PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic – Virtually every hardcore fisherman has a Bucket List. Maybe it’s to catch a double-digit largemouth bass from Chickamauga Lake, perhaps an exotic trip to catch peacock bass in South America, maybe to battle a monster tarpon or a shark big enough to wish you had a bigger boat. My Bucket List is too large to name them all but high on the list is to capture a billfish. I’m not picky – maybe it’s a swordfish, perhaps a sailfish or the king of the billfish, a blue marlin.
“Grande, grande fish,” exclaimed Aleksey (Alex) Savchuk at Capt. Cocote.
The language, or at least the accent, was foreign. The message, however, was clear. The fish on the line was bigger than most the folks with Big Marlin Charters were used to catching.
We were in the Dominican Republic (DR) fishing out of Punta Cana. It was a recent exotic getaway this Southern boy only makes on very rare occasions. My wife, Barbara, learned long ago that any effort to get me near a beach probably needs to include at least one fishing trip. This was it during our escape to Punta Cana.
Alex was standing in the hotel lobby with a sign that simply read, “Fishing Charter.” He was a tanned, lean man with the clear look of someone who had spent many days in rough seas and hot sun. He spoke reasonably good English although my southern ears struggled to interpret the accent.
“I am actually from the Ukraine,” explained Alex, who later told us he had been an investment banker. Following the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Alex joined the mass exodus from the country. He said it was very hard leaving behind his family, including two children.
“I immigrated here four years ago to build a better life,” he said. “I had always been an avid free diver and spear fisherman. I visited many places before deciding to make the Dominican Republic my home.”
The former banker was drawn to the sea like a moth to a flame. It wasn’t long before he found his place as a First Mate with Big Marlin Charters.
To protect the environmentally sensitive shoreline of the DR there are virtually no ports or docks. Alex told Barbara and I to leave our shoes in the van before he escorted us across the beach to a skiff waiting to ferry us out to the 42-foot Fortuna.
I had expected a 42-foot vessel to handle most any seas with relative ease. As we headed out however, I quickly realized Barbara and I were in for a very rough ride into what Alex called, “normal” four-foot seas with occasional rogue waves reaching eight or nine feet. Fortunately neither of us is prone to seasickness or it would have quickly turned into a miserable day.
Punta Cana is on the eastern tip of the DR, very close to the deep water of the North Atlantic. It was just a matter of minutes before we were fishing and soon began spotting huge mats of sargassum grass floating on the surface – vegetation carried by currents down from the Sargasso Sea.
Alex set to work rigging lines and setting outriggers. Lures were baited with ballyhoo, the most popular billfish bait of the ocean. The mainlines of the saltwater reels were filled with 100-pound test monofilament.
We were soon rewarded with mahi-mahi. They weren’t large but put up a marginally fierce fight on tackle designed for much bigger game. The name mahi-mahi comes from the Hawaiian language and means “very strong.” Their fluorescent green and blue flanks looked like jewels in the deep blue North Atlantic.
But they aren’t my Bucket List fish. The Fortuna continued pounding through the waves until suddenly a line on the port side outrigger popped. Alex grabbed the rod from the holder and simply held on as the 100 lb. mono screamed from the reel.
The next few seconds were shear madness as the fish crossed the stern wake to the starboard side, crossing other lines out the rear of the boat. Captain Cocote backed the Fortuna down to an idle speed and rushed down from the bridge and began helping Alex clear other lines. Line continued peeling from the reel Alex held.
I waited not so patiently in the fighting chair until Alex finally got the rod to me, positioned in the fighting chair’s gimbal. There was however, nothing I could do except watch line continue to peel out from the almost smoking reel. It appeared as if getting spooled could be real possibility. For the uninitiated that is when a fish literally takes all of the line your fishing reel can hold.
Alex reached down and eased the drag lever forward on the reel hoping to slow the fish that seemed to be hell bent on crossing the Atlantic all the way to North Africa.
At first I thought someone had fired a .38 caliber pistol. But as the rod popped back upright I realized the fearsome crack was the parting of the 100 lb. test line. The fight was over before it had truly begun. I stared at the ocean that hid my Bucket List fish beneath the churning waves.
Again Alex exclaimed, “Grande fish, grande!”
He took my hand placing my fingers against the side of the reel. I jerked away quickly as it felt as if I had touched the glowing red eye of a stove.
There may have been more mahi-mahi after that. I really don’t remember. All I can remember is a screaming reel and the rifle-shot “crack” of the parting line.
Back at the dock, two hours after the big escape, Alex and Capt. Cocote spent five minutes talking in excited Spanish with the guy waiting in the skiff to shuttle us back to the beach. Finally Alex stopped speaking Spanish, turned to Barbara and me and said, “I’m very sorry. But he loves marlin too and we can’t quit talking about that fish.”
It was very clear that whatever was swimming on the end of the broken line inspired a fish tale that would be told many times in the Big Marlin network. All I know is that my Bucket List dream fish still roams the ocean awaiting my return.