Sailfishing, as it is too often practiced, has long been snooted as a sport on the ground that it tests the angler's skill less than the skill of his skipper. The skipper, high in his tower, finds the fish, tells the angler when his bait has been slapped by a sailfish's bill, tells him when to strike and then maneuvers the boat to the fisherman's advantage. Many a light-tackle record never could have been established were it not that the skipper backed the boat down to the fish while the angler reeled in with as little tension as possible on his line. Such fish were not brought to the boat. The boat went to the fish.
For this reason, and others, saltwater fishermen who are jealous of their sport's reputation have been embarrassed by spurious records, some of them set by "anglers" better suited to dunking bait for cod than to fighting one of the most exciting gamefish in the sea. Sailfishing tournaments have also been lightly regarded as true tests of angling skill. Some have been won by lucky tyros.
That day may now be ending. In the blue waters of the Gulf Stream off Palm Beach a fortnight ago there was a breakthrough in tournament billfishing that promises, if it is as widely adopted as it should be, to refurbish the good name of sailfishing and even other kinds of contest fishing. If there must be contest fishing, let it be modeled on this first Invitational Masters Tournament.
Sponsored by The Sailfish Club of Florida, it was the best tournament of its kind ever held. Only anglers of established reputation were invited to compete, and the rules were devised to make the fisherman's skill count as much as possible, to make the part played by captain and mate as minor as possible.
The tournament was not born easily. Its basic idea simmered for several years in the mind of John Rybovich Jr. of Palm Beach, builder of fishing boats (SI, Oct. 28, 1957) and member of The Sailfish Club. Over the years, fishing with friends, he broached it here and there, obtaining an assortment of shrugs, cool indifference and only occasional enthusiasm.
When Rybovich suggested to Lou Marron, noted big-game fisherman and student of oceanic life, that Marron sit on a committee to draw up rules for the tournament, Marron snorted that he would never consent to such a thing. He had competed successfully in a number of tournaments and to him they were "chamber of commerce stuff." But after Rybovich firmly outlined his concept Marron told him to let go of his lapel, that he would indeed be glad to work on the committee. And so it was with other club members. There followed a long period of rumination and debate. The rules eventually were drawn up. They are not yet quite perfect, but only minor modifications will be necessary next year.
To insure that all contestants fished with exactly equal lines the club furnished 20-pound-test Dacron from one manufacturer, who made the line in one run expressly for the tournament. Line strength was set at 20 pounds primarily because of anticipation that some experienced fishermen who regard the use of ultralight tackle as "stunt fishing" would refuse to compete if anything lighter was specified. As it turned out, in five days of fishing by 34 contestants 12 lines were broken. The Dacron was unlubricated and had a tendency to fray. Even so, the number of broken lines was smaller than some expected. There is a good chance that next year's line will be of slightly lighter test. Marron, in fact, is plumping for an eight-pound line but probably won't get it.
A marker was secured to each line 100 yards from the leader. So long as the marker was between the rod's tip and the fish the boat could be maneuvered as the angler requested, but as soon as the marker was reeled in to the rod's tip the boat had to be dead on the water unless it proved necessary to move forward in order to keep a fish from going under the boat. Thus at 100 yards the angler was entirely on his own. To get full credit of 100 points per fish he had to bring the fish to boat within 10 minutes of the strike. After 10 minutes he began to lose points at the rate of five points a minute until, at the end of 30 minutes, he got no points at all. Only 23 of the 131 sails taken in the five days required more than the 10-minute limit. Average time to boat a sail was 8.7 minutes. Some very skillful fishing was seen.
For losing a fish by breaking a line a penalty of 100 points was exacted (Marron's idea) unless it was done deliberately to get rid of an unwanted fish like a bonito. The tournament was primarily for billfish, but lesser points were given for fish other than sailfish or blue marlin when taken by trolling, provided three entries were received in a species. Since it was a release tournament only fish more than 7 feet 6 inches long were to be brought to the dock to be considered for possible bonus points, but no fish of this size was taken.
With two anglers to a boat, each fishing an outrigger and taking turns on a flat line in the stern's center, there were 17 boats in the tournament and, incidentally, 17 of the finest ever assembled. The Palm Beach area abounds in superbly designed fishing boats, and only those meeting the rigid requirements of the committee were accepted. To assure equal opportunity and probably to forestall suspicion of collusion between the owner and his captain, no owner was permitted to use his own boat. The anglers fished each day from a different boat and with a different competitor. Boats were as equal in power as could be arranged, so that there were no complaints about anything of major importance. Contestants were delighted with the conduct of the tournament, even those who fared badly.
Some fishing experts of the area estimated that the stretch of Gulf Stream along the coast between Stuart and Miami, some 100 miles, contains perhaps a million sailfish of various sizes, including those too small to be caught during the peak season, December to March. It has also begun to be suspected that these are the world's most educated fish. Over the years they have been caught and released time and again and it is well recognized that even a fish can be fooled only so often. Recently it has been increasingly difficult to attract them to a dead balao or mullet skipped over the waves, once the best sporting way of taking them. Much more success is now had with live bait, trolled deep and very slowly. Tournament rules forbade the use of live bait, or even drifting through schools, so that it was tantalizing at times to hear radio reports of fish being taken, as many as a dozen to a boat, by live-baiting fishermen not entered in the tournament.
This queen of tournaments, which attracted master anglers from as far away as California, was won by James F. Baldwin of Locust Valley, N.Y., who was never passed after the second day of fishing. Baldwin amassed 860 points, even though he disqualified one of his sailfish on a technicality. His prize was a copy of Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Old Man and the Sea, bound in heavy silver and set between massive bookends, one a sculpture of the old man in his boat, the other of the big billfish rising from the sea.
"I have won before," Baldwin said, "but I have never wanted to win any tournament as much as this one."
Second place went to Carlton A. Smith of Palm Beach, with 715 points, and third to Charles F. Johnson of Asheville, N.C. and Palm Beach, with 600. High boat was the Ric-A-Dor, owned by Richard S. Beinecke, Palm Beach, and skippered by Captain Jake Morrison. Anglers aboard it caught 23 fish.
The Invitational Masters, an unqualified success in its inaugural meeting, is bound to attract more anglers next year. It is an ideal tournament in a perfect setting—Palm Beach has an easily negotiable inlet, productive waters and fine boats. Chances are that no more than 50 will be permitted to compete after screening for qualifications, since only about 25 boats that meet the committee's high standards are available. This is just as well. The idea, as the committee sees it, is to put emphasis on quality fishing, not quantity.