The Bat Patrol-A story of mud marlin
By Mike Burian
They're out there . . . lurking . . . and they run low and slow, and lean and mean . . . by day, as well as night, unseen . . . they roam the foam in search of food . . . and they want your bait.
They're the boomer-sized, bruiser Bat Rays:
Big as a wagon wheel, heavier than a Rottweiler, stronger than a draught-horse, these are the Big Dogs of the surf scene, and anyone horsing- around with sub-standard tackle will be put out to pasture in short order.
That's why my Japanese friend, Henry, brought along his 12 ft. Loomis casting cannon to Topanga beach on this fine spring morning. Henry, like a lot of other Japanese dudes, is a super-avid angler, and when it comes to tackle, he cuts no corners. All last summer he watched as I hauled in one big bat ray after another, while his then-new Team Daiwa / vintage Squidder combo sat practically silent. I was having a superbly good year in this sense, and my Penn 250 / 12 ft.UglyStik combo was strong enough to yank the chops out of the biggest bat.
So, whether to one-up me, or to prepare himself for the final showdown, he got the best rod he could. And a killer rod needs a killer reel, so, perched boldly atop the sinister-looking matte-black Loomis was a spanking-new Penn 555, stuffed full of fresh 30 # Ande clear, and ready to die for the cause. It was a slow morning, and we each also had our Team Daiwa / Abu 7000 rigs out. Actually, it wasn't just slow, it was stone dead for the first three hours, so eventually I wandered over to Henry's camp, about 40 yds. down from me, to try to sell him, a cigar smoker, on the delights and wonders of Red Man chewing tobacco, in which I like to imbibe from time to time. He was politely refusing my offers to take a chaw, but he was interested in the smell and texture of the stuff (“snail food “, a wag once called it! ), and was giving it his close attention, so when the clicker fired-off on the new and unfamiliar reel, neither of us reacted immediately. That condition lasted about three seconds, however, and by the time we reached the rig, the clicker was shrieking and the spool was shooting out line like a laser. I've been in this situation many times, and I know that the way you start the fight will often determine the way it ends, and how long it will take, but this was Henry's show, so I stood back, and I watched. I've seen Henry wrestle with a couple of largish bats before, but this one was something else. When he first grabbed the rig, he was all smiles, and no doubt glad to finally start getting some of his $500 worth out of the two month old Loomis rig. But after just a few moments, things weren't going quite as he thought they would. And as I drew closer, I could see by the look on his face, he knew he was in serious trouble. I then looked down at the reel and saw that the spool was well below the half-way point already, and was losing line fast. This was going to be an epic fight, I decided, so it was time to haul in the other rigs, fast, and give Henry the whole beach to use as his battlefield. This was necessary in order to avoid the disaster of having the bat run through all the lines, which was a very real possibility, as big ones like this will almost always make a sideways run at some time during the battle. I had already wound-in Henry's 7000 and was tending to my own rig, some 60 yds. up the beach, when I was startled to hear the shout " Water!, Water! “. Perplexed at this strange plea, I got my line back in quickly and ran back towards Henry, who was between the two Daiwa rigs. As I ran up to him, I saw that he was trying to stop the ripping spool with his thumb, which I have seen others do in this predicament, unthinkingly. And there was no time to think or discuss now, because the reel only had about 75 yds. of line left on it , so I looked around and spotted his half-full Arrowhead sports water bottle up at his camp about 20 yds. away, and blitzed up and fetched it back down. I popped open the squiter-type top and spritzed the cool water on his searing thumb. I had kept out of the picture up to now, but if I didn't talk him through this crucial phase of the fight, he was going to get spooled. So I started to tell him to dial-in the drag, slowly, until the beast stopped. New 30# Ande is very strong line, and will put the brakes on even the 100 pounders every time.
From here on out, the scene is a mixture of confusion, humor, and awe. Henry is a good and tough angler, and has many smaller bat rays and several large sharks under his belt, including a six foot Mako with a mouth full of nasty, sharp teeth, so he was no greenhorn with big fish.
But this was no mere big fish. When I told him to slowly tighten his drag, I didn't tell him what the consequence of that act would be, and now, there was a monumental tug-of-war going on to determine who was in charge. Henry had his feet dug into the sand at water's-edge a good three inches deep. He was slowing the bat but it was still moving out, and he had precious little line left. The more he cranked-down, the more the big fish pulled him, and finally, with the drag screwed down hard, and with his feet still dug in, the hidden giant gave a mighty heave and yanked poor Henry forward like a reluctant dog on a leash, and he stumbled ahead with such force that now, I was not only worried about the possibility of losing Henry's expensive rig in the surf, but also Henry as well.
Nevertheless, I was devilishly delighted with all of this. I like Henry, and, as I said, he's a good and smart angler, and also a great sportsman. I've caught so many big bats with him that it's almost routine for me now. But here was Henry's comeuppance, and he was having his cake and trying hard to eat it too, and he was dancing and contorting and arm-wrestling with such a cool and determined foe, and things were getting so tough for him, and he was beginning to look so helpless, that it seemed like he was almost at the point of yelling for the police.
