I never knew Jerry Lewis very well, and only met him a few times over the years. I certainly knew his boat, the 50′ Hatteras “Sassy Cissy.” Many years back I installed a 90 gallon bait tank in her cockpit, and was impressed with both the boat, and its owner. The boat had a reputation in my eyes as always being on the marlin, and having a bunch of smiling, laughing guys on board wherever she went. I never dreamt I’d one day have the honor of leading the “Sassy Cissy’ to a tournament victory. Turns out, the tournament was originally started started by Jerry Lewis, who passed away just this last February.
It seems there was always the same group on the “Sassy Cissy”, and when Jerry passed and the boat went up for sale, two of that group joined in a partnership to buy the boat. Spike has years of experience owning several boats, and had traveled the West Coast with Jerry on the ‘Sassy Cissy”. Denny was the unofficial engineer on the boat over the years, and knew every system on her intimately. Together they formed a good team, with Denny keeping a close eye on the systems and Spike more comfortable running the boat. The third member of our team Dennis, fished the “Sassy Cissy” many times over the years, and has his own boat in Hawaii. Dennis is a marlin aficionado and marlin jigs are the name of the game for him. Almost as OCD as I am about leaders, hook sharpness and jig effectiveness, he took over the duties in “the pit” to the point where I had no say whatsoever. I was not even allowed to wind his leaders at the end of the day, because he winds them a certain way and I was doing it wrong.
So you ask “why the hell were you even there at all Captain Jeff?” Well, I began to wonder the same thing myself before the tournament even started. I had no business setting the jigs, or even in the engine room. When it was time to get on the mooring, I was the guy pulling the dirty, mussel covered rope down the rail, not running the boat. I was truly out of my element. I tied the leaders and bimini twists on the bait rods, and even that led to a bout with frustration as I was told what swivels to use, and not to use. Honestly, I considered jumping ship. Some of the best marlin fishermen in the whole world have been humbled in So. Cal waters, where I have scores of marlin under my belt as a Captain, crew member, and angler. I figured I’d either have to concede to be the “boat ho”, or earn the respect I felt I deserved. I’m glad I chose the latter, and we came away with a victory in the end.
I got up at dawn on day one and cleaned up my sleeping area on the bridge. (I always sleep on the bridge) I went down to use the head and found the entire crew asleep, still. Not good. I watched as every boat in our tournament left long before we were even close to ready. Even the harbor master came by in the red harbor patrol boat, tapping his watch as if to say “c’mon guys, you’re late.”
I was dying inside, but had to keep my mouth shut. Hair was brushed, and faces shaved, all long before we started the engines and dropped the mooring lines. I cannot express the doom I felt at this point. Once out of the harbor, Spike presented me with a schedule where we would rotate position every 30 minutes. I was flabbergasted, but agreed because “that’s how we’ve always done it when Jerry was alive.”
We ran down the ridge and right into the rising sun. Not exactly the best way to spot a sleeper. Everytime I got the wheel in the rotation I would point the bow away from any other boats and away from the sunlit waters that were so blinding, and every time I rotated off the wheel the bow went right back at the sun and other boats. While at the wheel I would think out loud. “We gotta get the sun at our back so we can see the marlin, and keep an eye on the temp gauge so I can save the breaks on the GPS.” Well, at some point the rotation dissolved and we took the positions we were all comfortable with. Dennis was running the jigs like a madman, checking them for kelp and eel grass every 5 minutes or so, with Spike helping him and watching the jigs for signs of a marlin. Denny sat by the bait rod, ready for a dropback if any rod got even a tap. I was at the helm, glassing and watching the meter for signs of life.
At one point Spike came up and helped me look for birds and life, and I spotted a batch of feeders, not far from the East End of Catalina. A smaller, faster boat was closer to the fish, and saw the same thing. We had no chance on getting on the feeders before it was too late, but it was a sign that we were in the right area. Not long after that we came upon a sharp edge that showed like a glassy highway running through the sea. I pointed it out to Spike, and watched to see if the temp changed. It did not. We had come into cooler, more offcolor water that was full of bait and had birds flying in every direction. As soon as we crossed the break, we got bit on the port corner short on an old 7 Strand Petrolero. Dennis was swimming the jig on the front of the first wave, closer to the boat than I have ever run a marlin jig. Denny looked at the bent rod, stunned. Dennis reminded him to drop back the bait, and when he did it was an instant bite.
