fishing lines: Endless bout with heavyweight contenders

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The Independent Online
David Denholm was fishing off southern California when he spotted a broadbill swordfish swimming on the surface. He cast a mackerel to the fish. The swordfish swallowed the bait. It was midday.

Nearly 18 hours later the line broke. "Without warning the line went slack. I said: 'It's over,' and wound in. Another broadbill had won," Denholm said. He was lucky. It could have been a big broadbill, rather than a small one. (He estimated it at 250-300lb). The swordfish, xiphias gladius, is the toughest of the great game fishes. The biggest landed on rod and line is 1,182lb, but they grow to 2,000lb. No wonder that Peter Goadby's definitive Saltwater Gamefishing describes the broadbill as the king of fishes.

The broadbill doesn't have quite the same respect for anglers. There are reports of them feeding on small fish even when hooked, the equivalent of Pete Sampras signing autographs while playing a Wimbledon final. Its spear is so powerful that it can break cable wire, and there are several reports of its "bill" being driven into boats.

Quite clearly, such a fish is well beyond the modest aspirations of most fishing journalists. But to establish the Angling Writers' Association, we had planned our first trip to be one for broadbill. Not any broadbill, either. We intended to do so from Scotland.

The traditional areas are New Zealand, Portugal, Hawaii, Chile, Panama and Mexico. But that's because people go there to fish for them. It would certainly save a few pounds in air fares if we could catch broadbill locally. It isn't such a ridiculous idea. The Scottish west coast is affected by the Gulf Stream, which gives temperature ranges considerably higher than you might expect. Three swordfish have been caught by trawlers working out from Solway and Mull. Further catches have been made off the Irish east coast.

But nobody has ever fished that wet bit between the two countries: at least, not with big-game tackle. Other exotics such as bonito, tuna, albacore and various sharks almost certainly live there. It was worth a try - and we could make history (of a sort). We had the boat, the 53ft Magnum, designed specifically to catch these monsters. We had a skipper, Stan Massey, who was convinced they were there. And we had, er, a boatful of angling journalists. Well, my plan was to overcome that one when we needed to.

Everything was right. And I had hoped to be writing to tell you how we had boated the first broadbill in British waters. Ah, but those swordfish were lucky! The one thing we couldn't do anything about was the weather. On the evening we arrived, the wind started to blow. By the next morning, the Met Office was reporting severe gale force winds. There was no way we were going to toddle 60 miles into a raging Irish Sea.

We fished a bit, caught a few small pollack, coalfish and dogfish, drank a lot of wine and bemoaned the weather. And so it went on - until our final day, when the weather changed. It was perfect, not a breath of wind. The trouble was, there wasn't time. We needed 12 hours' steaming just to get to the broadbill areas. But there was a big-game alternative. Not too far out, there are places where giant skate lurk about 500 feet down. Last year, I caught a 160-pounder. So we went skating.

As the skate expert, I was looked to by the rest for advice. But once again I performed to expectations, hooking and losing two, which is a bit like missing your head with a hat. We captured a couple, about 110lb each, which were tagged and released.

Battling these skate is a bit like having a two-hour body check by a clumsy masseur. It takes about 30 minutes to bring a small one (sub-100lb) up. It's mostly a matter of heaving as hard as you can, and gaining a few inches of line at a time. My guest, Mark Edwards, who caught one after an hour's tussle, was left with a bent back and a leg shaking uncontrollably. Still, as I told him, it could have been a broadbill.

The more alert readers will have spotted last week's catch: the editors enjoyed the previous week's column so much that they repeated it. If you missed this, you're not reading the column carefully enough. Don't let it happen again.