About a year ago, I found myself in immediate need of a new boat.
Someone at my marina had just put his 32-foot Topaz on the market, and after a quick conversation with my wife and a far longer inspection by a marine surveyor, I made it my own. At that point, I needed to figure out just what I had bought.
Some things, such as the electronics, the outriggers, and the two diesel engines, were already familiar to me. Other features, including the refrigerator, generator, and livewell, were more-or-less self-explanatory. But a few things left me baffled.
Two shielded electrical plugs near the front of the cockpit had no obvious purpose, being too small to accept a shore power cord and not configured to take a typical household appliance plug. Then there were two of the stern rod holders, which were notably deeper and stronger than all of the others, and held fishing rods far more erect than such holders usually did.
I eventually discovered that the two power outlets were for electric reels, which allowed anglers to winch in their fish—most often tilefish caught on deep bottom 400 or more feet below—without having to crank them up by hand, while the rod holders were designed to hold heavy, bent-butt rods that would let fishermen catch big pelagic fish such as bluefin tuna without having to hold the rod in their hands, and free them from the trouble of matching their strength and endurance against those of the fish on the other end of their line.
In other words, both the plugs and the rod holders were designed to take the “sport” out of sportfishing, by allowing anglers to kill fish without putting in too much physical effort.
Ernest Hemingway, whatever his other flaws, was a skilled and devoted offshore angler. He once observed that offshore fishing for bluefin tuna “is a back-sickening, sinew-straining, man-sized job even with a rod that looks like a hoe handle. But if you land a big tuna after a six-hour fight, fight him man against fish until your muscles are nauseated with the unceasing strain, and finally bring him up alongside the boat, green-blue and silver in the lazy ocean, you will be purified and will be able to enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods, and they will make you welcome.”
And yes, catching big fish really can feel that way, although I’ll admit that I never endured a six-hour fight with a bluefin. My longest contest was just a bit shorter, five hours and thirty-five minutes, and it took place long ago, when I was just beginning to run my own boat offshore, and was not yet prepared for the challenge.
The boat was a bare-bones center console, just 20 feet long, powered by a single 115 horsepower outboard. It was designed for commercial fishing, and so lacked seats or other amenities typical of recreational vessels, but it was all that I could afford at the time. I had already pushed it far beyond its intended purpose, catching sharks 30 miles south of Montauk, New York and tuna much farther than that off Fire Island. I owned two legitimate offshore rods and reels; the rest of my gear was more suited to bluefish and striped bass than to sharks and tuna.
Still, a September morning in 1984 found a friend and me about 20 miles southeast of Fire Island Inlet. The ocean was mirror-calm, broken only by small puffs of spray where baitfish, pushed by bluefish and bonito, shattered its surface. We set up a chum slick, put out three baits, and waited for something to happen.
Before long, a fish picked up one of the baits and slowly began to swim away. I took the rod in my hands and, when the fish began to speed up, signaling that it had the bait fully within its mouth, took the slack out of the line and drove the hook deeply into its jaw.
At first, there was only weight at the end of the line, and then the fish slowly moved away, pulling line off the reel’s spool. For a moment, it approached the surface, appearing as an amorphous, blue-silver form that was still too deep to reveal any meaningful shape or size. Then it swam off again, and I moved to the boat’s bow so that my friend, at the controls, could give chase and hopefully keep the fish from taking all of my line.
The rod’s slotted metal butt bit into my stomach; trying to fish offshore on a slender budget, I was still spending money on adequate rods and reels, the rod belts and harnesses we view as essential today seemed like costly luxuries then.
Unfortunately, one of the things that I did spend money on were Teflon washers for the drags in my big offshore reels, which are designed to put enough pressure on the fish to tire it out, but not enough to break the line. Those washers couldn’t endure the long fight, and I soon found myself with half the line gone from a reel that was no longer able to pressure the fish enough to wear it out.
Seeing no other way to continue, I jammed my right hand between the reel’s spool and the frame of the reel, then told my friend to slowly back off on the throttle, until the engine was in neutral and the fish was forced to tow the full weight of the boat.
It was a little painful, but it worked. For the next few hours, the fish—we still didn’t know what it was, but assumed a big shark—dragged the boat around, tethered by the line and my fingers jammed in the reel. I could feel the rod dip every time the fish swung its tail. I was sitting on the cooler that held our lunch, acting as a sort of tow post as the rod’s butt carved an ever-growing bruise on my gut and blisters grew along the pads of my fingers and the palm of my hand.
