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Hook Games: Deepsea Sportfishing

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

(continued from page 1)

"...the 1920 season was not only the hardest ordeal we ever endured, but the most dangerous experience of any kind we ever had. Lassoing mountain lions, hunting the grizzly bear, and stalking the fierce tropical jaguar, former pastimes of ours, are hardly comparable to the pursuit of Xiphias gladius [broadbill swordfish]. It takes more time, patience, endurance, study, skill, nerve and strength, not to mention money, of any game known to me...."

Conventional sportfishing consists of three stages: the hooking, the fighting and the release, and it is easy for even an experienced angler to lose the fish, right up until the release. This challenge is the whole reason for the sport, in which not only the fisherman but the captain and crew must be in sync with the fish, ready to counter its dives, runs and jumps.

Overeagerness is responsible for many lost fish. Deep sea fishing reels have built-in alarms, a loud clicking noise triggered by the taking of bait or lures. The sound of the reel immediately raises the blood pressure of all on board, but patience is a must. Some game fish are very difficult to hook, even after they have taken the bait. Unless you are skilled, it is wise to leave the setting of the hook to the mate, and take over from there.

While stand-up fighting is becoming increasingly popular, the traditional method for large fish is to use a fighting chair, a chair set in the bow of the boat, which rotates, has footrests for exerting leverage, and a holder for the butt of the rod. After the strike, the angler jumps in the chair while the mate hooks the fish and brings the fisherman the rod. Then the action begins.

It is simply impossible to overpower even a fair-sized game fish, inconceivable for a large one. Early attempts to stop the prey from running will result in a broken line. Considering that the heaviest line fished has a breaking strength of 130 pounds, far below the weight of many fish, and the fish can exceed 60 miles per hour, it is futile to try to stop one of these runs.

Fish tire quickly, and sportfishing is a matter of give and take. When the fish runs, you let it go. When it slows, you reel line back in as fast as humanly possible, trying to keep slack out of the line. Sometimes the fish will turn and come back at you. Other times it will instinctively dive deep, taking the line straight down from the rod. All the while the captain will maneuver the boat, circling or even backing up to assist the angler in managing the line.

It is easier for the fish to take line than for the fisherman to get it back, and for this reason the fight often involves cramping forearms and aching backs. The legs are used to push off the footrests and pull the rod up. As the fish tires, progress is achingly slow. The angler uses the rod as a lever, pulling it up to gain a few feet of line, then dropping it quickly and frantically reeling to recover those precious few feet. This action may need to be repeated hundreds of times.

The only fights that last minutes are those the fish wins. Hours are more typical for landing a big fish. My shark still had most of the line when I lost him after 30 minutes, and showed no signs of tiring.

"Our captain told us fights typically last about a minute per pound," said Robert Pedrero, a California entrepreneur who recently traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in pursuit of blue marlin. "I hooked an 80-pound sailfish, which took about an hour and a half to land, so he was right on the money." This rule of thumb does not apply to the biggest fish, which take hours, not days, to catch.

The reason billfish are the most popular is because of their beautiful coloration and stunning aerial maneuvers. They will jump vertically well clear of the water, flip, or bound in and out in consecutive horizontal leaps. Occasionally a billfish will reward its hunters with the truly impressive display of seemingly "walking" on its tail, erect with its bill to the sky. For this reason, a good camera should be brought whenever you charter.

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