And, indeed, it WAS beginning to look like a crime, what this brute was doing to him, and as the sweat began to soak through the back of his shirt, and he began to pant and waver, and his knees began to give-way, it began to dawn on me that, indeed, this was one of the most massive Mud Monsters that I had ever seen. As it turned out, though, the end of Henry's line was also the end of the line for Mr. Bat. He had finally managed to stop it, and if the fish doesn't then find rocks or seaweed for cover, from this point on it's all a matter of wheeling it back in and yanking it out of the surf. Henry was plenty tuckered-out now, and he looked a little bit floored by the fight. But it wasn't over yet. The thing was still well over 200 yds. out, and there was a great deal of cranking left to do. Also, the beast would almost surely make another run once it got its second wind. So, wearily, Henry began to slowly roll the monster back towards its fate. And, sure enough, as soon as it got into the swells behind the breakers, the big fish started to go sideways. They will always do this if you don't pull them in fast, and it is at this point of the battle where most lose the war, because it is here that it is necessary to try to horse the beast through the waves, and, with so much force involved, anything less than good tackle will fail. My earlier task of clearing all other lines out of the water allowed Henry to use as much of the beach as he needed, but after only short bursts either way, the big bat was now almost as tired as its adversary. The fish was now right in the suds, and we were now just beginning to get the first ghostly glimpses of its awesome form.
All along I had tried to stay back and let Henry do the whole job, but I had to jump in here one more time, because he was committing the potentially fatal crime of " high-sticking " , i.e., he wanted to pull the fish forward, but he was standing almost directly over it, and so pulling almost straight up, and the rod was going way over, and a fish this big could snap even the mighty Loomis, so I yelled at him to back off, and he went back up the beach a good 40 feet, and kept tension on the line, and waited for just the right wave, and it came, and then he surfed the big bugger right up onto the sand. So, finally, there the weary warrior stood, with his weapon in hand, victorious at last, and ready to claim his prize.
But I was the spotter here, and it was my job to lug the guts up out of the surf and back onto the beach. On a bat this big, the only way to move it is to place both hands into the large breathing channels behind the eyes and use them as handles to drag the thing around. I did this, and both of my hands went in on either side of the massive skull with plenty of room to spare. After three attempts to haul the oaf back up the wet sand apron and over to where our rigs were, and finally slipping and landing on my arse on the final go, I managed to move the 100 lb. monster only about ten feet farther from where it first came out of the water.
And, having done this, it was now time to get our first good look at this fearsome, man-eating beast. And the thing was truly awesome. Not so big around as the four-footers I've seen, but its head and huge upper " lip " were wider than a cow's snout, which they somehow strangely resembled, and the area of its back between the wings was a full foot thick across. And as it lay there, the huge lip would obscenely curl-up in a kind of snarl, and then the thing would snort loudly, and swat its fat, thick wings hard onto the sand, sending a shock wave that I could feel from ten feet away. I'd never seen one snort like this before, and the small crowd that had now gathered was held spellbound by this angry, massive marvel of the sea. Bat rays always get hooked on the side of the mouth, and this one was no exception, but flipping this giant, slimy beast over to dislodge the hook was out of the question, so I pulled out my Spyderco and sliced the leader and left the 5/0 octopus where it was, to be later crushed out by the animal's giant bone-crunching gristle mouth plates, or to merely work its own way out. During all of this commotion, Henry, still clutching his cumbersome rig, was at my heels trying to lend a hand, but it was clear that he was completely exhausted by the fight. In this kind of brutal battle, the combination of physical stress, psychological duress, and adrenalin drain can sap the juice out of just about anyone. (And this is supposed to be fun?). After a few photos were taken ( and although I tried to refuse, Henry insisted that my photo be taken with the beast also ), Henry, satisfied but pooped, dragged his tired bones back to his beach chair and collapsed into it, finished for the day.
I stayed down at water's edge with the beast, and now a few kids were very tentatively inching their way through the crowd for a better look at this very strange sight, and as they warily put forth small hands to touch, after one made contact, and then another, and then another, and still another, they found that, contrary to its menacing appearance, the now-calm creature was really just as docile as the family dog, and the kids were soon enjoying making swirls in the thick slime on the monster's back and wings. (The stinger on a ray this size would be over three inches long, but it is located at the base of the long, whip tail, and the fish cannot sting unless it is directly stepped on, or otherwise contacted. Also, on this fish, as on several other large bats I've encountered, the stinger was missing).
But it was time to tell them that it was time to get him back into the water, as he was taking long, heaving gasps now, and would weaken before too long; so, as the kids stood back, I swung him around to face the sea, and I dragged him back another five feet into the wash, and I instructed the kids that, before he went away, they would have to give him a proper send-off.
So, sadly but dutifully, the wee ones waved good-bye to their new friend ; and he, as if in recognition, thumped the wet sand with his massive pinions, and gave another snort or two, and a small wave came up and surrounded him, and then another right behind it engulfed him, and lifted him up off the sand . . . . . . and then gently pulled the giant back into his foamy home.