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Hook Games: Deepsea Sportfishing

Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

"Let's go sharking!" Capt. Tommy Morrow yelled enthusiastically. He slowed the twin engines of the Craigearn to a halt as the mate prepared the bait, using a small tuna we had caught hours earlier.

Sharks are bottom-dwellers, so we drifted slowly as the bait descended to the ocean floor. The strike came almost immediately. The reel clicked loudly as the shark stripped line off, and the mate rushed to get into position. In just a few seconds, most of the line had disappeared into the water, and the mate shouted at the captain to back up the boat before we ran out. Diesel engines roared to life as the shark led us out to sea.

Half an hour later, I lost the battle. Like many overeager anglers, I failed to keep slack out of the line, and the shark worked the hook free. Joining the fraternity of fishermen everywhere, all I had was a memory of the big one that got away.

Big game sportfishing is back. Popularized by literary legends Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey in the first half of the century, the sport is enjoying a resurgence. Increased environmental awareness, new challenges in light tackle, lucrative tournaments and worldwide availability of quality charters have drawn many participants to the sea.

The thrill of landing a big fish must be experienced to be appreciated. The typical freshwater fly fisherman, for instance, stalks trout weighing a few pounds. Record marlin tip the scales at well over half a ton, and large sharks can weigh twice that. Because these fish are capable of snapping even the heaviest line with a single tug, it is no wonder so many of these magnificent creatures get away.

Offshore sportfishermen primarily target three types of fish: billfish, tunas and sharks. Secondary quarry include wahoo, mahi mahi, jacks and king mackerel.

In many parts of the world, sharks are not hunted for sport, but avoided, as they often devour more desirable game fish that are on the hook. Yet there is a growing fascination with these dangerous predators, which are actively pursued in Australia, California and the U.S. Northeast. The lure is simple: the shark is the biggest of all game fish, and the great white is the biggest shark, with specimens exceeding two tons. Other popular game sharks are tigers, makos and hammerheads.

Tunas are the "original" sportfish, and the earliest offshore fishing clubs were built around their pursuit. One reason for their popularity is the widespread availability of many species of large tuna in waters around the world. Another is that they are powerful fish, diving deep and giving an unrelenting fight. Unlike many large fish, they travel in schools, making multiple, simultaneous strikes commonplace. The biggest prize is the giant bluefin, occasionally breaking a thousand pounds, although much smaller yellowfin are very popular.

But for the serious sportfisherman, billfish are in a class by themselves. Due to their beauty, speed and acrobatic leaping ability, the various types of sailfish, spearfish and marlin are the backbone of major tournaments, and the most sought-after fish. The ultimate prize is the fourth species of billfish, the broadbill swordfish, whose rarity makes it just an elusive dream for most anglers.

Zane Grey, no slouch of a fisherman, described the broadbill in his 1927 short story, "Xiphias Gladius 418 Pounds," the title of which refers to the scientific name for the fish:

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