When, after seven dedicated summers of swordfishing in the blue water off northeastern Long Island, Hans Hinrichs of Quogue, N.Y. caught his first swordfish, he was so overwhelmed by pride and joy that he gave a banquet at "21" in New York with a goodly part of the 515-pound fish as the main course.
The incident serves to emphasize three facts about the swordfish. He is a delight to the epicure. He is hellishly hard to catch on rod and reel. And, he is caught only by the most single-minded of men.
The man who seeks a swordfish, whether it be off Montauk, Long Island or Martha's Vineyard, Mass., off Cabo Blanco, Peru or Santa Catalina Island, Calif., must have something of Captain Ahab in him. For the swordfish is the Moby Dick among big-game fish, brooding and aloof, vast and wonderfully strong, growing to a thousand pounds and more. The broad, flat sword from which he takes his name and which forms his upper jaw may jut four feet before him, and he can wield it with devastating effect.
To meet a swordfish in combat a man must spend long days on a bright and shimmering sea, searching until his eyes burn for two black fins which tell him a swordfish, belly heavy with squids and fishes, has surfaced to sun and rest. He faces the disheartening fact that a satiated swordfish will more often than not disdain his bait, and that he will have to hunt on. And, if at the end of some exhausting hunt a man hooks a swordfish, he must be ready for hours of punishing battle. A swordfish will not often run with the speed of a tuna or jump with the frenzy of a marlin, though he can and may do both. He fights deep and with unbelievable determination. And, to compound the unique physical and emotional stresses of swordfishing, the angler knows that his broadbill is very likely foul-hooked or snarled in the cable leader and may escape, and that even if he is fairly hooked in the mouth his jawbone is so fragile that the hook may pull out at any moment.
Paradoxical as it is, the lofty indifference of a finning swordfish which so frustrates the sportsman is the very quality which insures swordfish steak on menus from Main Street to May-fair. While he takes his sun, a broad-bill can be as diffident toward an approaching boat as he can toward a bait, and a practiced commercial striker will thrust a harpoon into his back with almost ridiculous ease. But not with impunity. A swordfish aroused is an awesome creature. He has stove boats and killed men, and the chronicle of his mayhem and perversity spans 20 centuries and the Seven Seas.
Aristotle was the first to take clear literary note of the swordfish. He called him xiphias (the sword) and observed quite accurately during the 4th century B.C. in his History of Animals that the swordfish was annoyed by parasites and scratched these oceanic fleas, as it were, by jumping out of the water and falling back with a shocking splash.
Shortly after, perhaps even during Aristotle's lifetime, Mediterranean fisherfolk began to spear swordfish. Their boats were cockleshells. They carried two men, one to row, one to strike the fish, and were usually built and painted to resemble a swordfish. This Trojan swordfish gambit persisted through Roman times, but when fishermen realized that their artistry had no bearing on the swordfish's inclination to surface and investigate, it vanished.
It was a Roman, Pliny the Elder, who introduced the swordfish as a belligerent. In his 37-volume Natural History, a large part of which he cribbed from Aristotle, Pliny relates: "...that the Xiphias or, in other words, the swordfish, has a sharp-pointed muzzle, with which he is able to pierce the sides of a ship and send it to the bottom, instances of which have been seen near a place in Mauretania...." (Mauretania is now northern Morocco and western Algeria.)
Pliny notwithstanding, the Romans commonly referred to the swordfish as gladius, the Latin word for sword, and the swordfish is formally and redundantly known today as Xiphias gladius.
After Pliny, interest in the swordfish mounted. Aelian (120 A.D.) observed that the swordfish fed by flailing about among lesser fish with "its sword-shaped rostrum," and Oppian (172-210 A.D.) reported that sword-fish could be taken commercially with both hook and harpoon.