Posted on March 22nd, 2021
Under Dad’s Watchful Eye… The Making of a Fisherman
By Captain Franky Pettolina
Every morning as I am setting the baits out, whether it be trolling or chunking, drifting or bottom fishing, I give my charter clients a brief idea of what to expect for the day’s action. I go over the workings of the tackle and offer some advice on how to successfully land their quarry. It goes a little something like this, actually pretty much exactly like this:
“The most important thing is to keep the line tight. Keep plenty of pressure on the fish. Do things nice and smooth. Whenever there is slack wind as fast as you can. If the fish is pulling out drag just let them go. When it stops I want you to wind if you can. If not I want you to pull up on the rod, nice and smooth, and then wind your way down. Always keep plenty of pressure on the fish. If you ever think it got off I want you to crank the reel as fast you can. Lots of time they will swim at the boat, and if you don’t crank in the slack, they WILL get off.”
Usually at about this point in the conversation, as I am demonstrating with the rod while I am talking, I will notice a few concerned or confused looks among my anglers…
“Don’t worry. I will coach you through it. And if it ever sounds like I am hollering at you, I’m not. Just sometimes in the heat of the moment, I have to raise my voice to get my point across. I don’t mean anything by it. BUT… If it ever sounds like I am hollering at my father, I AM! We just settle it later.”
And then dear old Dad will chime in, “As big as he is I can still put him over my knee!”
You see, I am one of the most fortunate guys in the world. Not only do I get to go fishing as part of my job, but I get to go with my best fishing buddy most of the time. Dad and I have been fishing together since I was first able to hold a rod (of course that was with his help) and by the time I was a teenager that turned into a summer job. As I got older that summertime job eventually turned into a career of sportfishing and marine surveying. Chasing fish and crawling around boats, all the time under Dad’s watchful eye. Yep, a very fortunate guy, making memories while doing something we both love. A ton of memories.
Acapulco, Mexico. January 1979. Ten and a half foot of Sailfish greyhounding across the calm azure waters of the Pacific. A Penn Senator reel spooled with faded monofilament on a wooden butt trolling rod with a cork grip. Small hands were gripping the rod and turning the handle on the reel for all they were worth. A much larger hand was holding the rod in place. A gorilla of a man holding his little monkey of a son in the makeshift fighting chair on the Mexican charter boat. El Capitan and El Marinero helping out their young gringo angler by toweling his sweaty forehead and offering him a coca cola to sip on.
That scene played out for an hour and forty-five minutes. I would be lying if I said I could remember it vividly. I cannot. But through the magic of 8-millimeter film converted to DVD, I have seen the video several times. My father was in his early thirties. I was five. Actually, I was five and a few months. My mom was behind the camera. At the end of that hour and forty-five minutes a large Pacific sailfish was strapped to the transom of the boat and a proud father was trying to explain to the crew that his little boy, who was now hiding in the cabin, was taught to go into the cabin when they gaffed a big fish back at home. And maybe I was a little scared of fish at that point in my life. Don’t worry I got over the fear… eventually.
Poorman’s Canyon. Ocean City, Maryland. Summer of 1983. I was swinging the billy club as hard as I could. The white marlin was not impressed with my efforts. Neither was my dad. “Hit Him Like You Mean It! Here do it like this.” The club was no longer in my hand, and the fish was no longer unimpressed. The fish was just “un.” As in unliving. Dad took one swing, and the fish was done. A quick quiver and a flash of color. That was it. One white marlin ready to head to the taxidermist. My very first day as a “mate” all by myself. Of course, dad was there to pick up my slack.
On that day back in 1983, Dad had invited his friend Ron out for a day of fishing in return for some favors he had done for him. Ron brought along his wife and Dad brought me as the mate. I wasn’t quite ready, but Dad knew that he and Ron could pick up my slack. 1983 wasn’t a stellar year for marlin fishing out of Ocean City, but we managed to catch Ron’s wife her first white marlin. We also caught some Mahi and some Bonita. We hooked the white on a green machine lure and dad pulled it into the boat. I was waiting with the club. And we all know how that turned out. At least I didn’t run and hide in the cabin.
East Cape of Cabo San Lucas, Baja, Mexico. December of 1989. After several windy days with zero bites the seas had calmed, and we were fishing in lake-like waters that were teeming with striped marlin. Live Caballito mackerels were cast into a bait ball and Dad and I were hooked into a doubleheader. The fish did the dreaded seven/ten split and we were fighting them from a drifting boat, unable to maneuver towards one fish without jeopardizing the other. After a half hour, the Marinero was yanking the rod out of my hand and pointing towards a straight gaff while yelling at an incredibly rapid pace. My Spanish was nonexistent in those days (as opposed to the dangerously fluent in booze and fish terms that it is these days), but I figured out what he wanted when I saw leader approaching Dad’s rod tip. After his second wrap on the leader, I sank the gaff into the thick of the marlin’s back right behind the dorsal fin. Moments later I was back to cranking on my fish while Dad was sipping a celebratory cerveza and offering advice on how to land my fish quicker.
