Of the great single-minded passions, such as love, war and Scrabble, fishing with a hook and line involves the most luck, and most of it is bad. Captain Tommy Gif-ford—who, with ingenuity, patience, cussedness and an almost evangelical sense of mission, has striven for 42 years to make fishing as predictable (but sporting) a tug-of-war as possible—admits that even with a first-rate angler on one end of the line it remains 50% luck.
Traditionally, the fisherman accepts getting skunked with more good humor than the lover tolerates rejection; there are not as many women as fish in the sea. The professional guide, on the other hand, cannot make a living unless the sum of his craft, or art, like a gambler's stake, enables him not only to survive a streak of misfortune but consistently to beat the laws of chance. A stocky, cheerful, contentious iconoclast who looks like a clean-shaven Santa Claus, Captain Gifford (right) has notably triumphed over the unknown and unpredictable. Now 65, he is considered by many to be the finest big-game fishing guide or charter boat man in the business.
One test of a topflight charter boat man, although a simple-minded one by Gifford's standards, is a full fish box. This, of course, Gifford has accomplished many-fold. Moreover, he has caught fish you couldn't stuff in a fish box if you made gefilte fish out of them. ("Caught," to a guide, is the same as the boxing manager's corporate "we," as in "we was robbed" or "we won.") Over the years his charters have held 26 world records. Once, at Wedgeport, N.S., fishing Tony Hulman Jr., the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he caught 15 tuna weighing 9,600 pounds in nine days. He has caught as many as eight sailfish in a day. Gifford, incidentally, never sells any fish he catches. "If I have the time," he says, "I fillet and freeze them and take them up to the children's home. They don't have very good food there, like any institution."
Last month Gifford outdid himself. Fishing off North Key Largo, Fla., where he makes his winter home (he summers at Montauk, N.Y.), he got me my first sail. It was, more to the point, the first sail taken on his brand-new boat, the latest in a succession of Stormy Petrels. This one is a 31-foot Bertram "Moppie" and has the same hull—with a longitudinally straked, deep-V bottom—as the boats that won the last two Miami-Nassau races. Its twin 280-hp Chrysler engines drive it at speeds in excess of 40 mph with remarkably little pounding in heavy seas. "I never thought," says Gifford, with wonder, "that I'd live to see the day a boat could do the things this one does." Nor I, with equal wonder, the day I would land a sailfish. It was bewilderingly simple. Fortunately, I had the wise and gentle counsel of Mr. Charlie Dunn, whose company builds Fin-Nor reels, and, from the tuna tower as he maneuvered the boat, Captain Gifford's outraged commands. Alas, most of these were lost in the wind. I recall one: "Keep your goddam rod tip up!" Gifford claims that catching a fish is 60% angling skill, 40% boat handling. I believe the latter an understatement in my case. In his autobiography Anglers and Muscleheads, Gifford has written: "The boat to the big game fisherman must take the place of the legs of the salmon fisherman." A superb helmsman, Gifford drives a boat with as much verve and pertinent style as a scatback.
February 5, 1962
"If a man has no constructive or inventive spirit of his own," Gifford says, "how can he be called one of the top men no matter how many fish he has on his boat?" Gifford invented the outrigger, a long pole that enables an angler to skip a bait out and away from the boat's wake. Always tinkering, he has since all but abandoned outriggers in favor of a more sophisticated and productive technique, which he did not invent but perfected, called kite fishing. Gifford helped design the prototype of the celebrated Fin-Nor reel, refined the drag and constructed the first self-adjusting fighting chair. He pioneered celebrated fishing grounds: he claims to have caught the first giant tuna at Wedgeport and the first swordfish on rod and reel off Cape Breton.
