Local crew out for day of billfishing winds up capturing offshore angling's Holy Grail

Dean Kelly (from left), Buck Howell, Stevie Leasure, Josh White, Danny Stewart, and Mike Jackson achieved a rare fishing feat when they caught a sailfish, two white marlin, blue marlin and two swordfish on Monday.

Super Slam!

"The Gulf Stream and the other great ocean currents are the last wild country there is left. Once you are out of sight of land and of the other boats you are more alone than you can ever be hunting and the sea is the same as it has been since before men ever went on it in boats."Ernest Hemingway, 1936

The fish fought for the better part of an hour, taking line as it could, diving, leaping out of the water, then swimming away again at amazing speeds.

From the Summer Girl's fighting chair, Josh White reeled in line as the fish gave it, pulled back on the rod as he could — finessing the art of the fight. The glare on the Gulf Stream kept them from seeing exactly what they had.

Finally, the fish gave up. As the crew hauled it in close to the stern, they could see it was a big one — 275 pounds, maybe 300. A blue marlin, the biggest of the billfish.

No one said a word as they released the great fish back into the clear water. Already that morning, they had landed a sailfish and the elusive white marlin. The blue marlin gave them what the anglers call a Grand Slam — three of four species of billfish in a single day.

If they could land a swordfish, they would hit for the cycle: a Super Slam, something that had not been done in South Carolina waters for decades, if ever.

They did not say a word to each other for fear that they might jinx themselves. But, separately, all six anglers figured that they were in for a long night.

They had come too far, too fast to stop now.

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It was their fourth "last trip" of the year. And this time they meant it.

A little before 5 a.m. Monday, six men slipped away from Ripley Light Marina aboard the 42-foot Summer Girl, bound for blue water and billfish.

It was a foggy morning, and they almost decided against making the trip, forced to navigate the harbor and jetties on instruments. But they couldn't resist, caught by the lure of a perfect December day at sea.

They had their loose goals for the day. Danny Stewart had never caught a swordfish; Buck Howell had never landed a white marlin.

Capt. Stevie Leasure, a co- owner of Summer Girl, steered for the water of the Gulf Stream, nearly 50 miles out from Charleston. That's where the great game fish live, spawn, feed and migrate.

The Atlantic was slick calm, almost eerily quiet. The fishing, however, was not. By 9:30 that morning, Mike Jackson had caught a 30-pound sailfish after a 10-minute fight.

Not half an hour later, Howell finally snagged his first white marlin, probably a 40-pounder.

It had been a good morning — no troubles, no weather, nothing but sun and good times. Then White landed the big blue. Someone yelled "beer time" in celebration of the Grand Slam, but everyone's thoughts were on the seemingly impossible goal of a Super Slam. All they needed was a swordfish, an elusive fish that most anglers catch late at night.

Don Hammond, a former Department of Natural Resources marine biologist and saltwater fisheries expert, said Wednesday that he seemed to recall someone back in the early '80s catching all four indigenous species in a day, but he couldn't be sure.

"It certainly hasn't been done in the last decade," Hammond said.

The afternoon never grew tense aboard Summer Girl. They kept fishing; Leasure moved the boat away from the sharks. Still, Stewart hooked a 350-pound Thresher shark, and Dean Kelly landed a second white marlin about 3 p.m. — a 75-pound or better catch.

It got dark early, and it was a beautiful night. "It was almost as if you could touch the stars," Kelly said. With lights on the boat's underside, the ocean was like a glowing aquarium, and they watched fish and sharks swim beneath them.

Just before 8 p.m., they got something. The fight didn't take long, Jackson finally reeling in the Summer Girl crew's own white whale: a swordfish.

Super Slam.

Their cheers could have probably been heard back in Charleston.

Before Leasure could turn the boat around, Stewart hooked a second swordfish — his first. It was, he said, the perfect end to a perfect day. And, as it turned out, it was the only time any of them could remember billfishing and listening to Christmas music on their way home.

The boat's co-owners and various friends met them at Ripley Light Marina just before midnight, with champagne and congratulations. These are guys who have traveled as far away as Venezuela trying to complete a Super Slam. To have it happen in their own backyard made it all the more special.

"It's just the greatest accomplishment, the best thing you can do," Leasure said Wednesday. "I've been fishing 25, 30 years, and it's what I've always wanted to do."

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.