TALES of FISHES
President of the Long Key Fishing Club Honorary Vice-President of the Tuna Club, Avalon
Author of "The U. P. Trail" "The Desert of Wheat" Etc.
Illustrated from Photographs by the author
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS New York and London
TALES OF FISHES
Copyright 1919, by Harper & Brothers
Printed in the United States of America
Published June, 1919
I. BYME-BY-TARPON 1
II. THE ISLAND OF THE DEAD 8
III. THE ROYAL PURPLE GAME OF THE SEA 26
IV. TWO FIGHTS WITH SWORDFISH 54
V. SAILFISH 72
VI. GULF STREAM FISHING 88
VII. BONEFISH 107
VIII. SOME RARE FISH 136
IX. SWORDFISH 153
X. THE GLADIATOR OF THE SEA 180
XI. SEVEN MARLIN SWORDFISH IN ONE DAY 197
XII. RANDOM NOTES 216
XIII. BIG TUNA 221
XIV. AVALON, THE BEAUTIFUL 250
THE GREAT COLORED ROLLERS OF THE PACIFIC Frontispiece
TARPON THROWING HOOK Facing p. 2
LEAPING TARPON " 3
SAVALO, OR SILVER KING " 4
THESE WILD FOWL HAVE THE WONDERFUL BEAUTY AND SPEED OF FALCONS " 5
RABIHORCADO " 12
THE BOOBIES HAD NO FEAR OF MAN, BUT BOTH YOUNG AND OLD WOULD PICK WITH THEIR SHARP BILLS " 13
YOUNG BOOBIES " 14
SUGGESTIVE OF A WILD, WIND-SWEPT ISLAND OF THE SEA " 15
NESTS EVERYWHERE IN THE SAND AND MOSS " 16
THESE HUGE BLACK RABIHORCADOS WERE THE LARGEST SPECIES OF FRIGATE OR MAN-OF-WAR BIRD " 17
RABIHORCADO RISING FROM THEIR EGGS " 20
BOOBIES OF ISLA DE LA MUERTE IN THE CARIBBEAN SEA " 21
A SWORDFISH LEAPING OFF THE BOLD BLACK SHORE OF CLEMENTE " 28
ON THE RAMPAGE " 29
SWORDFISH ON THE SURFACE " 32
HOLDING HARD " 33
A CLEAN GREYHOUND LEAP " 36
316-POUND SWORDFISH " 37
THE WILD OATS SLOPE OF CLEMENTE " 44
WHERE THE DEEP-BLUE SWELL BOOMS AGAINST THE LAVA WALL OF CLEMENTE ISLAND " 45
FOUR MARLIN SWORDFISH IN ONE DAY " 68
A BIG SAILFISH BREAKING WATER " 69
FOUR SAILFISH IN ONE DAY ON LIGHT TACKLE " 76
SAILFISH THRESHING ON THE SURFACE " 77
MEMORABLE OF LONG KEY " 84
LEAPING SAILFISH " 85
SOLITUDE ON THE SEA " 92
SUNSET BY THE SEA " 93
TWIN TIGERS OF THE SEA—THE SAVAGE BARRACUDA " 98
HAPPY PASTIME OF BONEFISHING " 99
THE GAMEST FISH THAT SWIMS " 110
A WAAHOO " 111
AT LONG KEY, THE LONELY CORAL SHORE WHERE THE SUN SHINES WHITE ALL DAY AND THE STARS SHINE WHITE ALL NIGHT " 144
THE FAMOUS STUNT OF A MARLIN SWORDFISH, "WALKING ON HIS TAIL" " 145
SURGING IN A HALF-CIRCLE " 148
BROADBILL SWORDFISH ON THE SURFACE—THE MOST THRILLING SIGHT TO A SEA ANGLER " 149
SHINING IN THE SUNLIGHT " 156
THROWING WHITE WATER LIKE THE EXPLOSION OF A TORPEDO " 157
A LONG, SLIM SAILFISH WIGGLING IN THE AIR " 160
FIGHTING A BROADBILL SWORDFISH " 161
THE ONLY PHOTOGRAPH EVER TAKEN OF LEAPING BROADBILL SWORDFISH " 180
XIPHIAS GLADIUS, THE BROADSWORDED GLADIATOR OF THE SEA " 181
A STRAIGHTAWAY GREYHOUND LEAP, MARVELOUS FOR ITS SPEED AND WILDNESS " 188
LIKE A LEAPING SPECTER " 189
WALKING ON HIS TAIL " 192
A MAGNIFICENT FLASHING LEAP. THIS PERFECT PICTURE CONSIDERED BY AUTHOR TO BE WORTH HIS FIVE YEARS' LABOR AND PATIENCE " 193
TIRED OUT—THE LAST SLOW HEAVE " 196
HAULED ABOARD WITH BLOCK AND TACKLE " 197
R. C. ON THE JOB " 204
304 POUNDS " 205
R. C. GREY AND RECORD MARLIN " 205
328-POUND RECORD MARLIN BY R. C. GREY. SHAPELIEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL SPECIMEN EVER TAKEN " 208
SUNSET OVER CLEMENTE CHANNEL " 209
A BLUE-FINNED PLUGGER OF THE DEEP—138-POUND TUNA " 244
AVALON, THE BEAUTIFUL " 245
THE OLD AVALON BARGE WHERE THE GULLS FISH AND SCREAM " 252
THE END OF THE DAY OFF CATALINA ISLAND " 253
SEAL ROCKS " 264
By W. Livingston Larned
Been to Avalon with Grey ... been most everywhere; Chummed with him and fished with him in every Sportsman's lair. Helped him with the white Sea-bass and Barracuda haul, Shared the Tuna's sprayful sport and heard his Hunter-call, Me an' Grey are fishin' friends.... Pals of rod and reel, Whether it's the sort that fights ... or th' humble eel, On and on, through Wonderland ... winds a-blowin' free, Catching all th' fins that grow ... Sportsman Grey an' Me.
Been to Florida with Zane ... scouting down th' coast; Whipped the deep for Tarpon, too, that natives love th' most. Seen the smiling, Tropic isles that pass, in green review, Gathered cocoanut and moss where Southern skies were blue. Seen him laugh that boyish laugh, when things were goin' right; Helped him beach our little boat and kindle fires at night. Comrades of the Open Way, the Treasure-Trove of Sea, Port Ahoy and who cares where, with Mister Grey an' Me!
Been to Western lands with Grey ... hunted fox and deer. Seen the Grizzly's ugly face with danger lurkin' near. Slept on needles, near th' sky, and marked th' round moon rise Over purpling peaks of snow that hurt a fellow's eyes. Gone, like Indians, under brush and to some mystic place— Home of red men, long since gone, to join their dying race. Yes ... we've chummed it, onward—outward ... mountain, wood, and Key, At the quiet readin'-table ... Sportsman Grey an' Me.
TALES OF FISHES
To capture the fish is not all of the fishing. Yet there are circumstances which make this philosophy hard to accept. I have in mind an incident of angling tribulation which rivals the most poignant instant of my boyhood, when a great trout flopped for one sharp moment on a mossy stone and then was gone like a golden flash into the depths of the pool.
Some years ago I followed Attalano, my guide, down the narrow Mexican street of Tampico to the bank of the broad Panuco. Under the rosy dawn the river quivered like a restless opal. The air, sweet with the song of blackbird and meadowlark, was full of cheer; the rising sun shone in splendor on the water and the long line of graceful palms lining the opposite bank, and the tropical forest beyond, with its luxuriant foliage festooned by gray moss. Here was a day to warm the heart of any fisherman; here was the beautiful river, celebrated in many a story; here was the famous guide, skilled with oar and gaff, rich in experience. What sport I would have; what treasure of keen sensation would I store; what flavor of life would I taste this day! Hope burns always in the heart of a fisherman.
Attalano was in harmony with the day and the scene. He had a cheering figure, lithe and erect, with a springy stride, bespeaking the Montezuma blood said to flow in his Indian veins. Clad in a colored cotton shirt, blue jeans, and Spanish girdle, and treading the path with brown feet never deformed by shoes, he would have stopped an artist. Soon he bent his muscular shoulders to the oars, and the ripples circling from each stroke hardly disturbed the calm Panuco. Down the stream glided long Indian canoes, hewn from trees and laden with oranges and bananas. In the stern stood a dark native wielding an enormous paddle with ease. Wild-fowl dotted the glassy expanse; white cranes and pink flamingoes graced the reedy bars; red-breasted kingfishers flew over with friendly screech. The salt breeze kissed my cheek; the sun shone with the comfortable warmth Northerners welcome in spring; from over the white sand-dunes far below came the faint boom of the ever-restless Gulf.
We trolled up the river and down, across from one rush-lined lily-padded shore to the other, for miles and miles with never a strike. But I was content, for over me had been cast the dreamy, care-dispelling languor of the South.
