When, after seven dedicated summers of swordfishing in the blue water off northeastern Long Island, Hans Hinrichs of Quogue, N.Y. caught his first swordfish, he was so overwhelmed by pride and joy that he gave a banquet at "21" in New York with a goodly part of the 515-pound fish as the main course.
The incident serves to emphasize three facts about the swordfish. He is a delight to the epicure. He is hellishly hard to catch on rod and reel. And, he is caught only by the most single-minded of men.
The man who seeks a swordfish, whether it be off Montauk, Long Island or Martha's Vineyard, Mass., off Cabo Blanco, Peru or Santa Catalina Island, Calif., must have something of Captain Ahab in him. For the swordfish is the Moby Dick among big-game fish, brooding and aloof, vast and wonderfully strong, growing to a thousand pounds and more. The broad, flat sword from which he takes his name and which forms his upper jaw may jut four feet before him, and he can wield it with devastating effect.
To meet a swordfish in combat a man must spend long days on a bright and shimmering sea, searching until his eyes burn for two black fins which tell him a swordfish, belly heavy with squids and fishes, has surfaced to sun and rest. He faces the disheartening fact that a satiated swordfish will more often than not disdain his bait, and that he will have to hunt on. And, if at the end of some exhausting hunt a man hooks a swordfish, he must be ready for hours of punishing battle. A swordfish will not often run with the speed of a tuna or jump with the frenzy of a marlin, though he can and may do both. He fights deep and with unbelievable determination. And, to compound the unique physical and emotional stresses of swordfishing, the angler knows that his broadbill is very likely foul-hooked or snarled in the cable leader and may escape, and that even if he is fairly hooked in the mouth his jawbone is so fragile that the hook may pull out at any moment.
July 27, 1958
Paradoxical as it is, the lofty indifference of a finning swordfish which so frustrates the sportsman is the very quality which insures swordfish steak on menus from Main Street to May-fair. While he takes his sun, a broad-bill can be as diffident toward an approaching boat as he can toward a bait, and a practiced commercial striker will thrust a harpoon into his back with almost ridiculous ease. But not with impunity. A swordfish aroused is an awesome creature. He has stove boats and killed men, and the chronicle of his mayhem and perversity spans 20 centuries and the Seven Seas.
Aristotle was the first to take clear literary note of the swordfish. He called him xiphias (the sword) and observed quite accurately during the 4th century B.C. in his History of Animals that the swordfish was annoyed by parasites and scratched these oceanic fleas, as it were, by jumping out of the water and falling back with a shocking splash.
Shortly after, perhaps even during Aristotle's lifetime, Mediterranean fisherfolk began to spear swordfish. Their boats were cockleshells. They carried two men, one to row, one to strike the fish, and were usually built and painted to resemble a swordfish. This Trojan swordfish gambit persisted through Roman times, but when fishermen realized that their artistry had no bearing on the swordfish's inclination to surface and investigate, it vanished.
It was a Roman, Pliny the Elder, who introduced the swordfish as a belligerent. In his 37-volume Natural History, a large part of which he cribbed from Aristotle, Pliny relates: "...that the Xiphias or, in other words, the swordfish, has a sharp-pointed muzzle, with which he is able to pierce the sides of a ship and send it to the bottom, instances of which have been seen near a place in Mauretania...." (Mauretania is now northern Morocco and western Algeria.)
Pliny notwithstanding, the Romans commonly referred to the swordfish as gladius, the Latin word for sword, and the swordfish is formally and redundantly known today as Xiphias gladius.
After Pliny, interest in the swordfish mounted. Aelian (120 A.D.) observed that the swordfish fed by flailing about among lesser fish with "its sword-shaped rostrum," and Oppian (172-210 A.D.) reported that sword-fish could be taken commercially with both hook and harpoon.
But as man tentatively poked further and further into the world, literature of all description became thick with wide-eyed accounts of swordfish forays against ships—and even against whales.
Before his Christian navy sank 250 galleys and 25,000 Turks in the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571, Don John of Austria stopped at Messina long enough to harpoon six swordfish, one of which, an early combat correspondent reported, was "not very much resigned to die, and it launched itself against his boat and pierced it from side to side."
As is often the case, the swordfish broke off his bill trying to free himself. Don John pried it out and sent it to his father.
Edmund Spenser, no less, presents a tiff between swordfish and whale in Visions of the Worlds Vanitie, published in 1591. In Two Voyages to New England, John Josselyn logs the first offensive against a ship by an American broadbill. Columbus met one before that; he brought back a swordfish bill from his first voyage and left it at a church in Siena, Italy, where it was found hanging over the entrance in 1879 by N. D. Wilkins of the Detroit Free Press.
One account particularly well illustrates the raw power generated by an out-of-sorts swordfish.
When the whaling ship Fortune, out of Plymouth, Mass., made port with a cargo of oil from the Pacific in 1826 or 1827, the stump of a broadbill's sword was found protruding from her hull. It had penetrated the hull's copper sheathing, one inch of board sheathing, a three-inch hardwood plank, 12 inches of solid white-oak ship's timber, two and a half inches of oak ceiling and a cask of oil, which it plugged as effectively as a bung.
Harlan Major, a mathematically inclined observer of fish, maintains that a 500-pound swordfish must travel 57 mph to jam his bill through 18½ inches of wood.
Such stories are legion throughout the 19th century, and if they have dipped slightly in volume since, it is only because even the stalwart swordfish must find it hard to make a dent in steel hulls. But, where wooden ships are still afloat, the swordfish still occasionally is lethal, as the writer can testify from an attack in which a 350-pound harpooned broadbill stove a 12-foot Banks dory occupied by him and a commercial fisherman one day off Martha's Vineyard four summers ago.
A swordfish's struggle for survival doesn't start when he feels the bite of hook or the harpoon. It starts, in a strict sense, before he is born, and it lasts all his life.
The swordfish emerged as a fish some 60 million years ago during the Eocene period. Today he lives in a belt of temperate water which bands the earth and which is so broad that in our part of the world it covers the seas between Nova Scotia and Chile. Within the band there are several swordfish communities, and biologists doubt that they mingle, although swordfish do make long seasonal journeys, or migrations, within their saltwater homelands.
The spawning grounds of swordfish are, for the most part, a well-kept swordfish secret. Only two are known, the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, and the north coast of Cuba. Men and women of science, however, have traveled far and worked hard to know the swordfish better. There are gaps and riddles, but the biography of a young sword-fish can be shaped.
During late spring or early summer, a female swordfish swims close into shore where the water is green and warm and rich with life. She spawns her eggs, some here, some there, and the male who follows her fertilizes each deposit with his milt. When the creative ritual is done and the urge quieted, they swim away. The eggs, each no larger than the head of a pin, become bits of flotsam shifted at will by wind and tide. Countless thousands are destroyed, countless thousands eaten. Some survive for two and a half days and hatch into larval swordfish less than an eighth of an inch long. The toll is always heavy, but some of these, too, will survive and reach maturity.
METAMORPHOSIS OF AN UGLY CHILD
The tiny broadbill is an ugly child of the sea. He is skinny. His skin is blotchy and covered with spiked, glassy scales. His dorsal fin flops down his back like a ribbon. Instead of a fine sword he has a long beak which bristles with teeth. But he is voracious and strong and grows fast. How fast, no one really knows. But, as he approaches four feet, he begins to change. By the time he reaches six feet his metamorphosis is complete. The scales are gone and his skin is blue-black, washed with silver and bronze. His dorsal has grown high and staunch. The long lower jaw has receded. The upper jaw has lost its teeth and sprouted outward, strong and flat, into the sword so unlike the stubby, round bills of the sailfish and the marlins.
Now, too, his body is a near-perfect example of utilitarian streamlining. His deeply forked tail delivers the power for tremendous speed. He is, perhaps, the fastest of all fish.