Gifford's most significant contribution to big-game fishing, however, was in championing the radical theory that big fish could be brought to gaff on light tackle. This now amounts to his fire-and-brimstone religion, and he gets a big, righteous bang out of demonstrating its miracles to nonbelievers. With stern moral judgment he has divided fishermen into the damned, or muscleheads, and the saved, or sportsmen. Muscleheads, whom he scorns, fish only with "rope," or heavy tackle, for fear they will hook into "Minnie the Monster" and lose her. Sportsmen fish with nothing heavier than 50-pound test line and gain Gifford's blessings. Gifford recalls with delight a June day in 1941 when Mrs. Marian Hasler caught a 374-pound giant tuna on 15 thread (roughly comparable to 50-pound test) at Cat Cay. "We came in with a matchstick in the horn button and a great big bed sheet flying," Gifford says. "And they said there was a casket waiting for the woman who caught a giant tuna!"
Gifford's pre-eminence is obviously not a result of luck. "If you want to be better than anyone else," he has said, "you have to put so much time in. The average charter boat man spends too much time at the dock. He don't spend time thinking of ways to improve." Gifford resents those who call kite fishing and light-tackle feats stunts. Bridles Gifford: "Anything in this world that's hard to do, there's a certain bunch of lazybones who call it a stunt."
It was fortuitous, however, that Gifford was born in Long Branch, N.J. within earshot of the compelling sound of the North Atlantic surf. "I loved the sea from far back," he recalled the other day. "I'd head for school, turn around and bolt for the ocean. I loved anything that was alive in the sea, the sea itself." When he was 4 he took a dead sea robin, a particularly noisome bottom fish, to bed with him as another child would take a teddy bear. After he had cuddled the fish under the covers for several nights, it mysteriously vanished. Gifford advises parents who find a sea robin in their son's bed to chloroform the boy: otherwise he will surely grow up to be a charter boat man. "It is," says Gifford, "the business of the most work and the least money. If I hadn't been such a nut for the sea and fishing, I'd be financially stable. What the hell can I retire on? I feel like taking off somewhere and taking it easy. Jamaica is a beautiful island. I don't feel like going north every summer. It's a grind.
"Charter boating," he says in calmer moments, "is the same as any other business—another hard day at the office. You try to please the customer. A man spends a certain amount of money to go out. I like to see to it that he gets a little more than his money's worth. In 42 years of fishing, only one man has ever asked me to cheat on a fish. Every great once in a while you find someone who don't think it wrong to cheat at cards or fish. The boys in Miami go through quite an ordeal, though. Six people, all strangers, on board! A diplomat in Washington don't have a tougher job. But charter boat men are not plagued by too many troubles. If a man comes aboard my boat and starts drinking, the heavier he drinks the closer we are to home. By the time he don't know where he is, we're tied up at the dock." Gifford has written: "This, of course has contributed to my reputation as a cantankerous old bastard. I have always considered these individuals to be stupid, for they could 'charter' a hotel room for a lot less money and get drunk in comfort."
Gifford is still uncommonly devoted to fish, although he no longer shares his bed with them. He croons over their coloring, shape, movement, size, indeed their very fishiness. He impartially adores the blue marlin and a little bait-fish called a balao (pronounced ballyhoo), which he nets, contentedly scales, cleans, brines and freezes. He says they are then as good as fresh bait, and it is a Gifford canon that there is "no substitute for absolutely fresh bait," unless it's live bait. His love affair with fish, alas unrequited, shows no signs of slackening with repetition or the passage of time. "There's nothing in this world so beautiful as a ballyhoo," he said the other day, reverently holding one he had just netted. "It gives you goose bumps three-quarters of an inch high just to look at it. If I had pepper and salt, I'd eat it." He was, like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, transported by the glory of its being. Reflecting, he admitted he wouldn't eat it, even cooked. "Too oily," he said.
Gifford beholds the leap of the lowly houndfish (also called needlefish) with as much exuberance as that of the sailfish, and this is one of the many joys of fishing with him for $85 a day. "A houndfish," he says fervently, "can outfight any trout out of any lake or river in the world. He could tow a trout backward and pull all his scales off." Gifford is freely prejudiced in favor of saltwater fish, but he does enjoy one thing about fresh-water angling—the environment. "It's not the battle," he says, "but the beauty of the water, smelling that wonderful balsam, seeing millions of rocks with trees growing out of them. Give me a fly rod on big, wild mountain rivers like the Fraser and the Rogue. There don't have to be any fish in them. They're just nice to look at." He has little use for hunting. He was once shot at, apparently mistaken for a mountain goat. "My big ears," he explains. He shot back. "Hunting and that goddam golf," he says, "have ruined more fishermen."