The blisters eventually popped, slack skin tore away, and only the raw meat of my hand was left to press against the snubbed line. Still, the fish swam on—for a while. But at some point, maybe four hours in, it stopped.
Now, it was my turn.
The boat ran up on the fish, I put some line on the reel, and finally ended up in an up-and-down fight, as the fish circled deep, directly below. With the reel’s drag disabled, there was no easy way to get the job done, but I found that if I kept my hand jammed in the reel, freezing the spool, I could lift the fish a few inches when it circled in, and if I eased my hand just a bit, while maintaining some pressure, I could limit the line that it took when it circled away.
Maybe five hours in, things got to the point where I could still gain line when the fish swam toward me, but could hold on when it circled away. The rod would bend down toward the water when the fish moved off, but when the stresses peaked, it was the fish, not me, who yielded line.
Then, probably mere minutes before the fish finally came into sight, I felt a bump on the line, and in surprise uttered “What…?”
Then I felt a second bump, and the fish was gone.
I reeled in the remains of the line, only to find a long, tapering slice at its bitter end. It told the tale of a piece of chum that got stuck on the line, and of a bluefish that, seeking food, slashed at the chum and, in doing so, set the fish free.
I’m still not sure what I fought that day, although my best guess is a tiger shark that probably weighed over five hundred pounds, and might have gone close to one thousand. Fishermen caught such big tigers back then.
After the fight, my right hand was raw, my left hand was blistered, and I sported a deep purple bruise that ran from the top of my thigh to the bottom of my ribs. My back was so stiff that I couldn’t stand straight, my legs cramped, and my fingers refused to bend. On Monday, I shuffled into the office, still bent over, my hands wrapped in gauze, and the first person who saw me blurted out a horrified, “What happened to you?” and I gave the only possible answer.
“I had a GREAT weekend.”
Because as a sport fisherman, I’d just had the fight of my life, an experience that the folks with the electric reels, and those who never take their rods from their holders, will never know and perhaps couldn’t even understand.
Getting a little beat up is part of the sport fishing experience, although anglers often try to exploit modern technologies, and so avoid most of the effort and pain. That’s nothing new. Even back in the 1930s, Hemingway scoffed that “There is tackle made now, and there are fishing guides expert in the ways of cheating with it, by which anybody who can walk up three flights of stairs, carrying a quart bottle of milk in each hand, can catch a gamefish over 500 pounds without even having to sweat much.”
Today, some will undoubtedly dismiss such sentiments as mere artifacts of Hemingway’s supposedly archaic, “macho” personality, yet to do so ignores the attributes that separate sport fishing from mere recreation.
Whether someone runs in a marathon, surfs Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline, or fights big offshore fish, they engage in a physical and mental challenge that tests their skill, their strength, and their endurance, the very attributes that define the concept of “sport.” It is that challenge that distinguishes sport fishing from other sorts of angling. The fact that someone might have killed a fish while using a rod and reel doesn’t mean that they were engaged in sport, for it is the process, and not merely the end, that defines the activity. After all, Rosie Ruiz might have crossed the finish line at the 1979 New York Marathon, but given that she rode the subway to get there, she was not a competitive runner.
Sport, regardless of its nature, is generally defined by a set of standards and rules intended to promote fair competition. Such rules might prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs, prevent amateurs from being forced to compete against professional athletes or, in the case of sport fishing, prevent an angler from using technology and equipment to take unfair advantage of a hooked fish.
In the late 1930s, a group of prominent sport fishermen decided to establish a set of standards that would bring fair competition to saltwater fishing. Their task was difficult, because they weren’t trying to regulate contests between two human athletes, but those between a willing person and an unwilling marlin or tuna. The result of their efforts was the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), which was established on June 7, 1939.
The purpose of the IGFA was, and remains, “the conservation of game fish and the promotion of responsible, ethical angling practices.” To promote angler ethics, the IGFA has adopted a set of rules that became the gold standard for fishing tournaments and, more widely, for the sport of saltwater fishing.
Such rules have a common theme—preventing the angler from having too much of an edge over the fish. For example, fishing rods “must comply with sporting ethics and customs…rods giving the angler an unfair advantage will be disqualified.” The breaking strength of the line may not exceed 60 kilograms (approximately 130 pounds). Electric reels are prohibited, as are hooks that are likely to snag somewhere in a fish’s body, even though such fish never actually struck the angler’s bait or lure.
