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A humble sage and swordfishing pioneer

Until a few years ago the main thing I knew about my Uncle Tud’s lifelong friend, Martin “Rocky” Bartlett, was that he was involved in work my father and uncle described as “experimental swordfishing” out of Woods Hole in Falmouth, Mass. — and that he once contributed to a handful of the fishing magazines around the Northeast.

Zach Harvey

When we met more than a decade ago at a family dinner, I had just taken the editorial reins of The Fisherman magazine’s New England Edition after some years working deck on fishing vessels since my junior year at UMass. In my new role editing, I had rather quickly claimed a good deal more salt than had accumulated naturally in my socks and fancied myself pretty sharp on a variety of fishing topics.

Seated across from Bartlett while we all waited for my Aunt Gail to put the finishing touches on dinner, and sensing that I was being sized up by the Experimental Swordsman, I seized the chance to put some psychic distance between myself and my dad, who is an unapologetic landlubber’s landlubber. Rocky peppered me with questions but deflected most of mine, and before long I was delivering what felt like a pretty insightful little soliloquy about striped bass — the commercial rod-and-reel fishery, specifically — and offered that I had “no real problem with a well- regulated hook-and-line commercial fishery.” He nodded, and I added some additional 25-year-old insight.

When I finished, I noted that my dad looked proud, and I awaited Rocky’s thoughts on the issue. I sat up straight and prepared for some well-deserved praise for my surprising fair-mindedness on a contentious issue, for nautical wisdom well beyond my years.

“Well,” Rocky said, “I suppose you’re probably young enough to say a thing like that.”

There wasn’t a trace of malice on his face. After dinner, he offered me an old pair of hydraulic jigging machines from his barn back home in Maine. “If you ever find that you have a use for them, they’re all yours,” he said, shaking my hand.

It’s a known constant that professional fishing is a “young man’s game.” That first meeting highlighted, memorably for me, a less obvious implication of that well-worn phrase: The fact is that young men have some predictable shortcomings, and it doesn’t take a wild leap of faith to see that any game dominated by 18- or 25-year-olds is going to generate a surplus of needless danger and breathtaking stupidity, never mind legendary shortsightedness.

Patronizing lectures aimed at veteran seafarers notwithstanding, I can recall approximately 12,367 times when I tackled a job on deck with the smug attitude that I was the first guy ever to have performed the task. I can remember an additional 123,521 occasions when one of my fellow young guys or I failed to take an old guy’s advice seriously.

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Fishing is physical, competitive and exciting, which also means there’s plenty of testosterone and adrenaline to ward off sound judgment and clear decision-making. And more to the point of this little entry, institutional memory tends not to be the dominant force in any young man’s game. And so fishermen as a whole tend to toil away in a kind of vacuum, with a malnourished sense of their own place in a livelihood hundreds of years old — no surprise, considering that an average deckhand knows virtually nothing of what unfolded five or 10 years before his own clock began to unwind. From a conservation standpoint, it’s almost impossible to restore something to resembling its pre-exploited state when no one remembers what the thing looked like — way back whenever that was.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but it took me the better part of 15 years to fully comprehend exactly what the vague phrase “experimental swordfishing” translated to in terms of Bartlett’s career. Through the later years when I ought to have understood, I never bothered to shore up the bracketed years he put fish across docks from Texas to Maine. I never knew of his time on a Coast Guard high-seas weather observation station east of Bermuda in the early 1950s or that his so-called “experimental” sword work was an unintended but welcome byproduct of some of the earliest attempts to fine-tune longline technology borrowed from the Japanese in the 1950s and ’60s.

I never knew that Rocky, a guy I lectured the first time I met him, launched his own career working under Frank Mather, a man widely regarded as the one who pioneered large pelagic (i.e., giant bluefin tuna, swordfish, etc.) tagging/migratory research, continued to work with academia until he could no longer stomach the ego and the entitlement, and then bought and ran a longliner of his own for 25 years.

When the swords buckled under awesome fishing pressure, Bartlett and crew shifted to Gulf of Maine cod, controlling bycatch of small fish he recognized as the future of his livelihood by setting 13/0 circle hooks (the largest he could find in the late 1970s) and finally threw up his hands in disgust in the mid-1980s.

Here is a man who started and finished his own turn on deck setting and hauling hooks because he refused to switch to net gear over serious ethical objections to fishing methods incapable of precise size and species selection. Bartlett’s is an uncommon brand of honesty and a frame of reference you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the shrunken realm of contemporary commercial or sport fishing, where industry solidarity trumps resource almost every time.

Now that I can finally hear him — now that he’s talking — I’m beginning to understand that what the old guys know, the young guys with eyes on a fishing future had better make time to unearth and record. Our game has a habit of sliding into its own future with not the faintest notion of its past.

One blessing is that Martin R. Bartlett — he was called “Marty” by his friends in the fleet, incidentally — spent more than 30 quiet years pecking away at a keyboard and crafting a novel titled “Wind Shift at Peaked Hills.” He admits that the tale, which chronicles an ill-fated swordfish trip in the early years of longlining, is a compressed composite of his years chasing swordfish. You’ll feel the creative toil that fed the undertaking as you marvel at Bartlett’s precise and complete detail.

Incidentally, a 60- to 80-page run detailing the first leg of the doomed trip, set in the 1960s when the harpoon fishery was alive and well, ranks among my own all-time favorite passages of fishing description, passing on an unthinkable amount of rock-solid information.

You can find a copy of Bartlett’s self-published swordfishing opus (155 pages, with black-and-white photography and illustrations) on with a cover price of $15.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

March 2014 issue