When the first long, low swell of the changing tide rolled in, a stronger breeze raised little dimpling waves and chased along the water in dark, quick-moving frowns. All at once the tarpon began to show, to splash, to play, to roll. It was as though they had been awakened by the stir and murmur of the miniature breakers. Broad bars of silver flashed in the sunlight, green backs cleft the little billows, wide tails slapped lazily on the water. Every yard of river seemed to hold a rolling fish. This sport increased until the long stretch of water, which had been as calm as St. Regis Lake at twilight, resembled the quick current of a Canadian stream. It was a fascinating, wonderful sight. But it was also peculiarly exasperating, because when the fish roll in this sportive, lazy way they will not bite. For an hour I trolled through this whirlpool of flying spray and twisting tarpon, with many a salty drop on my face, hearing all around me the whipping crash of breaking water.
"Byme-by-tarpon," presently remarked Attalano, favoring me with the first specimen of his English.
The rolling of the tarpon diminished, and finally ceased as noon advanced.
No more did I cast longing eyes upon those huge bars of silver. They were buried treasure. The breeze quickened as the flowing tide gathered strength, and together they drove the waves higher. Attalano rowed across the river into the outlet of one of the lagoons. This narrow stream was unruffled by wind; its current was sluggish and its muddy waters were clarifying under the influence of the now fast-rising tide.
By a sunken log near shore we rested for lunch. I found the shade of the trees on the bank rather pleasant, and became interested in a blue heron, a russet-colored duck, and a brown-and-black snipe, all sitting on the sunken log. Near by stood a tall crane watching us solemnly, and above in the tree-top a parrot vociferously proclaimed his knowledge of our presence. I was wondering if he objected to our invasion, at the same time taking a most welcome bite for lunch, when directly in front of me the water flew up as if propelled by some submarine power. Framed in a shower of spray I saw an immense tarpon, with mouth agape and fins stiff, close in pursuit of frantically leaping little fish.
The fact that Attalano dropped his sandwich attested to the large size and close proximity of the tarpon. He uttered a grunt of satisfaction and pushed out the boat. A school of feeding tarpon closed the mouth of the lagoon. Thousands of mullet had been cut off from their river haunts and were now leaping, flying, darting in wild haste to elude the great white monsters. In the foamy swirls I saw streaks of blood.
"Byme-by-tarpon!" called Attalano, warningly.
Shrewd guide! I had forgotten that I held a rod. When the realization dawned on me that sooner or later I would feel the strike of one of these silver tigers a keen, tingling thrill of excitement quivered over me. The primitive man asserted himself; the instinctive lust to conquer and to kill seized me, and I leaned forward, tense and strained with suspended breath and swelling throat.
Suddenly the strike came, so tremendous in its energy that it almost pulled me from my seat; so quick, fierce, bewildering that I could think of nothing but to hold on. Then the water split with a hissing sound to let out a great tarpon, long as a door, seemingly as wide, who shot up and up into the air. He wagged his head and shook it like a struggling wolf. When he fell back with a heavy splash, a rainbow, exquisitely beautiful and delicate, stood out of the spray, glowed, paled, and faded.
Five times he sprang toward the blue sky, and as many he plunged down with a thunderous crash. The reel screamed. The line sang. The rod, which I had thought stiff as a tree, bent like a willow wand. The silver king came up far astern and sheered to the right in a long, wide curve, leaving behind a white wake. Then he sounded, while I watched the line with troubled eyes. But not long did he sulk. He began a series of magnificent tactics new in my experience. He stood on his tail, then on his head; he sailed like a bird; he shook himself so violently as to make a convulsive, shuffling sound; he dove, to come up covered with mud, marring his bright sides; he closed his huge gills with a slap and, most remarkable of all, he rose in the shape of a crescent, to straighten out with such marvelous power that he seemed to actually crack like a whip.
After this performance, which left me in a condition of mental aberration, he sounded again, to begin a persistent, dragging pull which was the most disheartening of all his maneuvers; for he took yard after yard of line until he was far away from me, out in the Panuco. We followed him, and for an hour crossed to and fro, up and down, humoring him, responding to his every caprice, as if he verily were a king. At last, with a strange inconsistency more human than fishlike, he returned to the scene of his fatal error, and here in the mouth of the smaller stream he leaped once more. But it was only a ghost of his former efforts—a slow, weary rise, showing he was tired. I could see it in the weakening wag of his head. He no longer made the line whistle.
I began to recover the long line. I pumped and reeled him closer. Reluctantly he came, not yet broken in spirit, though his strength had sped. He rolled at times with a shade of the old vigor, with a pathetic manifestation of the temper that became a hero. I could see the long, slender tip of his dorsal fin, then his broad tail and finally the gleam of his silver side. Closer he came and slowly circled around the boat, eying me with great, accusing eyes. I measured him with a fisherman's glance. What a great fish! Seven feet, I calculated, at the very least.
At this triumphant moment I made a horrible discovery. About six feet from the leader the strands of the line had frayed, leaving only one thread intact. My blood ran cold and the clammy sweat broke out on my brow. My empire was not won; my first tarpon was as if he had never been. But true to my fishing instincts, I held on morosely; tenderly I handled him; with brooding care I riveted my eye on the frail place in my line, and gently, ever so gently, I began to lead the silver king shoreward. Every smallest move of his tail meant disaster to me, so when he moved it I let go of the reel. Then I would have to coax him to swim back again.
The boat touched the bank. I stood up and carefully headed my fish toward the shore, and slid his head and shoulders out on the lily-pads. One moment he lay there, glowing like mother-of-pearl, a rare fish, fresh from the sea. Then, as Attalano warily reached for the leader, he gave a gasp, a flop that deluged us with muddy water, and a lunge that spelled freedom.
I watched him swim slowly away with my bright leader dragging beside him. Is it not the loss of things which makes life bitter? What we have gained is ours; what is lost is gone, whether fish, or use, or love, or name, or fame.
I tried to put on a cheerful aspect for my guide. But it was too soon. Attalano, wise old fellow, understood my case. A smile, warm and living, flashed across his dark face as he spoke:
Which defined his optimism and revived the failing spark within my breast. It was, too, in the nature of a prophecy.
THE ISLAND OF THE DEAD
Strange wild adventures fall to the lot of a fisherman as well as to that of a hunter. On board the Monterey, from Havana to Progreso, Yucatan, I happened to fall into conversation with an English globe-trotter who had just come from the Mont Pelee eruption. Like all those wandering Englishmen, this one was exceedingly interesting. We exchanged experiences, and I felt that I had indeed much to see and learn of the romantic Old World.
In Merida, that wonderful tropic city of white towers and white streets and white-gowned women, I ran into this Englishman again. I wanted to see the magnificent ruins of Uxmal and Ake and Labna. So did he. I knew it would be a hard trip from Muna to the ruins, and so I explained. He smiled in a way to make me half ashamed of my doubts. We went together, and I found him to be a splendid fellow. We parted without knowing each other's names. I had no idea what he thought of me, but I thought he must have been somebody.
While traveling around the coast of Yucatan I had heard of the wild and lonely Alacranes Reef where lighthouse-keepers went insane from solitude, and where wonderful fishes inhabited the lagoons. That was enough for me. Forthwith I meant to go to Alacranes.
Further inquiry brought me meager but fascinating news of an island on that lonely coral reef, called Isla de la Muerte (the Island of the Dead). Here was the haunt of a strange bird, called by Indians rabihorcado, and it was said to live off the booby, another strange sea-bird. The natives of the coast solemnly averred that when the rabihorcado could not steal fish from the booby he killed himself by hanging in the brush. I did not believe such talk. The Spanish appeared to be rabi, meaning rabies, and horcar, to hang.
I set about to charter a boat, and found the great difficulty in procuring one to be with the Yucatecan government. No traveler had ever before done such a thing. It excited suspicion. The officials thought the United States was looking for a coaling-station. Finally, through the help of the Ward line agent and the consul I prevailed upon them to give me such papers as appeared necessary. Then my Indian boatmen interested a crew of six, and I chartered a two-masted canoe-shaped bark called the Xpit.
The crew of the Hispaniola, with the never-to-be-forgotten John Silver and the rest of the pirates of Treasure Island, could not have been a more villainous and piratical gang than this of the bark Xpit. I was advised not to take the trip alone. But it appeared impossible to find any one to accompany me. I grew worried, yet determined not to miss the opportunity.
Strange to relate, as I was conversing on the dock with a ship captain and the agent of the Ward line, lamenting the necessity of sailing for Alacranes alone, some one near by spoke up, "Take me!"
In surprise I wheeled to see my English acquaintance who had visited the interior of Yucatan with me. I greeted him, thanked him, but of course did not take him seriously, and I proceeded to expound the nature of my venture. To my further surprise, he not only wanted to go, but he was enthusiastic.
"But it's a hard, wild trip," I protested. "Why, that crew of barefooted, red-shirted Canary-Islanders have got me scared! Besides, you don't know me!"
"Well, you don't know me, either," he replied, with his winning smile.
Then I awoke to my own obtuseness and to the fact that here was a real man, in spite of the significance of a crest upon his linen.
