Vintage tale: This was written following a swordfish venture with pioneers of daytime fishing for swordfish Richard Stanczyk and Vic Gaspenny on the Catch 22 off the Florida Keys in August 2008. See 2016 update at the end.
By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
ISLAMORADA, Florida Keys – It’s a long, strange trip to inner space. Down, down, way down.
Down to Jules Verne territory. Down to the deep, dark depths of the ocean where squid jitterbug like dust mops on Ecstasy. Down where the common folk are an array of peculiar, glowing bottom fish that never glimpse the light of day.
Down where the uncontested master of this alien domain is the enigmatic deep-sea gladiator Xiphias gladius: the broadbill swordfish.
The gladiator’s realm is rarely touched by man, but this afternoon the crew of the sportfishing cruiser Catch 22 is sending a package special delivery disguised as the proverbial free lunch, which means it comes with strings attached.
The delivery boy is a cylinder of concrete, essential for penetrating the swift currents of the Gulf Stream churning off the Florida Keys. As the yellow, high-tech braided line peels off a stout, 80-pound rod, the massive Shimano Tiagra 80-wide reel sings its soulful tune in a gravel-throated voice.
Zing … Zing … Zing … On and on and on in a song that never ends. Or so it seems as the anchor-like weight drags a pair baits concealing barbs the envy of Capt. Hook toward the elusive bottom.
The five-man team on Catch 22 isn’t just going fishing. They are making history by delving into something prehistoric.
“I nicknamed this area out here Jurassic Park, because these fish really are like dinosaurs,” says Richard Stanczyk, who along with longtime friend Vic Gaspeny has turned daytime pursuit of swordfish into an obsession.
There are few trails left to blaze, and there is an irresistible allure to matching wits with monsters of the deep. Those factors enabled Gaspeny to finally convince Stanczyk, proprietor of Bud n’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, to test his hunch that swordfish could be caught during the day off the Keys. It took a lot of persuading.
Swordfish are one of the most prized gamefish because they are among the most elusive. They reside in deep ocean waters many miles from shore. Until recently, they had almost always been caught – when they were caught at all – at night, when they come close to the surface to feed.
Fish revered by Hemingway, Grey
Gaspeny, a light-tackle guide who has caught thousands of bonefish and tarpon on the flats of the Keys, has been intrigued by the swordfish mystique since he first became interested in fishing from reading about the exploits of Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey and other pioneer anglers.
“I figured this was the one fish I would never catch. I would salivate reading those stories,” Gaspeny says.
The story that would have the greatest impact was written in 2002 by Dr. Ruben Jaen, who detailed his success catching swordfish in deep water during the daytime off Venezuela. Jaen, now in his 80s and a member of the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, held the unofficial record with 116 swordfish catches, 93 of them in the daytime.
Gaspeny landed his 117th in July 2008, a 380-pounder. Except for a couple previous nighttime catches, all have come since Catch 22 hooked a swordfish on the first daytime drop off the Keys in January 2003.
Zing … Zing … Zing … Down, down, down …
“To me, there is no fish that has the history or the ability that a swordfish has — not in the ocean anyway. Maybe trout in freshwater,” Gaspeny says as he waits for the weight to find bottom.
“The water where we’re getting the bites is 38 degrees. The pressures are immense down there and it’s as black as a tomb. You can hook one and he’ll race up from a quarter-mile or farther, jump and go right back down to the bottom. It doesn’t bother them a bit. You reel up grouper from 50 feet and they blow up.”
Swordfish combine the strength of tuna with the speed and agility of marlin. They possess a malevolence all their own. You sense it if you’ve gazed into the dark, saucer-sized eye of one.
With that wide, flat sword that accounts for one-third of its overall length, the swordfish doesn’t back down from anything, sharks included. They are the MMA fighters of the sea. They’ll mess with you just because they can.
There are numerous documented accounts of swordfish attacking boats, even sinking them. The famous deep-water submersible Alvin, which was used to explore the wreck of Titanic, was attacked by a swordfish at a depth of 2,000 feet off Florida, wedging its bill between two sections of the hull. The fish remained lodged there all the way to the surface.
“Sitting out here with Cuba right over there, you can’t help but think of Hemingway and the Old Man and the Sea,” Stanczyk says on the bridge of Catch 22 as his brother, Scott, at the helm positions the boat for the next drift. “With swordfish, it’s an ego thing. The same thing that Hemingway had and Zane Grey had, it’s in me, too.”
Ego was clearly a driving force for the first truly obsessive swordfisherman. Grey, who in the early 1900s wrote numerous Western novels, such as Riders of the Purple Sage, named his boat The Gladiator and pursued swordfish all over the world. In Profiles in Saltwater Angling, George Reiger detailed how Grey’s relentless boasts about catching a 418-pounder in 1920 made him a nuisance at the hoity–toity Tuna Club of Catalina Island. When a female member brought in a 426-pounder the following year, Grey claimed that no woman could reel in such a fish, stirring a controversy that led to his forced resignation from the club.
Modern methods pay off
The new riders of the purple wave of swordfishing would have Grey green with envy. Consider that Grey caught 24 swordfish in 10 years. One season it took him 93 days of fishing to land four.
The Catch 22 crew has caught as many as seven in one day. Between the Stanczyks’ two boats, Catch 22 and B n’ M, they hooked swordfish on 108 of 109 trips. From September 2006 to October 2007, they landed at least one on 53 consecutive trips.
