Lighting Up Blue

By Will Carlin

Rich Furman likes to fish. An architect by trade, Rich is a fifty-something squash coach with grey eyes that sometimes turn piercing blue, a ponytail and goatee, and a very lean build that serves him well both on the squash court and on the deck of a fishing boat.

In the northeast, where Rich fishes in the Atlantic off Long Island or Nantucket, he usually goes after tuna or white or blue marlin. These are large fish. This past July, he hooked and landed a 100-pound Bluefin tuna on a thirty-pound line.
Rich’s eyes twinkle when he describes the moment he knows he’s hooked a large fish: line spinning off the spool at an alarming rate. Tuna usually speed to the deep (called “sounding”) directly after being hooked, while marlin will jump multiple times before doing something similar and using the water pressure to their advantage.

Rich’s brother owns a 30-foot boat, and when they have a big one on the line, communication between the two is imperative. Because the boat is small and they have fished together all their lives, they are calm and communicate in a kind of shorthand. As the fish runs back and forth, Rich uses just a word or two to tell his brother what he thinks the fish is doing; together, they are trying to use the boat and the drag of the reel to put pressure on the fish at different angles.
If you’ve ever wondered how a fish can be landed despite weighing three or more times the capacity of the line, Rich says that a subtle game of tug of war is the key: you provide enough resistance on the line to encourage the fish to try to break free, and when it runs the drag allows the fish to run without overstressing the line. This is a little bit of an art. If you stress the fish from enough angles to confuse it, and if you can keep the tussle going long enough, the fish eventually tires.

Many a squash match has been won with a similar approach, and not coincidentally, a serious encounter with one of these fish can last as long as a good squash match: 45-60 minutes.

For Rich, the battle is the thing. When he lands tuna, he relishes the cooking and sharing of the catch, but when he brings in a marlin, he releases it back into the ocean with deep respect. If he could shake hands with the fish, he would.
Before any contest can begin, however, you have to hook the fish. With marlin, Rich says, there is an interesting phenomenon that happens when they start to feed.

Marlin are the biggest, fastest, and most dangerous gamefish in the ocean. They hurl through the water like torpedoes, reaching top speeds of almost 70 mph (the fastest of all fish) and the largest females – who weigh more than four times as much as males—have been reported as long as 16 feet and as heavy as 1800 lbs.
At or near the top of the ocean’s food chain, mature marlin have virtually no predators (though sometimes mako or great white sharks will attack) other than man. Blue marlin are the most widely pursued marlin by sport fishermen, both because they are present all over the world and because of their size and spectacular fighting ability. White marlin are the smallest marlin (the largest are just over 200 lbs), and they are prized catches because of their speed, leaping ability, and elegant beauty.

Rich pursues both of these, and though they are notoriously difficult to bait and hook, he and his brother have had success because they have noticed that when marlin go into a feeding frenzy around, for example, a large school of mackerel, and one particular marlin is about to strike, it lights up and turns electric blue.
All marlin have the ability to change color, usually “lighting up” to phosphorescent blue or lavender. They do it through specialized cells called chromatophores that lie between the fish’s scales and skin. Instead of an actual pigment change (as seen in certain species of iguana, among others), the star-shaped chromatophore cells contain a single pigment, and when the pigment shoots into the arms of the star, its color becomes highly visible, and its effect is heightened by light-reflecting skin cells. Scientists hypothesize that this bright color change may confuse prey by breaking up the marlin’s large, dark silhouette.

“Here’s the point,” Rich says. “Once a marlin lights up, it’s excited and committed, and it sees nothing other than its prey. Everything else goes away and it’s all in. Usually, it’s a good thing, but if they are so focused on their quarry that the presence of a human doesn’t even matter, they will sometimes strike at something they would otherwise avoid.”

Rich uses this analogy to a squash student who has just complained about missing a big sitter and making an error. He says, “The marlin turning blue is kind of like when we get a real meatball and just mindlessly attack it; we ‘light up’ but don’t think beyond that shot. We are trying to win the point right now, instead of trying to maintain or increase pressure.”

It’s a great point, but there’s another one in the very telling of the analogy: when you’re passionate about something, lessons abound.

Seek and ye shall find.