Internally, the young swordfish is equally well designed. His backbone is short-coupled and strong. His sword and skull are a fitted unit, and the porous, oil-filled ethmoid bone in the forepart of the skull acts as a natural shock absorber during swordplay. He can withstand the pressures of great depths. His large, blue eyes can gather in the faintest rays of light and let him see. He is, in short, remarkable and formidable. It is hardly surprising that for some time the angler's acquisitive eye remained judiciously fixed on less overwhelming game.
It was not until 1913, in fact, that the swordfish fell victim to a sporting angler and thus formally entered the ranks of the world's great game fish. And the man who caught him, William C. Boschen, even today is a legendary figure as mysterious as the swordfish himself. He wrote nothing, and little is known of him. Yet that little insures his place in swordfish history.
Boschen was tall, and blind in the left eye, and his captain, George Farnsworth, said, "He was the strongest man I ever knew." Fishing, to Boschen, was a way of life. He invented the star drag, which revolutionized the sport of big-game angling largely because it eliminated the thumb as the primary braking mechanism on the reel spool. And, on August 23, 1913 off Catalina, Boschen took the world's first broadbill on rod and reel. It weighed 355 pounds. He had fought it for an hour and a half with nothing but a rod belt, and his line tested only 42 pounds.
It was said that when the fish was hoisted to the dock at Avalon it came to life, broke the rope, smashed the weighing standards and swept the end of the dock clean.
William C. Boschen died in 1919. He left his boat and a large sum of money to George Farnsworth and asked that his ashes be scattered off Santa Catalina Island, where he had caught 11 swordfish.
But Boschen also left the legacy of an exacting sport. In the almost half century of big-game fishing since 1913, fewer than 750 broadbill have been taken by barely 200 men and women. Among them was Zane Grey, a man who personified the ultimate in obsessive concentration on the sport. Yet he took just six swordfish in a lifetime which ended in 1939. Once, for example, he spent 90 days off Catalina. He sighted 86 broad-bill. He presented a bait to 75. He hooked and fought 12. He boated exactly one, of 418 pounds.
Zane Grey had hunted mountain lion, grizzly bear and jaguar. But he wrote in Tales of Swordfish and Tuna: "It [swordfishing] takes more time, patience, endurance, study, skill, nerve and strength, not to mention money, of any game known to me through experience or reading."
Allowing generous leeway for self-justification and Grey's rewarding ability to turn a purple phrase, he was still close to the truth as it relates to swordfishing on rod and reel. Some anglers have always harpooned broad-bill that are disinclined to take the bait, but there are those who consider this practice something less than sporting.
The largest swordfish ever taken on rod and reel, so far the only one of more than a thousand pounds, was caught by Louis Edward Marron (SI, July 30, 1956) off Iquique, Chile on May 7, 1953.
Lou Marron, chairman of the board of the Coastal Oil Company of New Jersey, was then 52 years old. He was, and is, ebullient (he likes to be called Uncle Lou), volatile and controversial. He is a fiercely competitive angler and a great one. Both he and his wife Eugenie hold many records (Mrs. Marron holds three world records with one 772-pound sword-fish), and Marron himself has taken two swordfish in one day. It is something only 11 men and one woman (Mrs. S. Kip Farrington Jr. of East Hampton, N.Y.) have done.
The morning of May 7, 1953 was calm and hazy. At 8:45 the 24-foot sport-fishing boat Flying Heart III dropped Iquique's towering headlands astern and slithered across the brown-stained Humboldt Current. On board were the Marrons, Captain Edward Wall of Miami and two local hands, Mario and Gus.
BONITO FOR BAIT
The small boat slowed briefly and several three-and four-pound oceanic bonito were hand-lined, flapping, into the cockpit. Captain Wall gutted one and stitched two hooks the size of coat hooks into the cavity. This was a swordfish bait.
Fifteen miles west of Iquique, Flying Heart III cleared the Humboldt, rode across a narrow strip of whitish water and into the deep blue of the Pacific. She idled northward. A pair of frigate birds soared high overhead and the Marrons and their crew scanned a seemingly never-ending sea for swordfish fins. There is a strange fascination in searching for two fins in a vastness of water; if there is a mystique about swordfishing, this is its most infectious quality.
