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).
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.
The main reason Marty became Ratner's first serious challenger, though, was because of a seismic career change. Early in Marty's tenure as an emergency room physician, he partnered with Gitin and formed a company. The Emergency Medical Group was a doctors' group that hired ER specialists and allowed local hospitals to outsource their care. The idea was wildly successful. The firm grew, provided new services (critical care, prison and military health, HMO administration), and merged with another company. By the time Marty was in his late forties, he was vice president of the HMO division of InPhyNet Medical Management, an industry giant valued at several hundred million dollars. In late 1997, the company was acquired by another healthcare behemoth, MedPartners.
After years of working twelve-hour days, Marty had had enough. He retired at the age of 51. "I was lucky," he said. "But I could do it."
He had money, lots of free time, and a passion for fishing.
There are plenty of super-rich, fishing-mad type-A guys running around. But none dedicated his retirement to chasing Ratner. Few others challenged him, partly because of the stigma attached to this pursuit. Some anglers criticized Ratner, said IGFA's Schratwieser. "It's one thing to go after a largemouth bass record, or a marlin record," he said, "but some anglers will criticize you for going after the smaller, less popular fish." Or as Ralph Delph, a legendary saltwater guide in Key West explained it, all records are not created equally: "There are righteous records. And there are paper records. Some of them are ridiculous."
Some leading record-holders bristle at the term record-hunter. When asked about her accomplishments, Virginian Gene DuVal, who is nearing 140 records and is behind only Ratner and Marty, said, "I'm not a record-hunter. If a big fish is there, I say, Ooh, maybe that's a record. But I don't target." Even Becky Reynolds, IGFA's chief records administrator, who has 50 herself, balked at being labeled a hunter.
Marty, however, has no qualms with the term.
Marty didn't go after Ratner right away; first he became Grandmaster, Sharkmaster, Tarponmaster, and Bassmaster. The Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament, known as "the Met," is one of the world's most prestigious angling tournaments, and it annually holds six-month-long competitions the angler's version of a triathlon. These "masters" tourneys require competitors to nab a variety of species, using different tackle (spinning, plug, bait-casting, fly rod) and bait. From 1998 to 2002 Marty treated the tournament as an occupation. Fishing twice a week, finding the best guides in whatever species he was hunting, he ripped through the Tarponmaster, Grandmaster, Sharkmaster, and Bassmaster, winning each one. He also became a member of the Met's elite Flyfishing Hall of Fame. In late 2002, just as he was considering whether to complete the suite of Met tournaments (the Billfishmaster still beckoned), he heard about Ratner.
The big Pennsylvanian was being crowned with one of IGFA's highest honors: its lifetime achievement award, for his 150-plus world records. At the time, Marty held only a few records tripletail, barracuda, and peacock bass. But he thought, I could do that. Chasing Ratner was promptly added to the to-do list.
Not more than a month later, Marty logged on to the IGFA Website and for the first time scoured the records list with the eye of a hunter.
He was not reading the thousands of categories for awesome records to usurp. He was not looking to beat, say, the yellow perch caught by Dr. Charles Abbot in northern New Jersey in 1879; or George Perry's 22-pound largemouth bass, sometimes called fishing's Holy Grail; or some of the great tarpon or marlin records. Nor did he want to catch a 50-pound carp on a two-pound tippet. Those were too unlikely. Marty was looking for feasibility. "I needed multiple achievable records."
In late January 2003, Marty took a one-week trip to Rio Tapera, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. His brother Gonzalo and a friend were supposed to accompany him, but they canceled. So Marty was alone and able to concentrate exclusively on records. He returned as the world king in almost twenty new categories, including one for a fish called the giant trahira.
About a year later, Schratwieser was fishing with Marty near the Marquesas Keys, about 30 miles off Key West, when Schratwieser saw the telltale sign. Of course Marty, having done research on sharks, had all the basics the certified IGFA scale, the IGFA shark record data. He had consulted with his guide Delph about what was running, what was possible. He had prerigged for the right line class and had brought not one but two cameras to photograph the world record. But he also had the look. Said Schratwieser: "The place was loaded with mutton snappers and red groupers. Great fish. We were really excited. But Marty was hoping for sharks." He just wasn't excited about play fishing. "I started wondering," Schratwieser continued, "if fishing was even fun for him anymore." Said Marty of his approach: "If you're going to do this, you can't stop for every fish. You have to stay focused."
Marty was spending lavishly on his quest: tens of thousands of dollars on flights, charters, gear, guides. "It's already an expensive sport," he said, "but the record-hunting is very expensive. I know I'm lucky to be able to do this."
By the end of 2004, he broke the 100 barrier.
Ratner, of course, heard about Marty's run. Since receiving the lifetime achievement award, Ratner had slowed down his hunt considerably. He was, in part, concentrating more on other hobbies, such as his collection of medieval swords and armor. He wasn't as aggressive as in the old days, in part, said Capt. Jim Anson, "because he was so far ahead of anyone else."