He is, and contumaciously, a champion of the barracuda, which he feels has been severely maligned, especially by Philip Wylie, whom he does not admire. Gifford estimates that in the last 10 years he has cut loose, as a sort of retaliation for their bad press, 3,500 to 4,000 barracuda. Despite some scientific evidence to the contrary, he wrathfully denies that barracuda flesh is occasionally poisonous. "I've eaten them for 42 years and never got sick," he says stubbornly. Whenever people have become ill from eating barracuda, Gifford insists they have consumed spoiled or sickly fish. Gifford hotly defends the barracuda against charges that it is a man-eater. "I've been swimming with them for 42 years," he says, "and I've never seen a barracuda show more than the common interest you'd show if you'd never seen a man before. Ferocious, terrifying, ear-chopping barracuda! Why, I've been in places where the barracuda were so thick the top of the ocean was gray. Once we were spearing groupers, and when we swam down they'd close over us and when we came up they'd open up. I've had barracuda up to 50 pounds follow me like an inquisitive puppy dog. The man—the slob—that speared that big one and got hurt, why, the spear threw the fish off balance and it ran into him. They actually made a hero of the man who fought off the ferocious barracuda! The girl that got bit up at Fort Lauderdale: barracuda got the blame for it, but it was a mackerel shark, and it was probably just as terrified as she was.
"The barracuda, the huge fish, are coarse to eat. Just the idea of killing one to get a couple of oohs and ahs on the dock is very distasteful to me. It's a shame to kill a fish like that. No fish, pound for pound, fights as hard as that. It takes a long time to grow that big. The damn fools! The mugwump millionaires! Killing fish does things to me. I once had some people on my boat who told me how wonderful the bass fishing had been up North in the woods somewhere where they had just come from. 'We caught the limit three times,' they told me, 'and took them in and dug a hole and buried them.' I turned my boat right around and headed for home. I told them when we had got to the dock, 'I'll give you just 60 seconds to get the hell off of my boat.' 1 don't believe those slobs know to this day what got me so mad.
"I have a standing rule on my boat, though. A man's first sailfish, I bring it in, no matter what. The sailfish is migratory. You tag him, he'll swim to another part of the world, and no one will ever see the tag again. You could catch every sailfish between Jacksonville and Key West, and after a certain amount of time they'll be back. A lot of captains make a lot of noise about turning sailfish loose—but they keep the home fish, the ones that don't migrate. That's why there's not a fish scale on the biggest dock in Miami in February. The fish've been cleaned out. Once, off Jersey, I saw a man take a brand-new Cadillac and just shovel school tuna in. I mean, God knows when he'd ever get the stink out of the automobile, let alone what he'd do with all those fish! Pretty soon there weren't many tuna off Jersey. The same thing happened at Wedgeport up in Nova Scotia. [Last month the International Tuna Cup Match was called off for the fourth year in a row because of an absence of tuna.] The fish just got sick and tired of it.
"There were two men I once fished," says Gifford, "who caught 20 school tuna. They just lay on the dock rotting until someone hauled them away to the rock pit. It made me so sick I told one of the men that the other was going to start releasing all his fish. Then I told the same thing to the other fellow. They both started releasing and got such a wonderful kick out of it. Any fish I'm going to release, instead of grabbing him, I cut the wire. If I can see the hook plain, 1 take it off. It'd wear off in 10 days anyway. I wasn't always this way. The last 10 or 11 years being around my wife Esther has made a lot of difference. 'You're not going to kill it?' she'd keep saying.
"If a fellow wants to keep a fish on my boat and can give me a sensible argument, the fish comes in the boat. If he says he wants to take a picture, I don't like it. I'll go along with it, but it won't happen again. But I've found out that people are conservationists when you explain things to them. The finest angler I ever knew was a man named Maury L. Webster. One time in 10 days we took nine blue marlin and released six. Two were hooked in the throat and never would have made it. The other was a world record. Releasing fish like that was absolutely unknown in those days. If I did it again, I'd still be looked upon as a crackpot."
