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Original Issue

Look, Joe, I'm the champ

An eight-ounce tarpon makes the record book under new rules for light-tackle fishing

Most fishermen have twitched in their sleep at one time or another, dreaming of a record fish. But until recently, dreaming of these things was all most fishermen could afford. To make a record which would be officially recognized by the International Game Fish Association it was necessary to catch a black marlin weighing not less than 158 pounds, a tiger shark of 341 pounds or a tarpon weighing 144. And the prospect of taking such fish as these has been remote indeed in our thoroughly combed waters. In fact, in some record categories, the only anglers with a real chance were those who could afford the enormous expense of money and time for travel to the distant corners of Peru, Mexico and Australia, where really big game fish can be found.

But, in the past couple of years, there have been some changes made. Now anyone can be a world champion, even with fish taken in his home waters. And records have been falling like confetti on a Wall Street ticker-tape parade. This new opportunity came with the establishment in 1959 of the International Spin Fishing Association. For the fishermen of the world, the ISFA created six new record classifications, all in ultralight test lines for salt-and fresh-water fish. The new records start with 12-pound test and continue downward—10, 8, 6, 4, all the way to a spider web of a two-pound monofilament.

Until the ISFA came along, the fresh-water record keepers failed to mention line test altogether, and the salt-water statisticians of the IGFA worked upward from a base category of 12-pound test on to the so-called all-tackle records, in which the line could be only a little less sturdy than a Manila hawser. Furthermore, all these records merely noted that the fish had been subdued on rod and reel (never mind what kind), and, in the case of salt-water fish, recorded the sex of the fisherman. It made no difference in the books if you took a big fish on a fly rod, a bait rod, a spinning rod, a boat rod or a telegraph pole. And in the trout and salmon records there was no technical difference between a master angler who used delicate terminal tackle and a man who dragged in his record on the end of a braided-wire leader.

By insisting on standardized equipment, the ISFA is admittedly favoring the tackle that its founders, a group of 12 spin fishermen from Englewood, Calif., happen to like. But it is also providing a constant measuring stick by which one catch can fairly be judged against another. And with the new line-test categories, it has created world records that may easily be surpassed in any afternoon of ordinary good fishing. In fact, so new and relatively little known is the ISFA that many of its record brackets are still blank.

In the association's latest listing (through June 30, 1960) there were 104 records still vacant for salt-water fish and 40 in the fresh-water division. The only listed record for Dolly Varden trout, for instance, was a two-pound eight-ounce fish taken on two-pound test line. No records were listed for Dolly Vardens on four-, six-, eight-, 10-and 12-pound lines. If you took a sockeye salmon of any size on anything under eight-pound test line you would have an automatic record. The same was true for mako shark under 12-pound test. And so on.

Besides these open brackets, there are many records filled by fish of unimpressive size. Some of them have even been absurd. A couple of years ago Alan Kaplan of Miami Beach took an eight-ounce tarpon on a two-pound test line in Biscayne Bay. That was a world record, and Kaplan is now an immortal. John H. Irwin of Vero Beach, Fla., using four-pound test line, caught a one-pound three-ounce bluefish. He, too, is an immortal. For that matter, Mr. Irwin is thrice immortal, since he took a two-pound six-ounce pompano on four-pound test line and a one-pound 15-ounce pompano on six-pound test-both world records. There are quite a few like these in the multirecord class. Myron J. Glauber of Los Angeles holds three dolphin records, and Bob Dragoo of Tarzana, Calif, is listed for Pacific barracuda, kelp bass, Pacific bonito and yellowtail.

These records will, of course, be surpassed since they merely filled the vacuum that existed when the ISFA began record-keeping. They also have created a certain sullen moodiness among some sports fishermen, who feel that there is something crass about mere record-seeking and, worse, that the ISFA has been overly generous in its definition of what constitutes a game fish. (The croaker is a gamester? Oh, dear.)

