How it feels to see your hook pull out of a huge swordfish

It would have been the first of its kind caught by a British angler on British TV Icould fill most of this week’s issue up with stories from my truncated trip to Paradise, aka The Florida Keys but one memory is so fresh, yet bitter, it’s more or less all I can think about.

Roy Marlow and I, along with cameraman Radomir, had been invited on a swordfishing trip from Bud’n’Mary’s Marina in Islamorada. The owner Rick Stanczyk and his brother Scott had arranged the day with Andy Newman, whose company runs the PR for the Keys. All we needed was to be at the dock of Bud’n’Mary’s at 6.45am.

As we drove along the Keys towards Miami the wind was coming from the south-east, and as we were to be fishing way out in the Gulf Stream, which flows west-to-east, there was every chance it would be rough.

Tradition tells that swords feed at night, rising to the surface to feast on shoals of squid, but Rick’s research led him to find grounds where they could be caught during the day, in the canyons of the Gulf Stream, up to 2,000ft down. Rick’s tactic is known as ‘hand-cranking’.

The terminal tackle comprises a size 14/0 hook baited with a belly-strip of dorado, sewn on to keep it straight so it doesn’t spin up on descent, on the end of a long leader of 300lb mono. Above that are three flashing lights, all on removable clips, to attract the fish in the pitch darkness which reigns in the cold water at these extreme depths. Finally, a 3lb lead is fixed to an elastic band that can be snapped off when it reaches the rod-tip, so the leader can be wound in.

Just that 3lb lead would take forever to reach bottom, so Rick has developed break-off weights made of concrete, with angled surfaces that can plane up in  the water. There are various sizes, but the smallest is over 20lb. Even with that on the line, it takes 15 minutes at least for the rig to get down there. The mainline is 130lb braid.
Discretion should really have been the better part of valour because as we motored out into the ocean, the sea was building and by the time we reached one of the offshore sea-mounts to catch some tuna and skipjacks the swell was 8ft and growing. Another brief stop en route caught us a couple of dorado, so we’d have fresh baits.

The ‘mate’, Hunter, a young man native to Islamorada, created some brilliant baits and three hours after leaving the dock the first drop was made into 1,500ft of water. I timed the descent at 12mins 30secs. The sea was huge, rising 10ft or more, and I was as close as I’ve ever known to being seasick.

No bites in an hour, so using an electric drill with a special chuck to wind the rig up, we moved to a deeper spot and dropped again; 15mins this time, into 1,800ft.

The crew were on the flying bridge, I was sitting in the fighting chair, with Roy alongside, while Radomir struggled to contain his breakfast in the air-conditioned cabin of Scott Stanzyck’s immaculate 52ft sportfisher, Catch 22.

Suddenly the rod-tip, which had been violently nodding in time to the waves, almost imperceptibly flickered, two tiny knocks. Rick yelled: “That’s a bite” and Hunter was down the ladder to feel the line.

Once they were convinced that a fish was indeed on the bait, the rod was transferred to the chair and I was told to wind it up. Fifteen minutes might seem a long while to get it down there ¬ winding it up took a lot longer, especially as the concrete weight had failed to break off.

At 900ft I was told to hold the spool while the boat was nudged forward to break the 50lb rotten bottom holding the block in place, and sure enough it detached. Now it was just Arthur versus fish.

The cold prevented much fight but as the water temperature increased towards the surface ¬ where it was 82ºF/28ºC ¬ the fish woke up and made three runs.

On one we were convinced it was going to leap, but it stayed just under the surface, 30yds from the boat. The fish ‘lit up’, flashing silver and purple, and a huge swirl erupted as it dived again but the drag did its job and I cranked the swordfish back up until we could see it clearly, 8ft or so down, 10ft from the boat.

As swordfish go it was no giant, probably in the sub-100lb class, but it would be the first swordfish caught by a British angler on British television.

Hunter had the gaff ready, Ron, a photographer from Sports Illustrated, was clicking away on the flying bridge and then the hook fell out.

I don’t know why, nor does anyone else. They often lose swordfish but usually right after the bite. Rick said he had never lost one that close to the boat.

It is impossible for me to tell you how drained I felt. Forty minutes, rocking back and forth in the fighting chair, winding fish and 25lb of concrete 900ft, then just fish another 900ft ¬ try winding 600m of line on to a reel with NO weight ¬ and it was done. I lay back in the chair with my head in my hands. The experience of a lifetime was over and the Gladiator of the Ocean had a victim.

We had one more bite from what was definitely a much bigger fish, but it spat the hook before Roy could even start winding. I think Roy was more relieved than the sword.

All that was left was a two-and-a-half-hour ride back through 10ft waves to the dock, then the near-two-hour drive to Key West, arriving at the condo just after 10pm.
The day had been long, hard and painful. And just plain old unforgettable.