In search of giant fish: What was Hemingway’s most coveted game fish?

Papa Hemingway, as he preferred being called over Ernest, was an avid fisherman throughout his life.  He purchased his famous sport fishing boat, the 38-foot Pilar, in 1934 from a company in Brooklyn, New York, for $7,495.  Hemingway named the vessel after a nickname given to his then-current wife Pauline.  The Pilar came fitted with a flying bridge, a live well, and a special modification of the transom to allow large fish to be hauled into the vessel.  Hemingway fished in the Florida Keys and off Cuba and the Bahamas.  He was particularly fond of fishing the Gulf Stream, where he often targeted tuna and marlin. 

His well-honed techniques at successfully landing big tuna and marlin, coupled with his propensity to fish the Gulf Stream using heavy tackle and the many photos of him with landed heavyweights, suggest that Hemingway was most interested in large tuna and marlin.  Anyone having read The Old Man and the Sea probably would guess that Hemingway held a special spot in his heart for marlin.  While speaking of fishing, he often would mention wanting to land a “grander”, a term that refers to 1000-pound-class marlin.  Although the largest of the marlins—Indo-Pacific blue marlin—are legendary heavyweights often referred to as granders, Hemingway’s fishing exploits are outside of the range of that species.  Similarly, the massive black marlin is absent from Hemingway’s area of exploit.  Instead, Hemingway coveted the huge Atlantic blue marlin of the Gulf Current, and he targeted them in his Key West-Havana-Bimini fishing triangle.  Although the Atlantic blue marlin averages only between 300 and 400 pounds, the species’ maximum size of over 12 feet and robust body puts it well into the grander category.  The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) all-tackle angling record, a 1,282 pound monster, was landed off St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Unfortunately, the weights of some of Hemingway’s biggest marlin remain unknown to this day due to the depredations of sharks while landing the marlin.

Of the tunas, Hemingway probably most eagerly sought the yellowfin, blackfin, bigeye, and Atlantic bluefin tunas, all of which can be caught in Hemingway’s Key West-Havana-Bimini fishing triangle.  Although all of these tunas reach impressive sizes worthy of the most skillful and resourceful of anglers, one species is perhaps the most coveted of all the tunas.  The Atlantic bluefin is often referred to simply as a “giant”.  With a maximum size of over 10 feet, coupled with a torpedo-shaped body made of pure muscle, the Atlantic bluefin may well have been Hemingway’s most prized fish.  The IGFA all-tackle record tipped the scales at about 1,497 pounds for a giant bluefin caught off Nova Scotia in 1979.

In celebration of Hemingway’s passion and aptitude for big game fishing, the Hemingway International Billfish Tournament is held each year near Havana, Cuba, where anglers target marlin, tuna, wahoo, dolphinfish, and other heavyweights over a several-day period.  A full-size replica of Hemingway’s Pilar, complete with several fighting chairs, can be seen on display at the Worldwide Sportsman store in Islamorada, Florida.  The original Pilar is on display in the Museo Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, near Havana.

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