Matt Eckert’s 11-Hour, 30-Mile Marlin Sleigh Ride
A big game kayak fishing epic
As told to Paul Lebowitz
Photos courtesy Extreme Kayak Fishing
It’s April 26, the last day of the Extreme Kayak Fishing Battle in the Bahamas Kayak Fishing Tournament. Matt Eckert, 28, a Buffalo native with the salt sense to move south to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is looking to upgrade a couple of blackfin tuna on the small side. He decides to go deep – maybe for a dorado or a wahoo – and instead experiences the ride of a lifetime.
I was right off Grand Bahama about three miles offshore. Around 8:15 in the morning, the goggle eye I was fishing about 90 feet down on a Scotty downrigger gets hit. It’s a stinger rig, my standard for live bait, about six inches of #5 wire, on 12 feet of fluorocarbon leader attached to 30-pound PowerPro braid.
My Penn Rampage rod goes straight up. I crank my Penn Spinfisher 6500 LL frantically to get the line back. The line’s just peeling off, 300 yards on the first run. I’m pretty stoked. What do I have? I’m thinking yellowfin tuna, huge shark, big wahoo. I can feel some serious weight, but not once in the first hour do I think I have a marlin. It doesn’t jump.
It starts to tow me right toward Joe Kraatz who has a white marlin on. I get on the radio to tell him I have a fish and can’t control where it’s running. Right then and there it jumps for the first time 200, 300 yards in front of me and right by the bait boat where a crew is filming the fight with the white marlin. I hear on the radio “It’s a blue marlin.” Holy crap, I’m going to have a really long battle. I just strap into it. I’m amped up and excited.
Around 12 o’clock he jumps clear out of the water about 100 yards in front of me. I can finally see how big the fish is. I have a Hobie Outback. When he’s next to me he isn’t quite as long, close to 10, 11 feet, and wider than my kayak. I can’t get over how big he is. The captain on the boat following me says I have a 400- to 500-pound fish on. I’m not geared up for a fish like this. I’m wondering what I’ll have to do to tire him out and safely leader and land him.
Most of the time he’s towing me I can see his silhouette on the surface maybe 50 to 75 yards in front. He’s pulling me like I’m nothing. I steer and pedal to gain my line back. There’s no way I can do it without a Hobie. If he were dragging me sideways, the line would break.
It must be the most perfect hook set right in the corner of the mouth. If he’d swallowed the bait he would have been off in a few hours. Sometimes I can feel his tail whack my braid. I’m thinking any time now it’s going to pop.
Around 3:00 or 4:00 I’m starting to lose sight of land. Thank God I have the help boat with me. Everything’s lined up perfectly; it’s during a tournament, there’s no wind, the seas are flat. I have a help boat; otherwise there’s no way I could let that fish drag me 30 miles straight into the ocean.
I’m working off pure adrenaline. It never goes through my head that I should stop. That’s not going to happen. I’ll probably never hook up with a fish like this again. I’m going to enjoy it.
Every time I get him close and call the boat over he runs straight down then tows me. The blue marlin pulls me west toward Freeport, then 15 miles offshore.
I start to gain some ground. I slowly pump him up. He dives straight down a couple hundred feet into the cooler water, lays on his side and revives. The rod is bent completely over. My forearms are on fire. My fingers are swollen.
This isn’t working. I have to change it up, to put more pressure on him to have any chance. Every time I get him up I tighten the drag a little more to try to keep him up at the surface.
The runs are getting shorter. It’s late. The tournament is pretty much wrapped up. On shore they’re handing out awards. I’m still on the water. It’s now or never.
I can finally see my leader for the first time. I get him turned to pull him towards me, and grab the leader. That’s when the fish freaks out on me probably five or six feet under the water. He’s giving it his last bit of energy. Before I get myself hurt I duck and cover and let the line go.
45 minutes go by. I’m trying to get him back to the boat and secure for a picture. I’m holding the spool. That’s when the line breaks. The braid just snaps.
I get on the help boat for the ride back. I’m reflecting on the day. I can’t believe it happened. I feel kind of good and bad. To see that fish jump three times was pretty special. It was a catch of a lifetime I won’t ever forget. I wish I’d have had heavier braid.
It might have been harpooned from the boat. I’m not going to kill a magnificent fish for no reason, to get a few pictures. People can say what they want. It isn’t going to bother me. I would have been criticized for killing the fish anyway. It swam away healthy. All said and done it doesn’t matter.
That my reel didn’t blow up is pretty crazy. After all that it is 100 percent fine. I just went fishing with it yesterday. Those Spinfishers are phenomenal.
We turn into the dock. Everybody from the tournament is there, more than 100 cheering me in. It is the coolest thing that everyone stuck around to congratulate me. Joe Hector from Extreme Kayak Fishing is the first to greet me with a big hug.
Extreme Kayak Fishing Battle in the Bahamas tournament official Doug Perez and a video crew were on hand to witness Matt Eckert’s day-long battle with his big blue marlin. By EKF rules and many other angling standards including those of the IGFA, a leader touch followed by a release constitutes a billfish catch.
“If I wasn’t there to witness it I wouldn’t have believed it. There was no way we could have put a hand on this fish without killing it. It was a bull. All the stars had to align. If you fart on braid at that tension it breaks. I wish they would have harpooned it,” Perez says. They would have had pictures.
Unfortunately few photos and very little video was captured of the fight. “I didn’t get a shot of the fish itself. Shadows were pretty much it. We never came close enough,” kayak fishing filmmaker Rob DeVore of Yaktastic Adventures said. The fish spooked every time the boat approached.
Joe Kraatz’s white marlin, caught and released earlier in the day, won the billfish division. Although Eckert leadered his blue after the 4 pm tournament deadline, the tournament host Flamingo Bay Hotel awarded him a three night stay.