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Sullivan's catch lands him in record book

Trolling the deep, dark waters Feb. 2 off Hawaii's Kona Coast, Alton Sullivan had just one thing on his mind ' a Pacific marlin big enough to flash four digits on the marina scale.

That's the goal over there ' trying to catch a thousand-pounder, says Sullivan, 60, of Lebanon. There's only been 63 of them caught in the past 50 years.

When his heavy rod doubled-over that day and the big fish he hooked twice swam more than a half-mile from his boat, Sullivan thought perhaps this would be his chance.

But Sullivan didn't make it mega-marlin No. 64. Not even close. But the less spectacular fish he did haul in that day will bring him more attention from the angling world than just those marlin pound-counters on the Kona Coast.

Sullivan's marlin turned out to be a 723-pound thresher shark, the largest of these deep-swimming, hard-charging threshers ever caught in the history of ocean angling.

— Though not the flashy and sought-after species like marlin, this thresher with a monster body and kite-like tail sure acted like the marlin Sullivan sought.

It was such a super-heavy fish and it didn't jump, so I thought maybe it was a big marlin, Sullivan says. I didn't think it was a shark.

Normally, the sharks break off because of their sharp teeth, he says. This one was hooked right in the lip.

The Florida-based International Game Fish Association is reviewing Sullivan's shark, and the group is poised to pronounce it the new record for the 130-pound line class, IGFA spokesman Pete Johnson says.

If accepted as expected, it will break the 27-year-old record by 47 pounds, Johnson says. That record was set in New Zealand.

Sullivan is no stranger to marlin fishing or to setting world angling records.

When not running heavy equipment for his construction company, Sullivan splits time between Alaska and Hawaii stalking the biggest fish those states have to offer.

He's set a handful of lingcod and halibut angling records in Alaska. For the past 25 years, he's spent his Februarys in Kona on his quest for the 1,000-pound marlin.

Feb. 2 saw a cloudy day descend upon Kona on the island of Hawaii. At the time Sullivan didn't think it had much relevance.

Sullivan, his captain and a deck hand were in Sullivan's 39-foot boat, the Illusion, trolling a live 7-pound tuna off a down-rigger 100 feet below the surface.

That's not normally the daytime recipe for finding a thresher shark. These fish swim to depths of 1,180 feet and are considered nocturnal sharks that feed primarily at night.

Besides, Sullivan says catching sharks, even big ones, is like a steelhead fishermen trying to find some solace in hooking a really large sucker.

They're usually a real pain in the you-know-what to hook, especially in tournaments, he says. It's just time taken away from going after marlin.

Usually, that's not a problem with large threshers, which are rarely caught legally on hook and line. These fast sharks do feed on fish like mackerel and tuna, but they typically attack their prey by stunning it with a swat from their long tailfin ' often as long as the shark's body.

But the dark skies may have coaxed this particular thresher for an early breakfast when it crossed paths with Sullivan's tuna.

After the first 15 minutes of fighting it, I thought it was a big marlin, Sullivan says. I've caught a lot of big fish over there, and some are pretty aerial. He wasn't.

But one thing he was ' strong.

During two massive runs, the fish gobbled almost all the 3,000 feet of 130-pound test line from Sullivan's reel.

He was a half-mile away from us a couple times, Sullivan says. He almost spooled me twice.

I know 130-pound line sounds pretty big, he says. But it's like catching a 5-pound bass on 1-pound line.

Sullivan pinched down the reel's drag as far as he could.

Once he's way out there, you have to reel him in a foot at a time, Sullivan says. It's quite a battle.

Sullivan was quite surprised when the fish finally surfaced at the Illusion's stern. Not until then did he realize he had a thresher.

The deck-hand gaffed the shark, then the men used large ropes to lash it to the stern. Sullivan had to reach over with a knife to cut the shark's gills.

You can't just hit him in the head, Sullivan says. That would just irritate him.

The shark measured 16 feet, including 7 feet of tail.

It's a lot of tail, he says. But it's also a lot of fish.

The shark's pectoral fins spanned almost 8 feet, making it too big for the boat's 5-foot-wide stern door.

It took the three men to wrestle the shark on board.

Back at the dock, crowds gathered to see Sullivan weigh in his catch.

We figured it weighed 400 to 500 pounds, he says.

When it hit 723 pounds, talk of a record swept through the marina.

That's when Sullivan took the required measurements to meet IGFA requirements.

Threshers are known as a good-eating shark, so Sullivan carved several hundred pounds of meat, doling out chunks to any and all who wanted.

He then hauled the carcass back out to sea.

We take them back to deep water and recycle them, Sullivan says.

Now back in Oregon, Sullivan's fish story has gotten legs since the IGFA announced his pending record Monday.

Being a record shark-catcher is a bit odd for a marlin fishermen, but Sullivan says he's glad he crossed paths with the shark that day under the dark clouds.

I'm excited about it, Sullivan says. Someone said, what do you have left? Well, I still need to catch my thousand-pounder.

They're out there, he says. I know they are.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail