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Catching a billfish “slam” — three or more different species in a single day — is an uncommon feat even at top tropical billfish destinations around the globe.
But to catch and release a blue marlin, sailfish and white marlin in one morning off Sebastian Inlet is something special — even if the slam is split between two boatloads of anglers.
On May 9, Kimberly Kelly of Indialantic was fishing with friends Niles Nelson and Germae Patterson of Melbourne about 30 miles off Sebastian. They’d already caught a handful of small dolphin, nothing more than 20 pounds, when their left outrigger clip popped and drag screamed off the reel.
“The fish missed the rigger bait, but came back for the flatline and we hooked up,” said Nelson, 35, an orthopedic consultant who has lived and fished in Melbourne his entire life. “We saw it was a marlin just as it came through our spread, tangling lines and cutting off lures.”
Kelly, a fourth-grade schoolteacher at Turner Elementary, grabbed the rod and hung on as the white marlin, which they estimated weighed 80 pounds, ran far and deep.
“Kim fought it for an hour and 15 minutes,” Nelson said. “It was foul-hooked by the dorsal fin, which made it harder to bring in.”
The white, easily distinguishable by its long, broad and bright blue pectoral fins, was pulled alongside the boat and released after pictures were taken.
Within minutes of putting lines back out, the crew of Nelson’s 24-foot center console hooked up a sailfish, which they quickly fought and released.
“I was jumping up and down excited,” said Nelson, who has caught smaller white marlin in Venezuela. “It was a pretty substantial day. We’ve never landed a marlin on my boat before.”
Meanwhile, just a couple miles to the north, the crew of the 43-foot Slammin’ Hammond was completing this two-boat, three-billfish slam.
“We were 33 miles off Sebastian in 330 feet and heard on the radio that some other boats were catching dolphin, but we hadn’t had a knockdown,” said Nathan Hammond, who owns Hammond Kitchen and Bath in West Melbourne. “But when one of the 30-pound rods got hit, I grabbed the rod, felt it and said, ‘that’s a big fish!’ ”
Hammond handed the rod to friend Rod Warden as a blue marlin bounded across the bluewater behind them.
“It ran, and ran, and ran — almost to the point of spooling the reel,” said Warden, who lives in Indialantic. “I’ve never seen a fish run and jump like that, just staying on top of the water.”
“He jumped 18 times and sounded deep twice,” Hammond said. “We had to put the boat in reverse to gain line. It was like ESPN.”
Warden, who had never caught a marlin before, thought he’d lost the fish at one point as his line went completely slack. He reeled as fast as he could and eventually caught up with the marlin. The 250-pounder boiled right next to the boat, then made another run nearly spooling them a second time.
After a 45-minute tug-o-war, they had the 10-foot fish alongside the Slammin’ Hammond and ready to release.
“After the marlin, we headed north toward the Cones, pretty much straight out of Sebastian,” said Hammond, who has caught 10 marlin on his boat in Florida and the Bahamas. “Twenty minutes later, we fought and landed a 50-pound bull dolphin.”
“It was such a good day,” Warden said. “Nate’s a great captain and angler. He said we’d do better when the moon set, and when it went down in the west, we caught that marlin and dolphin.”
“You don’t often catch two fish and say it’s an epic day,” Hammond said.
So what made the waters off Sebastian so fruitful that day?
Mitch Roffer, owner of Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service, gave us some insight toward what may have been happening with the Gulf Stream.
Using satellite imagery that measures sea surface temperatures, chlorophyll concentration and the color of ocean water, Roffer’s analysis for May 9 showed four counterclockwise-rotating Gulf Stream eddy features spinning off to the west from the stream’s main body off Central Florida. These may have been anomalies created by the passing of our earliest tropical system, Ana, which skirted the coast just a few days before.
Mix up this landscape of current swirls with a 3-degree temperature gradient in the same area (also shown by Roffer’s analysis), toss in a pinch of baitfish-attracting Sargassum algae pushed in by Ana’s swell and Brevard’s offshore waters become essentially fish soup.
And although catching a Space Coast billfish slam is against the odds, it’s not impossible. In 1998, the crew of the Port Canaveral-based charter boat, the Jester, caught the first “super slam” in U.S. Atlantic waters first International Game Fish Association documented
“We slow-trolled at night with ballyhoo for swordfish using a downrigger and a wire-line rod to get baits down deep,” said Mitch Stuback of Cocoa Beach, who was first mate on the Jester that day. “We’d bring it down to one motor and troll at maybe a knot or two. Rigged a glowstick 30 feet in front of the bait. We caught wahoo, marlin and bigeye tuna at night doing that.”
In the morning, the Jester crew, then run by legendary Canaveral captain Steve Seaman, who died in 2006, caught a blue marlin, sailfish and a rare longbill spearfish.
“But we just couldn’t find a white for the grand slam, which would have been all five Atlantic billfish,” said Stuback, now a real estate agent at ReMax The Home Center in Cocoa. “We caught everything on the other side of the Gulf Stream.”