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Original Issue


On two-pound test Joe Judge landed a 54-pound tarpon

If you wanted to encapsulate this fishing trip, you could do it this way:

SPECIES: Tarpon (Megalops atlantica)
DATE: April 6, 1989
LOCATION: Rio Colorado, Casa Mar
River House, Costa Rica
TIME: 3:20 p.m. (hooked)
5:03 p.m. (landed)
WEIGHT: 54 pounds, 0 ounces
LINE: 2.2-pound test
(one kilogram)
ANGLER: Joseph Judge,
Centreville, Md.
NOTES: World record on one-kilogram test (previous record: 42 pounds, 8 ounces)

That would tell in brief the glorious result of six long days of sweat and strain in a Central American rain forest.

It would leave out much, however. Chiefly, it would omit a brutal marathon of a fish fight that went on for almost seven hours in cruel heat, one that will never make any record list because it ended in defeat for the angler. And it would fail to convey much else—the discovery, for instance, that sudden-death, ultralight fishing for a world-record fish can be a heart-stopping spectator sport.

But so it is. Just ask the men in the support boat why they have to look away when a 4½-foot-long fish in clattering silver armor corkscrews 10 feet up into the air and then crashes back into the water, as a tarpon will do many times in a long fight, a fight in which angler and fish are connected by a wispy extrusion of nylon that is barely capable of lifting a box of sugar.

That's not all. Think of Affirmed and Alydar going down to the wire together in the Belmont Stakes of 1978—and think how it would be if that neck-and-neck tension were prolonged over minutes, not seconds. But that is just the kind of exquisite tension that the watcher experiences when he first sees the leader knot breaking the surface. The leader knot connects the absurd, gossamer main line with the final 20 feet of double line and shock leader. Once that knot is on the reel spool, the angler gains some kind of control. Getting it there is the secret—and the challenge—of ultralight game fishing. But to watch from a neighboring boat as that knot moves up and down, inch by inch, now in favor of the angler, now in favor of the fish, can be close to unbearable.

So it was proving this morning on the Rio Colorado in Costa Rica. It was a blessed relief when once more the fish started on a long run downriver and the angler, Joe Judge, kneeling on the bow of the aquamarine johnboat, yelled, "He's dumping line, dumping line! He's running for the logs!" Tony Diaz, at the throttle of our duplicate craft, muttered, "I can't handle this much more. I want to be a hunting guide from now on."

"How long has he been on, Tony?" I asked.

"Two hours," said Diaz.

The two boats had left Casa Mar River House camp in the soaking, starless predawn. For Judge, this would be the fourth day of the third expedition he had made in an attempt to break one of the toughest of light-tackle world records—that for tarpon on one-kilo test (which means the wet line will break when one kilogram of pull is applied to it). He had traveled to the Rio Colorado last fall, but rainstorms had brought the river up six feet, and the floods and muddy conditions wrecked his chances. Then, in February of this year, he went back to Costa Rica to concentrate on fishing the ocean and hooked up with four fish, any one of which would have given him the title. But all of them were hit by sharks before he could boat them. "You can't argue with a 14-foot bull shark who wants to chow down on a big tarpon," he said.

On this trip, two months later, Judge intended to spend a whole week in the river. The tarpon would be harder to come by than in the ocean, but at least there would be no sharks. So for four mornings, the pair of johnboats had headed upstream, past the last Costa Rican police outpost before the Rio Colorado becomes the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua, past Dos Bocas ("two mouths"), where the river splits around a swampy island, and to a place christened by Judge as Second Banana, it being the second bend in the river after Banana Creek. More important, it was a great place to ambush tarpon. "We've got a sandbar right in front of us," Judge had explained earlier in the week. "We will stay on the outside edge of it, right in a cut, where the fish have to come through. Just like in the Florida Keys."

Still, the first three mornings on Second Banana had been fruitless as far as records went. The first was kind of messy. There had been a hook-up right off, but strangely, the fish hadn't jumped. Strangely it seemed, that is, until the fish rolled on the surface and we could see Judge's red and white swimming plug hanging behind one of the tarpon's gill plates—a foul-hooked fish. A moment later the hook pulled out.