“I can’t catch grunts that consistently,” Gaspeny says. “I was sure this could be done. But I had no idea how effectively it could be done.”
Forget Old Man and the Sea – that was a marlin Hemingway’s Santiago caught – fishing for swordfish at depths beyond 1,000 feet is not a solitary pursuit. And despite the romantic appeal, the approach is highly scientific, from the way baits are cut and rigged so they appear to be alive and swimming, to the highly complex rig, which is designed to release the 8- to 12-pound sinker when a fish is hooked.
Electric lights attached to the line that emit green and blue beams and flashes to catch the eye of a swordfish were inspired by Richard Stancyzk watching the Discovery Channel’s Blue Planet, which provided a glimpse into the strange world of the deep ocean, where creatures give off an eerie phosphorescent glow.
Each member of the team plays a vital role in the catch. At the helm, Scott or Richard Stanczyk position the boat with the aid of GPS and NOAA charts showing the contours of the sea floor. Richard’s son, Nick, and K.J. Zeher rig the baits and then man the gaffs when a fish is brought to the boat.
Gaspeny, the primary angler, keeps his eyes on the tip of the rod at all times, watching for the first sign that a swordfish has come calling. Each drop is a big production, and with enough line out to span five or six football fields, you don’t want to be caught napping.
“Come on you long-nosed, Jimmy Durante son of a gun,” Richard Stanczyk says each time the sinker reaches bottom and the crew braces for action.
Even a novice can’t help but feel a pulse of adrenaline when the heavy rod bends beyond the normal bow of the heavy weight, imagining the scene one-third of a mile below the surface as a swordfish directs its wrath at what it perceives as another victim.
As Gaspeny straps himself into the fighting chair, there is some confusion. Did the concrete sinker release from the main line? Is there really a swordfish attached? When the angle of the line begins to arc toward the surface, there is no doubt. Fish on!
“He’s going southwest. He’s headed for Cuba. And it’s not a little one,” Richard Stanczyk shouts.
It is not uncommon for a swordfish to come to the surface soon after being hooked. Gaspeny is retrieving line with surprising ease until a bluish-white glow appears on the surface 40 yards off the stern of Catch 22.
Like a Polaris missile, the swordfish emerges with a furious splash. This is what is missed during night fishing, the spectacular visuals – the vibrant array of blues of the fish’s back and the light shades of its flank that can flash from Wonder Bread white to silver to a deep bronze in the course of the fight.
Swordfish aren’t as known for their jumping ability as marlin, but to see a 200-pound fish make a Jordanesque leap is breath-taking. What sets swordfish apart is the chilling sight of that huge eye. It as if the fish wants to size up its adversary before submerging again with a disdainful shake of its head that says the fight is on.
Rather than signaling the end is near, the swordfish’s appearance on the surface is just the beginning. Gaspeny has been though it enough times to know there is nothing to do but hang on when a swordfish heads deep, overpowering the drag of the reel.
The zings are a slow, mournful, guttural blues refrain as Gaspeny begins to reclaim line one crank at a time. When the fish digs in, he’s lucky to gain half a crank, sometimes only one-quarter.
Ultimate deep-water prize
Then the fish exerts its will and rips off 150 feet of line with the ease of a train leaving the station. And Gaspeny will begin another chorus of the deep-sea blues, reclaiming line bit by bit.
Zing … zing … zing ….
The biggest swordfish the Catch 22 team has caught was a 450-pounder that took seven hours to land. Even the average 100-pounder will leave you breathless and rubber-legged.
Gaspeny spends 45 minutes of give-and-take reeling in one that later weighs 195 pounds on the scale at Bud n’ Mary’s Marina, the largest of three caught on a recent 12-hour trip.
“It’s surprising every time we catch one,” Gaspeny says. “They have a soft, fleshy mouth, they’re brutal fighters and funny biters. You’ve got this big weight and a bait and you drop it down into the abyss. The idea that it’s going to come back with, in our view, the greatest sport fish attached, is unbelievable.”
Gaspeny has now reeled in more than 120 swordfish. But it isn’t to simply add to the record tally – nor the fact that swordfish are among the best-tasting prizes in the sea – that drive these men to delve into the depths more than 30 miles into the Gulf Stream every chance they get.
Call it ego, call it whatever drives anyone to try to climb a higher mountain, to stand where no one has stood before. Stancyzk is convinced there is a 1,000-pounder out there and he wants the chance to look it in the eye.
To Gaspeny, it isn’t the size that matters.
“To me, it was the impossible dream to catch one of these fish,” he says. “Even now I fear waking up in the first grade to find this really was a dream.”
December 2016 update: There are now numerous charter fishing and private boats successfully pursuing swordfish off the Keys and other parts of Florida. After a 10-year obsession with the elusive broadbilled fish, Richard Stanczyk, who estimates he has been involved in catching about 600 of them, has returned to his original passion for bonefish in on the flats. His son Nick, now 32, runs swordfish charters on the high-speed fishing catamaran “Broad Minded.” Vic Gaspeny, as an angler, has reeled in 219 swordfish but now spends more time in pursuit of tarpon in the channels near Islamorada. Richard and Vic combined their expertise for a memorable bonefish catch in adverse conditions.