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Chasing swordfish in broad daylight

An Islamorada charter captain disproves the common wisdom that you have to hunt gamefish at night

An Islamorada charter captain disproves the common wisdom that you have to hunt gamefish at night

“C’mon you Jimmy Durante-looking, long-nosed son of a gun.”

It wasn’t the first time that Richard Stanczyk pleaded those words and it would not be the last.

The venerable owner of Bud N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina in Islamorada was endeavoring to prove for the 49th consecutive time since Sept. 4, 2006, it was possible to catch a swordfish, or broadbill, in broad daylight off the Florida Keys.

But the fish, aptly named for a sword-like bill proportionately longer than that of a sailfish or marlin, were not cooperating and I knew why. In angling, usually it’s the kiss of death to have a journalist on a boat — especially when a fish must be caught for a news story.

There were three writers on Stanczyk’s Catch 22.

For years anglers have caught highly prized swordfish off the Keys and other parts of the East Coast at night, but in 2002 Stanczyk’s longtime fishing friend Vic Gaspeny read an account of daytime swordfishing off Venezuela. He figured if it could be done there, success could be achieved off the Keys.

In January 2003 Stanczyk, his brother, Scott, the boat’s captain, and Gaspeny went out during the day about 35 miles off the Keys. It took 20 minutes to drop a bait 1,800 feet down. Within an hour they’d boated their first daytime swordfish.

“Everyone thought I was nuts,” Gaspeny says. “If we hadn’t caught one on the first drop, we probably would have never tried it again.”

Even after that initial success, they kept fishing at night. Occasionally they’d go out early and fish before dark. In spring 2006 they decided to make daytime swordfishing a full-time obsession.

The entourage has used baits ranging from squid to pelagic fish belly strips. They’ve also pioneered a break-away sinker apparatus to get baits to the bottom of the ocean in depths up to 2,000 feet, and have literally become experts at the game.

They tried to keep their discovery under wraps, but that proved difficult when returning to the dock with catches at about the same evening hour they should have started fishing.

Word started getting out on the “Coconut Telegraph,” the name affectionately ascribed to the Keys rumor mill. Small offshore fishing boats followed them on their outings. Journalists begged for the story, but Stanzcyk would only take writers that were close friends and swore not to do a story.

With each successful trip, guarding the secret became more challenging. Especially after Feb. 21, 2007, when Stanczyk’s older son, Ricky, caught seven swordfish in one day. Six days later, Stanczyk led an angler to a 448-pounder.

Eventually, other charter captains saw and heard enough to convince them that the daytime swordfishery was real.

Recently, Stanczyk decided it was time to preserve his team’s rightful place in Keys angling history and went public with the accomplishment.

Thus the motivation for the 49th daylight swordfishing trip. The first drop, that day in early September, came at 10:30 a.m. Gaspeny got a bite at 11:15 a.m. from what he determined was a big fish because it pulled so much line off the reel before spitting the bait. Four more drops also produced bites, but no swordfish.

An hour of daylight remained and it appeared the streak would be broken. Frustration began to set in and discussion turned to what was to blame.

“C’mon you Jimmy Durante-looking, long-nosed son of a gun,” Stanzcyk implored again.

With the sun getting low on the horizon, the crew of Jimmy Coughlin, K.J. Zeher and Nick Stanczyk — Stanczyk ‘s youngest son — began retrieving the sixth drop, when line started pulling off the 80-pound-test Shimano reel. Gaspeny got into the fighting chair and less than a half-hour before sunset reeled in a 75-pound swordfish.

It wasn’t a massive fish, but the streak was preserved and fresh swordfish was destined for someone’s dinner table.

“You think back to the days of the Zane Grey and Hemingway and the idea of going out and capturing one of these big monsters,” Richard Stanczyk said. “You don’t have to go to an exotic spot anymore for a world-class gamefish. People can come to the Keys, book a charterboat and have a chance of hooking a giant fish.”

Editor’s note: As of Oct. 8, Stanczyk’s streak stands at 53 consecutive daytime swordfishing trips with at least one catch.

Andy Newman directs media relations for the Florida Keys & Key West tourism council.