Mention of Maury L. Webster, "the most wonderful angler that ever trolled a line off the back of a boat," always gets Gifford roiled about another injustice: the composition of the U.S. team for the tuna match at Wedgeport. Gifford contends that if the team is supposed to represent the country, its members should be chosen solely on merit like the Olympic teams. Instead, he says, the qualifications are money and ambition. Gifford defines ambition, in this case, as a willingness to flatter those who select the team. "For a few years there," he says, "there were some very sorry people fishing for tuna. I know a dozen men who didn't have the money who could have outfished them. Maury L. Webster had money but no ambition."
Another topic that makes Gifford boil over is spear-fishing, now banned in the Upper Keys. "The commercial boys were bad enough," he says. "They made a terrible difference. It was systematic slaughter. Then along came hordes of amateurs in a school of snappers. The damn amateurs were worse than the pros. They'd spear a hundred to kill three. The rest would be wandering around with gaping holes. Nice thing's been happening lately, though. The last few years there's been an epidemic of spearfisher-men disappearing. Sharks get 'em.
"There's a place I know back in the Tortugas where I like to go to just observe the sea life that goes on, the tragedies, the big fish chasing the medium-sized fish chasing the little fish. It's so much more interesting to look than spear and have everything go to hell and gone."
Gifford was 6 years old when he caught his first fish. It was a 16-pound striped bass, and he had to swim around four jetties and use his waist as a reel before he was able to beach it. Since then, he has spent a good deal of his time devising ways to make fishing less exhausting if just as sporting. Gifford has probably experimented with more methods of catching a fish than any other guide and, most probably, has spent more time on the water, too. "I figure," he says, "you learn something every day you go out there, from the president of the Catalina Island Tuna Club to a New Guinea native." Gifford, for instance, once spent a summer with Japanese fishermen in Hawaii and unreservedly acclaims them the finest in the world.
His experimenting led, in the early '30s, to his great principle of light tackle for big fish. Before he got his calling, Gifford, like other guides, used heavy line—39, even 54 thread—and primitive rods and reels, for which, often, a man's thumb served as drag. Fishing with that heavy tackle was a bruising, arduous and debilitating ordeal, and the angler, if he hadn't passed out or suffered a stroke, was as whipped as the fish. "That damn 39 thread is a bone crusher," Gifford says. "Ernest [Hemingway] was the only man I ever knew who could use it. He was so strong. Him and Mike Lerner [of Lerner Shops] in his prime. Ernest was a good fisherman in a roughneck way. It was 75% muscle and 25% technique with him. But Ernest and Uncle Mike couldn't catch a 100-pound tarpon on a fly rod to save their lives. If you're a normal human being, fishing is using from 10 to 50, maybe 80-pound test. If you're abnormal—6 foot 6, 275 pounds, right out of college, in perfect shape and enjoy getting the living hell beat out of youthen you can use 120 like an average person uses 50. But there's very few of those running around loose. You don"t lose many fish that way, I'll admit that."
Gifford doesn't feel that brawn is a necessary companion to skill. ' "Too many people use heavy tackle just to get their names in the paper," he says. "I believe they ought to lay down that heavy stuff, even if they can handle it, to keep themselves in shape, to get the feel of the fish. The light-tackle man can hook a fish on heavy tackle and do a better job of saving him than the other way around. Who's the better driver—the man who's never driven anything but a 16-wheel truck or the one who's driven everything from a Sprite up? If all the anglers in the world used 50 instead of 120, you'd be surprised how close they'd come to breaking existing records. Fifty-pound test's perfectly capable of taking a 650-pound fish. The only reason it isn't done is that almost nobody uses it. You shouldn't use more than 10-pound for sailfish, 20 for white marlin and 50 for blue marlin and tuna. Someday someone's going to catch a really big tuna on 9 thread. It's so simple if you've got everything with you. It's not even a challenge."
