Thursday, June 3, 2021


Everything looks better in the rear-view mirror. 

It’s far easier to reminisce about the past, remembering the good times while conveniently forgetting the bad, then it is to live in the present, trying to craft new and pleasant memories out of the tangled debris that makes up our everyday lives. 

With that in mind, I read a recent piece on Marlin magazine’s website, “America’s Golden Age of Offshore Fishing,” which began

“One of fishing’s greatest and most universal traditions is that of nostalgia for ‘the good ol’ days.’  For as long as there has been sport fishing, young captains have sat awestruck, listening to old-timers regale them with tales of incredible catches…

“These days, however, a central part of this dynamic is changing.  The offshore fishing in parts of present-day United States is as good—if not better—than it has been in decades.  While we might not be at a stage to swap stories with Ernest Hemingway, the here and now is something of a Golden Age, actualized in the past 30 years, as it relates to bluewater fishing on the East and Gulf coasts of the US.”

That certainly wasn’t what I expected to read when I clicked on the article; when I think of the so-called “Golden Age” of offshore fishing, I think of the period before and right after the Second World War, when anglers such as S. Kip Farrington, Van Campen Heilner, Zane Gray, Michael Lerner—and, yes, Ernest Hemingway—were pioneering new gear and new tactics, and exploring new grounds, in order to pit their muscle and skill against fish that often dwarfed them in both strength and size.

I think of long, gritty battles played out from the cockpits of slow, wooden boats equipped with nothing more than a radio and direction finder, if that, involving hickory rods, linen lines, and reels nothing like those in use today.

And those of the times that I still think of as the Golden Age, because despite the handicaps those anglers faced—the slow, short-ranged boats, the primitive tactics, the lack of electronics and sophisticated gear—they caught fish. 

They caught fish because the fish were there—in an abundance that we don’t see today.

The deeper that I dug into that Marlin essay, the more that I disagreed with its premise; instead, it served to further convince me that the golden times are gone and, instead, we’re living in a new Tarnished Age of offshore fishing, when technology, coupled with some admittedly formidable new angling skills, has created an illusion of bounty despite the depletion of most pelagic fish stocks.

I started fishing blue water in the late 1970s, and so have lived through the time that has seen some of the greatest changes in our offshore sport fisheries; perhaps the greatest of those was the marked decline in the size and the number of the fish that we see.

Probably nothing in the Marlin article brought that home like the comment that

“no fish better represents the present Golden Age than the broadbill swordfish.  Three decades ago, swordfish were largely an afterthought on much of the East and Gulf coasts and were targeted at night…

“Caught fish were primarily small individuals, and landing a 400-pounder was considered a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.  Fast-forward to 2021, and the daytime swordfish revolution has taken the Gulf and East coasts by storm.  From New York to Texas, boats are not only catching swords, they’re also catching them in numbers.  And they aren’t small ones, either.”

That’s all true, but “three decades ago” was hardlythe Golden Age of swordfishing—or much of anything else on the offshore grounds.  One must go farther back for that.

I just caught the end of the good old times.  I didn’t catch a sword back then, but I saw them from the decks of boats that I fished from, often less than 20 miles from shore and, on rare occasion, even within sight of the beach.

Back then, most swordfish were still caught in the traditional way, by presenting a bait to fish that were first spotted finning out on the surface.

Those swords probably had a gut filled with fish or squid, caught and eaten in the cold water near the ocean bottom, and needed the sun’s warmth to speed their digestion.  That made them little inclined to chase and eat a trolled bait.

Usually, the fish would either get spooked by the boat, or just lie serenely on the surface, ignoring the bait.  But once in a while, maybe once in every 10, 12, or maybe 20 trips, the bait would be presented just right and the swordfish would eat, and engage the angler in a fight that might last for hours, and end with a fishermen nearly as exhausted as the fish.

Farrrington describes such a contest, with a 300-pound swordfish that he hooked of Montauk in 1940, in Fishing the Atlantic.  His words provide a good idea of what the Golden Age of swordfishing was like.

“At three o’clock we picked up a fish about fourteen miles off Hither Hills.  We could not get him to strike and after presenting the bait eight times, both with mackerel and squid, we put the squid in an outrigger in desperation.  When he seemed to show some interest, I pulled it out and let it sink in the usual manner.  He took it and I hooked him…”

The fight went on for many hours, because the fish had been foul-hooked near its dorsal fin, and at the end,

“At the stroke of twelve [midnight] the leader came out of the water and he came up stone dead…we were too tired to get him aboard and lashed him alongside.”

The month that Farrington caught that fish, July 1940, eleven swordfish, weighing between 171 and 386 pounds, were brought into the Montauk Yacht Club, so the fish that they caught back then weren’t small.

Today, that’s not a practical way to fish, because you no longer find swordfish on top very often, and you don’t find them so close to shore.  Instead, anglers run out to 1,000 or more feet of water—maybe 70 miles off Montauk, instead of 14—and drop heavily-weighted baits down close to the bottom, where swordfish do most their feeding, and wait for one to find their bait. 