But in late 2004, Anson and Ratner noticed Marty was, at last, on to them. Anson looked at several of Marty's recent records. "He'd set one, then beat it by a small margin a day or two later, then beat it again. You get credit for three records," said Anson. "He figured out a part of the formula. If you're going to be number one in this, that's what you have to do. Marty was the only one to figure this out. He knows the rules."
Ratner, then 65, responded by going on an unprecedented record-hunting blitz. At one point he was so obsessed with accumulating records that he and Anson spent nearly a month waking at dawn to stalk grass carp on a Snapper Creek canal. Sometimes Ratner would go out with as many as eight prerigged lines in the rare case he would spot a record in a particular class. In a furious streak that took less than ten weeks, Ratner brought in almost twenty new records. His total hit its highest point ever nearing 180. Later that summer he told the Pittsburgh Tribune: "I'm waking up with a sparkle in my eye again."
"He was as dogmatic as ever," said Anson.
Rejuvenated by the competition, Ratner was taking aim at 200.
Marty held plenty of what Ralph Delph would call "righteous records." For instance, he caught the world's heaviest fish on a fly rod the 385-pound lemon shark. But the only way one could ever expect to beat Herb Ratner would be through ugly fish.
The pariahs of the ichthyologic kingdom are typically not popular with anglers, who tend to be captivated by glamorous game species (e.g., marlins, tarpon, bonefish) or tasty fish. As such, they're primo candidates for serial record-hunters like Marty and Ratner. Marty, for instance, began picking up long-nose and alligator gar records after he learned Lake Livingston in East Texas had some monsters. He also went after grass carp, a Ratner specialty; and targeted oscars, a species that rarely breaks three pounds. "He'd go for anything with record potential," said Alan Zaremba, a Broward-based guide. "Even mudfish."
There was one so-called trash fish Marty owned. "[Ratner] doesn't fish for snakeheads, I guess," said a puzzled Marty, as he exited off I-95 in Broward County. The Snake Pit is the epicenter of Marty's snakehead efforts. You can't find it in any book and you certainly won't find a guide specializing in snakeheads in South Florida.
"That's part of the appeal," Marty explained. "You have to do your own research. No one around here knows anything about fishing for them." His interest in snakeheads began when he received a hot tip from Zaremba, one of his longtime guides. A peacock bass specialist who knew about Marty's record lust, Zaremba spotted the Southeast Asian natives in Broward County's C-100 canal system. While many fishermen feared the snakeheads thinking the fish, which is similar to the mudfish and infamous for its ability to thrive in low-oxygen environments, would obliterate native species Marty became excited.
The strategy behind this particular trip to the Pit Marty has been here at least ten times in the past two years was record protection. He was trying to strengthen two of his world records, which were eminently beatable. His prime competitors were not, in this case, Ratner, but two guys in Asia: Masahiro Oomiri, a fly-fishing guru in Japan; and Jean-François Helias, a Frenchman living in Thailand. "It's a trash fish here," Marty said wryly, "but a prized game fish in Thailand."
The Snake Pit is perhaps the quintessential example of the "ugly" school of record-breaking. It is a roughly 500-yard-long, 10-foot-wide drainage ditch in front of a condo complex and across the street from a Publix and a Papa John's. Marty, who has fished in plenty of postcard-beautiful spots around the globe, walked toward the litter-strewn pond, eyes widening. This was, for his purposes, among the most productive locales in South Florida: Two world records have come out of this ditch. "That's why it's the Snake Pit," he said excitedly.
The Arostegui record-breaking style is almost industrial in its efficiency. From research, Marty knows exactly what size fish is possible in the ditch, where they will be, and what line class he needs to win the record. In this case, he was ready with a spinning rod with an eight-pound test line. He wanted a fish that exceeded five pounds four ounces. "No records are accidental," he said.
Marty moved through the area methodically, targeting three or four logical spots, which happened to be clogged with trash. When he didn't see the right fish he skipped several beefy peacock and largemouth bass he moved on. When he did nab a snakehead, it was too small. He carefully returned the fish to its habitat as he does with all of his catches gathered his gear, and quickly moved out of the Pit.
Undeterred, he headed to his second favorite spot, a place he calls simply "Dunkin Donuts." As he drove down Atlantic Boulevard, Marty pointed to his GPS tracker, which highlighted bodies of water. "Look," he said excitedly, noting ponds and canals scattered among the strip malls and housing complexes of central Broward. "There could be snakeheads all over there."
Dunkin Donuts, a tiny pond behind the doughnut shop's parking lot, was basically a drive-by. A few quick casts, fifteen minutes, no records, and that was it. Marty didn't blame the locale, though. "I saw a big one," he said. It was bad luck an iguana jumped into the pond just as he arrived. "That may have spooked them," he said.
