Swordfishing Back In The Day
By Ted Blount
If you are a fisherman who is just beginning to get into the offshore game, you probably think that swordfish are caught by dropping a line to extreme ocean depths in the middle of the day. If you have been at the game for a few years, you might think of swordfishing as a nighttime pursuit in the offshore canyons, where swordfish are targeted by soaking baits a little deeper than your regular tuna baits. I, however, was fortunate to be a part of a swordfish fishery that many do not know about, and it took place much closer to shore.
The Aphrodite was a sleek bow-stern-style 74-foot yacht built by Albany Boat Works in 1935. At the time, it was one of the most famous yachts ever built. The boat was owned by my father, Nelson Blount, and as his oldest son I was lucky enough to fish on it during the heydays of swordfishing south of Martha’s Vineyard.
From 1949 to 1962, we caught more swordfish than any other recreational boat in New England, landing more than 500 fish and averaging more than one per day. It was very rare for us to see a fish under 150 pounds, with the average being closer to 250 pounds, and it was common for us to land fish over 500 pounds.
My summers during those years were spent in Menemsha Bight, along with several other sportfish harpoon boats, leaving the dock every day at 7 a.m. and returning at 5 p.m. We primarily fished in 25 to 35 fathoms south of Nomans Island, usually centered around the 30-fathom hole. This often meant having to leave in pea-soup fog and using dead reckoning to navigate around the shoals and islands. In the 50s, there was no radar or GPS. By using running time and course, and shutting down the engines to find the bell, we could then run to the next bell to make our way safely into the ocean.
My main job was to spend the day 40 feet above the water up in the mast, searching for that telltale sickle fin. It was hours of boredom punctuated by moments of pure adrenalin when I spotted a fish. I would then steer the boat toward the finning swordfish so the striker in the long pulpit could throw the harpoon. In my case, the striker was my dad.
We usually fished at 10 to 12 knots, searching the surface and trying to distinguish between sharks and swordfish. This was not too hard when it was calm, but windy days were difficult. We zig-zagged back and forth, waiting for the fish to come up from the depths into the sun-warmed surface waters. It was amazing, as the ocean was alive and all kinds of fish were plentiful in those days. In a typical day, we’d see over a thousand sharks, as well as white marlin and bluefin tuna. In fact, sharks were so plentiful some years that there would be at least one in sight at all times over the course of the day.
From the age of 12 on, I was the dory man, the person who got dropped off and rowed to the keg (a nail keg made watertight and painted orange) that was attached to the harpooned fish. Generally, there was 300 feet of 5/16-inch manila rope between the fish and the keg. Once I retrieved the keg, it was a 30- to 60-minute up-and-down battle as the fish pulled me into the wind, almost always toward the southwest. Some days, fog and larger seas made for anxious moments in the dory with no one else in sight. The big boat always continued on in the search for fish, sometimes harpooning several more while I worked on pulling in the first one.
The harpoon was a heavy wooden dowel, about 15 feet long, with a steel shaft at the end for a bronze dart to fit over. There were beckets on the harpoon, and several from the pulpit to the rope basket to keep the rope in place. Once the fish was harpooned, the rope was pulled out of the beckets until the keg was pulled overboard. Steady tension on the rope worked best, with gains being made on the down-swell side, always keeping a neat coil in the basket in case of a frantic run. Most times, you could pay out the rope quickly without making a snarled mess.
The power of the fish, and the accuracy with which one could use its broad bill, was amazing. On more than one occasion, we had a swordfish get so aggravated that it followed the rope up to the dory and speared right through the oak bottom! You know the dory man is nervous when he stands on the rail of the boat to avoid being skewered. In the 60s, we sometimes tied an inflated wheelbarrow tube about 50 feet from the fish to help tire it out faster. On two separate occasions, the fish came back up the line and speared the center of the tube with such speed that it went all the way to the gills, effectively drowning the fish.
