By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Thursday, April 21, 2006, appeared to be the last day of the Reign of Ratner. It began ordinarily enough and without great expectations. At 9:15 a.m., Marty Arostegui, a 59-year-old retired physician, loaded some gear into his Chevy Avalanche and headed for the Snake Pit the heart of snakehead country.
Marty, a tiny man with white hair and a bushy mustache, had been on a tear for the past eight weeks. In late March, on a branch of the Kabalebo River in southern Suriname, he picked up nine world records. Three weeks later, off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, he nabbed six more. And on April 6, in a far less exotic location, Miami-Dade County's C-4 canal only a few miles from his Coral Gables home and within screaming distance of the Bloomingdale's at The Falls mall the master worked his magic again. Less than fifteen minutes after casting his fly rod into the canal's soupy waters, he yanked out a small grayish fish. It barely weighed two pounds. But for Marty, who has caught a world-record 385-pound lemon shark, the little one did the job. "Two pounds zero ounces. World record." Two hours later, he did it again.
"It's about goals," said Marty, explaining why he fishes 100 times a year, why he spends tens of thousands of dollars annually on angling, why he's going to hunt for Mekong catfish in Thailand in July, and why he would be casting into a drainage ditch across from a Publix later that day. "I'm a goal-oriented person," he said. "And the goal right now is to catch Herb Ratner."
Driving on I-95, approaching the exit to snakehead country, Marty mentioned the C-4 reap two records. A good day. "But," he pointed out, "who knows what Herb is doing. I think he's up in Pennsylvania now. He could be fishing up there." As Marty parked in front of the Pit, his number, after more than three years of nearly full-time hunting, was hovering around 160. The magic number was believed to be 178.
Herbert Ratner Jr., a large (six-foot-two, 220-pound) 67-year-old with a booming voice, has a propensity for Donald Trump-like declarations. He will note, in his thick western Pennsylvania accent, the size of his previous house (27 rooms with twenty-foot vaulted ceilings), his college fencing greatness ("the longest undefeated streak at Penn"), the age of his retirement (35), and that he has "more world records than any other athlete." He also unabashedly identifies himself as the "Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, or Dan Marino" of his sport. He has all the markings of a man who is completely full of it. But head a few miles north of the county line to the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Dania Beach the Cooperstown of angling and you will discover Ratner is not delusional. Marty's goal of catching him is, in fact, like trying to beat the Boston Celtics of the Sixties.
On the first floor of the hulking Hall of Fame building, Ratner's first record catch, a cobia, is enshrined and treated with as much reverence as Babe Ruth's glove. On the third floor, the fish statisticians can confirm the staggering numbers: Ratner has led the world in total records for more than a decade. He's held the top spot in both saltwater and freshwater angling. He has been the perennial number one with a conventional rod and reel, and he is the king of fly-fishing. At his zenith, Ratner single-handedly held more than two percent of all possible records. Sounds fractional until one considers there are tens of millions of anglers worldwide and at least tens of millions of possible fishing holes. "He changed the sport," said Jason Schratwieser, IGFA's conservation director. "He took it to a totally different level. Marty's the first one to really pursue him."
There were, to be sure, record-hunters long before Ratner. "People have been competing over fish as long as people have fished," snorted John Merwin, longtime Field and Stream writer. Local angling clubs and marine scientists have tracked the size of notable catches since at least the Nineteenth Century. Field and Stream took the hunt for big fish to a higher profile in 1910 when it introduced the National Fishing Contest, which kept records on the nation's trophy grabs. Not surprisingly, some men almost all anglers were guys in those days were unsatisfied with one or two biggest fish. One early record-hunter: the novelist Zane Grey. The author of Shane trolled waters across the globe the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic, the Tahitian coast racking up fourteen world records.
But the ingredients for the Ratner phenomenon did not exist until the creation of IGFA, the angler's version of the baseball commissioner's office. Formed in 1939, the organization had two chief roles in competitive angling. One was to make sure fish claims were not fish stories. Early tricksters larded catches with ice, stretched them, even doctored photos to achieve glory. IGFA vetted entries, insisting on photos, witnesses, certified weights, and evidence of ethical angling. (Harpooning, for instance, was a no-no.) Another goal was to evaluate petitions from anglers worldwide for new game fish. What began relatively simply tracking records for a few dozen popular saltwater species changed dramatically. Newer species and categories were steadily added every few years. No longer was record-hunting simply about catching the heaviest fish. There was also an increasing number of subcategories rewarding anglers who caught beefy fish with specific tackle. There were fly-fishing records. There were records for different line classes (for example, hook a largemouth bass with a twelve-pound line, get one world best; then an eight-pound line, get another).