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Hook Games: Deepsea Sportfishing

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

(continued from page 2)

While fish are unpredictable, the acrobatics generally begin well into the fight. Ernest Hemingway's poor fisherman, the protagonist of The Old Man and The Sea, had to fight his giant dream marlin through two full nights before he got a glimpse of it, but it was worth the wait:

"The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver, and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out."

It should be remembered that Hemingway's old man had no crew, no motor, no rod and no reel, just a length of line. The average charter angler can expect to be back in port the same day he or she set out.

"The lure that Hemingway created of catching a big billfish lives on," says Ellen Peel, executive director of The Billfish Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the conservation of these most sought-after game fish.

Unfortunately, the excitement created by Hemingway and others led to destructive over-fishing of many of the world's most productive waters. Serious declines in numbers of billfish and tuna, particularly the swordfish, have threatened the survival of these species. According to Peel, "Years ago, you could catch 600- to 1000-pound swordfish, but there is now no place in the United States to reliably catch swords, and when they do it is usually well under a hundred pounds. Just for a recreational angler to catch one in the Atlantic is a rare event."

The Billfish Foundation and like-minded organizations began promoting catch and release or tag and release programs, where the tags are used by scientists to study fish migrations, and the results have been staggering. According to Peel, more than 90 percent of the billfish caught in the Atlantic are released, and in many states and countries release is mandatory.

A second development that promoted conservation was an improvement in taxidermy. No longer do most anglers return home with real skin mounts, which yellow with age. Taxidermists now create "release mounts," a fiberglass replica based on the size and weight of the fish, or a photo if available, allowing the catch to be released.

Even major tournaments have moved to a catch and release format, led by the world's most prestigious, the International Billfish Tournament of the Club Náutico de San Juan in Puerto Rico. The longest consecutively held tournament, it just completed its 43rd annual event. According to tournament director Luis Valldejuli, "We were the first to go to the release format. We also have a 100-point bonus for tagging." Prizes are awarded for boats, captains and anglers with the most releases.

Many anglers keep only their biggest fish in the hopes of breaking records, but even this is changing. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA), headquartered in Pompano Beach, Florida, is the keeper of all rules and records for fresh and saltwater game fish. The IGFA now certifies portable scales, so anglers can document record fish without bringing them to port. According to Jim Brown, the IGFA's assistant to the president, "We very much support the catch and release ethic. We allow the use of field scales and photos so record fish can be released."

One of the greatest appeals of sportfishing is the ease with which beginners can get involved. Typically, charter captains provide everything needed, from rods and reels to expertise. In major tourist destinations, would-be anglers can often arrange a charter on the spot by walking up to the docks, though it pays to make plans in advance.

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