Captain Wall pointed out the fins at noon. Marron couldn't believe they belonged to a swordfish. The distance between tail and dorsal was so great, he said later, that the fins looked like two commercial fishermen in a boat. They were, nonetheless, swordfish fins.
Marron settled himself in the fighting chair, wrapped the canvas-covered foam-rubber harness around the small of his back and clipped it to his 12/0 Fin-Nor reel.
Captain Wall splashed the bait over the side and quickly stripped 250 feet of 39-thread line (117-pound test) from the reel. He paid out 200 feet and then, holding the line in his fingers, let the remaining 50 feet float astern in a long loop.
Flying Heart III, with Mrs. Marron at the wheel, moved at a slow three knots so the waggling bonito would troll just under the surface of the water. A broadbill is apt to be chary of a bait skipping from an outrigger.
When the bait was brought parallel to and about 30 feet from the broadbill, he saw it. His tail churned and a plume of water sprayed behind him as he rushed the bonito.
Marron sat rigidly in the chair. Captain Wall stood braced against the transom holding the line. Everyone stared at the water. No one spoke.
The swordfish slapped the bait, jerking the line from Captain Wall's hands. Mrs. Marron threw the boat out of gear. The loop of line straightened in the water, and the bonito settled as if the swordfish had killed or maimed it. No more than five seconds had passed since the broadbill had first seen the bait.
The swordfish turned, picked up the bonito and swam slowly away with it. Marron free-spooled line. He would not attempt to set the hook until the fish ran long and hard, until he could be reasonably certain that the broadbill either had the bait well in its mouth or had struck it, missed it and become foul-hooked. At times this run occurs at the strike. At times it does not. The variations in sword-fish behavior are infinite, the strain on the angler great.
After leisurely swimming with the bait for 100 feet the broadbill dropped it. Marron waited patiently for five minutes.
The swordfish hit solidly. Line stripped from the reel in a whispering blur as the spool accelerated. Marron pushed up the drag lever and threw himself back in the fighting chair to sink the hooks and take tire weight of the fish. Flying Heart III leaped ahead in a short sprint to pull the belly out of the line.
The swordfish reared half out of water and sounded. The drag whined eerily and the heavy glass rod arched over the boat's stern. Far below the surface the fish slowed and slammed the cable leader with his tail. Marron, who weighs more than 200 pounds, was jolted forward off the seat of the chair.
Between the deep, plunging runs of the fish he recovered what line he could, leaning forward and back in the chair as an oarsman will in a shell. It was grueling, tedious, discouraging work. Time after time he gained a few yards and then lost them as the swordfish burrowed downward. The harness bit into his back. His right arm ached from reeling. He was soaked with perspiration, but he maintained constant pressure on the swordfish. At the same time, Captain Wall, now at the helm with a touch conditioned by years of experience, did his best to anticipate the broadbill's movements and keep Marron in the most advantageous fighting position. Mario steered the chair, pointing it straight down the line, which was so taut that it crackled whenever the fish took a few yards from the reel.
After an hour of give and take the broadbill tired. His runs grew shorter and Marron found it easier to move him. The reel gradually filled. The double line appeared, then the leader. The fish rolled next to the boat, but only long enough to show that he was foul-hooked at the base of his dorsal fin. He sounded before he could be gaffed.
It was a disheartening turn of events. Marron knew that if he bore down on the fish a shade too strenuously he might well pull the hook. On the other hand, if he slacked pressure the virtually uninjured broadbill could rest and continue the fight indefinitely. The hook might work itself free. Tackle might fail. The swordfish might outlast him. He had no choice but to gamble that the hook would hold.
During the next hour Marron brought the fish to the boat 10 times and was unable to hold him there. He was extremely tired and exasperated and his back was raw. But the 11th time was the last because the fish had nothing more to give. Captain Wall took the leader wire and Mario and Gus gaffed the broadbill. He was 14 feet 11¼ inches long. He measured more than a full fathom around and weighed 1,182 pounds. He hangs mounted in the Rod and Reel Club on Hibiscus Island in Miami Beach, and nothing close to his marvelous size has been caught since.
