When 18-year-old Devin Zelck and her father, Steve Zelck, set out on a fishing boat from Gloucester early last Friday, they expected to spend a few hours at sea, taking advantage of a day off from work for the recent graduate of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.
Instead, the pair found themselves locked in a daylong battle against a giant of the sea: a 700-pound bluefin tuna that marked a dramatic first catch for the teen.
“I was sound asleep and I woke up to Dad screaming at me, ‘We’re on! We’re on!’ ” Devin Zelck, of Hamilton, said in a phone interview Thursday. After that, “it was complete chaos for literally 10 hours.”
The two had boarded the Dogbar along with Captain Jim Alvarez about 5 a.m. July 19, expecting a low-key experience. Steve Zelck, a longtime fisherman, is working with Alvarez on the boat this summer, offering charter trips for aspiring fishermen, and his daughter has joined them for 10 to 12 voyages, never before encountering a tuna.
“She hops on whenever she can, as does my son,” Zelck said by phone Thursday. “Both my kids love to fish.”
“We thought we were going to just have a nice day on the boat, have lunch,” Devin Zelck recalled. “I was not expecting any of that.”
For about the first half-hour, they fought the fish, she said, they thought it was on the smaller side, because initially it wasn’t putting up that much of a fight. But as it fought, it moved closer to the surface, giving a hint of its size.
“We literally had the quickest glimpse and we were like, ‘. . . this thing’s huge,’ ” she said.
As the effort continued, it became clear the large fish would fight as long as it could manage, requiring a coordinated effort from the humans.
“Without her on the rod and me on the line and Jim on the wheel, it would have been impossible to get it,” Steve Zelck said.
Even after hours of resisting both Zelcks, the animal still had the energy to zoom away about 200 yards after they harpooned it.
“Usually they just give up and die after the harpoon shot, but this fish was not giving up,” Devin Zelck said.
By 4:30 p.m., when they had finally dragged its massive bulk onto the Dogbar’s deck, the tuna had “dragged us basically a total of 9 miles,” Steve Zelck said, so the exhausted trio had to return and retrieve the vessel’s anchor.
After the battle, he said, “I couldn’t be any prouder. She handled it better than a lot of grown men. . . . She hung in there like a trouper.”
Devin Zelck, who plans to begin classes this fall at Endicott College in Beverly, said she has seen her father bring many tuna into Gloucester Harbor for weighing, but this experience was far more dramatic.
“It’s different when it’s yours, because you worked for it,” she said. “You don’t really know how exciting it is until you’re actually there really experiencing it.”
But the grueling 10-hour struggle took its toll.
“It’s been about a week, and honestly I am still recovering,” she said. “Dad took all weekend off. He could barely lift his arm to drink his coffee, he was so sore.”
Would she like to repeat the experience?
“Maybe,” she said.
“I’m sure my brother wants a shot next time,” she added, explaining that the 16-year-old is experiencing some sibling rivalry. “It’s been a competition the last few summers of who’s going to get the first fish, so he wasn’t really too thrilled when I sent him the photos.”
Her father, meanwhile, is beaming with pride.
“She was an absolute champ,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without her.”