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The Mid-Life Slam

Days 5 and 6: Preparing for a Sword Fight

In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago battles an 18-foot blue marlin from a skiff in the Florida Straits, where the Gulf Stream begins between Cuba and the Florida Keys. I am in those very waters now and much better equipped than Santiago, who had only a hook and a handline. I’m sitting in a fighting chair on the deck of the 56-foot Catch-22, piloted by Capt. Scott Stanczyk. I watch as mates Nick Stanczyk, Scott’s nephew, and K.J. Zeher carefully put a rod with a Penn International 80 reel loaded with 100-pound-test line in the gimbal between my legs.

The reel’s giant spool looks sparse at the moment, though, because at the other end of the quarter mile of line leading from the rod tip and practically straight down from the transom is, we hope, a big broadbill swordfish.

To get here we passed through the waters I was in yesterday with Adler on his Kalex, where I caught that little saddle bass (No. 43) we all argued about, and 19 other species. Some were truly incredible—from the impossibly tiny-mouthed filefish (No. 32), to the blue parrotfish (No. 35) that looked like wet sapphire, to the 2-foot-long remora (No. 34) that Adler insisted could adhere to my belly and hang there (it did, and the sensation was like having a vacuum-cleaner hose with a thousand tiny needles at its end stuck to your skin).

I ended the day by catching a behemoth 25-pound permit—my 47th species, and a trophy fish on any trip—and we whooped and hollered our way back to the marina.

Here on the Catch-22, though, everyone is quiet as the boat rises and falls in the swells, as if the big billfish more than 1,500 feet below could sense us. I knew that Richard Stanczyk—the owner of Bud N’ Mary’s, who is on board today, directing operations—had perfected a method of fishing for swordfish in daylight, involving 10 pounds of concrete weight, several large lightsticks, a large baitfish (today’s was a butterflied 5-pound cero), and a hell of a lot of line. What I didn’t know was that we would troll up a blackfin tuna and an almaco jack on the 40-mile ride out here, meaning I’d have a shot at a sword for my 50th species.

Nick is perched on the transom, the line from my rod in his gloved hand. “He’s on,” he says to me, almost casually.

“Huh?” I say stupidly.

“He’s on! Start cranking!”

It takes me a few minutes to feel the fish but there’s no doubt when I do. Zeher—who mates on a number of boats out of Bud N’ Mary’s—slips a fighting harness around me and clips the reel to it, so I can lean back to gain slack, then reel it in as I drop forward. Do this a couple of hundred times with a fish almost as big as you on the other end of the line, and you start wondering how much ibuprofen is on board.

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