They're Just a Marvel : Fishing: The unpredictability of marlin makes them a big favorite with anglers and a big challenge in annual West Coast competition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After long hours on an open sea, the wind in his face and a chill in his bones, Bob King had had enough.

"We'll cover this area, then try the Avalon Bank and then the 14-mile bank," he said of a course that would eventually lead back to the mainland. "Then we'll go back to Newport."

The day was not yet over, but those aboard the 47-foot Davis sportfisher, even though warm and snug in the cabin below, would not argue with King's plan to return early. They, too, had grown tired of scouring a sea whipped by an unseasonably cold wind.

"This is summer!" one of the fishermen uttered in disbelief.

The search for marlin had been fruitless, not only for King and his group, but for most teams competing in the West Coast Marlin Shootout, a yearly competition that at this point was mostly droning on to the tune of diesel engines.

"You know what they say about marlin fishing, don't you?" King asked. "Hours and hours of boredom, punctuated by a few moments of sheer panic."

King, 61, said that isn't always the case. Sometimes the panic comes sooner. Otherwise, the Newport Beach yacht-broker wouldn't have stuck with the sport for the past 35 years, during which he has caught 100 marlin.

But prospects on this day were dim. There were no birds feeding and few signs of life in the water--no marlin tailing downswell, no feeders feeding.

King had turned the yacht toward the mainland, away from the area known as "the slide," a barren slope rising steep and high on Catalina's east end, and was nearing the Avalon Bank, a popular spot outside Avalon.

Suddenly, the clouds parted and gave way to brilliant sunshine. The ocean flattened and turned a deep blue. Sunlight spilled glittering gold across the water.

The VHF radio, mostly silent to this point, came alive.

"We've got a hookup," a voice said, giving the angler's name, time of day and location.

The slide was suddenly a hub of activity. Another hookup was reported, then another.

"So much for my plan," King said, turning the sportfisher about. "I guess we're going to stick it out, after all."

By the time the boat was close to the slide, there were at least 30 others trolling the waters nearby, and more on the way. Two other tournaments were also in progress.

Gulls and terns were searching frantically for bait fish, which, when frightened by predators, flutter across the surface in a collective panic.

One marlin jumped and splashed down just off the port bow of the sportfisher, but attempts to lure it were futile.

The ocean had come alive, but time had run out, too.

It was 4:30 p.m., and Wanda Kipper, tournament chairwoman, ordered all lines in. Fishing would resume the next day, which turned out to be much the same as the first.

A dozen marlin were caught and released during the two-day event, which raised $15,000 for the American Cancer Society. Fishermen aboard Pacifica Yachts of Costa Mesa won with six marlin worth 900 points, points being awarded according to the length of the fight.

Striped marlin are found throughout the Pacific, from Southern California to the Hawaiian Islands and seas of Japan, in the South and Indo-Pacific oceans, as well as the Indian Ocean.

They generally make their way up the Baja coast and into local waters--in blue water around the Channel Islands, offshore banks and high spots--in late summer and stay through much of fall.

In Southern California, the sport has a tremendous history, dating back to Aug. 28, 1903, when Edward Llewellyn of Los Angeles caught the first marlin on rod and reel--a 125-pound fish he and his colleagues called a marlin spikefish.

Llewellyn was a member of the then-fledgling Avalon Tuna Club, members of which were after the giant blue-fin tuna that were common in the waters around the Channel Islands.

Another was taken in 1905, and another in 1908. There were nine caught in 1909, the largest a 339-pounder.

"Then they caught on," said Charlie Davis, an author-fisherman who caught his first marlin in the 1940s. Tuna Club members caught 100 marlin in 1912 and the count grew to 223 in 1929.

The legendary Zane Grey, author, outdoorsman and Tuna Club member, used to fish local waters extensively in search of large game fish--and he found plenty of marlin and swordfish.

By 1937, Grey held 10 all-tackle world records, one of them being the first 1,000-pound marlin caught on rod and reel, although that one was not taken in local waters. He was said to have hooked more than 100 swordfish in one year, many of those around the Channel Islands.

In 1925, he wrote of an unsuccessful 12-hour battle with a swordfish that he estimated to have exceeded 1,000 pounds. The giant broadbill, 11 1/2 hours into the fight, surfaced during the night to feed on a school of flying fish, seemingly unaware that it had even been hooked.