"If you'll take a chance on me I'll certainly take one on you," I replied, and told him who I was, and that the Ward-line agent and American consul would vouch for me.
He offered his hand with the simple reply, "My name is C——."
If before I had imagined he was somebody, I now knew it. And that was how I met the kindest man, the finest philosopher, the most unselfish comrade, the greatest example and influence that it has ever been my good fortune to know upon my trips by land or sea. I learned this during our wonderful trip to the Island of the Dead. He never thought of himself. Hardship to him was nothing. He had no fear of the sea, nor of men, nor of death. It seemed he never rested, never slept, never let anybody do what he could do instead.
That night we sailed for Alacranes. It was a white night of the tropics, with a million stars blinking in the blue dome overhead, and the Caribbean Sea like a shadowed opal, calm and rippling and shimmering. The Xpit was not a bark of comfort. It had a bare deck and an empty hold. I could not stay below in that gloomy, ill-smelling pit, so I tried to sleep on deck. I lay on a hatch under the great boom, and what with its creaking, and the hollow roar of the sail, and the wash of the waves, and the dazzling starlight, I could not sleep. C. sat on a coil of rope, smoked, and watched in silence. I wondered about him then.
Sunrise on the Caribbean was glorious to behold—a vast burst of silver and gold over a level and wrinkling blue sea. By day we sailed, tacking here and there, like lost mariners standing for some far-off unknown shore. That night a haze of clouds obscured the stars, and it developed that our red-shirted skipper steered by the stars. We indeed became lost mariners. They sounded with a greased lead and determined our latitude by the color and character of the coral or sand that came up on the lead. Sometimes they knew where we were and at others they did not have any more idea than had I.
On the second morning out we reached Alacranes lighthouse; and when I saw the flat strip of sand, without a tree or bush to lend it grace and color, the bleak lighthouse, and the long, lonely reaches of barren reefs from which there came incessant moaning, I did not wonder that two former lighthouse-keepers had gone insane. The present keeper received me with the welcome always accorded a visitor to out-of-the-world places. He corroborated all that my Indian sailors had claimed for the rabihorcado, and added the interesting information that lighthouse-keepers desired the extinction of the birds because the guano, deposited by them on the roofs of the keepers' houses, poisoned the rain water—all they had to drink.
I climbed the narrow, spiral stair to the lighthouse tower, and there, apparently lifted into the cloud-navigated sky, I awakened to the real wonder of coral reefs. Ridges of white and brown showed their teeth against the crawling, tireless, insatiate sea. Islets of dead coral gleamed like bleached bone, and beds of live coral, amber as wine, lay wreathed in restless surf. From near to far extended the rollers, the curving channels, and the shoals, all colorful, all quivering with the light of jewels. Golden sand sloped into the gray-green of shallow water, and this shaded again into darker green, which in turn merged into purple, reaching away to the far barrier reef, a white wall against the blue, heaving ocean.
The crew had rowed us ashore with my boatmen Manuel and Augustine. And then the red-shirted captain stated he would like to go back to Progreso and return for us at our convenience. Hesitating over this, I finally gave permission, on the promise that he would bring back the Xpit in one week.
So they sailed away, and left us soon to find out that we were marooned on a desert island. When I saw how C. took it I was glad of our enforced stay. Solitude and loneliness pervaded Alacranes. Of all the places I had visited, this island was the most hauntingly lonely.
It must have struck C. the same way, and even more powerfully than it had me. He was a much older man, and, though so unfailingly cheerful and helpful, he seemed to me to desire loneliness. He did not fish or shoot. His pleasure appeared to be walking the strand, around and around the little island, gathering bits of coral and shells and seaweeds and strange things cast up by the tides. For hours he would sit high on the lighthouse stairway and gaze out over the variegated mosaic of colored reefs. My bed was a hammock in the loft of the keeper's house and it hung close to an open door. At night I woke often, and I would look out upon the lonely beach and sea. When the light flashed its long wheeling gleam out into the pale obscurity of the night it always showed C.'s dark figure on the lonely beach. I got into the habit of watching for him, and never, at any time I happened to awake, did I fail to see him out there. How strange he looms to me now! But I thought it was natural then. The loneliness of that coral reef haunted me. The sound of the sea, eternally slow and sad and moaning, haunted me like a passion. Men are the better for solitude.
Our bark, the Xpit, did not come back for us. Day by day we scanned the heaving sea, far out beyond the barrier reef, until I began to feel like Crusoe upon his lonely isle. We had no way to know then that our crew had sailed twice from Progreso, getting lost the first time, and getting drunk the second, eventually returning to the home port. Some misfortunes turn out to be blessings.
What adventures I had at Alacranes! But, alas! I cannot relate a single story about really catching a fish. There were many and ferocious fish that would rush any bait I tried, only I could not hold them. My tackle was not equal to what it is now. Perhaps, however, if it had been it would have been smashed just the same.
In front of the lighthouse there had been built a little plank dock, running out twenty yards or so. The water was about six feet deep, and a channel of varying width meandered between the coral reefs out to the deep blue sea. This must have been a lane for big fish to come inside the barrier. Almost always there were great shadows drifting around in the water. First I tried artificial baits. Some one, hoping to convert me, had given me a whole box of those ugly, murderous plug-baits made famous by Robert H. Davis. Whenever I made a cast with one of these a big fish would hit it and either strip the hooks off or break my tackle. Some of these fish leaped clear. They looked like barracuda to me, only they were almost as silvery as a tarpon. One looked ten feet long and as big around as a telegraph pole. When this one smashed the water white and leaped, Manuel yelled, "Pecuda!" I tried hard to catch a specimen, and had a good many hooked, but they always broke away. I did not know then, as I know now, that barracuda grow to twelve feet in the Caribbean. That fact is mentioned in records and natural histories.
Out in the deeper lagoons I hooked huge fish that swam off ponderously, dragging the skiff until my line parted. Once I was fortunate enough to see one, which fact dispelled any possibility of its being a shark. Manuel called it "Cherna!" It looked like a giant sea-bass and would have weighed at least eight hundred pounds. The color was lighter than any sea-bass I ever studied. My Indian boatmen claimed this fish was a man-eater and that he and his crew had once fought one all day and then it broke away. The fish I saw was huge enough to swallow a man, that was certain. I think this species must have been the great June-fish of the Gulf. I hooked one once at the mouth of the Panuco River in Mexico and it nearly swamped the boat.
Soon my tackle was all used up, and, for want of better, I had to use tiny hooks and thread lines—because I was going to fish, by hook or crook! This method, however, which I learned first of all, is not to be despised. Whenever I get my hand on a thin, light, stiff reed pole and a long, light line of thread with a little hook, then I revert to boyhood days and sunfish and chubs and shiners and bullheads. Could any fisherman desire more joy? Those days are the best.
The child is father of the man And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.
In the shallow water near the dock there always floated a dense school of little fish like sardines. They drifted, floated, hovered beside the dock, and when one of the big fish would rush near they would make a breaking roar on the surface. Of me they evinced no fear whatever. But no bait, natural or artificial, that I could discover, tempted them to bite. This roused my cantankerous spirit to catch some of those little fish or else fall inestimably in my own regard. I noted that whenever I cast over the school it disintegrated. A circle widened from the center, and where had been a black mass of fish was only sand. But as my hook settled to the bottom the dark circle narrowed and closed until the school was densely packed as before. Whereupon I tied several of the tiny hooks together with a bit of lead, and, casting that out, I waited till all was black around my line, then I jerked. I snagged one of the little fish and found him to be a beautiful, silvery, flat-sided shiner of unknown species to me. Every cast I made thereafter caught one of them. And they were as good to eat as a sardine and better than a mullet.
My English comrade, C., sometimes went with me, and when he did go, the interest and kindly curiosity and pleasure upon his face were a constant source of delight to me. I knew that I was as new a species to him as the little fish were to me. But C. had become so nearly a perfectly educated man that nothing surprised him, nothing made him wonder. He sympathized, he understood, he could put himself in the place of another. What worried me, however, was the simple fact that he did not care to fish or shoot for the so-called sport of either. I think my education on a higher plane began at Alacranes, in the society of that lonely Englishman. Somehow I have gravitated toward the men who have been good for me.
But C. enjoyed action as well as contemplation. Once out on the shoals when Manuel harpooned a huge hawk-bill turtle—the valuable species from which the amber shell is derived—we had a thrilling and dangerous ride. For the turtle hauled us at a terrific rate through the water. Then C. joined in with the yells of the Indians. He was glad, however, when the turtle left us stranded high upon a coral bed.
On moonlight nights when the tide was low C. especially enjoyed wading on the shoals and hunting for the langustas, or giant lobsters. This was exciting sport. We used barrel-hoops with nets, and when we saw a lobster shining in the shallow water we waded noiselessly close to swoop down upon him with a great splash. I was always afraid of these huge crayfish, but C. was not. His courage might have been predatory, for he certainly liked to eat lobster. But he had a scare one night when a devilfish or tremendous ray got between him and the shore and made the water fly aloft in a geyser. It was certainly fun for me to see that dignified Englishman make tracks across the shoal.
