Game Fish Photography

A motor-drive sequence catches a white marlin as it chases down a hookless teaser at
La Guaira Bank, Venezuela.

If done well, I've been told, teasing "trophy" fish such as sailfish and marlin can entice them to strike objects like tennis balls or flip flops tossed behind the boat. As illustrated by fly-fishing legends such as Harry Gray, teasing primes fish for the hook.

When I worked in Costa Rica as a fly-fishing mate in the early 1990s we used hookless teasers to raise Pacific sailfish behind the boat within range of a casting fly fisherman. We brought fish right to the transom, mad as snakes as they tried again and again to hit the teaser only to have it pulled from their mouths. They cut left and right across the wake within a few feet of the boat, lit up like flashing neon signs, before the teaser was flicked out of the water and replaced with a hooked fly.

Most photographs of these fish are taken postcapture. But for me the excitement is over once the line goes tight, so over several decades I went from catching many species of sport fish using conventional tackle and fly to photographing all five species of marlin and both species of sailfish — unhooked and free-swimming — in destinations around the world.

These pelagic open-ocean roamers travel thousands of miles to spawn and feed, moving along gigantic interocean currents as if they were freeways. Fish are there one day and gone the next, leaving a lot of gray area regarding prime times and locations — there are no guarantees. On a recent trip to photograph blue marlin during what was supposed to be the height of blue marlin season in the Dominican Republic, we raised only two fish in five days on the water — far from the expected five to 10 blues per day.
The Team
Compensating somewhat for the vicissitudes of fish sightings is the boat. Not just the vessel, but the owner, the captain and at least two mates all work together for the perfect catch — or photo. Sport-fishing boats travel in search of these fish, and over the years their names may become legend, along with those of their captains. These are typically tough, type-A individuals with a penchant for detail and the burden of responsibility that comes with running a several-million-dollar machine. They also have the responsibility to find the fish by reading the ocean braille of currents, temperature, wind and deep submerged structure.

A tarpon smashes open a bait ball of silverside minnows at Kent’s Caves, Grand Cayman.

The mates run the cockpit. Once a fish is in the spread (the area between the extended fishing lines), it's the mates' job to keep it interested in the teaser while directing it over my head and sometimes inches from the camera. The owner is probably the most important. He has a tremendous investment in moving the boat around looking for the best fishing. Giving up a week of that action to allow a photographer onboard and not pull any hooks is certainly asking a lot, and those who agree to it are rare individuals. When they agree to the arrangement, it's because they believe in what we are doing. I say "we" because it is a group effort to capture these unique images.

All the techniques we have developed to tease fish evolved through collaboration, and few of my collaborators are shy about telling me if they think I messed up the shot. Recently a mate with whom I've worked for many years was quick to remark when I missed a fish, "Dude, you're getting old and slow!" Each crew I've worked with has refined the smallest details to make the shot their own.

The rest is my job. I quarterback the game, moving from the stern into the spread of lures as a billfish repeatedly trashes a teaser, getting under the right teaser line and appearing below the fish at the perfect moment as it turns and clamps down on the hookless lure. That's the plan, anyway.
Getting the Shot
Fish slip past in seconds, and before the release of the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, which offered drive speeds of about 10 frames per second (fps), being able to shoot only two or three frames killed me. The higher drive speed of the Mark IV was a much appreciated game-changer. Now the Canon EOS-1Dx offers speeds as fast as 14 fps.

You want to freeze the action and have a high enough shutter speed to allow the drive to work at 10 fps or higher. I found a magic shutter speed for a fish on the kill to be around 1/800 of a second. That blows the shutter-restricted, maximum strobe sync speed of around 1/250 out of the water. Using strobes is impractical with a speed this high. We tested high-speed sync and even ultra-short-duration flash to replace the ambient exposures we relied on, but a totally sunlit exposure works in so many different conditions; flash restricts and further complicates an already difficult situation. We do, however, use flash in other types of billfish encounters such as bait balls, where the action is more consistent and predictable.

Schooling dolphinfish (mahi mahi) wear their normal powder-blue-spotted coats while cruising near
Thetis Bank, Mexico.

Manually exposing the image is a must. When the white water of an explosive strike hits the meter, any of the priority modes will shut down the exposure and protect the sudden mass of highlights that just bombarded the frame, so you end up with a silhouette of a fish in the white cavitations of the hole in the surface that the fish just made. This is something that you just have to work out. Jump in the water, shoot a calm surface horizontally, and then make a big splash in front of the camera. Shoot with the light, against the light and at upward and downward angles, and then compare exposures. The idea is to develop a light scale in your head for these types of conditions by training your brain to see exposure in this range without the meter.

Here are some guidelines: In bright, sunny clear-water conditions on the surface with a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second, I play with an aperture of f/8 or f/5.6 at an ISO of 400 to 640, balancing the ISO and aperture settings to try to nuance the results. I preset my white balance (WB), which isn't important when shooting in RAW, but I want each image from the drive sequence to be shot at the same WB, so I can batch process the grade. Leaving it in automatic white balance could lead to a rainbow of results. It's chaos as you hit the water, so preset the WB, and be ready to hit the shutter.

