By Michael E. Miller
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By the early Eighties, after IGFA officials had moved the organization from New York City to Miami to Fort Lauderdale they didn't relocate to the monstrous Dania Beach facility until 1999 they were keeping track of more than 2500 possible records. "And that's just for male adult anglers," said Mike Leech, the organization's former director. No sport is believed to have as many records. Probably 50 anglers, Leech estimates, could boast of holding more than ten records; that dwarfs the record reap of, say, track star Carl Lewis. One fisherman, Billy Pate, topped the charts in approximately twenty categories. "And he only really focused on billfish," said Leech. "But we didn't really think of who had the most back then. No one went after dozens and dozens of records."
Everything changed in March 1982, when Ratner caught a fish off of the coast of Key West. A retired mall developer who grew up fishing streams and lakes in western Pennsylvania, Ratner was specifically seeking a large cobia to display in his 27-room mansion in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, alongside his collection of giant tuna, sailfish, and mackerel. He got his cobia, all right a monstrous 98-pounder. But as he was walking triumphantly along the dock at Garrison Bight with the soon-to-be decoration, a fellow noticed it and mentioned off-handedly: "That could be a world record." Ratner didn't even know such a thing existed. "I couldn't sleep that night," he recalled. "A world record. That was the epitome of athletic achievement."
Ratner went record-mad. The son of an appliance salesman who built a real-estate empire by his early thirties, he was intoxicated by the words world record. "I wanted more," he said. In fact he was immediately addicted. Ratner found he couldn't fish for anything other than records. The only respite: competitive tournaments. "Then I wouldn't record-hunt." It took him awhile to figure out the art of what he calls "the formula" but within little more than a decade after snagging the cobia, he had passed Pate and other legendary anglers to become the world's leading record-holder. By 1997 he was the first person to reach 50 records. Two years later, he smashed the 100 barrier. "He was getting records in things people didn't even think were possible," recalled Leech. "African pompano on fly. No one ever tried that."
In April 2002, he snagged his 150th. And he kept going.
It was inconceivable to most rational humans that anyone would dare challenge the Ratnerian numbers. He was, after all, a freakish occurrence: a ferociously competitive, extremely wealthy, hyperenergetic individual who retired at age 35 and fished for records with some of the nation's top guides often more than 100 days a year. "Time and a ton of money," said Merwin. "That's what you'd need." And, furthermore, he pointed out: "There are 26 million fishermen in the United States over the age of sixteen. You know what happens when 99.9 percent of them catch a big fish? They call it a big fish. And that's it," he said. "Most people just don't care."
"Herb was like no one I'd ever fished with," recalled his longtime fishing guide, Capt. Jim Anson. "It's a fishing style I call 'dogmatic.'"
Marty Arostegui is about as small as a man can be without being designated a "little person." He's five feet tall and 125 pounds. Replace his Cuban accent with an Irish brogue, and he would make a perfect leprechaun. Marty is affable, funny, and self-deprecating ("Every fish I catch looks big"). He's married, has three children, and lives in a big, beautiful Coral Gables house overlooking a canal. The only conspicuous signs of Marty's other life are in his study; the place is crammed with angling trophies, bait-making tools, home videos of fishing trips, and research materials such as the video Larry Dahlberg's the Hunt for Big Fish. This is where he plots, mostly at night, his quest to catch Herb Ratner.
Nothing about Marty's childhood suggests a burning, megalomaniacal desire to amass every fishing record possible. Growing up in Coral Gables, he had an ordinary love of the sport. His father Martin, a Cuban émigré, would take him on weekend fishing trips. During his stints at Coral Gables Senior High, the University of Miami, and then UM's medical school, he fished recreationally, with rod and reel, in salt water and fresh water. For Father's Day seventeen years ago, his wife Roberta gave him a gift: a bonefishing trip with a local guide. Bill Curtis introduced Marty to fly-fishing. He was immediately hooked; he loved the added challenge of fly-casting, especially with light tackle. Marty, who had spent much of his free time in the Eighties training for marathons, found a new passion. Trying to master this technical skill, he would practice casting for hours. "He's dogged and determined at whatever he does," says longtime friend and business partner Dr. Gene Gitin, Marty's former running partner. "It's no surprise that he approached fishing like he did." As his interest grew, Marty joined the Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club, one of the oldest angling organizations in the nation.
One of the members of the club was a larger, older fellow from the Pittsburgh area, a snowbird who spent his winters in Fort Lauderdale. Herb Ratner.