To conclude about C., when I went on to Mexico City with him I met friends of his there, a lord and a duke traveling incognito. C. himself was a peer of England and a major in the English army. But I never learned this till we got to Tampico, where they went with me for the tarpon-fishing. They were rare fine fellows. L., the little Englishman, could do anything under the sun, and it was from him I got my type for Castleton, the Englishman, in The Light of Western Stars. I have been told that never was there an Englishman on earth like the one I portrayed in my novel. But my critics never fished with Lord L.!
These English friends went with me to the station to bid me good-by and good luck. We were to part there, they to take ship for London, and I to take train for the headwaters of the Panuco River, down which unknown streams I was to find my way through jungle to the Gulf. Here I was told that C. had lost his only son in the Boer War, and since then had never been able to rest or sleep or remain in one place. That stunned me, for I remembered that he had seemed to live only to forget himself, to think of others. It was a great lesson to me. And now, since I have not heard from him during the four years of the world war, I seem to divine that he has "gone west"; he has taken his last restless, helpful journey, along with the best and noblest of England's blood.
* * * * *
Because this fish-story has so little of fish in it does not prove that a man cannot fish for other game than fish. I remember when I was a boy that I went with my brother—the R. C. and the Reddy of the accompanying pages—to fish for bass at Dillon's Falls in Ohio. Alas for Bill Dilg and Bob Davis, who never saw this blue-blooded home of bronze-back black-bass! In the heat of the day my brother and I jabbed our poles into the bank, and set off to amuse ourselves some other way for a while. When we returned my pole was pulled down and wabbling so as to make a commotion in the water. Quickly I grasped it and pulled, while Reddy stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Surely a big bass had taken my bait and hooked himself. Never had I felt so heavy and strong a bass! The line swished back and forth; my pole bent more and more as I lifted. The water boiled and burst in a strange splash. Then! a big duck flew, as if by magic, right out from before us. So amazed was I that he nearly pulled the pole out of my hands. Reddy yelled wildly. The duck broke the line and sped away.... That moment will never be forgotten. It took us so long to realize that the duck had swallowed my minnow, hooked himself, and happened to be under the surface when we returned.
So the point of my main story, like that of the above, is about how I set out to catch fish, and, failing, found for such loss abundant recompense.
* * * * *
Manuel and Augustine, my Indian sailors, embarked with me in a boat for the Island of the Dead. Millions of marine creatures swarmed in the labyrinthine waterways. Then, as we neared the land, "Rabihorcado!" exclaimed Manuel, pointing to a black cloud hovering over the island.
As we approached the sandy strip I made it out to be about half a mile long, lying only a few feet above the level of the sea. Hundreds of great, black birds flew out to meet us and sailed over the boat, a sable-winged, hoarse-voiced crowd. When we beached I sprang ashore and ran up the sand to the edge of green. The whole end of the island was white with birds—large, beautiful, snowy birds with shiny black bars across their wings.
"Boobies," said Manuel and motioned me to go forward.
They greeted our approach with the most discordant din it had ever been my fortune to hear. A mingling of honk and cackle, it manifested not excitement so much as curiosity. I walked among the boobies, and they never moved except to pick at me with long, sharp bills. Many were sitting on nests, and all around in the sand were nests with eggs, and little boobies just hatched, and others in every stage of growth, up to big babies of birds like huge balls of pure white wool. I wondered where the thousands of mothers were. The young ones showed no concern when I picked them up, save to dig into me with curious bills.
I saw an old booby, close by, raise his black-barred wings, and, flapping them, start to run across the sand. In this way he launched himself into the air and started out to sea. Presently I noticed several more flying away, one at a time, while others came sailing back again. How they could sail! They had the swift, graceful flight of a falcon.
For a while I puzzled over the significance of this outgoing and incoming. Shortly a bird soared overhead, circled with powerful sweep, and alighted within ten feet of me. The bird watched me with gray, unintelligent eyes. They were stupid, uncanny eyes, yet somehow so fixed and staring as to seem accusing. One of the little white balls of wool waddled up and, rubbing its fuzzy head against the booby, proclaimed the filial relation. After a few rubs and wabbles the young bird opened wide its bill and let out shrill cries. The mother bobbed up and down in evident consternation, walked away, came back, and with an eye on me plainly sought to pacify her fledgling. Suddenly she put her bill far down into the wide-open bill, effectually stifling the cries. Then the two boobies stood locked in amazing convulsions. The throat of the mother swelled, and a lump passed into and down the throat of the young bird. The puzzle of the flying boobies was solved in the startling realization that the mother had returned from the sea with a fish in her stomach and had disgorged it into the gullet of her offspring.
I watched this feat performed dozens of times, and at length scared a mother booby into withdrawing her bill and dropping a fish on the sand. It was a flying-fish fully ten inches long. I interrupted several little dinner-parties, and in each case found the disgorged fish to be of the flying species. The boobies flew ten, twenty miles out to the open sea for fish, while the innumerable shoals that lay around their island were alive with sardine and herring!
I had raised a tremendous row; so, leaving the boobies to quiet down, I made my way toward the flocks of rabihorcados. Here and there in the thick growth of green weed were boobies squatting on isolated nests. No sooner had I gotten close to the rabihorcados than I made sure they were the far-famed frigate pelicans, or man-of-war birds. They were as tame as the boobies; as I walked among them many did not fly at all. Others rose with soft, swishing sound of great wings and floated in a circle, uttering deep-throated cries, not unlike the dismal croak of ravens. Perfectly built for the air, they were like feathers blown by a breeze. Light, thin, long, sharp, with enormous spread of wings, beautiful with the beauty of dead, blue-black sheen, and yet hideous, too, with their grisly necks and cruel, crooked beaks and vulture eyes, they were surely magnificent specimens of winged creation.
Nests of dried weeds littered the ground, and eggs and young were everywhere. The little ones were covered with white down, and the developing feathers on their wings were turning black. They squalled unremittingly, which squalling I decided was not so much on my account as because of a swarm of black flies that attacked them when the mothers flew away. I was hard put to it myself to keep these flies, large as pennies and as flat, from eating me alive. They slipped up my sleeves and trousers and their bite made a wasp-sting pleasure by comparison.
By rushing into a flock of rabihorcados I succeeded several times in catching one in my hands. And spreading it out, I made guesses as to width from tip to tip of wings. None were under seven feet; one measured all of eight. They made no strenuous resistance and regarded me with cold eyes. Every flock that I put to flight left several dozen little ones squalling in the nests; and at one place an old booby waddled to the nests and began to maltreat the young rabihorcados. Instincts of humanity bade me scare the old brute away until I happened to remember the relation existing between the two species. Then I watched. With my own eyes I saw that grizzled booby pick and bite and wring those poor little birds with a grim and deadly deliberation. When the mothers, soon returning, fluttered down, they did not attack the booby, but protected their little ones by covering them with body and wings. Conviction came upon me that it was instinctive for the booby to kill the parasitical rabihorcado; and likewise instinctive for the rabihorcado to preserve the life of the booby.
A shout from Manuel directed me toward the extreme eastern end of the island. On the way I discovered many little dead birds, and the farther I went the more I found. Among the low bushes were also many old rabihorcados, dead and dry. Some were twisted among the network of branches, and several were hanging in limp, grotesque, horribly suggestive attitudes of death. Manuel had all of the Indian's leaning toward the mystical, and he believed the rabihorcados had destroyed themselves. Starved they may very well have been, but to me the gales of that wind-swept, ocean desert accounted for the hanging rabihorcados. Still, when face to face with the island, with its strife, and its illustration of the survival of the fittest, all that Manuel had claimed and more, I had to acknowledge the disquieting force of the thing and its stunning blow to an imagined knowledge of life and its secrets.
Suddenly Manuel shouted and pointed westward. I saw long white streams of sea-birds coming toward the island. My glass showed them to be boobies. An instant later thousands of rabihorcados took wing as if impelled by a common motive. Manuel ran ahead in his excitement, turning to shout to me, and then to point toward the wavering, swelling, white streams. I hurried after him, to that end of the island where we had landed, and I found the colony of boobies in a state of great perturbation. All were squawking, flapping wings, and waddling frantically about. Here was fear such as had not appeared on my advent.
Thousands of boobies were returning from deep-sea fishing, and as they neared the island they were met and set upon by a swarming army of rabihorcados. Darting white and black streaks crossed the blue of sky like a changeful web. The air was full of plaintive cries and hoarse croaks and the windy rush of wings. So marvelous was this scene of incredibly swift action, of kaleidoscopic change, of streaking lines and curves, that the tragedy at first was lost upon me. Then the shrieking of a booby told me that the robber birds were after their prey. Manuel lay flat on the ground to avoid being struck by low-flying birds, but I remained standing in order to see the better. Faster and faster circled the pursued and pursuers and louder grew the cries and croaks. My gaze was bewildered by the endless, eddying stream of birds.
