VRSAR, Croatia — My reel screams as line peels off at 50 miles per hour. I arch my back, flex my arms, legs and chest as every muscle in my body make itself known.
Sweat beads on my forehead, and the surge of the boat sloshes salty water onto my face.
A fish 10 feet long and weighing half a ton — though capable of growing twice that size — thrums and battles at the end of my line as I jockey and strain to get the rod butt into my fighting belt.
Hands shaking, I lock in the rod and set my eyes on the finned torpedo some 200 yards distant now.
This fish is the culmination of my entire life’s work. I steel myself for what will likely be an hour or more of intensity.
Then, as soon as it began, it is over. I awake, breathing hard.
A dream, but one that would soon become either a reality or a nightmare.
In the weeks leading up to my winter trip to Europe, the dream increases in frequency and intensity, affirming my decision to buy a boat with Marc Inou of Ohana Fishing Charters and Lodge in Vrsar, Croatia.
For more money than I’d spent on any three charters combined before, I had the chance to see how that dream ended in the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, between Croatia and Italy.
Numerous emails found me and my dad, the only member of my family willing to trade a day in beautiful Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a day on the water, driving down to the coast.
A snafu with a missing passport prevented us from crossing into Croatia and cost us a few hours, but we made it to our destination later that night after a lot of profanity I pray the border security couldn’t understand.
With that much money and hope on the line, what followed was not my finest hour, and I feel awful for how I acted. Dad, I’m sorry.
Though I’d had every intention of fishing the Vrsar Marina that night for all manner of smaller fish in my never ending #SpeciesQuest, it was much too late.
Pro tip: when traveling abroad, always make sure your passport is handy.
We got up, ate breakfast and drank coffee with Marc and his wife and adorable newborn son before loading the boat.
We dinked around in the marina while Marc fueled the boat, and we landed several species of goby and some big-scale sand smelt, a new species for me but both a literal and figurative small fry in the face of bluefin tuna.
It took a few hours to locate the tuna, but when we did, they were even more impressive than I’d dreamed.
Imagine the same feeding frenzy you’ve seen with trout or salmon. Fish skimming under the surface, jumping, splashing and leaving a pool of blood in their wake. Except instead of fish the size of small dogs, the fish are the size of small cars and moving 50, 60 or even 70 miles per hour.
Suffice to say, it’s absolutely staggering.
As we tried getting closer to the rampaging tuna, Marc began working the automatic bait feeder, a device that hooked to the gunwale and started a chumline.
Less than five minutes after we started, we heard a grunt, and the machine wound to a stop. The cord had proven to be a tripping hazard. Awesome.
I was in shock from the fish, but it was a good shock. The realization the fishing was killed flipped me to a bad sort of shock.
A 500-pound class tuna breaking the surface 10 feet off the bow snapped me back to reality.
I asked for the topwater rod, and Marc reached for it, only to find it hadn’t been set up.
In a classic tough decision: fix the feeder or rig up a rod.
I would’ve happily done one of the two, but I had no idea how to fix the feeder nor where any of the topwater plugs were stored.
Marc opted to fix the feeder instead of showing me where the topwaters were. By the time the feeder was operating again, the school had moved.
We spent the better part of the day fishing live baits, but we never got close enough to try fishing topwaters the size of 20-ounce soda bottles again.
The trip was heartbreaking, frustrating and infuriating all at once.
Fortunately, Marc was sympathetic and helped us target all manner of other species once the tuna proved fruitless.
On lighter gear, we began targeting smaller fish on sabikis and bottom rigs. The bite was consistent, and we boated brown comber and greater weever (a highly venomous fish) left and right on squid and shrimp.
On another rod, I tied a bottom rig with a chunk of cutbait. I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled in a small shark. It’s semi-opaque, solid color pupil-less eyes were hauntingly beautiful.
Since it was a deepwater, primarily nocturnal species, it used its tail to cover its eyes — a fascinating development.
I quickly photographed and released what I would later discover was a lesser smallspotted catshark.
To makeup for the tuna debacle, Marc stayed out much later than we’d planned, allowing us to target several species of seabream over thermal vents in the darkness. We got several, and it was a bit of a consolation for a trip I’d overhyped.
It could’ve been a nightmare, and it was far from that, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d been dreaming of for so long.
Still, it won’t stop me from dreaming big in the future. After all, as one television character put it: “Never stop dreaming because once you do, you’re just sleeping.”