The trip to Snakehead Land was seemingly a bust. "Skunked," Marty said, smiling. "You don't get world records every day."
But as he headed back toward Miami, he planned to make one final stop.
The shocking news was revealed during the administrative phase of Marty's day. In addition to catching big fish, a would-be record-setter must prove he has caught a big fish. Marty takes his applications especially seriously: He submits a photo of the fish, a photo of himself with the catch on land, a sample of line, and a witness's signature. "If you're trying to do what I'm doing," he explained, "you don't want to leave any room for doubt."
The World Records Administration office on the third floor of the Hall of Fame building in Dania is a routine stop for a guy who collects records like baseball cards.
Marty filled out some forms and paid his fees ($35 for each record) for the nineteen applications from his Costa Rica trip. His son Martini picked up some junior records, as did his wife Roberta. As he talked about the fishing off Golfito, I asked Becky Reynolds, who runs the office, to check the standings and see how close Marty was. She tapped in to the IGFA database.
Then the shocker.
"Ratner," she said, was up by eighteen in December. He had 178, according to her. And Arostegui had 160. But Marty has thirteen pending and, she said, pointing to a package on the floor, six new applications. That would be 179. Reynolds smiled. "Marty, you'd be ahead by one."
Marty, only three feet away, did not respond. The man who has dedicated much of the past three years to catching Ratner did not even look up. He just kept filling out the forms.
"His applications are pending," Reynolds pointed out. This year, for instance, more than a quarter of the 93 applications were not approved. She gestured to a volunteer who was using a machine to check the weight of a line. "Sometimes the line won't test. It's happened to Marty." But overwhelmingly, she said, his applications are approved. Marty still did not react.
For nearly 45 minutes, as he weaved through traffic on I-95, neither the R-name nor the magic number was uttered.
He talked about how being a doctor has aided his record-hunting: Surgical training helps with good knot-tying; anatomy helps with understanding the biology and behavior of fish. Marty even likened his choice of medical specialty the gritty emergency room to his fondness for the "ugly fish." And he suggested his obsessive pursuit of world records simply satisfies an urge. "Goals," he said. "I needed it in business. And now I'm doing it in fishing."
But as he approached the Gables, around 27th Street and South Dixie Highway, Marty brought it up voluntarily. "You know.... About the record. I never expected it would happen so soon. I didn't know I was so close." He wasn't giddy. There was a tinge of melancholy, almost as if he had finally beaten his big brother and wasn't prepared for the feeling. "I kind of feel bad," he admitted, noting he was competing against a man no longer in his prime. Ratner is nearing 70. He's not fishing as much. "Maybe he'll come back," Marty added, almost hopefully.
The King returned to his Pennsylvania summer home in May. Reached by phone one morning, he confirmed suspicions: There will be no resurgence. "I'm done," said Ratner. "I've retired from record-hunting." Why? "No explanation. It's personal. The why is for me to know," he said, his voice still booming. "It's time for Gene [DuVal] or Marty to take the baton. God bless them. I've done all that I want."
Two weeks later the IGFA World Records office reported, "Marty came in today with more records." Faced with overwhelming signs of his triumph, Marty was still unconvinced. "Pending," he said emphatically. "Those records haven't been approved yet."
A day later Reynolds all but confirmed Marty's ascent. Officially, she explained, all domestic records must go through a 60-day waiting period, and international records must wait 90 days, before approval. "But unofficially," she added, "yes."
But on Tuesday, May 24, there was a wrinkle. Ratner, though professing his retirement from competition, questioned the accounting. "One seventy-eight?" he roared. "I have 180. I know I have 180."
He was right. After a brief investigation, Reynolds discovered that, in fact, two of his records qualified in not one but two categories. Ratner: 180. "As of right now, Herb is still ahead by one," she said.
There were, however, the other uncounted Arostegui applications: two almaco jacks, caught on fly rods off Bimini on May 2, and a 26-pound blackfin tuna, snagged on fly, near Key West on April 26. Would they put Marty over the top? "They're not going to be processed for another month or so," said Reynolds. "Herb's still number one."
The wait continues.
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With the Ratner-chasing goal nearly accomplished, a burning question lingers. Will Marty suffer existential angst? His guides, who have certainly enjoyed the largesse of his quest, posit a few ideas.
"No one has ever caught a 400-pound shark on fly," said Delph, adding this would be a "mighty righteous record."
And Zaremba, who accompanied Marty on his mission for the past three years, recently spotted a vulnerable record in the canal system. "I don't even know how to really pronounce it. I think it's a thapes hybrid. But it's an open category. Even if it's a one-pounder, you get the all-tackle record." Marty will be excited, Zaremba quipped. "He's into anything that has record potential."