Swordfish Follow Tuna In Resurgent Form

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Big game fishing in the Northeast canyons has seen its paradigms of success reset on an almost weekly basis in the last few years. While at times it has been a story of feast and famine, that’s fishing. But the depths of the famine don’t seem so deep as of late, and the grandiosity of the feasts has soared to new heights over and over.Last year, and again this past August, the shock and smiles were brought on by the influx of bigeye tuna. The largest of the warm-water tunas that we catch in our region, the bigeye was the tuna that originally took pioneer canyon runners to the edge. In those early days, the bigeyes were major tackle busters, and the collections of giant tackle, 80- and 130-pound bent-butt outfits that still hang in many tackle rooms, are a testament to the industry that fishing built.

The bigeyes faded to gray in the 1990s and early 2000s. They became a fairly scarce commodity, a trophy of success most captains could only hope to come across once in a few seasons.

But as documented in these pages, the last two years have seen long-unheard-of numbers of bigeyes hit the docks, to the point where a trip without at least one—and, for some, without several—can hardly be thought a success.

Swordfish have followed a similar road. Old-timers will recall days when giant swordfish hung from the scales at local marinas regularly and were caught within sight of land. Many of the pioneers of big game fishing made their bones battling bruiser swordfish aboard Shinnecock and Montauk charter boats.

Then the swords went away. Their absence from the recreational fishing scene was far more pronounced than that of the faster-growing, more fertile tunas. For two decades, catching a swordfish at all was extraordinarily rare for a recreational crew, and nearly unheard of for most of the 1990s.

But in the last eight years or so—tracing the path of closures of certain areas of ocean, where swordfish spawn, to longlining—the regal warrior of the deep has bounced back to a degree. For five years now, swordfishing, for fish that have again ranged above 300 pounds on occasion, has become an actual activity to be pursued with vigor.

And in the last week, swordfishing has taken on a new tenor, as unheard of numbers of the fish have swarmed across the continental shelf. In some regions, it seems as though every boat with a competent crew caught at least one swordfish, and reports are rippling across the docks of boats returning with two, three or four swordfish. At least one boat landed six in a single night.

These are red-letter days for big game fishermen—and for the tackle shops that produce the heavy-duty and costly tackle they rely on, to be sure, and for the boat salesmen who peddle boats capable of making 100-mile runs to the canyons.

We’re not quite back to the old days, and maybe we never will be, really. The size of the fish we’re catching and the breadth of their range is still not what it once was. Such limits could be the product of a still-recovering population. It may well take the population swelling to a degree that modern fisheries management and harvesting ability will never accommodate to return swordfish to the Shinnecock sea buoy or yellowfin to the Butterfish Hole. Only time will tell whether these resurgences of big game species is a new paradigm or just an anomalous spike in a cycle.

For all this talk, the crews of most local canyon boats are reading these words with longing. The South Fork’s canyon fleet has been largely shorebound for nearly a month now, with few opportunities within range. The red-hot fishing is all taking place either well to the east, at Welker Canyon, or well to the south, from Hendrickson to Washington Canyon. Those boats that have made it have mostly left from ports in New Jersey or Cape Cod.

Instead, we have to settle for light tackle and tiny tunas. False albacore have put in fitful showings over the last week. There was a day or two when they were aggressively feeding off Montauk Lighthouse and in Shinnecock Inlet, and days when they were nowhere to be seen. But it’s reason enough to go.

Blackfish season opened this week to lackluster reports. A few more cold snaps will be needed to get that fishing heated up.

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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