Then I turned my back on sea and beach where this bee-swarm confused my vision, and looked to see single boobies whirling here and there with two or three black demons in pursuit. I picked out one group and turned my glass upon it. Many battles had I seen by field and stream and mountain, but this unequal battle by sea eclipsed all. The booby's mother instinct was to get to her young with the precious fish that meant life. And she would have been more than a match for any one thief. But she could not cope successfully with two fierce rabihorcados; for one soared above her, resting, watching, while the other darted and whirled to the attack. They changed, now one black demon swooping down, and then the other, in calculating, pitiless pursuit. How glorious she was in poise and swerve and sweep! For what seemed a long time neither rabihorcado touched her. What distance she could have placed between them but for that faithful mother instinct! She kept circling, ever returning, drawn back toward the sand by the magnet of love; and the powerful wings seemed slowly to lose strength. Closer the rabihorcados swooped and rose and swooped again, till one of them, shooting down like a black flash, struck her in the back. The white feathers flew away on the wind. She swept up, appeared to pause wearily and quiver, then disgorged her fish. It glinted in the sunlight. The rabihorcado dropped in easy, downward curve and caught it as it fell.
So the struggle for existence continued till I seemed to see all the world before me with its myriads of wild creatures preying upon one another; the spirit of nature, unquenchable as the fires of the sun, continuing ceaseless and imperturbable in its inscrutable design.
As we rowed away I looked back. Sky of a dull purple, like smoke with fire behind it, framed the birds of power and prey in colors suitable to their spirit. My ears were filled with the haunting sound of the sea, the sad wash of the surf, the harmonious and mournful music of the Island of the Dead.
THE ROYAL PURPLE GAME OF THE SEA
To the great majority of anglers it may seem unreasonable to place swordfishing in a class by itself—by far the most magnificent sport in the world with rod and reel. Yet I do not hesitate to make this statement and believe I can prove it.
The sport is young at this writing—very little has been written by men who have caught swordfish. It was this that attracted me. Quite a number of fishermen have caught a swordfish. But every one of them will have something different to tell you and the information thus gleaned is apt to leave you at sea, both metaphorically and actually. Quite a number of fishermen, out after yellowtail, have sighted a swordfish, and with the assistance of heavy tackle and their boatmen have caught that swordfish. Some few men have caught a small swordfish so quickly and easily that they cannot appreciate what happened. On the other hand, one very large swordfish, a record, was caught in an hour, after a loggy rolling about, like a shark, without leaping. But these are not fighting swordfish. Of course, under any circumstances, it is an event to catch a swordfish. But the accidents, the flukes, the lucky stabs of the game, do not in any sense prove what swordfishing is or what it is not.
In August, 1914, I arrived at Avalon with tuna experience behind me, with tarpon experience, and all the other kinds of fishing experience, even to the hooking of a swordfish in Mexico. I am inclined to confess that all this experience made me—well, somewhat too assured. Any one will excuse my enthusiasm. The day of my arrival I met Parker, the genial taxidermist of Avalon, and I started to tell him how I wanted my swordfish mounted. He interrupted me: "Say, young fellow, you want to catch a swordfish first!" One of the tuna boatmen gave me a harder jolt. He said: "Well, if you fish steadily for a couple of weeks, maybe you'll get a strike. And one swordfish caught out of ten strikes is good work!" But Danielson was optimistic and encouraging, as any good boatman ought to be. If I had not been fortunate enough to secure Captain Dan as my boatman, it is certain that one of the most wonderful fishing experiences on record would have fallen to some other fisherman, instead of to me.
We went over to Clemente Island, which is thirty-six miles from Catalina Island. Clemente is a mountain rising out of the sea, uninhabited, lonely, wild, and beautiful. But I will tell about the island later.
The weather was perfect, the conditions were apparently ideal. I shall never forget the sight of the first swordfish, with his great sickle-shaped tail and his purple fin. Nor am I likely to forget my disappointment when he totally ignored the flying-fish bait we trolled before him.
That experience was but a forerunner to others just like it. Every day we sighted one or more swordfish. But we could not get one to take hold. Captain Dan said there was more chance of getting a strike from a swordfish that was not visible rolling on the surface. Now a flying-fish bait makes a rather heavy bait to troll; and as it is imperative to have the reel free running and held lightly with the thumb, after a few hours such trolling becomes hard work. Hard as it was, it did not wear on me like the strain of being always ready for a strike. I doubt if any fisherman could stand this strain.
In twenty-one days I had seen nineteen swordfish, several of which had leaped playfully, or to shake off the remoras—parasite, blood-sucking little fish—and the sight of every one had only served to increase my fascination. By this time I had realized something of the difficult nature of the game, and I had begun to have an inkling of what sport it might be. During those twenty-one days we had trolled fifteen hundred miles, altogether, up and down that twenty-five-mile coast of rugged Clemente. And we had trolled round these fish in every conceivable way. I cannot begin to describe my sensations when we circled round a swordfish, and they grew more intense and acute as the strain and suspense dragged. Captain Dan, of course, was mostly dominated by my feeling. All the same, I think the strain affected him on his own account.
Then one day Boschen came over to Clemente with Farnsworth—and let me explain, by the way, that Boschen is probably the greatest heavy tackle fisherman living. Boschen would not fish for anything except tuna or swordfish, and up to this visit to Clemente he had caught many tuna, but only one swordfish, a Xiphias. This is the broadbill, or true, swordfish; and he is even rarer, and certainly larger and fiercer, than the Marlin, or roundbill, swordfish. This time at Clemente, Boschen caught his first Marlin and it weighed over three hundred pounds, leaped clear into the air sixty-three times, and gave a spectacular and magnificent surface fight that simply beggared description.
It made me wild to catch one, of like weight and ferocity. I spent several more endless days in vain. Then on the twenty-fifth day, way off the east end of Clemente, we sighted a swordfish with a tail almost pink. He had just come to those waters and had not yet gotten sunburnt. We did not have to circle round him! At long distance he saw my bait, and as he went under I saw he had headed for it. I remember that I shook all over. And when I felt him take that bait, thrill on thrill electrified me. Steadily the line ran off the reel. Then Captain Dan leaned over and whispered, hoarsely:
"When you think he's had enough throw on your drag and strike. Then wind quick and strike again.... Wind and strike! Keep it up till he shows!"
Despite my intense excitement, I was calm enough to follow directions. But when I struck I felt no weight at all—no strain on the line. Frantically I wound and jerked—again and again! I never felt him at all. Suddenly my line rose—and then, bewilderingly near the boat, when I was looking far off, the water split with a roar and out shot a huge, gleaming, white-and-purple fish. He blurred in my sight. Down he went with a crash. I wound the reel like a madman, but I never even half got up the slack line. The swordfish had run straight toward the boat. He leaped again, in a place I did not expect, and going down, instantly came up in another direction. His speed, his savageness, stunned me. I could not judge of his strength, for I never felt his weight. The next leap I saw him sling the hook. It was a great performance. Then that swordfish, finding himself free, leaped for the open sea, and every few yards he came out in a clean jump. I watched him, too fascinated to count the times he broke water, but he kept it up till he was out of sight on the horizon.
At first Captain Dan took the loss harder than I took it. But gradually I realized what had happened, and, though I made a brave effort to be game and cheerful, I was sick. It did seem hard that, after all those twenty-five days of patience and hope and toil, I could not have hooked the swordfish. I see now that it was nothing, only an incident, but I shall never forget the pang.
That day ended my 1914 experience. The strain had been too hard on me. It had taken all this time for me to appreciate what swordfishing might be. I assured Captain Dan I would come back in 1915, but at the time he did not believe me. He said:
"If you hadn't stuck it out so long I wouldn't care. Most of the fishermen try only a few days and never come back. Don't quit now!"
* * * * *
But I did go back in 1915. Long ago on my lonely desert trips I learned the value of companions and I dreaded the strain of this swordfishing game. I needed some one to help lessen it. Besides that, I needed snapshot pictures of leaping swordfish, and it was obvious that Captain Dan and I would have our hands full when a fish got hooked. We had music, books, magazines—everything that could be thought of.
Murphy, the famous old Avalon fisherman and tackle-maker, had made me a double split-bamboo rod, and I had brought the much-talked-of B-Ocean reel. This is Boschen's invention—one he was years in perfecting. It held fifteen hundred feet of No. 24 line. And I will say now that it is a grand reel, the best on the market. But I did not know that then, and had to go through the trip with it, till we were both tried out. Lastly, and most important, I had worked to get into condition to fight swordfish. For weeks I rowed a boat at home to get arms and back in shape, and especially my hands. Let no fisherman imagine he can land a fighting swordfish with soft hands!
So, prepared for a long, hard strain, like that of 1914, I left Avalon hopeful, of course, but serious, determined, and alive to the possibilities of failure.
I did not troll across the channel between the islands. There was a big swell running, and four hours of it gave me a disagreeable feeling. Now and then I got up to see how far off Clemente was. And upon the last of these occasions I saw the fins of a swordfish right across our bow. I yelled to Captain Dan. He turned the boat aside, almost on top of the swordfish. Hurriedly I put a bait on my hook and got it overboard, and let the line run. Then I looked about for the swordfish. He had gone down.