Judge quickly caught another fish—a record breaker, he thought. We rushed back to the fishing camp for the official weighing. And there reality hit: The fish was one pound shy of the 42-pound, 8-ounce record that was set in 1986 by Herbert Ratner in Key West.

There was a quick hook-up the next morning too, but the first jump showed the fish to be clearly too small. Judge brought the tarpon to the boat and released it. That proved the day's only hit. Day 3, as well, brought just one chance. This time the fish looked to be 60 pounds, an easy record breaker. Judge played it for 40 minutes, had it almost ready to be gaffed three times, then his line had gone slack. And his face as well. He reeled in. The small diving plate on the front of the plug had been bent down and apparently levered the hook out of its precarious hold in the tarpon's hard mouth. "Light-tackle fishing," said Judge. "That's the way it goes."

It was not easy fishing. Judge's short black beard was already a tad ragged, and his face was sun-battered despite liberal applications of sun-block. At 47, he is a lot more solidly built than he was in 1972 when he retired from military intelligence work and was suddenly hit by Guillain-Barre's Syndrome, a poliolike disease that laid him low for a year. In that period, his weight dropped from 200 pounds to 105.

It's hard to penetrate the curtain he draws over his life for the five years he spent in Southeast Asia preceding the breakdown of his health. But in fishing camps, his companions become used to the yells of "Incoming!" that punctuate the night from the direction of his cot. Nor does Judge talk much about the five immediately following his recovery, save to say that he "advised various countries about their security requirements."

Aside from that black beard, it seems that Judge's soldier-of-fortune days are behind him; he puts much of his energy into his farm near Centreville, Md., and into running Twin Ponds Duck Club.

The remainder of his energy, which is considerable, goes into his chosen sport, fishing, to which he is utterly committed. When we arrived at Casa Mar, Judge was concerned that the screws securing the end plates of his reels had worked marginally loose because of vibration on the flight. His meticulous checking revealed that a couple had. Now, on the fourth morning at Second Banana, he kicked his shoes off and got ready. "I fish more sensitively this way," he said. "I can feel the fish's intentions better. If I'm not feeling for him right, he can take the lure and spit it out without my knowing." For this reason he also stands up on the front platform of the johnboat through the long day, even though there are times when the lingering heritage of Guillain-Barre sets his calf muscles trembling uncontrollably.

There are many worse places to hang in for a big fish than Second Banana. It is in one of the world's last pristine jungles. The tawny water slides fast through the jaguar-haunted rain forest. Yellow orchids trail in the river, similarly colored butterflies dance over it, and as the mind wanders in the noonday heat, the ululations of the howler monkeys make it no great imaginative feat to conjure up the towering image of King Kong ripping down the 200-foot-high, mist-wreathed cedars that stand all around.

What really stops the heart, though, is more subtle. It is the sight of a tail and a dark dorsal fin cutting the smooth apron of water directly below the anchored johnboats. "Fish moving up," Judge says, assuming the position, legs apart, upper body bent forward, rod held out and pointing directly downstream, with that sewing-thread line pinched lightly between his thumb and forefinger. "All I can do is present the bait to him," he explained early in the trip, "let him take it in his mouth. When I can feel the lure in there, I kind of wiggle the rod tip, search for a spot in the tarpon's mouth where the hooks can go in. I have extra-sharp hooks, and I just come tight. The fish has to set the hook himself...." Such subtlety, such sensitivity of touch, is scarcely believable until these things are seen in action. And then it has to be concluded that in his specialty, Judge is one of the most complete anglers in the world.

He started a long time ago. His father, Joseph Sr., was a partner in Cork Distilleries, the Dublin-based company that made Paddy Irish Whiskey. Late in the 1920s, not long after the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed, the elder Judge found it necessary to make a lot of business visits to Havana and Bimini in the Bahamas to handle the huge upsurge in the liquor business that was occurring in the islands. At one point, somebody took Joseph Sr. out in a fishing boat; he caught a blue marlin and with it, blue marlin fever. From then on he spent much of his time fishing the Gulf Stream, in the golden age of big game, angling in the company of such notables as Michael Lerner and Ernest Hemingway.