Gifford also contends that light tackle is much more sporting and esthetic. "A fish will jump 50 times on light tackle," he says, "maybe only once with that heavy stuff. The Miami boys seem to feel they've failed unless they catch a boatload offish. So they rig up two big 9/0 reels with 80-pound test. Hell, the average fish won't even turn his head. If you hook the same fish on spin gear, he'll give you a bad time. When the untrained angler in Miami makes a mistake on 50 or 80—why, they can make all kinds of mistakes, and when the smoke clears they still have the fish. But you make one small boo-boo on 20-pound with a small hook and leader. ... I won't fish anybody on my boat with 39 thread unless they're capable of taking all the drag that I make them put on.
"Big-game fishing," Gifford says, "is strictly the knowledge of how hard you can pull on the line without breaking it. The secret is the handling of the drag from the time the fish is wild until he's dead tired. I never used a flying gaff in my life to land a gamefish. I only carry one in case I meet up with a mako shark. I don't believe in gaffing a fish that's so green you need a ‚Öù-inch nylon rope and a hook that can lift the boat. Sport fishing is the art of fighting a fish so that when he comes to the boat he's docile.
"Over a long fight with light tackle, the greatest danger for the experienced angler is impatience. He puts one more notch on the drag and pops him off. The trouble with the novice is that he fishes with too heavy a drag. He hooks a big fish, the fish takes off 100 yards of line. 'Hey!' he yells. 'He's taking all my line! I got to stop him!' That's the end of him, all right." The main principle in fighting a fish, Gifford explains, is to lighten the drag when he makes his runs and tighten it when he stalls or it is obvious he is getting pooped. One of the commonest failings is not lightening the drag on a fish's final, flagging run.
Another Gifford innovation is the short pump. Pumping is the action the angler makes with his rod while fighting a fish in order to reel in slack line. "The great big pump originated back in the days of Zane Grey," Gifford says. "It's still used only because everybody uses it." Gifford advises, rather demands, that his customers use a short pump in which the rod tip may move only a few inches. "It keeps the fish's head up," he says. "With a big pump he tends to settle down. Then you have to fight the whole weight of the fish's body, plus the weight of the tail. If you just rock back and forth, making a quarter turn on the reel each time, his head never gets down and you don't have to yank up all that weight."
Of all his theories, inventions and adaptations, Gifford is proudest of his kite. "Do you have a bunch of dandelions or violets aboard?" he asked his mate one day last month. "Roses will do. I'd like to dump them on myself the way my kite's flying." Gifford's kite looks like an ordinary child's kite, but the sticks are fiber glass, the cloth is silk, it is tailless and it is made to exacting measurements. Gifford also is probably the Occident's best kite flyer. He can get a kite up while anchored on an almost airless day and, of course, you can't take a run on a 31-foot boat. Gifford simply releases it as though it were a bird. In kite fishing a la Gifford, the angler's line is attached by a clothespin to the line that holds the kite aloft. By turning a huge wooden spool, Gifford lets the kite out behind the boat, its line carrying the fishing line well off from the boat. For kite fishing Gifford generally uses live bait; for sails, pilchards or pinfish, which Mrs. Gifford catches for him. Esther Gifford used to be Gifford's mate until, she says, "I got too heavy." She may very well be as good a cook as Gifford is a fisherman and is a first-rate angler in her own right. "The missus caught the first flying fish on rod and reel in this part of the world," Gifford says proudly. A mounted flying fish hangs on the wall in Gifford's living room, along with other small fish, which appear to have been stamped out of plastic, and framed photographs of women in Carole Lombard slacks posing with giant fish. It is curious that the fish look as though they might have been caught yesterday, while the fishermen, men and women, seem to be inhabitants of another world, another, fantastically distant time.
The pilchard or pinfish hangs perpendicularly down from the kite twine, and the angler strips line off his reel until half of the bait is wiggling in the water. If an undesirable—a nosy shark, turbot or houndfish—cruises by, the fisherman simply reels in, and the bait ludicrously ascends. "Going up. Fifth floor, ladies' underwear," Gifford chortles. It is also possible to troll when kite fishing, but in that case Gifford uses fresh dead bait. He claims you can catch any fish with a kite that will take a bait offered from an outrigger. "But," he says, "the kite's worth 75% more fish." One advantage is that the fish tends to hook itself in its lunge. Gifford rigidly insists that an angler hook his own fish. "A lot of charter boat men in their zeal hook a fish for a customer," he says. "But if the fish turns out to be a record, the captain must swear to a lie. Anyway, what the hell's the use of going fishing if someone else hooks the fish for you!"
