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Denizens of the dark

A year ago pioneering anglers found that nighttime is the right time for Florida swordfish. Now their followers have uncovered a bonanza

A thousand-pound swordfish leaps in the summer night and you own the vision forever. It hangs dimly in the soft air, a vast otherworldly thing, water droplets flying, and when it crashes back into the water it is like a horse falling off a cliff. The lights of Miami Beach glow yellow on the horizon just 12 miles westward, but it doesn't ring true—the Fontainebleau and Collins Avenue serving as a backdrop for xiphias gladius, a fish of legends and cool ocean fastnesses, of mystery and awe.

All night the swordfish rages, taking out a quarter mile of 130-pound-test line. But at dawn it dives away and down. The [14/0] reel, big as a bucket, is not equal to the challenge and soon it is empty, 750 yards of line trailing away into the black depths. The swordfish is gone for another day, and back on the land a new breed of woman is waking up alone. Call them swordfish widows.

The man who loses the big one at least knows there will be other nights. Some men have spent huge chunks of their lives trying to merely hook a swordfish of any size. The International Marine Angler estimates that fewer than 1,000 sport-fishermen have ever boated a broadbill. But now it seems all an angler need do is go to Florida—where 13 months ago no one had ever caught a swordfish on rod and reel, except by accident—and success is at hand. More swordfish have been caught this year in the 225-mile stretch from Vero Beach to Key West than have been caught in the last 20 years on the great swordfishing grounds of the Northeast. That is what Grant Beardsley says, and he is project manager for ocean-game-fish investigations for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Miami.

On Montauk, N.Y. and in all the other storied swordfish waters, the fishing is half hunting, sometimes a daylong search to spot a swordfish—"sunning," as they say, on the surface. "Sleeping" is often more accurate, judging by the fish's reaction to a drifted squid. One strike in 10 is an average response. But in the first Miami Swordfish Tournament this June. 27 boats fished for five days and got 60 fish, and only four boats were shut out. The biggest tournament entry was a fish of 491½ pounds. Two anglers boated four fish each—Pepin Aizcorbe of Coral Gables, the tournament winner with a total of 929¾ pounds, and Anne Kunkel of North Palm Beach. Before entering the tournament Kunkel had caught four swordfish in several years of trying, and more than 100 giant bluefin tuna. In the tournament she boated four swords to place third. She hooked another one evening that emptied her reel like a runaway torpedo. That had never happened to her in 35 years of fishing.

On another Florida night, a mother-and-son team pulled in a 629-pounder, although it wouldn't have counted officially since they took turns fighting it.

It seems strange that this new fishery was not discovered years ago. There have always been swordfish off Florida, where shark fishermen caught them occasionally, fishing very deep. Then in 1975 the Bahamas declared its spiny lobsters off limits to foreign boats, putting a group of Cuban-Americans out of work. Years ago they had fished commercially with longlines for swordfish off Havana, so now they came to Florida and began to find fish. But they ran afoul of another government, the U.S. The FDA says swordfish contain toxic mercury and bans their shipment out of state. But bootleg traffic thrives.

On July 5, 1976, after seeing one too many longlined swordfish on the docks, two Miami cousins, Jesse and Jerry Webb, sales and general manager of Pflueger Marine Taxidermy, went out with rod and reel. They hooked two swordfish and lost them both, one, says Jerry, displaying "the fastest, most powerful run I've ever seen." But the next night they tried again. Jerry hooked up first, and in 12 minutes, with hardly any effort, he had a 348-pounder in the boat. The swordfish is an inconsistent battler, a tiger or a pussycat depending on where he is hooked, and Webb's was hooked in a gland at the base of the sword. But it was the first broadbill ever caught by design by sportfishermen in Florida. Three hours later Jesse Webb boated the second. It weighed 368 pounds and was all over the ocean. Before the summer of '76 was over, many more swordfish had been boated.