It seemed then that, simultaneously with the recurrence of a peculiar and familiar disappointment, a heavy and powerful fish viciously took my bait and swept away. I yelled to Captain Dan:
"He's got it!" ...
Captain Dan stopped the engine and came to my side. "No!" he exclaimed.
Then I replied, "Look at that line!" ...
It seemed like a dream. Too good to be true! I let out a shout when I hooked him and a yell of joy when he broke water—a big swordfish, over two hundred pounds. What really transpired on Captain Dan's boat the following few moments I cannot adequately describe. Suffice to say that it was violent effort, excitement, and hilarity. I never counted the leaps of the swordfish. I never clearly saw him after that first leap. He seemed only a gleam in flying spray. Still, I did not make any mistakes.
At the end of perhaps a quarter of an hour the swordfish quit his surface work and settled down to under-water fighting, and I began to find myself. Captain Dan played the phonograph, laughed, and joked while I fought the fish. My companions watched my rod and line and the water, wide-eyed and mute, as if they could not believe what seemed true.
In about an hour and a half the swordfish came up and, tired out, he rolled on the top of the great swells. But he could not be drawn near the boat. One little wave of his tail made my rod bend dangerously. Still, I knew I had him beaten, and I calculated that in another hour, perhaps, I could lead him alongside.
Then, like thunder out of a clear sky, something went wrong with the great B-Ocean reel. It worked hard. When a big swell carried the swordfish up, pulling out line, the reel rasped.
"It's freezing on you!" shouted Captain Dan, with dark glance.
A new reel sometimes clogs and stops from friction and heat. I had had von Hofe and other reels freeze. But in this instance, it seemed that for the reel to freeze would be simply heartbreaking. Well—it froze, tight as a shut vise! I sat there, clutching the vibrating rod, and I watched the swordfish as the swells lifted him. I expected the line to break, but, instead, the hook tore out.
Next day we sighted four swordfish and tried in vain to coax one to bite.
Next day we sighted ten swordfish, which is a record for one day. They were indifferent.
The next three. The next one, with like result. The next day no fish were sighted, and that fact encouraged Captain Dan.
The next day, late in the afternoon, I had a strike and hooked a swordfish. He leaped twice and threw the hook.
The next day I got eleven jumps out of another before he gracefully flung the hook at the boat.
The next day, a big swordfish, with a ragged purple fin, took my bait right astern of the boat and sounded deep. I hooked him. Time and time again I struck with all my might. The fish did not seem to mind that. He swam along with the boat. He appeared very heavy. I was elated and curious.
"What's he going to do?" I kept asking Captain Dan.
"Wait!" he exclaimed.
After six minutes the swordfish came up, probably annoyed by the hook fast in him. When he showed his flippers, as Captain Dan called them, we all burst out with wonder and awe. As yet I had no reason to fear a swordfish.
"He's a whale!" yelled Captain Dan.
Probably this fish measured eight feet between his dorsal fin and the great curved fluke of his tail, and that would make his total length over twelve feet.
No doubt the swordfish associated the thing fast in his jaw with the boat, for he suddenly awoke. He lifted himself, wagging his sword, showing his great silvery side. Then he began to thresh. I never felt a quarter of such power at the end of a line. He went swift as a flash. Then he leaped sheer ahead, like a porpoise, only infinitely more active. We all yelled. He was of great size, over three hundred, broad, heavy, long, and the most violent and savage fish I ever had a look at. Then he rose half—two-thirds out of the water, shaking his massive head, jaws open, sword sweeping, and seemed to move across the water in a growing, boiling maelstrom of foam. This was the famous "walking on his tail" I had heard so much about. It was an incredible feat. He must have covered fifty yards. Then he plunged down, and turned swiftly in a curve toward the boat. He looked threatening to me. I could not manage the slack line. One more leap and he threw the hook. I found the point of the hook bent. It had never been embedded in his jaw. And also I found that his violent exercise had lasted just one minute. I wondered how long I would have lasted had the hook been deep-set.
Next day I had a swordfish take my bait, swim away on the surface, showing the flying-fish plainly between his narrow beak, and after fooling with it for a while he ejected it.
Next day I got a great splashing strike from another, without even a sight of the fish.
Next day I hooked one that made nineteen beautiful leaps straightaway before he got rid of the hook.
And about that time I was come to a sad pass. In fact, I could not sleep, eat, or rest. I was crazy on swordfish.
Day after day, from early morning till late afternoon, aboard on the sea, trolling, watching, waiting, eternally on the alert, I had kept at the game. My emotional temperament made this game a particularly trying one. And every possible unlucky, unforeseen, and sickening thing that could happen to a fisherman had happened. I grew morbid, hopeless. I could no longer see the beauty of that wild and lonely island, nor the wonder of that smooth, blue Pacific, nor the myriad of strange sea-creatures. It was a bad state of mind which I could not wholly conquer. Only by going at it so hard, and sticking so long, without any rests, could I gain the experience I wanted. A man to be a great fisherman should have what makes Stewart White a great hunter—no emotions. If a lion charged me I would imagine a million things. Once when a Mexican tigre, a jaguar, charged me I—But that is not this story. Boschen has the temperament for a great fisherman. He is phlegmatic. All day—and day after day—he sits there, on trigger, so to speak, waiting for the strike that will come. He is so constituted that it does not matter to him how soon or how late the strike comes. To me the wait, the suspense, grew to be maddening. Yet I stuck it out, and in this I claim a victory, of which I am prouder than I am of the record that gave me more swordfish to my credit than any other fisherman has taken.
On the next day, August 11th, about three o'clock, I saw a long, moving shadow back of my bait. I jumped up. There was the purple, drifting shape of a swordfish. I felt a slight vibration when he hit the bait with his sword. Then he took the bait. I hooked this swordfish. He leaped eight times before he started out to sea. He took us three miles. In an hour and five minutes I brought him to gaff—a small fish. Captain Dan would take no chances of losing him. He risked much when he grasped the waving sword with his right hand, and with the gaff in his left he hauled the swordfish aboard and let him slide down into the cockpit. For Captain Dan it was no less an overcoming of obstinate difficulty than for me. He was as elated as I, but I forgot the past long, long siege, while he remembered it.
That swordfish certainly looked a tiger of the sea. He had purple fins, long, graceful, sharp; purple stripes on a background of dark, mottled bronze green; mother-of-pearl tint fading into the green; and great opal eyes with dark spots in the center. The colors came out most vividly and exquisitely, the purple blazing, just as the swordfish trembled his last and died. He was nine feet two inches long and weighed one hundred and eighteen pounds.
* * * * *
I caught one the next day, one hundred and forty-four pounds. Fought another the next day and he threw the hook after a half-hour. Caught two the following day—one hundred and twenty, and one hundred and sixty-six pounds. And then, Captain Dan foreshadowing my remarkable finish, exclaimed:
"I'm lookin' for busted records now!"
* * * * *
One day about noon the sea was calm except up toward the west end, where a wind was whipping the water white. Clemente Island towered with its steep slopes of wild oats and its blue canons full of haze.
Captain Dan said he had seen a big swordfish jump off to the west, and we put on full speed. He must have been a mile out and just where the breeze ruffled the water. As good luck would have it, we came upon the fish on the surface. I consider this a fine piece of judgment for Captain Dan, to locate him at that distance. He was a monster and fresh run from the outside sea. That is to say, his great fin and tail were violet, almost pink in color. They had not had time to get sunburnt, as those of fish earlier arrived at Clemente.
We made a wide circle round him, to draw the flying-fish bait near him. But before we could get it near he went down. The same old story, I thought, with despair—these floating fish will not bite. We circled over the place where he had gone down, and I watched my bait rising and falling in the low swells.
Suddenly Captain Dan yelled and I saw a great blaze of purple and silver green flashing after my bait. It was the swordfish, and he took the bait on the run. That was a moment for a fisherman! I found it almost impossible to let him have enough line. All that I remember about the hooking of him was a tremendous shock. His first dash was irresistibly powerful, and I had a sensation of the absurdity of trying to stop a fish like that. Then the line began to rise on the surface and to lengthen in my sight, and I tried to control my rapture and fear enough to be able to see him clearly when he leaped. The water split, and up he shot—a huge, glittering, savage, beautiful creature, all purple and opal in the sunlight. He did not get all the way out of the water, but when he dropped back he made the water roar.
