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SPORTS WEEKEND | The Outdoors

After 21 Grueling Hours, Swordfish Won the Duel

September 25, 1998|PETE THOMAS

Zane Grey, legendary angler and prolific author, once got his hooks into a giant swordfish that towed him around the blue waters off Catalina until those waters turned black under the dark of night.

At one point, 11 hours into the fight, the mighty billfish emerged at the surface, barely visible under the light of the moon, and Grey watched in amazement as the broadbill began to feed on a school of flying fish, seemingly unaware that it had even been hooked.

Half an hour later, with a furious shake of its head, the swordfish broke the line and raced off.

Or so the story goes. The late Zane Grey, after all, was a master teller of tales, and some were taller than others.

But he probably deserves the benefit of doubt in this case because he was a reputable pioneer of sportfishing off our coast and caught plenty of swordfish in his day--and because broadbill swordfish are the world's most powerful game fish.

Of this you wouldn't have gotten any argument from Grey, who died of heart failure in 1939. Nor will you get any debate from Cami Garnier, whose heart was put to the test last week off Santa Barbara Island, where he baited a 12-foot swordfish with a live mackerel at about noon and pumped and reeled for the next 21 hours, only to have his quarry win its freedom much the way Grey's did.

"I saw Cami's hand three days later and it still looked like a baseball mitt--it was all puffed up," Johnny Cadman, a friend of Garnier's who works at Avalon Seafood and weigh station on Santa Catalina Island, said Wednesday afternoon.

Cindy Rinehart, who was aboard the 54-foot sportfisher Scrambler and a witness to the grueling marathon, said, "It was like watching 'Old Man and the Sea' in person. I have never seen a human being go through so much."

Garnier, 42, was feeling a little older and resting on a couch aboard the vessel when he was reached by cellular phone in Avalon on Wednesday, a week after his epic battle and a day after a long weekend on the water competing in the annual Drambuie Catalina Classic marlin tournament, where his team caught three small stripers but didn't place.

Fishing for marlin is Garnier's business. The boat is docked about 10 months a year in Cabo San Lucas, where Garnier and wife Julie have lived and fished for 14 years. He skippers and maintains the yacht for its wealthy owner and uses it from time to time for his own pleasure.

His personal best is an 832-pound blue marlin off Cabo San Lucas that took a mere two hours to bring to leader. He once fought a large striped marlin off Oceanside for 12 1/2 hours before losing that battle on light line.

"I was only using 16-pound test," he said. "The other reason it took so long was because everybody else went to sleep and there was no one to drive the boat [to back down on the fleeing fish]. Finally, at about 5 a.m., I tightened the drag and broke the line on purpose."

This time, against a much more formidable foe, Garnier had lots of help. His wife was at the helm and Rinehart's husband, Lance, a commercial fisherman who lives in Avalon, was by Garnier's side throughout his tug of war with a swordfish estimated to weigh more than 500 pounds (far short of the all-tackle world-record 1,182-pound specimen caught off Chile in 1953, but apparently a lot more spirited). Friends Jim and Cheryl Duncan also were aboard.

Garnier had the swordfish near the boat several times in the early going, but never believed he had the upper hand. In fact, the billfish seemed to be coming in merely to see what it was up against, and it charged the boat more than once before racing back out of range.

"I thought for sure it was going to stick its bill right through the boat," Garnier said.

After dark, the fish refused to enter the perimeter illuminated by floodlights, despite the pressure exerted by Garnier, who was using 80-pound-test monofilament with a 200-pound-test leader, and the efforts of his wife to back down on the fish.

Not knowing how long the fight would last, Garnier quenched his thirst with beer before eventually switching to coffee. "I had three beers, and two pots of coffee, and they also gave me sugar cubes and raw bee pollen for energy, and I could actually feel the bee pollen working," he said. "Anything to stay awake. . . ."

The swordfish didn't seem to have this problem. Garnier and Lance Rinehart, who harpoons swordfish commercially and knows firsthand how tough they can be, were astonished at the strength and endurance of this particular fish.

Like the one at the end of Zane Grey's line during his classic battle in 1925, it seemed to take time out for a late-night supper.

"Through the night we had these 16-inch squid and sardines under the boat in the lights," Garnier said, "and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if he had been feeding on that because the next morning he was bright purple again and it seemed as though he had rejuvenated himself.

"In fact, I would say that he felt the strongest the next morning. But he was not happy."

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