Mom, Dad, and I went to Cabo San Lucas over winter break during my sophomore year in high school. The trip started slowly, but by the end of our ten days of fishing, we had baited over one hundred striped marlin. We boated the first two as the crew told us they needed them to feed their families. We later learned that the fish were sold to the local fish market. The crew wasn’t exactly lying to us, but we decided that it would be better if they fed their family with bonus tip money rather than fish sale money, so we worked out a deal. We might have put a little pressure on the spool to pull some hooks when the leaders were getting close to the rod tips too, but SHHHHH! Don’t tell anybody. Especially not the crew members on that boat!
The 461 Lump. North of the Washington Canyon. Ocean City, Maryland. July 3, 1994. The “Liquidator” and the “Last Call” were trolling rigger to rigger. We both had two white marlin releases. All tied up. Going into the final hour of the final day of the Ocean City Marlin Club Canyon Kickoff Tournament. “Right short! Right Short!” Dad called out from the bridge. I was already dumping the left long rigger. We came tight on both but only held on to one after the first few minutes. Minutes after that, however, I was holding the leader on what would turn out to be the tie-breaking white marlin. The winning fish. The difference maker.
The 12th Annual Canyon Kickoff was the first tournament I ever won. The “Last Call” placed in other tournaments. My mom even won a ladies tournament. But this was a first. My first. Our first. We came in first. A good friend of mine, Capt. Lee Fickinger, said to me a few days later, “Are your feet back on the ground yet?” I don’t think they were. Dad and I have won that tournament two more times since then. Each time every bit as exciting as the first. The last time the anglers we won with also have our same last name… my mother and my wife.
37th Annual White Marlin Open. August 2 through 6, 2010. On our first day of fishing, we released a white marlin and a longbill spearfish. A true longbill. My first one ever in Ocean City. No matter what would happen the rest of the week I was thrilled with my tournament. Longbill spears are not a common catch. Up until that point in my life, I had only caught two others, and they both were in Venezuela. Then day 2 happened. As we were getting ready to slow down about 20 minutes before lines in would be called by the committee boat, one of the guys in my charter said, “Hey look at all of those porpoises.” My second mate, Travis, said, “Porpoise tails don’t look like that.”
I turned around. White marlin were everywhere on the surface right behind us. We turned around and watched them for the next 19 minutes. Right as the committee boat announced the start of fishing they all disappeared. Dad trolled us in circles, figure eights, thisaway, thataway, you name it. I was bummed out. Dad was persistent. The bites started coming around 10 am. When the spray settled, and I could catch my breath we were raising ten release flags up our starboard outrigger. I called my good friend Jon Duffie on the “Billfisher” as we were coming in the inlet and asked him if anybody had any big numbers for the day. He replied, “Yeah. You!”
2010 will always be remembered as the greatest year in the history of white marlin fishing in Ocean City. July was ok. August was incredible. It all started that first week during The Open. We didn’t know it then, but in hindsight, we were all part of something extraordinary. The culmination of the incredible days was August 30th. The best day in the history of white marlin fishing. My buddy Jon on the “Billfisher” had the big numbers that day with 57 releases. We were fishing near him. We didn’t catch anywhere near that many, but I can say that Dad and I were there.
September 23, 2018. The transom of the “Last Call”. Ocean City Fishing Center. Ocean City, Maryland. The chunks of mackerel and bonita drifted down into the dark depths. Well not really that deep. Then a swirl and a flash. I dropped another couple of pieces. More swirls and flashes. I told my mate Chris to grab a rod. Just like that our end of the day bait disposal turned into a full-on striped bass feeding frenzy! The rockfish were voracious, and Chris and I were releasing them as quick as we could re-bait the hooks. We were giggling like little kids. Dad came out to see what was all the commotion. As he watched Chris and I catch one fish after another, I said to him, “You wouldn’t be able to keep 10-year-old Franky away from this.” He looked at me and replied, “10-year-old Franky? Want me to get you guys a thirty pack of beer?”
Like I said earlier, I am truly fortunate to do what I do. I have a lifetime of memories of fishing with my dad. And I am still making them on a regular basis, just like the ones I have shared here. I encourage all of the fathers and sons out there to put down their phones and pick up the fishing rods and make some memories. But it doesn’t stop at fathers and sons. Fish don’t discriminate. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends… heck perfect strangers will become fast friends in the middle of a hot bite!!! And I would be a terrible son if I didn’t point out that my mother was present for most of the memories I wrote about in this article…and she is a much better angler than Dad or I could ever hope to be!