A swordfish, large or small, has never been a commonplace and never will be. Modern tackle and technique alter neither his nature nor his numbers. One factor alone stands in the sportsman's favor and that is the incredible explosion of angling interest since World War II. Every year it sends more boats from more ports and can only lead to more swordfish caught and new grounds opened. Sportsmen in Portugal, for example, have learned that broadbill off Sesimbra will take a bait drifting at 50 fathoms. A year ago I experimented by drifting at night in the Gulf Stream where it sweeps close by Havana, Cuba and, though I had no strikes, I saw dozens of swordfish which had been taken deep down on commercial long lines.
Undeniably, Chile and Peru are graced with the finest broadbill water in the world. Swordfish there are larger, more numerous and strike with greater abandon than those anywhere else. Alfred C. Glassell Jr. of Houston, Texas (SI, March 19, 1956) has caught 19 in South America and is second only to the great Michael Lerner, who took 23 from both Atlantic and Pacific before the Lerner Marine Laboratory at Bimini in the Bahamas came to occupy his full time.
At the moment, there are no sport-fishing boats for charter in Chile. The engines in the Chilean government's two boats are defunct and no funds seem to be forthcoming to replace them. The man who wants to swordfish in Chile must ship his own boat by steamer.
Cabo Blanco, Peru, 30 miles from Talara on an arid coastal bulge, is something else again. The Cabo Blanco Club (SI, March 19, 1956) welcomes itinerant fishermen, has three able boats and can be reached overnight from New York and Miami by direct Pan American World Airways flights to Talara. It claims a 12-month swordfish season, and it most certainly has swordfish.
There are few places on the United States coastline where swordfish have not at least been sighted. There is still a forest of swordfish off southern California, though competition is keen and the swordfish are even warier than they normally are. But by far the most active broadbill water for sportsmen stretches northeasterly from Shinnecock Inlet, N.Y., to the tiny island of No Man's Land off Martha's Vineyard and beyond. Last summer from late June to October eastern sportsmen took 20 or more broadbill there, and that number has already been surpassed this season as a most extraordinary concentration of swordfish has moved into the area, with fish striking even the most sloppily presented baits.
In the Long Island and Martha's Vineyard region there are fine charter-boat captains who know swordfishing. They charge from $75 to $100 a day and all furnish heavy tackle. Some can supply 24-thread and lighter. The man who spends five days or a week with one of them (even less, considering this summer's run) should find broadbill. But he must never take his eyes from the water. He must never stop to dally with school tuna or white marlin. And he should at least know what Angling Author S. Kip Farrington Jr. (12 swordfish) thinks of his chances:
"Ten to one the day is not right for the fish to surface; ten to one that if the day is right you won't see the fish; fifteen to one that if you see him he will not strike and may even sound before you can present a bait; three to one that if he does strike he will not pick up the bait; five to one that if he picks it up you won't hook him; and eight to one you will lose if you do hook him."
Mr. Farrington's distressing odds are a good rule of thumb, but they are, after all, nothing more than a mathematical estimation of the probable. They cannot take into account luck and, as every angler knows, luck can make a shambles of the longest odds. Take the case of Mr. Edward L. Gruber of Spring City, Pa. Off Shinnecock Inlet a little more than a fortnight ago Mr. Gruber caught two swordfish of 296 and 298 pounds in a single day, thus joining the select group who have scored doubles. Skill, perseverance and this season's historic run aside, he was indeed lucky. The swordfish and the odds being what they are, it can be said that in one day Mr. Gruber broke the four-minute mile and climbed Mount Everest.
For assistance in preparing this article thanks are extended to: The American Museum of Natural History, The Marine Laboratory of the University of Miami, Mr. and Mrs. Louis E. Marron, John Manning, S. Kip Farrington Jr., Hans Hinrichs, Van Campen Heilner, George C. Thomas III, Mickey Alten-kirch, Harry Peters, Michael Lerner, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Allison, Alfred C. Glassell Jr. and, finally, Edward L. Gruber, whose sportsmanship made it possible for the author to culminate a 10-year search by catching his first swordfish.