the well-deserved designation as the Muskie Capital