The Joseph Judge that now crouched on the bow of the johnboat was born in Dublin but before he was a year old his family had settled in Washington, D.C., and his father had acquired a farm on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. And there, before he was five, young Joe began fishing for perch, rockfish and croaker.

Before coming to ultralight, which Judge regards as the ultimate angling challenge, he acquired many honors in blue-water angling. On Australia's Great Barrier Reef in a single season, 1972, he took 11 "granders"—which is what Australians call black marlin weighing more than 1,000 pounds. And through much of this decade his boat, the 36-foot Irish Rover, was a regular on the billfish tournament circuit. The roll call of his tournament wins includes the Palm Beach Gold Cup, the Walker's Cay Show Down, the Bimini Light Tackle tournament and the Stuart Light Tackle tournament. In 1987, he won what is widely regarded as the World Series of big game fishing, the Bahama Series (six tournaments) Billfish Championship.

After which he took stock, sold Irish Rover and, while a custom-made boat was being built, decided to take a sabbatical from tournament fishing. His new boat is still under construction, but now Judge has been seduced by ultralight fishing. Last year he set the four-pound-test category world record for tarpon with a 106-pounder in Costa Rica, but while the claim was still pending—the International Game Fish Association normally takes three to six months to ratify a record—a 108-pounder was caught in Florida. Judge solaced himself by breaking the two-pound record for snook with a 14.8-pound fish (he didn't think that was such a big deal—the mark he bettered was his own).

Now he was shooting for a much more difficult goal. On Day 4 the opportunity, once again, came early. At 6:50 a.m. Judge's yell of "Hook up! Hook up!" sent the birds screaming out of the jungle. Instantly the big tarpon jumped, and jumped again, and again. "Busting his own butt," Judge shouted. "Wearing himself down!" The fish was clearly big enough to set the record. "Going to be a bare-knuckle fight," Judge called over to the support boat. "Looks to me like a male, 55 pounds maybe. Male tarpon don't get much bigger. But they're as tough as a blue marlin."

For two hours the fight swirled over the river, the fish working downstream throughout. Seven times Judge had the tarpon "on the wrap" (the double line on the reel spool); each time the fish surged away before the gaff could be sunk. "This is a wonderful fish," Judge said.

By now the tarpon was a couple of miles from the place where he had been hooked. It had reached Dos Bocas, where the Colorado broadened and deepened at the junction of the Banana Creek and another stream that flowed in from the east. Judge sensed that the fight was sliding away from him, because it now was being contested in formidable deeps. The tarpon was not burning up its energy in jumps but sounding and dogging it in the 100-foot depths. All Judge could do was to hold on. "Give me a time," he called out. He was told it was 9:40; the fight had gone on for almost three hours. Judge kept glancing at the line remaining on his reel, dreading that it would turn from clear to opaque white, an indication that its internal construction was crazing like a shattered windshield.

Under the searing Costa Rican sun the standoff continued. There didn't seem to be any way of moving that fish. Judge had the look of a beaten chess player who refuses to get up from the table after a checkmate call. "I couldn't pressure him or turn him," he said later. "I couldn't get him to act. I was reacting to the fish." And he could see that the line was deteriorating. He had been forced to reset the drag to a mere four ounces of tension.

Around noon there came a change: The tarpon started to move upstream. In the support boat, Diaz figured that the fish had encountered a pod of other tarpon moving upriver and had decided to join them. There seemed no way of stopping the fish; at this rate it would soon be in Nicaraguan waters. The tarpon was completely in command. "I can't hurt him," Judge said. "He has his full oxygen supply, no problems anywhere." He had been fighting the fish for 5 hours, 10 minutes at this point.

And then, amazingly, the tarpon changed its mind once again. The line sloped up and Judge's guide, Captain Ginder, started the outboard engine to chase the fish as it bolted back downstream. Once more it reached Dos Bocas, but instead of sounding, this time it raced through, and into shallow water beyond. Judge was back in the fight. "Please, line, give me an hour," Judge said. "I'll have him in an hour." Shortly after 1 p.m., the fish rolled at the surface for the first time, and Judge, now much more confident, crouched to it, feeling for any advantage.