The next breakthrough came last May. A group of fishermen were in Captain Harry's Fishing Supply in Miami buying gear for the first Key West swordfish tournament. Harry's daughter Lulu piped up, "Put one of these gadgets in your bait, so the fish can see it." She held up a six-inch Cyalume plastic tube filled with a thick liquid and a small glass vial. When the sealed plastic tube is bent, the vial breaks and chemicals reacting inside the tube begin producing a greenish-yellow light that lasts for about three hours. The tubes were designed for emergency lighting, not for fishing. Captain Harry sold a few three-packs at $4.25 each to the anglers. Five swordfish were caught at Key West, all on lines with Cyalumes either tied ahead of the baits or sewn into the squid they drifted. Now most Florida swordfishermen rely on their "night sticks" nearly as much as on their nights, when the swordfish come toward the surface.

One night off Miami a hooked sword-fish charged a boat. The crew could see it from the flying bridge. It was at least 12 feet long and its great sword was flailing in five-foot sweeps. It dived under the boat at the last minute, but that kind of thing is part of swordfish lore and the evidence lies in the years of punctured hulls. In June a swordfish ghosted up to a 22-foot boat off Hollywood's Dania Beach. It hung there, all 15 feet of it, before swallowing the bait. Four hours later it broke off. A fish that size weighs 1,000 pounds. In 1953 Lou Marron caught a magnificent 14'11½" swordfish weighing 1,182 pounds off the coast of Chile. That fish still stands as the all-tackle record.

The man who lost the possible record fish off Miami, Doug Smith, has already boated nine smaller ones. Jerry Webb has seven, Anne Kunkel, eight. S. Kip Farrington Jr., a pioneer big-game fisherman who caught 12 broadbill in more than 10 years of trying, wrote in his book Pacific Game Fishing that he would rather have caught one swordfish than five black marlin or 20 giant bluefin. The sword does not leap as wildly as the black and rarely grows as large, and it probably is less swift and powerful than the tuna, but it took Farrington six years to catch his first one. In that time he spotted 28 broadbills "sunning," and none was interested in his bait. He wrote, "The more you see of this fish the greater the fascination they hold for you.... I don't feel that anyone ever really knows sword-fish.... He certainly has more idiosyncrasies and guile than any other fish I have ever encountered and is by all odds the most difficult to hook."

With what has been going on off Florida, Farrington may want to revise that last statement. Thus far this year, Beardsley estimates that sports anglers have caught nearly 200 swordfish in Florida waters. Because of their value as both trophies and food, most of these fish have been kept, even 40-pounders. Now that the fishery has been proven beyond a doubt, scientists and enlightened fishermen are promoting a tag-and-release program to preserve the fishery and perhaps learn about the migratory habits of this magnificent fish.

Professional swordfish guides (a brand-new occupation in Florida) are charging from $200 to $350 for an all-night trip. And these summer nights the boats can be seen headed east at around eight o'clock. The ocean deepens off South Florida to 900 feet at 12 miles, then slopes away to 1,450. The deep, powerful currents of the Gulf Stream carom off this drop-off like thermals off an Alpine crag, creating rips all the way to the surface. Baitfish are caught up in this turbulence, attracting squid and sword-fish. The boats drift north with the stream, trailing three or four baits at varying depths, from 30 to 200 feet. Each trip is an experiment. Different size balloons are being used to vary the depths at which baits can be drifted; heavy monofilament leaders are employed in place of wire; spotlights are aimed into the depths. Fishermen joke about new tricks, like underwater microphones, yet untried, to broadcast squid distress calls. Occasionally a shark is hooked, but most strikes are from swordfish, and the suspense of waiting is heightened by the awareness of enormous depths and the eerie nighttime sea. There are thousand-pound swordfish down there, rising toward the hooked squid, nightsticks and quickened pulses. As one red-eyed Floridian said at 4 a.m. last week, "Just think of all those stupid people home in bed."


Fred Hoehn, whose 416-pounder won a Keys tournament, exults over his catch by dawn's early light.