Days after winning the prestigious Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, the excitement had not left John Cruise's voice.
"The biggest fish I caught before this tournament was an 849-pound giant Atlantic bluefin tuna,'' said Cruise, a major in the Marines. "I've caught many bluefin in the 600- to 700-pound range over the years, but that marlin is a special breed. What a feat, I'll leave it at that.''
Cruise, 47, is the captain of the Pelagic Hunter II, a 35-foot outboard. He and mates Riley Adkins and Kyle Kirkpatrick won with a 495.2-pound marlin that they battled for 5½ hours Friday. That catch was only two-tenths of a pound heavier than the second-place fish and earned Cruise's boat more than $223,000 in winnings.
The Big Rock tournament began June 8 and concluded Saturday in Morehead City, North Carolina. It attracted more than 200 entrants, including Catch 23 — a yacht owned by Michael Jordan. The Hall of Fame basketball player's crew brought in a 442.3-pound marlin early in the tournament.
The Pelagic Hunter II was one of the smaller boats in the field.
"We have boats up to 85, 90, 100 feet that fish the tournament that have crews of eight or 10 people,'' said Crystal Hesmer, the tournament's executive director. "For a 35-foot boat … to bring the winning fish to the dock is just heartwarming and wonderful.''
Cruise, a major stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, has run a charter-boat company for 12 years. He followed his father, who fought in the Vietnam War, and his uncle into the Marines and has served for 22 years.
Growing up in New Jersey, his love of fishing was sealed about the time he received his first rod when he was 5 years old.
"The buzz has been beyond belief,'' Cruise said of winning Big Rock.
The Pelagic Hunter II competed against boats with far wealthier owners, larger crews and access to greater technology. Because of their sheer size, bigger vessels can handle unfavorable weather or ocean conditions better.
Still, despite being a first-time entrant who said he had not fished for marlin before the tournament, Cruise did not lower his crew's expectations. He told Adkins and Kirkpatrick that he expected to win.
"I don't play around, man,'' he said.
Shortly after the winning marlin hit the lure, Cruise said it jumped between seven and 10 times. The big fish was on the surface, about 50 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, when another boat almost ran over it. Just as the crew got the marlin close to the boat, it suddenly turned and went deep underneath the water.
The fish came up and went down a few times before the Pelagic Hunter II boated her.
"It was an exciting battle,'' Cruise said.
Cruise said his crew lost a much larger fish earlier in the tournament when it snapped the line. They measured the marlin they brought to the docks and knew it did not meet the tournament's 110-inch requirement to qualify.
They were unsure whether it would exceed the 400-pound minimum until the official weight was announced.
"She looked thick,'' Cruise said. "She looked big, but we weren't sure.
"We were just in shock, and we're still on Cloud 9. We're stunned, and we're enjoying the moment.''