And then, sickeningly, at 1:33 p.m. precisely, he stood up straight. "Gone," he said flatly. The fight had lasted six hours and 43 minutes. It ended when a sunken log drifted against the battered line. And now, in an unneeded piece of symbolism that the river gods must have ordained after watching late-night TV, a great black buzzard appeared and circled over Judge's boat.

Six hours and 43 minutes! Most anglers, even champion anglers, would be packing for the homeward flight. But back at camp that night Judge went stoically through his usual ritual of replacing lines, retying knots, making up new leaders. "That was one great fish, and I think the great fish deserve to live," he said. He would start over in the morning. He could even—mildly—joke about it. "Tell me," he asked Donna Davenport, "how did you get your fish in?"

Davenport, who has been Judge's business partner for better than 14 years, is one of the handful of women in the U.S. who specialize in light-tackle angling, and just a couple of weeks earlier she had a royal triumph. Fishing with Judge on Second Banana, she had lost one big fish on a breakoff, another at the gaff and finally boated an 83-pound tarpon, a new women's record on four-pound test. That wasn't all. "Then, on the same trip, St. Patrick's Day, I put on green shorts and headed out into the ocean," she said, as Judge continued to work on his tackle. "The weather started messing up—big black clouds and the sea starting to kick up. Then I got a hit." In spite of the storm, she boated a 13.8-pound jack crevalle to tie the women's four-pound-test record.

Judge's stoicism would be further tested. Next day, at 5:20 a.m., he hooked up with an 80-pound fish. It broke off when his thumb slipped on a knot that had inadvertently acquired some reel grease and jammed on the spool.

Through much of the next—and final—day, hope was dying. By noon, we were downcast with the knowledge that almost all the tarpon hits had come in the morning. Maybe that 42-pound, 8-ounce record was unbeatable.

Judge had not eased up one whit. At 3:20 p.m. he said quietly, "Got a bump. Or I think I got a bump." He was doing his dentist act, feeling the plug rattle around inside the tarpon's mouth, letting the fish hook itself. And at last came the blood-stirring "Hook up!" yell. Once again the fight was on, once again a fish headed for Dos Bocas.

This was a different fight, though. This tarpon was running but he didn't want to hide. In Dos Bocas he fought it out on top, jumping 16 or 17 times. This time there were no stray branches, no spots of reel lube, no collapsing plugs, none of the chance factors that are the enticements and the drawbacks of ultralight fishing. There was just one desperate moment. That was when the fish pulled the gaff out of the hands of the guide. But Diaz climbed out of our support boat to help. Before long, Judge had the big fish at boatside, the gaff was sunk cleanly and the tarpon came sliding over the gunwales.

The fight had lasted an hour and 43 minutes. Then came a race back to camp to weigh the fish, for even a setting Costa Rican sun can dehydrate pounds out of a trophy in very little time.

But there would be no worries on that score. "We have a new world's record—54 pounds," said Billy Barnes, owner of the Casa Mar River House, as he looked at the big dial on his certified scales. And so the ceremonies commenced, the taking of photographs and culling the samples of line that must be presented to the IGFA before it will ratify the catch.

The IGFA is expected to make the record official by this fall. Mike Leech, executive director of the organization, said that Judge's line had tested out at a smidgen under two pounds. "An outstanding fish," he said. "I'd have trouble with a 10-pounder on line as fine as that. You only have to look cross-eyed at two-pound test, and it would probably break."

The next day Judge headed back to his Maryland farm. "Hey, Donna," he said, "before you put that book of records away, what do I have to beat for two-pound-test on blue marlin?"



Judge, crouching in the boat, had little control as the fish began a line-looping leap.



Day 4: Seven hours of tense concentration ended when a log snapped Judge's line.



Judge was heavily armed for a light-tackle battle with tarpon.



Occasionally the searing Costa Rican heat would be broken by a torrential downpour.