In the obsessive world of big-game angling no trophy is more difficult to acquire than the broad bill swordfish. Last year only one was boated during the annual Deep Sea Anglers Club swordfish tournament off Montauk, Long Island. But the challenge is strong, and it has lured many contestants back for another try this week. In five days they will cover thousands of miles of the Atlantic, searching for hungry broadbills. Most of the fishermen will return to port in the evenings fishless but full of tales of broken leaders and pulled hooks. On shore they sip drinks and dream of another encounter with the elusive broad bill.
Bristling with tuna towers, outriggers and electronic gear, the sleek swordfishing fleet rests at dockside in Montauk's stilly dawn.
On the dawn run to the offshore swordfishing grounds, a mate checks a squid into which he has sewed two 12/0 hooks and a wire leader.
Perched on the edge of his fighting chair, an angler watches anxiously as the mate maneuvers the bait in front of a surfaced swordfish.
After a long and successful day's fishing, the final moment of glory comes for an angler when his fish is weighed in officially.
THE TOUGHEST TROPHY IN THE SEA
Considering the caliber of the fishermen competing this week in the Deep Sea Anglers Club swordfish tournament off Montauk and their luxurious sport-fishing boats and efficient crews, it becomes painfully obvious that taking a sword-fish on rod and reel requires an inordinate amount of time and determination as well as a generous dollop of fisherman's luck. The broadbill is, in fact, so difficult to catch that a tournament can be considered a huge success if only one of every 20 fish sighted is hooked and brought to gaff.
In the expanse of ocean between Long Island and Nantucket, experienced swordfishermen know every offshore trench, hole and reef where swordfish congregate to feed along the bottom on squid, butterfish, whiting and flounder. The hunters set their courses for sea marks like the Butterfish Hole, the Dumping Grounds, the Mud Hole, the Banana and the Fingers, places where they have found swordfish before under similar conditions of tide, wind, current, water depth and water temperature. Once on the fishing grounds, they cruise slowly through tidal rips and slack water, peering out and down from lofty tuna towers, trying not to become mesmerized by the drone of the engines, the whistling wind and the slap of waves against the hull.
Swordfishermen live for those rare days when the ocean is slick-calm and alive with fish that can be stalked and baited. When ready to feed, a drowsy swordfish lights up like a neon sign, its drab, brownish skin turning an iridescent purple as it charges. Unlike other billfish, swordfish rarely grab a bait and gulp it down. Instead they play with a bait, pushing and rolling on it. As a result they almost invariably get foul-hooked or wrapped up in the leader. The contest that follows may last for hours, but the odds are that the hooks will eventually pull out or the wire leader will kink and pop under the strain.
If swordfish are formidable opponents, so are most of the serious fishermen who seek them out. One such man is James French Baldwin, a metallurgist from Locust Valley, N.Y. Several weeks ago 35 miles off Montauk. Baldwin, who baits his own fish from the cockpit, managed to hook three of the 10 fish his crew spotted during the day. The first two were lost after brief struggles, but the third one. which Baldwin estimated at well over 350 pounds, was on for 52 minutes before the hook pulled out. To compound the misery, a fourth fish, in a rare display of broadbill acrobatics, came out of the water five times around Baldwin's bait, then slowly settled away. An inveterate experimenter. Baldwin has trolled deep for swordfish and has drifted multiple baits at various depths, so far without success. "There is no reason why swordfish can't be taken deep." he says. "Commercial long-liners bring them up from 100 feet and more." A light-tackle enthusiast, Baldwin never fishes anything heavier than 50-pound-test line (most swordfishermen use 80- or 130-pound line), has lost 24 swordfish on 30-pound line while trying to break a world record and insists on fighting his fish standing up instead of bracing himself in a cushioned chair. Despite such unorthodox methods, Baldwin has, to date, boated more broadbills than any other angler (36 in 18 years of fishing).
There are as yet no records of sword-fishing boats being sunk by swordfish, but it might happen any day. Several years ago a big harpoon—or stick—boat barely made it into New Bedford, Mass. after a swordfish, enraged at being stuck with an iron, gouged a gaping hole through the three-inch pine planking on the boat's bottom. "Helpless" swordfish on the end of a line have been known to kill attacking sharks by impaling them on their broad swords.
As swordfishing tournaments go, another recent Montauk affair, the first International People to People Fishing Championships, was a resounding success. For three of the five competition days, 24 anglers, 14 of them representing six foreign countries, were beset by rough seas and rain. But on the first and last days the ocean was as flat as a plate, and of some 200 swordfish sighted eight were brought back to the dock. The biggest, a 398-pounder, was caught by Edward F. Gruber of Spring City, Pa., a seasoned swordfisherman (34 broad-bills in eight years), who was fishing for the host Deep Sea Anglers Club. Five fish were taken by foreign anglers. One of them, David Sussman of South Africa, was ecstatic about his 266-pounder. "I've caught giant tunny and marlin." Sussman said, "but what makes swordfishing so terribly gripping is trying to get one of the buggers to eat. I found myself weak-kneed as the skipper played out the squid and literally teased that fish into striking. Once the fish was on, however, the battle was rather an anticlimax. I heard one chap say that no one ever releases a swordfish. Seems a shame not to give such a sporting fish another chance to fight."
Considering the fact that on most private boats any swordfish caught becomes the property of the crew, and can bring as much as $1 a pound, an angler who dared to release a fish would be risking mutiny.