I watched in horror as Denny set the hook like something out of an old marlin video from the 70’s. Four hard pumps with the rod, I cringed. We were informed just the night before, at the captains meeting, that we had to fish with circle hooks. I had retied all our marlin bait casters with circle hooks the club provided in our “team bag”. That is not exactly how to set the hook with a circle hook, but the marlin took off and jumped several times, obviously not getting off any time soon.
I had left the boat in gear the entire time to keep the jig lines straight, and make sure that whatever marlin we had looking at our spread did not lose interest. As soon as the fish started jumping up the starboard side, Denny yelled “chase this damn fish Jeff!” So I spun the boat and began to get on it with the bow pointed straight at the fish. Dennis and Spike cleared the rest of the jig lines, then Dennis came up to give me a “pep talk”. He said “why aren’t you backing down? Chase the line, not the fish man.” I replied simply “I got this.” If I had backed down on the fish, I would have wrapped the jig lines in the props, and boats are meant to go pointy end first. Denny stood at the starboard side gunnel and I stared at his rod tip to see where exactly I needed to be. 3 minutes into the fight, the fish settled down and started to tack up what little swell there was. I spun the boat and kept Denny on the starboard corner where I could see him, and the rod. We backed slowly, gaining line the entire time. As the fish would rise to jump, I would hit the throttles to compensate for the extra pull on the line, Denny our angler is 82 after all.
The fish began to fight deep, something not typical of a fish hooked in the corner of the mouth with a circle hook. I expected to have a shot at 5 minutes, but we were now at twenty minutes. I began to worry about knots and tackle failure, as time is your worst enemy on a marlin with just 90# flourocarbon in its mouth, rubbing on the course bill. Dennis invited me several times to join him in the cockpit at the lower controls, so I could help him leader the fish. Thing was, the fish was deep under the swim step, and only I could see the fish from the bridge helm. As soon as the fish showed signs of tiring and coming up, I made the move to the pit, and put on a pair of gloves. At the end, the fish just plain gave up and began to get sucked into the props as its tail was on the centerline aft, and I had the engines in gear at idle. I pulled the boat out of gear, and the fish laid there, exhausted. I took the leader from Dennis and grabbed the bill of the fish, looking for the circle hook in the corners of its mouth. Not there? It was gut hooked, and Dennis gave the leader a light tug and broke the line at the mouth of the marlin. Close!
Dennis put the starboard engine in gear and I began to try and revive the tired marlin. Over the port gunnel I could not reach down far enough to get the entire mouth of the fish in the water where it needed to be, so we switch to me laying on the swim step, face to face with a fish that has a spear on its nose. That was a first for me, but all went well. After what seemed like an eternity, the color came back to the fish, and so did its kick. I let go, pushing down so as not to get a face full of marlin bill. The fish turned and swam down to freedom, and to fight another day.
For the rest of that day, and most of the next, we looked hard to find another marlin. I listened carefully to the VHF for any other marlin hookups in our tournament, but none ever came. At 3:30 on Saturday we pulled in our lines, victorious. I showered and put on some clean clothes, almost as tired as the marlin we’d released the day before.
At the Catalina Yacht Club we met the rest of the tournament participants on the porch, and waited eagerly for our traditional swordfish dinner and awards ceremony.
I was congratulated by some of the best So Cal marlin fishermen around, and tried my best to be humble and hold back the incredible urge to grin. My teammates decided to stroll into town and I chose to call it a day, heading back to the “Sassy Cissy”. I called my wife Shari, and I knew I could tell her exactly how excited I really was without her thinking I was being pompus.
The next morning I went into the salon and I was told that the team had made a decision and I had no choice but to agree. They want me back to run the boat again next year. Had they asked me before we caught the marlin, I would have declined. Now it seemed we all knew our place on the team, and at least a little of the respect I feel I deserve had been earned. “To next year!” We all shook hands and the deal was made. I think I might ask for a raise.