A lot of swordfish are taken that way—one boat might now catch more in the course of a single day than someone like Farrington caught in an entire season—but numbers alone don’t make a Golden Age.

Because of the depth at which swordfish are caught today, traditional fishing tackle, and traditional fishing methods, are typically abandoned in favor of other expedients.  As an article in On the Water magazine notes,

“Most Florida fishermen who regularly deep-drop for swordfish use electric reels.  The reason is simple:  anyone who has tried to reel up a 10-pound weight from 1800 feet will never want to do it again!

“…When using an electric reel, if there is a manual function, I suggest switching to that mode when the wind-on leader appears [at the water’s surface]…  [emphasis added]”

And, of course, the fish are often harpooned as they approach the boat.

Electric reels.  Harpoons.  The angler gets his (or her) dead fish, without a big investment of time. 

But can we really call such efforts “sport” fishing, much less a “Golden Age?”  As an earlier article in Marlin opined,

“These days, you see quite a few big fish caught on electric reels; people have their pictures posted all over the Internet, and some of these people are even called anglers.  They show off these fish they catch on electric reels, and on rods that remain in the holder throughout the fight.  I can understand catching a swordfish in the Gulf Stream off South Florida on an electric reel because of the extreme current, but are you really  an angler?  Set the drag, push the button and stand back.  [emphasis added]”

There’s little worry that the angler plying an electric reel’s switch will be too tired to help bring aboard a (harpooned) fish at the end of the fight.

Such deep-dropping is probably necessary because there just may not be that many swordfish around anymore.  While the stock is deemed to be healthy, given how few are seen inshore of the canyons these days, where they used to be frequently spotted, it’s very possible that abundance is much lower than it was 50 years ago.

Remember that no one was deep dropping back then; then think what they might have caught if they had.  From that perspective, “Tarnished Age” seems to fit today’s swordfish fishery pretty well.

And then there’s white marlin.

There’s no question that they’re in bad shape.  A 2019 assessment produced by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas states that

“The stock status results for 2017 showed that Atlantic white marlin stock has a 99% probability of being overfished but not suffering overfishing.  [emphasis added]”

Again, I remember the old days, when whites were often caught inside the 20-fathomline, and I could win a tournament merely by running out to a spot—again, well inshore of the canyons—without the aid of water temperature charts and satellite surveillance, but just because it was where the fish ought to be at that time of year.

In this new Golden Age, the Marlin article tells us, fishermen do very well because advances in fishing equipment (most particularly, in the use of the expensive, multi-bait teasers known as “dredges,”) allow anglers to catch more whites than they did thirty years ago.  But why use mere catch figures, or 1991, as benchmarks?

Instead, why not judge things by asking how many fish were around in the real Golden Age, when boats seldom strayed more than thirty miles from port, and often didn’t run half that far, but still regularly hooked up, even with the primitive tackle and techniques that prevailed at the time? 

For unless we do that, we risk falling into the snare that the boating and tackle industry sets for unwary anglers, convincing them that the road to faster action and bigger catches lies not in healthy fish stocks, but in buying faster, longer-ranged boats, fancier electronics, and more sophisticated gear, and a world where, in the words of the article’s author,

“the modern sportboat includes more computing power than the first space station (if this is an exaggeration, it’s not much of one); Furuno’s Omni sonar [which scans the ocean not only beneath, but all around, the boat] makes it possible to actively pursue fish you might see before they see you; and yes; captains and crews that are more proficient than ever with live baits in the Gulf, and the use of braided line and sophisticated rigs to deploy daytime—swordfish baits into the benthos of the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard.”

The same author claims that

“These innovations coincide with a four-decade-long commitment to conservation by the sport-fishing industry,”

but given that industry’s recent efforts to weaken the proven conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, in order to increase recreational landings and so industry profits, that latter claim ought to be taken with a very big dose of salt.

And that matters, because improving boats, electronics, equipment, and tactics can only take anglers so far.

Yes, a big center console with four 350-hp outboards hanging off the back can take anglers farther, and faster, than they have gone before, and allow them to access the remnants of a depleted population.  And when they reach their destination, improved electronics and fishing gear can allow them to find, and remove, a greater portion of those remnants than they could before.

Such capabilities weren’t even dreamed of when Hemingway, Heilner, and Farrington hunted the Gulf Stream.

But there will always come a time when, in the absence of meaningful conservation efforts, any improvements in vessels, equipment, or skill will not be enough to counteract the effects of declining fish numers. 

What made the Golden Age of offshore fishing truly golden wasn’t the boats or the equipment, or even the anglers, but rather the abundance of fish that made it possible for such anglers to succeed even with the relatively primitive vessels and gear of their day.

Without that abundance, today’s blue water fishery can only be, at best, a flashy simulacrum of those elder days, a sort of gilded pot metal bauble that may impress at first glance, but will only tarnish, decay, and disappoint in the end.





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