Then, tearing off line, he was out of the water in similar leaps—seven times more. Captain Dan had his work cut out for him as well as I had mine. It was utterly impossible to keep a tight line, and when I felt the slacking of weight I grew numb and sick—thinking he was gone. But he suddenly straightened the line with a jerk that lifted me, and he started inshore. He had about four hundred feet of line out, and more slipping out as if the drag was not there. Captain Dan headed the boat after him at full speed. Then followed a most thrilling race. It was over very quickly, but it seemed an age. When he stopped and went down he had pulled thirteen hundred feet off my reel while we were chasing him at full speed. While he sounded I got back half of this line. I wish I could give some impression of the extraordinary strength and speed of this royal purple fish of the sea. He came up again, in two more leaps, one of which showed me his breadth of back, and then again was performed for me the feature of which I had heard so much and which has made the swordfish the most famous of all fish—he rose two-thirds out of the water, I suppose by reason of the enormous power of his tail, though it seemed like magic, and then he began to walk across the sea in a great circle of white foam, wagging his massive head, sword flying, jaws wide, dorsal fin savagely erect, like a lion's mane. He was magnificent. I have never seen fury so expressed or such an unquenchable spirit. Then he dropped back with a sudden splash, and went down and down and down.
All swordfish fight differently, and this one adopted tuna tactics. He sounded and began to plug away and bang the leader with his tail. He would take off three hundred feet of line, and then, as he slowed up, I, by the labor of Hercules, pulled and pumped and wound most of it back on the reel. This kept up for an hour—surely the hardest hour's work of my life.
But a swordfish is changeable. That is the beauty of his gameness. He left off sounding and came up to fight on the surface. In the next hour he pulled us from the Fence to Long Point, a distance of four miles.
Once off the Point, where the tide rip is strong, he began to circle in great, wide circles. Strangely, he did not put out to sea. And here, during the next hour, I had the finest of experiences I think that ever befell a fisherman. I was hooked to a monster fighting swordfish; I was wet with sweat, and salt water that had dripped from my reel, and I was aching in every muscle. The sun was setting in banks of gold and silver fog over the west end, and the sea was opalescent—vast, shimmering, heaving, beautiful. And at this sunset moment, or hour—for time seemed nothing—a school of giant tuna began leaping around us, smashing the water, making the flying-fish rise in clouds, like drifting bees. I saw a whole flock of flying-fish rise into the air with that sunset glow and color in the background, and the exquisite beauty of life and movement was indescribable. Next a bald eagle came soaring down, and, swooping along the surface, he lowered his talons to pick up a crippled flying-fish. And when the hoary-headed bird rose, a golden eagle, larger and more powerful, began to contest with him for the prey.
Then the sky darkened and the moon whitened—and my fight went on. I had taken the precaution to work for two months at rowing to harden my hands for just such a fight as this. Yet my hands suffered greatly. A man who is not in the best of physical trim, with his hands hard, cannot hope to land a big swordfish.
I was all afternoon at this final test, and all in, too, but at last I brought him near enough for Captain Dan to grasp the leader.... Then there was something doing around that boat for a spell! I was positive a German torpedo had hit us. But the explosion was only the swordfish's tail and Dan's voice yelling for another gaff. When Captain Dan got the second gaff in him there was another submarine attack, but the boat did not sink.
Next came the job of lassoing the monster's tail. Here I shone, for I had lassoed mountain-lions with Buffalo Jones, and I was efficient and quick. Captain Dan and I were unable to haul the fish on board, and we had to get out the block and tackle and lift the tail on deck, secure that, and then pull up the head from the other side. After that I needed some kind of tackle to hold me up.
We were miles from camp, and I was wet and cold and exhausted, and the pain in my blistered hands was excruciating. But not soon shall I forget that ride down the shore with the sea so rippling and moon-blanched, and the boom of the surf on the rocks, and the peaks of the island standing bold and dark against the white stars.
This swordfish weighed three hundred and sixteen pounds on faulty scales at Clemente. He very likely weighed much more. He was the largest Captain Dan ever saw, up to that time. Al Shade guessed his weight at three hundred and sixty. The market fishermen, who put in at the little harbor the next day, judged him way over three hundred, and these men are accurate. The fish hung head down for a day and night, lost all the water and blood and feed in him, and another day later, when landed at Avalon, he had lost considerable. There were fishermen who discredited Captain Dan and me, who in our enthusiasm claimed a record.
But—that sort of thing is one of the aspects of the sport. I was sorry, for Captain Dan's sake. The rivalries between boatmen are keen and important, and they are fostered by unsportsman-like fishermen. And fishermen live among past associations; they grow to believe their performances unbeatable and they hate to see a new king crowned. This may be human, since we are creatures who want always to excel, but it is irritating to the young fishermen. As for myself, what did I care how much the swordfish weighed? He was huge, magnificent, beautiful, and game to the end of that four-hour battle. Who or what could change that—or the memory of those schools of flying-fish in the sunset glow—or the giant tuna, smashing the water all about me—or the eagles fighting over my head—or the beauty of wild and lonely Clemente under its silver cloud-banks?
* * * * *
I went on catching one or two swordfish every day, and Captain Dan averred that the day would come when we would swamp the boat. These days were fruitful of the knowledge of swordfish that I had longed to earn.
They are indeed "queer birds." I learned to recognize the sharp vibration of my line when a swordfish rapped the bait with his sword. No doubt he thought he thus killed his prey. Then the strike would come invariably soon after. No two swordfish acted or fought alike. I hooked one that refused to stand the strain of the line. He followed the boat, and was easily gaffed. I hooked another, a heavy fish, that did not show for two hours. We were sure we had a broadbill, and were correspondingly worried. The broadbill swordfish is a different proposition. He is larger, fiercer, and tireless. He will charge the boat, and nothing but the churning propeller will keep him from ramming the boat. There were eight broadbill swordfish hooked at Avalon during the summer, and not one brought to gaff. This is an old story. Only two have been caught to date. They are so powerful, so resistless, so desperate, and so cunning that it seems impossible to catch them. They will cut bait after bait off your hook as clean as if it had been done with a knife. For that matter, their broad bill is a straight, long, powerful two-edged sword. And the fish perfectly understands its use.
This matter of swordfish charging the boat is apt to be discredited by fishermen. But it certainly is not doubted by the few who know. I have seen two swordfish threaten my boat, and one charge it. Walker, an Avalon boatman, tells of a prodigious battle his angler had with a broadbill giant calculated to weigh five hundred pounds. This fight lasted eight hours. Many times the swordfish charged the boat and lost his nerve. If that propeller had stopped he would have gone through the boat as if it had been paper. After this fish freed himself he was so mad that he charged the boat repeatedly. Boschen fought a big broadbill for eleven hours. And during this fight the swordfish sounded to the bottom forty-eight times, and had to be pumped up; he led the boat almost around Catalina Island—twenty-nine miles; and he had gotten out into the channel, headed for Clemente, when he broke away. This fish did everything. I consider this battle the greatest on record. Only a man of enormous strength and endurance could have lasted so long—not to speak of the skill and wits necessary on the part of both fisherman and boatman. All fishermen fish for the big fish, though it is sport to catch any game fish, irrespective of size. But let any fisherman who has nerve see and feel a big swordfish on his line, and from that moment he is obsessed. Why, a tarpon is child's play compared to holding a fast swordfish.
It is my great ambition now to catch a broadbill. That would completely round out my fishing experience. And I shall try. But I doubt that I will be so fortunate. It takes a long time. Boschen was years catching his fish. Moreover, though it is hard to get a broadbill to bite—and harder to hook him—it is infinitely harder to do anything with him after you do get fast to him.
* * * * *
A word about Avalon boatmen. They are a fine body of men. I have heard them maligned. Certainly they have petty rivalries and jealousies, but this is not their fault. They fish all the seasons around and have been there for years. Boatmen at Long Key and other Florida resorts—at Tampico, Aransas Pass—are not in the same class with the Avalon men. They want to please and to excel, and to number you among their patrons for the future. And the boats—nowhere are there such splendid boats. Captain Danielson's boat had utterly spoiled me for fishing out of any other. He had it built, and the ideas of its construction were a product of fifteen years' study. It is thirty-eight feet long, and wide, with roomy, shaded cockpit and cabin, and comfortable revolving chairs to fish from. These chairs have moving sockets into which you can jam the butt of your rod; and the backs can be removed in a flash. Then you can haul at a fish! The boat lies deep, with heavy ballast in the stern. It has a keel all the way, and an enormous rudder. Both are constructed so your line can slip under the boat without fouling. It is equipped with sail and a powerful engine. Danielson can turn this boat, going at full speed, in its own length! Consider the merit of this when a tuna strikes, or a swordfish starts for the open sea. How many tarpon, barracuda, amberjack, and tuna I have lost on the Atlantic seaboard just because the boat could not be turned in time!