I got to know many famous captains of the day. Captain Louie Larsen and his brothers on the Christine and Dan, and Aquinnah Indian Captain Walter Manning on the Bozo, to name a few; and Everett Poole, Herb Slater, Johnny Mayhew, Alfred Vanderhoop, Frank Cyganoski and Olie Olsen to name a few more.
Johnny Mayhew worked on the Aphrodite for several years. Being a retired Navy pilot who was still a weekend warrior, he brought his squadron of Corsairs offshore to spot fish, with limited success. Not to be outdone, my father flew his Waco seaplane out a few times to spot fish and even once landed on the ocean.
There were other amazing sights in those days. Being post World War II and the Korean War, there were still a lot of navy maneuvers held around the best fishing areas. Full naval battle groups with battleships and destroyers played war games with planes towing targets for anti-aircraft target training. The large battle group would move at full speed, causing 10- to 15-foot wakes, then hammer away with antiaircraft fire. Cool stuff.
There was also the Nomans Island bombing site, which was still active throughout most of those years. Screaming jets would divebomb the target range, and often buzz a few boats, too.
Alas, in 1954, hurricane Carol put an end to most of the fleet, with only three surviving boats in Menemsha basin. The Aphrodite was one of the casualties – she floated up over the dock at the height of the storm and then seven pilings went through her bottom as the tide dropped. Although my father was very discouraged about the loss, he managed to charter a boat for the next summer while he had a new swordfish boat built in Thomaston, Maine. This boat was also named Aphrodite and was more like the flybridge boats of today, but had a 50-foot mast with hoops and seats to spot fish. Unfortunately, by the early 60s the swordfish population was waning and it became clear that the heyday of New England inshore swordfishing was over.
By Captain Lou DeFusco
For more than 24 years, my crew and I have driven past the green inshore water that used to hold swordfish because, over all those years, I have never seen a swordfish inside of 400 feet. In fact, the only free-jumper we have ever witnessed was in August 2016 on the way to our deep-drop fishing spot. The fish jumped 3 times about 150 feet east of our boat and was a bright purple and silver robust fish of around 200 pounds. We quickly ran over to where the fish was breaching. I rigged our harpoon and stood quietly on the bow, waiting for him to rise again. Looking for any slight ripple, a tail, or a fin to break the surface, I wondered to myself what it would be like to harpoon a big free-swimming sword like in the stories I had heard from men like Ted Blount.
I am not sure if migration patterns have changed or it’s a result of overfishing reducing the population, but today the swordfish available to us simply stay offshore, deeper than 100 fathoms. For years, our method for catching swordfish has been to fish at night in the canyons using large squid as bait staggered throughout the water column.
On August 12, 2014, I had an experience that sparked my passion for swordfishing. I had set out an array of baits in a temperature break on the southeast corner of Hydrographers Canyon around 2 a.m. As I was chumming a tote of freshly netted whiting, the 80W next to me jumped and line was pulled off quickly, but then stopped. I picked up the rod, thinking it was probably a missed hit or a shark. I reeled it in to check the bait and saw that the bait was gone, with just the Gamakatsu 12/0 live bait hook remaining.
I had one more good-size squid, so I quickly re-rigged and dropped the bait back down to 100 feet. As soon as I set the rod back in the gunwale, a fish took the bait. Since a swordfish will pick up a bait more slowly than a tuna, but faster than a shark, at that moment I knew it was a sword.
I put the drag up to strike, which was preset at 25 pounds, reeled until it came tight, and set the hook with one quick jab. Surprisingly, the fish did not make a run. It shook its head a few times and then swam directly at the boat. I was stunned by its immense size as it swam lazily by the boat, right on the edge of the glow of our underwater light. She checked me out, I checked her out, and in an instant, she dove for the bottom.