There are other benefits to kite fishing. "It's impossible to keep the bait on top of the water with an outrigger," Gifford says. "It gets beat to death as the boat rolls. The kite keeps the bait on the surface, the leader, hook and all foreign material out of sight. The fish can't run into the leader with its bill and snarl it or break it or get foul-hooked." Another advantage is that Gifford usually anchors when he flies his kite, which is vastly more pleasant than noisily trolling back and forth inhaling gas fumes. "The kite is such a wonderful fishing machine," Gifford says. "A perfect day for it is with the wind eight mph out of the southeast, a riffled surface. Then that bait swims with the half inch out of the water that has the hook in it. I got a 300-foot anchor rope. As the boat yaws, the kite moves, and the bait follows the kite. On a gorgeous winter day with barely enough wind to get your kite up, a sailfish looks as big as a sea cow. You got two baits on your kite out of the way. You look down and see your mackerel and jacks, and you can have a lot of fun with them with spin tackle while you're waiting for that hole in the water when the sail strikes. The Miami boys troll back and forth, up and down. When you do that you can't use spin tackle, jig, drop your line down. With a kite you can have your cake and eat it, too."
Gifford concedes that kite fishing is complicated and that making the kite is an intricate job. Gifford has two sizes and is thinking of fashioning a third, a storm kite. "Unless you make them absolutely right," Gifford says, "they're hard to fly, and when you're hooked up, it's not for a lazy crew. I've been to three different people trying to get them to manufacture kites. I'd like to give a pair of kites and a spool to every charter boat man from Key West to Maine. [Gifford foresees, too, the day when Atlantic surf fishermen will use kites to carry their bait out beyond the combers.] You'll find people arguing about the kite, naturally, like they argued over the outrigger. I could have patented the outrigger, but if I had patented it I would have been stepping in the faces of a lot of nice charter boat men who couldn't build them. I'm glad I turned it over to them rather than the millionaires. I don't get jealous. I figure I'm as good as any man in the business. The more fish that are caught by my competitors, in a way that helps me, too. Captain Allan Self around here, I took him out two or three times when he first came. No point him catching one fish while I'm catching seven. Knowing where to go is everything. All game-fish do what they do for only one reason—to fill their bellies. It's not for love of women fish or love of commuting. You got to go where the food is, too."
Fishing, Gifford has written, "is not a sport I have any desire to 'debunk.' [But] no sport can grow if the challenge is reduced, and I am convinced that only by coordinating the tackle and the fish can the challenge be assured. Angling...is a contest between a man and a fish. If the fish, when hooked, has no reasonable chance for escape, it is not a contest. The true angler finds a rewarding pleasure in the equal contest—he does not find the sport more challenging merely because he may take a fish that will provide him with an award in the form of an outboard boat complete with motor. Nor is he primarily an angler because it may add his name to a record list.
"There have been too many 'devices' avowedly designed to 'promote the sport of big-game angling.' Regard these devices carefully and you will find that most of them are actually designed to promote a coastal resort, a beer, a certain automobile or, quite frequently, an individual. . . Big-game angling has been, and possibly always will be, used for ulterior designs. A number of individuals who have no real interest in angling have turned to the sport because it offered an opportunity to associate with people in a social stratum that otherwise would be beyond their grasp. Others turned to it for business reasons....If I am thankful for anything in this life, it is for the fact that I am finally able to send the muscleheads to another skipper."
Tommy Gifford turned to the sea because it was his drummer. Its smoke and resonant note were in his bedroom in Long Branch, along with the sea robin. He is not the independent cuss he pretends to be. But if he is not his own master, he is the sea's good servant. He is drawn as irresistibly by the sea's intolerable tug as are the schools of giant tuna streaming under his boat off Bimini, their backs green and shining. "Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."