Virgin Waters Gave Birth To Big Game

Imagine it’s the year 1935 and your feet are planted on the sand of the quaint island of Bimini. You’ve just arrived at the Compleat Angler Hotel in Alice Town, North Bimini. It’s a tiny hideaway in the tropical archipelago few have seen. How you got here doesn’t matter. What matters is that the surrounding waters are teeming with giant game fish the likes few have ever seen. These waters are practically untouched and the fishing wide open. The relatively new sport is your passion and you’ve made it your career, though soon you’ll learn that you’ve never experienced anything like this. You are the Membership Director for Miami’s first sporting club, and your goal is to share with anxious parties on the mainland what really lurks in these waters. Are the reports coming over the wire genuine or exaggerated?


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Photo: Ed Pritchard Collection

With rum flowing, locals tell tales of reef dwelling bottom feeders so numerous the entire seafloor moves in unison. But these manageable fish are not what you came for. Rather, it’s the reports of open water gamsters so large and plentiful no one at home knows what’s real and what’s not. Rumors say mysterious shadows massive in size are regularly seen casually cruising the drop-off a few hundred yards from shore. Monster fish are hooked regularly only to steal hundreds of yards of thread linen line on blistering initial runs no existing tackle could stop. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough. In the morning you are scheduled to fish with a New York man. His name is Michael Lerner.

Among the swordfish and marlin are relentless sharks. They are a serious threat and more often than not leave disappointed anglers with little more than an apple-cored trophy…

Mr. Lerner is fishing these rich waters for a month, and today you’ll be joining him aboard Lady Grace. She’s a modern sportfish skippered by Captain Tommy Gifford. Lerner’s wife, Helen, is also in town. She is an extremely skillful angler in her own right and will be fishing nearby in a similar vessel.

You’ve learned Lerner made his fortune as financial guru behind Lerner Shops, a chain of retail outlets specializing in women’s apparel. Mr. Lerner pursued big game fishing with a relentless passion and would ultimately go down in sport fishing history as the founding father of the International Game Fish Association.

The day has come. You wake full of anticipation, anxious to decipher fact from fiction. The morning is already bright, and as you walk the weathered planks toward the waiting group you can’t help but wonder what the hot summer day will bring. Formal introductions are made, passengers are boarded and gear stowed. It’s time to fish.

Minutes after exiting the cut, a small tuna-like fish is taken for bait. Gifford calls it a bonito. The pigskin shaped fish is immediately re-hooked and deployed back to the depths where you are told its erratic swimming action would tempt a behemoth billfish of epic proportions, few of which have ever made it to the boat intact. Among the swordfish and marlin are relentless sharks. They are a serious threat and more often than not leave disappointed anglers with little more than an apple-cored trophy and wounded ego. Rifle shots and long sticks are often employed to deter the man-eaters from devouring the day’s catch, usually to no avail. This day would be different.

Not one, but two massive billfish would ultimately be brought back to the dock. The Lerner couple both achieved success within close proximity and as fortune would have it, the sharks stayed away. Recollecting the day’s events you write,

“June 11. The ocean is pristine and full of life. Battles aboard both vessels were extraordinary. Magnificent leaping fish so large and powerful, they can only be compared to locomotives roaring along Flagler Railroad. If it were not for the orchestrated actions of angler and crew, success would not have been achieved. This is unlike anything seen in our home waters. Nearly everyone on the island celebrated success.”

Two days later you join a close friend and guest of Mr. & Mrs. Lerner. He is on the island working on a novel, and he too is considered an expert angler. They call him Hemingway.

Hemingway was focused on a different adversary altogether—driven to beat the largest fish caught on rod and reel, beasts exceeding the size of a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred. These denizens of the deep so skilled at eluding capture were originally believed to be wahoo. It was only when an intact fish weighing over 500 pounds was finally taken that its identity correctly revealed—giant bluefin tuna. Hemingway realized what few others did, schools of half-ton tuna passed within yards of the Bahamian coast during their migration north to as far as Nova Scotia. He learns how to manage the give and take tug-of-war while avoiding exerting all of one’s energy too fast. Along with the Lerners, Hemingway solidifies Bimini as a sport fishing Mecca unlike any other.

“June 13. Today I fished with a handsome fellow, Hemingway. The bluefin he took was to my surprise, substantially more powerful than leaping marlin. The iron-willed tuna was determined to survive and sounded into the depths. Only through a rhythmic motion while tightly strapped to a heavy game chair was the fit man able to ultimately subdue the incredible fish. One cannot imagine the agony of such an excruciating battle followed by the shear joy of victory…it is now as clear to me as the finest crystal. This island in the ‘Stream is where respected big game sportsmen are tested to their very limits. It’s the place where rudimentary tackle is refined and new fish fighting skills invented. I am reporting that these virgin waters are, in fact, the birthplace of big game sport fishing. I am never leaving.”

Bimini Today

Fast forward nearly 70 years, and Bimini remains an authentic sport fishing destination. While the area’s waters are now void of giant bluefin tuna and grander blue marlin, Bimini’s fertile blue seas fed by the nutrient rich Gulf Stream are still the place to be. Advancements in boats and tackle unimaginable during Bimini’s heydays have ensured the region’s fertile waters continue to yield countless trophy catches.

When visiting Bimini, one can’t help but wonder about the region’s checkered past. A quaint escape, Bimini is where pirate ships and buried treasure aren’t just fables and fairy tales, but a real part of the island’s colorful history. Pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Blackbeard dominated this area. Ancient coins and original artifacts continue to be found on Bimini’s beaches, and many believe Captain Morgan’s treasure is still buried somewhere on the island.

In the 1920s during the era of Prohibition in the U.S., Bimini was a favorite haven for rum-runners. The tiny island’s proximity to the South Florida coastline made it a convenient place for smugglers to buy alcohol and make a dash for the United States. Rumors say the term, The Real McCoy was given to the concoction provided by William S. McCoy, who used Bimini to smuggle whiskey into America.

Rumors also claim The Fountain of Youth exists within the shallow pools of South Bimini and that the lost city of Atlantis is right here off the beaches of this tropical island paradise.