The first time the old man tries to actually pull in the big fish, the fish "pull(s) part way over and then right(s) himself and (swims) away".
The fish is enormous, bigger than any Santiago has ever caught, and it has already pulled the boat for two days after being hooked. The long struggle has left both the fish and Santiago spent, and when the fish finally rises to the surface on the third day, Santiago has to struggle to find the strength to bring him in. On the third day, the fish circles the boat for a long time, and Santiago keeps pressure on the line, hoping to bring him closer in. When he finally makes his first attempt to pull the fish in, the fish comes a little ways, then swims away.
Santiago makes several more attempts to bring the fish in. He tells the fish,
"Fish, you are going to have to die anyway. Do you have to kill me too?"
On his second try, he "nearly (has) him", but again the fish "right(s) himself and (swims) slowly away". Santiago tries three more times with the same result, and now his hands are "mushy" from being cut on the line, and the old man, exhausted, can "only see well in flashes". Finally, on the fifth try, the fish is drawn over to the boat and, as he swims "gently on his side, his bill almost touching the planking of the skiff", the old man manages to harpoon him, delivering a death blow.