I preset manual focus for three to four feet from the dome, and I check it by sticking out my long freediving fin. I prep the gear in the water, so I know that from the time the fish first appears in the spread I can be ready to go overboard in about 15 seconds. The camera is always switched on but asleep. Using a furniture polish on the crystal dome keeps bubbles from sticking to the port, prevents calcium scaling caused by fresh water and beads water nicely for over-and-under shots (make sure the polish is rated safe for your dome's surface material). Even with the polish you'll need to clear the port with your hand as you get in the water.
Gearing Up
For still photos I use a Canon 1Dx in a Nauticam housing with an eight-inch Zen crystal glass dome port and Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZE and Distagon T 18mm f/3.5 ZE prime lenses. Both lenses are manual focus, tack sharp and provide much contrast with little or no wide distortion.

We're just beginning to shoot high-speed video of our fish interactions. For that we are using a Sony NEX-FS700 camcorder connected to a Convergent Design Odyssey7Q recorder with two 512 GB solid-state drives (SSDs) set up in a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) format. At 240 fps RAW (that's shooting 240 individual RAW 35 MB images every second), we burn through more than a terabyte of information every 14 minutes. The camera is in an Amphibico housing, but the real brain, the Odyssey7Q recorder, is in a Subal S7Q housing.

When excited while feeding or hooked, dolphinfish will light up in luminous shades of greens, yellows and blues.

Staying Safe
We take safety very seriously. A lot can go wrong quickly. We run drills to sync up as a team before we begin, and we establish signals to ensure the captain has put the boat in neutral before I jump in. I don't attach my cameras to my body in any way; pieces of line in the water can be deadly. Even a relatively small 200-pound fish could get tangled up in a leash as it comes past, and it could certainly drag you to your death.

We've had several close calls with schools of sharks excited by the activity in the blue water — creating a commotion in the middle of nowhere tends to invite oceanics, silkies and other pelagic sharks even if there are no fish hooked. Probably the most dangerous situation is working around the running gear in very rough seas. There are no swim platforms or ladders on a sport-fishing boat. Trying to swim through the tiny marlin door in the transom can get hairy as the giant props and rudders of the running gear rise out of the water in front of you and try to suck you under.

Schooling bonefish move onto shallow flats to search the sand for crabs and other crustaceans at
Ascension Bay, Mexico.

Diving In
Beginning billfish photographers might hold off on teasing and start with a more controlled environment such as an Atlantic sailfish aggregation. Probably the most famous one is at Isla Mujeres, off Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Between February and May each year sailfish migrate through the area, feeding on bait balls of sardines. Spend a week in the area during the prime season, and you will likely get to dive with hunting sailfish. Other social billfish feeding opportunities include striped marlin off the Baja Peninsula and white marlin off the East Coast of the USA. Capitalizing on these opportunities will require a willing sport-fishing boat; not all will agree to allow you overboard in the middle of their prime fishing opportunities.
Beyond Billfish
There are three coastal species prized by anglers of the sand flats and lagoons of southern Florida and the Caribbean: bonefish, tarpon and permit. Bonefish come onto the shallow sand flats to feed alone or in schools. Known as the ghosts of the flats because their silver scales reflect the color of the sand below and the sky above, they are hard to see even in a few inches of water. They're easiest to spot when they begin to feed by sucking water and sand up through their gills, excavating possible prey buried below the sand. These fish are wary, running away at the slightest provocation.

An Atlantic sailfish snatches a single sardine out of a baitball near Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

To photograph bonefish up close and unhooked, we started with a custom trigger harness. We ran the connector through a bulkhead fitting in my Nauticam housing, up a "snorkel" created with lighting arms and into a small Plexiglas housing (an old Ikelite flash housing) that contained a PocketWizard transceiver. The idea was to bait the flats with crabs we caught, disguise the housing and place it near the bait in 16 inches of water with the radio receiver sticking in the air. I threaded sections of camo-colored yarn through some pantyhose to make a cover for the camera, disguising it as a grass-covered rock waving in the current.

My guide and I waited for what seemed like hours until the fish entered the flats, circled the housing and were on the bait in seconds. Once I clicked the shutter they were gone. This went on every day for a week. The fish allowed me closer and closer until finally I could lie very still behind the camera, operating the shutter with my finger instead of the remote wireless release. They would circle the flat and then suddenly dart in to root around the camera for bait. They began to associate the camera and the clicking shutter with food, giving us clear shots.

No matter what game fish you're shooting, learn everything you can about the species. Talk to scientists, boat captains and fishing guides. Watch fishing reports, and know your gear inside and out. Don't just use the gear that everyone uses; think of ways to make impossible shots reality. Most important, visualize the shot you want. Mentally run through plays and angles, committing them to memory. Successfully shooting these types of fish comes from creative thinking, preparation, visualization and teamwork.
Explore More
Watch Marc Montocchio explain how he gets the shot in these two videos.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2015