Zane's son, Loren, said he and his father once caught and released 12 marlin in one day near San Clemente Island.

Bill Pigg, a Tuna Club member for more than 40 years, said that he used to see schools of more than 100 marlin in the waters off Santa Barbara Island.

In 1961, Ruth De Lamar of the Balboa Angling Club, caught a 329-pound striper that, for a while, stood as a world record. In 1956, Ardelle Chambers of Chula Vista caught a 276 1/2-pound striper 14 miles off the Coronado Islands, just south of the Mexican border.

Big game was providing big thrills just off the Southern California coast--and it still is.

The prestigious Balboa Angling Club and Avalon weigh station reported historic highs last season. BAC members weighed 158 marlin and the club recorded 549 more that were either tagged and released or just released. Rosie Cadman at Avalon reported 393 other stripers.

"Last year, they were in droves right out in front of Avalon, right on the Avalon Bank for a long time," Davis said. "We were catching fish while dodging the buoys they have for shrimp traps out there."

Karl Kogler of Costa Mesa caught 38 stripers aboard his 25-foot boat last season and said one of the reasons people are catching more fish is that more people are fishing for them, especially aboard smaller--and cheaper--boats.

"Most of the normal people I know can't afford big boats," Kogler said. "We fish them in what we can and the small boats--they're faster to the feeders (marlin feeding on the surface), they're cheaper to run. . . . Your average working man can afford to buy one. The maintenance, the running (costs), everything's cheaper."

A large yacht can burn 500 gallons of fuel in just a few days.

"We only burn a couple of gallons an hour when we're trolling," Kogler said. "So it's affordable for us."

Kogler, 35, won awards from the Balboa Angling Club last season for the first marlin of the season--caught July 14--and the last, taken Nov. 17.

"We ended up baiting a fish Dec. 26, which was the latest I've ever seen one, but he didn't bite," Kogler added.

Bill Woodard of Huntington Harbour has been fishing for marlin locally for the last 25 years.

"Last year was probably the best year off the coast that we've had," he said. "We caught 14 fish last year."

His heaviest weighed 232 1/2 pounds.

After a slow start, this season appears to be picking up as well.

Just last Sunday, skipper Steve Von Seggern, 26, and the two anglers aboard the Billfish, a 54-foot Bertram, experienced a double hookup while fishing the Osborne Bank near Santa Barbara Island.

"We thought they were both sharks because they didn't act like marlin at all," Von Seggern said. "They didn't do anything for a long time and then finally one of them jumped and we knew what it was."

Both fish took off in the same direction, but one suddenly turned and went the opposite direction.

"We stuck with it as long as we could until we got almost spooled on both of the rods," Von Seggern said.

He decided to tie one of the boat fenders--also called bumpers, which float--to one of the rods and throw it overboard, then chase down the other fish.

"And it just took off at, like 15 knots, sliding across the water just like in Jaws," Von Seggern said of the fendered rod.

Angler Pat Tooley then put the boat's skiff into the water and took off after his fish, which was pulling the fender, while Von Seggern maneuvered the boat as Dan Wlasiuk fought his fish from its bow.

After 40 minutes, Wlasiuk brought his marlin to the surface, Von Seggern released it and the two noticed Tooley being towed to sea.

"We saw this speck on the horizon and hoped it was Tooley," Von Seggern said.

Von Seggern caught up to the skiff and there was Tooley, who had already pulled the rod up from beneath the fender and was trying to fight his marlin. But the reel's drag, ruined by the saltwater, wasn't working properly.

After jumping back onto the sportfisher, Tooley and Wlasiuk cut the line on the first rod and spliced another rod onto it while Von Seggern was backing down on the fish with the boat.

"We spent another 20 minutes on that one and finally got it, and released that one also," Von Seggern said. "By that time we could barely see the skiff again."

They picked up the skiff, then caught and released two more marlin.

Said Davis: "You better have a good boat-handler behind you. There have been a number of times when marlin have jumped in the boat, and this is not a nice thing to have happen.

"They get jumping around in circles, sometimes they go crazy when they're hooked. They do all kinds of wild and crazy stuff. I think that's one of the things that makes them such an exciting fish--you just never know what they're going to do."

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