New savor for an old sport

But the new system of record-keeping also has stirred a healthy revival of interest in light-tackle fishing—a technique that, taken in moderation, can add much savor to the sport. Light tackle always has been a specialty of some fishermen but, inevitably, there have been nuts among them. For quite a while before spinning tackle saved the day for sanity just after World War II, not a few light-tackle cranks were experimenting with lines of ordinary cotton thread. Snootier than dry-fly purists, the cotton-thread stunt men were, apparently, trying to discover how close one might come to catching a fish without actually catching it. If one of them succeeded in setting a hook without breaking his line he was likely to feel that he had had an exceptionally good day.

While this idiocy was still prevalent I once gave up 15 minutes of black bass fishing to make notes on the habits of an especially fine cotton-thread specimen who was trying to cast from the shore of a small lake near my home. He was using a good-looking 5½-foot bamboo bait rod with a fast tip. I spotted him on his first attempt at casting, when his plug snapped off and sank beyond recovery. He managed to tie on another, but only after several tries because the wet cotton broke whenever he drew the knot taut. This brought out the temper in him, and he forgot to be cautious on his next cast, which cost him another plug. He dug into the tackle box again, selecting a third lure. This time, with excruciating delicacy of movement, he got it tied and into the water—but only about 15 feet from where he stood.

The length of the cast didn't matter too much because sundown was almost upon us and the bass were moving close to shore for their nightly forays against the minnows. Something, probably a bass, struck his lure. You could tell because he tried to set the gang hooks, and another plug sank to the bottom of the lake.

I sidled over to him. He was reeling in his thread, looking grim and smug in the same instant.

"Any strikes?" I asked.

"Just had one," he said, rooting in his box for another plug. "Lost him. I'm using a very light line."

Actually, it was not so much the so-called line that was causing him trouble. It was the rest of his tackle—the stiff rod tip, the heavy reel without drag attachment and those gang hooks. With balanced tackle he would have been able to cast better, even with cotton thread, and with a single-hook lure he might have been able to set a hook. One hook is easier to set than a gang hook.

In fact, with spinning tackle, it is by no means impossible to take big fish on a very light line. Mostly it requires patience, sharp hooks, care in setting the drag, a quick, sensitive touch on the rod and a willingness to pump endlessly to recover line—in other words, the basic skills which are the property of all really fine fishermen, as differentiated from trophy bores and the angling assassins being bred by the big-money tournaments (SI, Nov. 7, 1960).

Thus, one of the more respectable ISFA records was a 20-pound six-ounce Chinook salmon taken on two-pound test line from the North Fork of the Lewis River in Washington. Certainly it took skill to kill that salmon, confounding his powerful lunges with the drag of the reel, which released line whenever the pull approached its breaking point, and by keeping the limber rod tip high to further cushion any shock against the line. In due course, with the salmon finally wearied of the struggle against this passive nonresistance, it simply lay at rest, and the spin angler (E. J. Halkoski) was able to recover line and eventually kill the fish.

Hats off, then, to E. J. Halkoski, who did not horse in his fish on tackle suitable for tuna. He worked hard and ably in the tradition of light-tackle men. Hats off, too, to the ISFA. For, whatever may be thought of some of these early ISFA records (excluding genuinely impressive performances like Halkoski's,) they have begun to inspire a movement of a similar sort in other branches of light-tackle angling where records are not so important as the sport itself.

In the past year Abercrombie & Fitch has sold somewhere between 500 and 600 of its Banty fly rod, line and reel combinations. All three components are specially designed for each other. The reel is specially made by Hardy, weighing 2‚Öú ounces; the tubular glass rod is only four feet four inches long and weighs, believe it or not, just one ounce. The tapered fly line is 30 yards long and can be cast 50 feet by any ordinary angler. Customers who doubt their ability to cast this far are taken to the store's roof pool and there prove to themselves that they are experts.

It is to be hoped that the movement spreads, not so much for the sake of records but for the sake of pure angling pleasure. For any legal-sized fish taken on a rod and reel like this, using appropriate terminal tackle, must provide a maximum of the aggravation fishermen call fun.