Hemingway’s Favorite Rod

Salt Water Sportsman Magazine - The Fishing Authority Since 1939

REHABILITATING HEMINGWAY  By Norman German

There were many targets of Ernest Hemingway’s big-game eye, including lions, rhinos, marlin, tarpon and Nazi submarines. Of these “Big Five,” only the U-boat eluded his grasp, though one can easily imagine Papa’s iconic figure posed for a photograph on a Cuban dock with the sub hanging from a boom like a gargantuan, armor-plated tuna.

Named one of the 20th century’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine, Hemingway, after enjoying 75 years of legend status, has become to many an unsavory character — the pro wrestler of the sport-fishing world.

Hemingway’s favorite marlin weapons were Fin-Nor or Vom Hofe reels mounted on Frank O’Brien’s split-bamboo Tycoon rods. His favorite shark weapon was a Thompson submachine gun. In Bimini in 1935, Hemingway fought a mammoth tuna for hours, only to have it butchered by sharks. To the horror of some guests — and the delight of others — Hemingway dyed the water red by strafing the circling predators with his Tommy gun.

But if Hemingway’s contributions to deep-sea fishing are measured against his sporting peccadilloes, especially when those transgressions are put in the context of his era, his reputation for plundering nature loses its tarnish.

How good was Hemingway, really? Recently, some fool, apparently drunk on the latest wave of anti-Hemingway sentiment, claimed the author never even boated a marlin. In fact, in 1933 he landed his first big one, 468 pounds, in 65 minutes. In 1935, he won every tournament in the Key West-Havana-Bimini triangle, besting notables like Michael Lerner and Kip Farrington. In 1938, Hemingway caught a world record seven marlin in one day.

Considered an innovator, he was invited to write chapters or introductions for Eugene V. Connett’s American Big Game Fishing, Farrington’s Atlantic Game Fishing, and Van Campen Heilner’s Salt Water Fishing. His discussions with Lerner (millionaire owner of women’s clothing stores) about the need for an organization to track fishing records led in 1939 to Lerner’s founding of the International Game Fish Association. Granted one of the initial vice-presidencies of the organization, Hemingway held that cherished position until his death.

In his early 30s, seeking a sea-going craft worthy of his growing status as a literary giant, Hemingway asked Arnold Gingrich, editor of the new magazine Esquire, to advance him $3,300 against some commissioned essays. The custom-made boat from Brooklyn’s Wheeler shipyard — total cost: $7,500 — was christened the Pilar, after the Spanish bullfight shrine Our Lady of the Pillar and second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, who used “pilar” as her code name in cables to her still-married future husband.

The 38-footer had six bunks, double rudders, and, with 300 gallons of water and 2,400 pounds of ice, a cruising range of 500 miles. A few years later, a flying bridge with topside controls consisting of pulleys and a car steering wheel was added, along with “outriggers big enough to skip a ten-pound bait.”

The vessel, delivered by rail to Miami, was piloted by Hemingway to Key West. After landing a few sailfish, he aimed the Pilar for Cuba in search of marlin, confessing to Gingrich that he felt sorry for interrupting the “chickens*@# sailfish” when he caught them.

Onboard the Pilar, Hem hosted Charles Cadwalader, Director of the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, and chief ichthyologist Henry W. Fowler. The series of fishing trips resulted in a reclassification of marlin for the North Atlantic. In honor of its discoverer, the men named one new species of fish Neomerinthe Hemingwayi (common name, Spinycheek Scorpionfish).

In 1950, Papa organized the first annual Hemingway marlin-fishing competition out of Havana, a contest legitimately won in 1959 by Fidel Castro, as confirmed by guests onboard the Pilar who kept El Presidente under close binocular scrutiny. In a photograph capturing the flavor of that era, Hemingway presents Castro with the silver winner’s cup, the cultural icons wearing what Papa’s niece Hilary called “the two most famous beards of their time.”

