- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

Decades ago when the Scripps Howard newspaper chains premier writer about world events, Robert C. Ruark - he also authored some of the finest books ever written on African safari hunting - tried to convince his friend Ernest Hemingway that big-game hunting was a most dangerous activity, "Papa" Hemingway allowed that hunting was childs play compared to being 50 miles offshore in an open boat, with 15-foot waves threatening to turn and flip the craft while the crew attempted to subdue a huge marlin that could easily drag an angler overboard.

Ruark later said, "We never solved the argument. I guess we were both too hard-headed."

However, Hemingways thoughts on the matter were prophetic.

Last month Kathy and Bill Baker, from Bills Sport Shop at Indian River Inlet, Del., sent the startling message: "We are sorry to announce the untimely passing of Captain Billy Verbanis, the captain of the Realistic. Captain Billy had his final battle with a mako shark estimated to weigh between 300 and 400 pounds. He had the [leader from the] fish and was prepared to shoot it when it took a dive, dragging Captain Billy overboard. Billy surfaced within 30 seconds and called out that he was all right. One of the charter party dove in to help him but [Billy suddenly] was face down. Valiant efforts to revive him failed. He apparently died of a heart attack. Captain Billy was 41 years old and leaves a wife and six children, the youngest of which is 9 months old."

So began and ended yet another sad tale of men who died during the most dangerous moments in big-game fishing. It begins when, after a pump-and-reel fight with the angler, a large fish comes close to the boat and the "wire man" grabs the leader, the last few yards of wire line that connect the creature to the monofilament line that is spooled to the reel held by the person in the fighting chair. If the "wire man" - usually the boat mate, not the captain - wraps the leader wire around his gloved hand in an attempt to bring the fish into gaffing (or shooting) range and it revives and unexpectedly dives, the results can be deadly for the human.

It doesnt happen often, but, sadly, it occurs frequently enough to make one wonder why anybody would volunteer to do the "wire" duties aboard an offshore sportfishing vessel.

Nate Beiler, a Pennsylvania visitor aboard the Realistic that fateful day, later told Kathy Baker that Verbanis had told him how a shark can pull a man right out of the boat.

How ironic.

Beiler also recalled how on the third run toward the boat Verbanis was able to "wire" the mako shark, meaning he got hold of the leader wire, but the shark raised his head, shook it violently, then took off, dragging Verbanis overboard.

Despite 7- to 8-foot seas, one of the men on the boat jumped into the Atlantic and eventually got hold of Verbanis whose head by now had gone under. The captain was brought aboard, and CPR was immediately administered while someone got on the ship radio and called for help.

After a Coast Guard helicopter arrived amid dangerous winds, a crewman who was lowered to the fishing boat slammed into it and broke his collarbone and one rib. The chopper had to leave, but another Coast Guard helicopter arrived and it managed to lift Verbanis up in a basket, then took off to get him to a hospital. Sadly, it was too late. The family said that Billy died from drowning, not a heart attack.

The Verbanis incident is not unheard of. Last year, off the coast of North Carolina, a mate aboard a charter fishing vessel was about to bring in a large blue marlin when he purposely or accidentally wrapped the leader wire around the glove on his hand. The marlin, which had appeared to be totally worn out from the fight with the angler, suddenly revived and turned to head for the deep ocean bottom. With lightning speed it pulled the young mate overboard. The mate was gone.

His body was found days later in shallow shore water.

A Mexican billfisherman lost his life the same way during 2000 as he and some friends participated in a marlin tournament. His body eventually was recovered, but it already had been attacked by sharks. You can fill in the blanks, if you know what I mean.

Look for Gene Muellers Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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