OCEAN CITY — Offshore fishing is often filled with adventure to varying degrees, but few fish stories in recent memory will top the harrowing 37-hour trip the crew on the “Sea Prowler” experienced last weekend during the 2nd Annual Big Fish Classic.
The Big Fish Classic features boats and teams of anglers fishing in one of two 32-hour windows with the largest fish of any species taking home the top prize. When Captain Austin Ensor and the crew on the “Sea Prowler,” a 1967 31-foot Bertram owned by David Bradley, set out early last Friday morning for its overnight trip in the tournament, they didn’t anticipate the ups and downs they would experience over the next 37 hours.
The trip included a big wahoo early, lots of tuna, a nearly 200-pound swordfish somewhere in the middle, a finger lost by crewmember Jason McFadden during a battle with a big shark, an impromptu trip back to the docks to get McFadden to the hospital, another successful catch including a bunch of mahi on day two and finally a trip to the scale at Talbot Street with a bandaged, but unbroken McFadden on board to claim over $15,000 in prize money.
The “Sea Prowler” left the Ocean City Inlet at 3:30 a.m. with 300 pounds of ice, 150 ballyhoos, four flats of butterfish and a crew of eager fisherman ready to make some noise in the 2nd Annual Big Fish Classic. After the trek out to the canyons, it didn’t take long for the crew, including Captain Austin Ensor, mate Josh Ensor and anglers McFadden, Corbin Ensor and Mike Altadonna to get their first significant catch.
Around 10:30 a.m., the “Sea Prowler” caught a 42-pound wahoo landed by McFadden. Throughout the rest of mid-morning, the “Sea Prowler” crew caught 14 yellowfin tuna and sharks. Around noon, the crew hooked a big-eye tuna and fought it for about 45 minutes before it chaffed off.
The “Sea Prowler” crew set up for the evening troll and saw two white marlin early. Around 10:30 p.m., the long rigger snapped out of the clip and Ensor knew there was something big on the other end of the line. For the next two-and-a-half hours, with Josh Ensor on the rod, the “Sea Prowler” battled what turned out to be a 197.5-pound swordfish. The big sword was gaffed and boated and mostly filled the cockpit of the 31-foot Bertram.
Ensor said this week he would not be surprised if people on land could hear the crew’s celebratory cheers when the big swordfish hit the deck.
“Not only was it a swordfish, it was a fat one,” he said. “Our first fish bag was already packed with tuna and the wahoo and was jammed with ice to preserve their weight. I had to cut the back-up fish bag in half to get the big sword in it and properly pack it with ice. We enjoyed the moment, but there was a lot of fishing yet to do.”
There was as well as a lot of pain and gain yet to accomplish for the “Sea Prowler” crew.
Around 4 a.m., the crew hooked up another big shark, estimated at around 200 pounds, but the shark exacted a little revenge on behalf of the sea against the “Sea Prowler” crew, which had enjoyed a wildly successful first 24 hours. Ensor said the shark made a run at the vessel’s bow. McFadden was standing in the cockpit with his hand on the rail when the shark made a dash at the boat and the wire caught his hand and “took the greater part of the tip of his finger off like it was hot butter,” according to Ensor.
“I saw it coming and tried to stop it, but it was too late,” he said. “Jason lost the tip of his finger and I got some slashes across my hand from the wire, but my injuries weren’t nearly as severe as Jason’s. So we were standing there bleeding all over the deck and we could see the bone in Jason’s finger. We tried to look for the finger to no avail and now it’s somewhere in the Washington Canyon.”
Ensor said this week with he and McFadden bleeding, Altadonna found a real basic First-Aid kit on board and began a rudimentary offshore emergency repair job. With saline solution to cleanse the wound and bandages applied, McFadden was at least stabilized and the crew considered what to do next, whether to continue fishing or head in to get medical attention for the wounded angler, and ultimately decided on the latter.
“He was starting to lose feeling in his hand and was turning white and was in a lot of pain, so the only thing to do was start to head in,” said Ensor. “I was really concerned about infection and the cockpit of an offshore fishing boat isn’t the healthiest environment for an angler that just had his finger ripped off, with fish and blood all over the place, so I made the decision to get in and get him medical attention.”
As if there is really any healthy environment for a ripped off and stripped to the bone finger. Ensor said he reached McFadden’s father via satellite phone and told him Jason had an accident and to meet the “Sea Prowler” at Sunset Marina. The “Sea Prowler” then began the two-and-a-half hour trip into shore and met McFadden’s father at the docks, who whisked his son quickly to PRMC in Salisbury.
Satisfied McFadden was getting the medical attention he needed, the “Sea Prowler” crew took on more fuel and ice and reloaded its baits and headed back out to sea to finish the tournament. Incidentally, the 31-foot Bertram’s 150-gallon tank does not hold enough fuel for a trip longer than 24 hours and the crew carried an extra 40 gallons of diesel they had to put in the tank while 65 miles offshore, which only complicated the trip.
During the morning troll, the “Sea Prowler” caught another five mahi and started heading in at 3 p.m., according to tournament rules. Ensor said he reached McFadden’s father around 2 p.m. and learned his crewmember had been in surgery all morning and was coming out of recovery soon. Around 3 p.m., Ensor called McFadden’s father again and found out he was being released and would be going home soon.
However, Ensor urged McFadden’s father not to take him home, but to bring him back to Sunset Marina, where the “Sea Prowler” would pick him up and take him to the Big Fish Classic weigh-ins at the scale on Talbot Street.
“Jason caught that first wahoo and was a big part of our team and we wanted him to be a part of it,” said Ensor. “We picked him up all bandaged and in a sling and we all went to Talbot Street together as a team.”
The “Sea Prowler” took first place in the heaviest billfish $500 entry level, third place in the heaviest fish $500 entry level, third place in the heaviest stringer category, and second place in the small boat $500 entry level. All told, the various placings netted the “Sea Prowler” $15,705 in prize money.
Ensor said during the all-day surgery, McFadden’s middle finger was stitched to his palm as doctors repaired the damage. He said as of mid-week, McFadden was recovering nicely and would soon be none the worse for wear. Meanwhile, the crew had a fish story to remember for a lifetime and over $15,000 in prize money to divvy up.