* * * * *
Clemente Island is a mountain of cliffs and caves. It must be of volcanic origin, and when the lava rose, hot and boiling, great blow-holes formed, and hardened to make the caves. It is an exceedingly beautiful island. The fishing side is on the north, or lee, shore, where the water is very deep right off the rocks. There are kelp-beds along the shore, and the combination of deep water, kelp, and small fish is what holds the swordfish there in August and September. I have seen acres of flying-fish in the air at once, and great swarms of yellowtail, basking on the surface. The color of the water is indigo blue, clear as crystal. Always a fascinating thing for me was to watch the water for new and different fish, strange marine creatures, life of some kind. And the watching was always rewarded. I have been close to schools of devilish blackfish, and I have watched great whales play all around me. What a spectacle to see a whale roll and dip his enormous body and bend and sound, lifting the huge, glistening flukes of his tail, wide as a house! I hate sharks and have caught many, both little and big. When you are watching for swordfish it is no fun to have a big shark break for your bait, throw the water, get your hook, and lift you from your seat. It happened often. But sometimes when I was sure it was a shark it was really a swordfish! I used to love to watch the sunfish leap, they are so round and glistening and awkward. I could tell one two miles away. The blue shark leaps often and he always turns clear over. You cannot mistake it. Nor can you mistake a swordfish when he breaks, even though you only see the splash. He makes two great sheets of water rise and fall. Probably all these fish leap to shake off the remoras. A remora is a parasite, a queer little fish, pale in color, because he probably lives inside the gills of the fish he preys upon, with the suckers on top of his head, arranged in a shield, ribbed like a washboard. This little fish is as mysterious as any creature of the sea. He is as swift as lightning. He can run over the body of a swordfish so quickly you can scarcely follow his movement, and at all times he is fast to the swordfish, holding with that flat sucker head. Mr. Holder wrote years ago that the remora sticks to a fish just to be carried along, as a means of travel, but I do not incline to this belief. We found many remoras inside the gills of swordfish, and their presence there was evidence of their blood-sucking tendencies. I used to search every swordfish for these remoras, and I would keep them in a bucket till we got to our anchorage. A school of tame rock-bass there, and tame yellowtail, and a few great sea-bass were always waiting for us—for our discarded bait or fish of some kind. But when I threw in a live remora, how these hungry fish did dart away! Life in the ocean is strange, complex, ferocious, and wonderful.
Al Shade keeps the only camp at Clemente. It is a clean, comfortable, delightful place. I have found no place where sleep is so easy, so sweet, so deep. Shade lives a lonely life there ten months in the year. And it is no wonder that when a fisherman arrives Al almost kills himself in his good humor and kindness and usefulness. Men who live lonely lives are always glad to see their fellow-men. But he loves Clemente Island. Who would not?
When I think of it many pictures come to mind—evening with the sea rolling high and waves curving shoreward in great dark ripples, that break and spread white and run up the strand. The sky is pale blue above, a green sheen low down, with white stars blinking. The promontories run down into the sea, sheer, black, rugged, bold, mighty. The surf is loud and deep, detonating, and the pebbles scream as the waves draw them down. Strange to realize that surf when on the morrow the sea will be like glass—not a wave nor a ripple under the gray fog! Wild and beautiful Clemente—the island of caves and canons and cliffs—lilac and cactus and ice-plant and arbor-vitae and ironwood, with the wild goats silhouetted dark against the bold sky-line!
* * * * *
There came that day of all days. I never believed Captain Dan, but now I shall never forget. The greatest day that ever befell me! I brought four swordfish to gaff and whipped another, the biggest one of the whole trip, and saw him tear away from the hook just at the last—in all, nine hours of strenuous hanging on to a rod.
I caught the first one before six o'clock, as the sun was rising red-gold, dazzling, glorious. He leaped in the sun eleven times. He weighed one hundred and eighty-seven.
After breakfast we sighted two swordfish on the smooth sea. Both charged the bait. I hooked one of these and he leaped twenty-three times. He weighed one hundred and sixty-eight.
Then off the east end we saw a big swordfish leap five times. We went out toward the open sea. But we never got anywhere near him. I had three strikes, one after another, when we were speeding the boat. Then we shut down and took to slow trolling. I saw another swordfish sail for my bait, and yelled. He shot off with the bait and his dorsal fin stuck out of the water. I hooked him. He leaped thirty-eight times. How the camera did snap during this fight! He weighed two hundred and ten.
I had a fierce strike on the way in. Too fast! We lost him.
"The sea's alive with swordfish!" cried Captain Dan. "It's the day!"
Then I awoke to my opportunity.
Round the east end, close to the great black bluff, where the swells pile up so thunderously, I spied the biggest purple fin I had ever seen. This fellow came to meet us—took my bait. I hooked at him, but did not hurt or scare him. Finally I pulled the hook out of him. While I was reeling in my line suddenly a huge purple shadow hove in sight. It was the swordfish—and certainly one of immense size—the hugest yet.
"He's following the boat!" yelled Captain Dan, in great excitement.
So I saw, but I could not speak or yell. All was intense excitement on that boat. I jumped up on the stern, holding the bait Captain Dan had put on my hook. Then I paused to look. We all looked, spellbound. That was a sight of a lifetime. There he swam, the monster, a few feet under the surface, only a rod back of the boat. I had no calm judgment with which to measure his dimensions. I only saw that he was tremendous and beautiful. His great, yard-wide fins gleamed royal purple. And the purple strips crossed his silver sides. He glowed in the water, changed color like a chameleon, and drifted, floated after us. I thought of my brother Reddy—how he would have gloried in that sight! I thought of Dilg, of Bob Davis, of Professor Kellogg—other great fishermen, all in a flash. Indeed, though I gloated over my fortune, I was not selfish. Then I threw in the flying-fish bait. The swordfish loomed up, while my heart ceased to beat. There, in plain sight, he took the bait, as a trout might have taken a grasshopper. Slowly he sank. The line began to slip off the reel. He ceased to be a bright purple mass—grew dim—then vague—and disappeared.
I sat down, jammed the rod in the socket, and got ready. For the life of me I could not steady my legs.
"What'll he weigh?" I gasped.
"O Lord! he looked twice as big as the big one you got," replied Dan.
"Stand by with the cameras!" I said to my companions, and as they lined up, two on one side and one on the other, I began to strike at that fish with all my might and main. I must have had at least twelve powerful strikes before he began to wake up.
He came up, throwing the water in angry spouts. If he did not threaten the boat I was crazy. He began an exhibition that dwarfed any other I had seen, and it was so swift that I could scarcely follow him. Yet when I saw the line rise, and then the wonderful, long, shiny body, instinct with fury, shoot into the air, I yelled the number of the leap, and this was the signal for the camera-workers. They held the cameras close, without trying to focus, facing the fish, and they snapped when I yelled. It was all gloriously exciting. I could never describe that exhibition. I only know that he leaped clear forty-six times, and after a swift, hard hour for me he got away. Strangely, I was almost happy that he had shaken loose, for he had given such remarkable opportunities for pictures.
Captain Dan threw the wheel hard over and the boat turned. The swordfish, tired out and unconscious of freedom, was floating near the surface, a drifting blaze of purple. The boat sheered close to him. Captain Dan reached over with a gaff—and all but gaffed that swordfish before he sank too deep. Captain Dan was white with disappointment. That more than anything showed me his earnestness, what it all meant to him.
On the way in, for we had been led out a couple of miles, I saw a blue streak after my bait, and I was ready before the swordfish got to it. He struck viciously and I dared not let him have much line. When I hooked him he started out to sea at a clip that smoked the line off my reel. Captain Dan got the boat turned before the swordfish began to leap. Then it was almost a straightaway race. This fellow was a greyhound leaper. He did not churn the water, nor dash to and fro on the surface, but kept steadily leaping ahead. He cleared the water thirty-nine times before he gave up leaping. Then he sounded. The line went slack. I thought he was gone. Suddenly he showed again, in a white splash, and he was not half as far away as when he went down. Then I felt the pull on the line. It was heavy, for he had left a great bag in it. I endeavored to recover line, but it came in very slowly. The swordfish then threshed on the surface so that we could hear the water crack. But he did not leap again. He had gone mad with rage. He seemed to have no sense of direction. He went down again, only to rush up, still closer to us. Then it was plain he saw the nature of his foe. Splitting water like a swift motor-boat, he charged us.
I had a cold sensation, but was too excited to be afraid. Almost I forgot to reel in.
"He's after us!" I said, grimly.
Captain Dan started the boat ahead fast. The swordfish got out of line with the boat. But he was close, and he made me think of the charging rhinoceros Dugmore photographed. And then I yelled for the cameras to be snapped. They all clicked—and then, when the swordfish shot close behind us, presenting the most magnificent picture, no one was ready!
As he passed I thought I saw the line round his body. Then he sounded and began to plug. He towed us six miles out to sea. I could not stop him. I had begun to weaken. My hands were sights. My back hurt. But I stayed with him. He felt like a log and I could not recover line. Captain Dan said it was because I was almost all in, but I did not think that. Presently this swordfish turned inshore and towed us back the six miles. By this time it was late and I was all in. But the swordfish did not seem nearer the boat. I got mad and found some reserve strength. I simply had to bring him to gaff. I pulled and pumped and wound until I was blind and could scarcely feel. My old blisters opened and bled. My left arm was dead. I seemed to have no more strength than a kitten. I could not lead the fish nor turn him. I had to drag and drag, inch by inch. It was agonizing. But finally I was encouraged by sight of him, a long, fine, game fellow. A hundred times I got the end of the double line near the leader in sight, only to lose it.