Hemingway is also credited with catching the first large bluefin tuna unmolested by sharks in Bimini waters. To prevent sharks from attacking a weary tuna, Hemingway explained to Farrington, you must “convince” the fish by dominating it, thus bringing it alongside before it reaches exhaustion. “The secret is for the angler never to rest. Any time he rests the fish is resting.”

To convince a large fish requires the fisherman to punish himself as well, working until his “muscles are nauseated with the unceasing strain.” Profanity helps. To prove his theory, in 1935 Hemingway landed a 786-pound shark in half an hour. Later, he boated a healthy, fair-hooked 130-pound striped marlin in three minutes, saying, “That fish would have taken me nearly an hour a couple of seasons ago.”

And that brings up one of Hemingway’s interesting quirks. He was a quantifier. In a 1933Esquire article, he reported that from mid-April to mid-July, his group caught 52 marlin, the largest “black,” “striped,” and white marlin weighing 468, 343, and 87 pounds (in those days, Atlantic blue marlin were often mistaken for black and striped marlin). “The 343-pounder jumped 44 times,” he reported. Keeping pathologically detailed ship logs, he was also obsessed with his quarry’s leaping ability. One striped marlin, he fastidiously noted, jumped “in a straight line to the northwest, 53 times.”

Even Gingrich, in “Horsing Them in with Hemingway,” the second chapter of his 1965 book The Well-Tempered Angler, labeled Papa “a meat fisherman” who cared “more about quantity than about quality,” a man “more concerned with the capture of the quarry than with the means employed to do it.”

But those statements are simply not true. Hemingway’s interest in pressuring big fish was partly founded on sympathy. An exhausted fish was more likely to be attacked by sharks and less likely to survive if released — and he released plenty at a time when it was not a moral imperative to do so.

Sometimes, of course, quantity determines quality. Because if quality weren’t partly based on quantity, we’d all save time, money and sunburns by catching goldfish from a coffee-table aquarium. Hemingway’s outrage at “sportsmen” hauling in marlin with heavy gear drove him to express to Lerner the need for an organization that would keep categories of records based on the type of equipment used. Gratified by the IGFA’s achievement in setting honest, sporting standards, Hemingway wrote in 1949, “Education as to what makes a big fish legitimately caught has . . . progressed steadily. Very few guides or anglers shoot or harpoon hooked fish anymore.” And Hemingway played a key role in bringing us to that point.

Despite Hemingway’s amply documented myth-making about his private life, his sporting integrity was a certainty. During an early Pilar trip, a priest hooked a nine-foot sailfish and fought it until Hemingway reluctantly took over. Still on display at the Miami Rod and Reel Club, the 119-pounder set the Atlantic record — one, however, that Hemingway vehemently refused to take credit for. Written by “Eye Witness,” the Miami Herald article announcing the record was probably penned by Father McGrath himself.

Regarding the ultimate fairness of the struggle between fisherman and fish, Hemingway asserted, “Of course, it could never be considered an equal contest unless the angler had a hook in his mouth, as well.”

It has been claimed that Hemingway never met an animal he didn’t want to kill. Regarding land and sea sport, Hemingway’s thinking seemed to be, “If it’s big and elusive, bag it.” Love, war, drinking, fishing — for Hemingway, if something was worth doing, it was worth overdoing. On excursions since boyhood, he shot animals as mere targets — herons, sawfish, coyotes — and said he would shoot himself “if it came to that.”

It did. On July 2, 1961, just before his 62nd birthday, he took his favorite shotgun and tripped both barrels against his head.

The fact is that Hemingway loved animals. Descendants of his famous six-toed cats still prowl the grounds of his Key West home, now a museum, and his Cuban estate, the Finca Vigía(Lookout Farm), where an entire floor of “The Tower” housed nearly 60 felines. His beloved black dog, named Black Dog by the quick-thinking Pulitzer Prize winner, literally slept on Hemingway’s feet while his master wrote. When Black Dog was killed with rifle butts by Batista’s men in 1957, Hemingway was devastated.