Everyone else was asleep, tired from the ride out and from the charter we’d done the morning before we decided to run to the canyons. I yelled and woke everyone up. “Guys, I’m hooked up to a huge sword and she’s like 300 pounds!” Everyone woke up and rallied. Jack Sprengel took the wheel and I got on the rod. For the next few hours, we chased the fish offshore to deeper water. At one point, we only had 30 wraps of Sufix 130 left on the spool as it emptied the 80W in one powerful run straight down. The fish finally stopped and settled in, and we went to work over the next 4 hours. The arduous task of raising the fish inch by inch was both physically and mentally draining.
I was in the most intense fight of my life, but thankfully, it was on one of our heaviest setups. I remember thinking to myself that I had never seen the rod bend like that. The sword finally started to tire a little and I could feel its headshakes getting weaker and less violent.
I saw the light of false dawn and knew the fish was close, since I had almost all the line back on the reel. I took the final few turns of the handle, and as the wind-on swivel broke the water’s surface, Jack perfectly backed the boat up into the spin of the fish.
Finally, I could see her in all her glory, bright purple and bronze, and an eye I would never forget. The time had come, the time to end our misery, both mine and the fish’s, so I waited for the perfect shot. I lined up the heart of the fish, under the pec fin, and let the harpoon fly. I threw it one-handed because my other hand was so cramped I couldn’t hold the harpoon. When it struck the fish, it did not move, it simply gave up.
I yelled for a gaff and Jack was right there. I sunk the flying gaff just above the fish’s midsection, making it easy to put a tail rope on and cleat it mid-ship. We all yelled and hollered in awe as we looked upon such a magnificent fish of a lifetime. It then took us over 45 minutes to get the boat back in order and walk the fish around all three outboards and into the boat. I was completely exhausted, having been awake for some 26 hours.
We eventually made it back to Point Judith, Rhode Island, and as we hoisted the fish up on the scale, a small crowd gathered. It all seemed like a weird dream. Matt at Snug Harbor read the weight at 434 pounds, and proceeded to tell me we had broken the state rod-and-reel record of 360 pounds that had stood since 1960!
Catching such a beautiful animal made me truly appreciate the species, and I fell in love. I was amazed by the fight and the fish’s stamina, and by its magnificent bill. Landing this fish made me understand its nickname, “gladiator of the sea.” I have landed many giant tuna over the years, but none of them fought like this fish.
That fish sparked my love affair and eventually led me to daytime swordfishing. After fishing for them out of Ocean Reef in Key Largo, Florida, with Myles Daley, I knew we could apply similar tactics in the Northeast. So, in 2015, we started deep-dropping for swords.
We were immediately amazed by how many fish there were. We had scaled back to a 6-pound lead weight, but used a leader setup similar to the rig I had been shown in Florida. I came to find that wherever there were tuna on the surface, there were swordfish under them. Our best day that year was seven swordfish hooked and five landed.
We proceeded to catch swords while daytime fishing on every trip over the next few months. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on each trip, we dedicated time to prospecting sword areas. We found a direct correlation between the presence of bait and tuna, and swordfish. Our biggest daytime fish in 2015 was 360 pounds. Over the course of the next few weeks, word of the bite got out and multiple boats started having success with daytime swordfishing before the season ended.
During the 2016 season, we had an early yellowfin bite in West Atlantis, with lots of fish and good current. We sat in a fleet of 30-plus boats trolling for tuna and decided to drop for swordfish; it was instant hookups and multiple-fish days for us and our sister boats. However, the funny thing was as soon as the tunas stopped and moved on, so did the swordfish.
The rest of the 2016 season was bad, with few tunas and even fewer swords. We would drop for hours with no bites so we would eventually give up and fish for mahi to save the day. Looking back, I’m hopeful that the 2015 swordfish bite was not a fluke and that future years bring good productive water and big fish. It’s an ever-changing fishery and just when you think you have it figured out, it will check you. Figuring out what is happening and changing with the fishery is, as always, the key to success.