Harpoons are prohibited. Gaff handles may not be more than eight feet long, to make it more difficult to gaff a fish that still has the energy to fight. Multi-pronged hooks may not be used while fishing with bait.
Angler conduct, as well as equipment, is codified.
“From the time a fish strikes or takes a bait or lure, the angler must hook, fight, and land or boat the fish without the aid of any other person.” “If a rod holder is used, once the fish is hooked, the angler must remove the rod from the rod holder as quickly as possible.” “The act of persons other than the angler in touching any part of the rod, reel, or line (including the double line) either bodily or with any device” will disqualify a catch, as will “Resting the rod in a rod holder, on the gunwale of the boat, or on any other object while playing the fish.”
Such rules established a standard for ethical conduct that saltwater anglers followed, at least in principle, for a half-century or more. While most fishermen didn’t adhere to every detail of the IGFA standard unless they were competing in a tournament or seeking a world record catch, the basic principles of a one-on-one fight, removing the rod from the holder when a fish took the bait, and utilizing gear that allowed a fair fight were widely adhered to.
Today, that is not the case.
Standards may have first begun to decay in the northeast tuna fishery, when prices offered for giant bluefin rose so high that even well-heeled anglers began fishing for the market, and adopted the use of harpoons and other commercial gear to better assure a payday.
The decline might have begun when many fishermen, often new to angling, began to focus solely on the end result—a dead fish in the cockpit and social media likes—and displayed little patience for putting in the effort required to learn how to catch such fish by sporting means.
And maybe fishing technology just began to advance too quickly for angling ethics to keep pace. Whatever the cause, ethical sportfishing is on the decline.
Today, most anglers think nothing of keeping the rod in the holder after hooking a fish, and fighting their fish with the boat rather than with their own sinew and muscle. They thus avoid the “back-sickening, sinew-straining, man-sized job” while they merely crank in the line, which is often a technologically advanced braid with an actual breaking strength of 200 pounds or more, until someone gets a chance to stick the fish with a harpoon.
Unfortunately, such behavior is often displayed on televised fishing shows, where questions of ethics are seldom, if ever, raised.
Electric reels are now standard equipment for those fishing deep in the ocean, even when the quarry is swordfish, which were once revered as the ultimate angling prize.
The idea of a fair fight between man and fish has, in large part, been lost.
Some might ask why that matters.
There are, after all, many reasons to fish, all equally valid. One person might fish as a livelihood, and sell all of their catch. Another might fish to feed themselves and/or their family. A third might fish merely for recreation, enjoying a day on the water without worrying about ethics or standards or rules.
But one of the inevitable products of sport is respect, even concern, for one’s opponent.
One can argue that the fishermen of Hemingway’s day failed in that regard, as they typically killed every fish that they caught, hanging them on a scale and then, far too often, dumping them back into the sea. Yet their thinking evolved, to the point that concern for their quarry engendered some of the first meaningful research and conservation efforts. Michael Lerner, one of the IGFA’s founders, was also the founder, and significant funder, of the American Museum of Natural History’s Lerner Marine Laboratory on Bimini in the Bahamas, which was established as a place “where the basic questions of marine biology could be probed to their final solution.”
Sport fishermen continue that tradition today; the best example might be The Billfish Foundation, and its dedicated efforts to advance scientists’ knowledge of sailfish, marlin, and swordfish.
You don’t see the electric reel crowd, or the folks with harpoons, taking that sort of interest in fisheries science; they tend to focus their efforts, if they make any efforts at all, on things like artificial reefs and fish hatcheries intended to increase anglers’ landings, rather than benefit wild fish populations.
They have the right to do as they please, but I prefer to remain a relic of the past.
I’ve been bewitched by blue water, and blue water fishing.
I still remember my first yellowfin tuna burning the skin off my thumb when I foolishly tried to use it to break that fish’s first run. I still remember the blue marlin that exploded, without warning, from a flat summer ocean as it tried to steal the nice mahi that I was reeling in. And I will never forget being locked into hours-long fights with fish that turned my hands numb, made my back scream, and caused my legs to break into uncontrollable spasms.
Such memories recall some of the highlights of my life.
Having spent many hours fishing offshore, and having devoted much of my energy and time to marine fish conservation, I think that we, as a coastal people, will lose something of ourselves as sportfishing dies. And, as counterintuitive as it might sound, I believe that the fish will lose something, too.