How, then, should we judge Hemingway’s greedy harvesting, and sometimes wasteful slaughter, of fish and other game? Consider Exhibit A, a 1937 photograph of him shooting sharks in Bimini harbor. Before condemning him too quickly, look carefully at the other man about to blast away. It’s Michael Lerner.

Although Teddy Roosevelt had left a legacy of conservation before his death in 1919, Hemingway lived at a time when sportsmen were still reassessing their relationship with nature. First and foremost, Hemingway was a humanitarian, emphasis on human. From the peaks of two World Wars, and the valley of the Spanish Civil War between, Hemingway was more concerned with preventing man’s inhumanity to man than stopping the wanton killing of “mere” animals. Asking him to be an animal-rights activist in 1940 would be like asking Buffalo Bill to be a vegetarian.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the “bad” Hemingway was constructed mainly because that version of him made good press. In fact, he loved mentoring, he was generous to a fault, and he was an exceptional though often-absent father.

Regarding Hemingway’s hero-sized tantrums (the victims of his fists included Orson Welles and poet Wallace Stevens), it’s good to remember that practically everything but his bowel movements was publicized — and even those when a 1954 safari plane crash left him with a paralyzed sphincter. So he probably had no more outbursts than an average man would have in the unusual situations Papa put himself in — discounting those fits late in life when he was not in full control of his mental faculties because of numerous concussions, alcohol abuse and possibly mercury poisoning from eating tons of marine fish over three decades.

A fetish for things German was another of Hemingway’s peculiarities. He was good friends, and possibly more, with Marlene Dietrich, nicknaming her “The Kraut.” Violating wartime laws regarding journalists by moving ahead of American troops, Hemingway helped liberate Paris, then immediately liberated a wine cellar for victory libations. Somewhere between the Normandy coast and the City of Lights he scavenged a belt from a dead soldier and wore it for the rest of his life. The inscription on the buckle read Gott Mit Uns, God With Us.

Then there was that U-boat thing. An obsession, really. During World War II, German submarines roamed U.S. coastal waters, destroying warships and cargo vessels, raiding turtle boats and insular fishing camps for their catch. Too active a man to still-fish for submarines, Hemingway went trolling for them. Supplied by Naval Intelligence with expensive radio equipment, grenades and short-fuse bombs, Hemingway plied the Gulf Stream for months at a stretch, the Pilar disguised alternately as a research or fishing vessel. His strategy was to make his craft an easy target for U-boat crews to plunder for food and fresh water. If a sub pulled alongside, Hemingway planned to toss a bomb down its hatch. Hemingway reported several sightings, but the climax of his one-man war was having a crewmember lob a grenade into the maw of a mako at the end of his line.

Early in the Pilar’s history, first mate Carlos Gutiérrez told Hemingway the story of an old fisherman who fought a huge marlin on a handline for days before losing it to sharks. What remained of the fish weighed 800 pounds. Hemingway took that storied bait and ran with it 16 years before hooking the Pulitzer Prize with The Old Man and the Sea.

Although years would pass before committing it to paper, Hemingway’s most popular fish tale might have coalesced in his mind during those long, quixotic pursuits for his biggest quarry, the U-boat. The novel’s protagonist, Santiago, was modeled on Gutiérrez and his successor, Gregorio Fuentes. Hemingway eventually willed the Pilar to Fuentes, who wisely ceded it to Castro’s Cuba, allowing himself to live a fabled life and die in 2002, tipping the longevity scales at 104 years — proving once again that quality is not always separable from quantity.

Dr. Norman German, fiction writer at Southeastern Louisiana University, is fishing for a publisher for Switch-Pitcher, his baseball novel in which Hemingway smuggles twin Cuban pitchers to the U.S. for a shot at major-league fame. — Ed