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Closing in fast on the swords

By: By Susan Cocking, McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI - (MCT) When I last checked in with Islamorada daylight swordfish pioneers, captains Richard Stanczyk and Vic Gaspeny, they were on a yearlong streak approaching 50 consecutive trips of boating at least one sword with the sun shining. That streak ended at 53 in mid-October last year. So now the longtime friends are looking at a new record-breaking campaign. And they, along with the crew of the charterboat Catch-22, have modified some of their sword-fighting techniques and made some interesting discoveries about this evolving recreational fishery.

"They've eaten just about everything we've put down," Gaspeny said. "Bonito, squid, dolphin, mackerel, ladyfish, houndfish - even a lizard fish."

Gaspeny made that comment at mid-afternoon on June 17 after boating a 52-inch sword following a 20-minute fight. It was his 113th sword since 1978 - putting him on track this summer to eclipse the mark of 117 set by IGFA Hall of Famer Ruben Jaen of Venezuela, whose research and writings Gaspeny and Stanczyk credit for their daytime successes.

Gaspeny said there might be some other longtime recreational swordfishers who have caught that many, but they might not be the assiduous record-keepers that he is.

"I have notes from the first fish I ever caught - a spot - when I was a little kid," he said.

Backed by Catch-22 captain Scott Stanczyk - Richard's brother - and mates K.J. Zeher and Jimmy Coughlin, the crew from Bud N' Mary's Marina strives to improve the deep-dropped, strobe-lighted "chicken rig" that has yielded hundreds of daytime sword captures since the first one in 2003.

For example, where they once used 9-pound, lead sash weights to get their baits down as deep as 1,800 feet, they now make their own cement weights, which are cheaper and cause no environmental damage.

The cement weight is tied on to the main, 100-pound-test braided line with lighter line so that it breaks off easily when a fish hits by putting the boat in gear. A smaller lead weight of 2 pounds or so acts as a keel to make it float up straight.

Underwater lights - considered a vital piece of swordfishing equipment by most anglers - might not be so crucial after all. The Bud N' Mary's crew members made that intriguing discovery one day recently when they forgot their lights - and caught a swordfish anyway. Previously, they had been armed with as many as five lights.

On this trip, they used three - a flashing strobe and two Christmas-y multicolored lights.

"We're still debating what works best," Gaspeny said.

For the first time in 1 ½ years, the swordfishermen dropped two baits instead of one on the line because the bite has been slower than at the same time last year. To draw the swordfish's giant, blue eye to the sewn-on bait plugs, the crew attached fluorescent green beads.

"All them weird things they eat down there have eyes; we're just imitating them," Coughlin explained.

At 1,000 to 1,800 feet deep, a daytime swordfish bite is sometimes difficult to detect. Gaspeny has the touch for dropping the baits just so along the edges of sea mounts and ledges more than 30 miles off the middle Keys, where fish often lurk in the eddies. But even he has trouble in a three-knot current - especially because electric reels are not used.

"We fought nothing for 1 ½ hours one time," Gaspeny said. "We had 18 pounds of weight and a ripping current."

On June 17, with the current running about three knots, feeling the bite 1,500 feet below was a lot like The Princess and the Pea. Watching the tip of the brawny, bent-butt rod carefully, Gaspeny spotted a tiny tick - no double bend - no shrieking drag. For the next five minutes, the crew stood stock-still watching the rod tip, while the dialogue went something like this:

Zeher: "He's whacking it, whacking it."

Gaspeny: "He's pecking on it."

Zeher: "He's on there."

Gaspeny: "Still pecking at it."

Richard Stanczyk: "There he is again - he's gotta be there, Vic."

Zeher: "There - the (weight) broke."

R. Stanczyk: "That's a fish."

Zeher: "I think there might be two on there."

R. Stanczyk: "This is a big one."

But it wasn't. After about 20 minutes of winching up a half-mile of line on a Tiagra 80-wide, Gaspeny brought up an estimated 60-pounder.

Small for a swordfish, but far from disappointing. Later, about a half-dozen residents of my condo devoured a tasty, grilled, marinated entree the next night. And Gaspeny was one step closer to his record.


© 2008, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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