Of the great single-minded passions, such as love, war and Scrabble, fishing with a hook and line involves the most luck, and most of it is bad. Captain Tommy Gif-ford—who, with ingenuity, patience, cussedness and an almost evangelical sense of mission, has striven for 42 years to make fishing as predictable (but sporting) a tug-of-war as possible—admits that even with a first-rate angler on one end of the line it remains 50% luck.
Traditionally, the fisherman accepts getting skunked with more good humor than the lover tolerates rejection; there are not as many women as fish in the sea. The professional guide, on the other hand, cannot make a living unless the sum of his craft, or art, like a gambler's stake, enables him not only to survive a streak of misfortune but consistently to beat the laws of chance. A stocky, cheerful, contentious iconoclast who looks like a clean-shaven Santa Claus, Captain Gifford (right) has notably triumphed over the unknown and unpredictable. Now 65, he is considered by many to be the finest big-game fishing guide or charter boat man in the business.
One test of a topflight charter boat man, although a simple-minded one by Gifford's standards, is a full fish box. This, of course, Gifford has accomplished many-fold. Moreover, he has caught fish you couldn't stuff in a fish box if you made gefilte fish out of them. ("Caught," to a guide, is the same as the boxing manager's corporate "we," as in "we was robbed" or "we won.") Over the years his charters have held 26 world records. Once, at Wedgeport, N.S., fishing Tony Hulman Jr., the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he caught 15 tuna weighing 9,600 pounds in nine days. He has caught as many as eight sailfish in a day. Gifford, incidentally, never sells any fish he catches. "If I have the time," he says, "I fillet and freeze them and take them up to the children's home. They don't have very good food there, like any institution."
Last month Gifford outdid himself. Fishing off North Key Largo, Fla., where he makes his winter home (he summers at Montauk, N.Y.), he got me my first sail. It was, more to the point, the first sail taken on his brand-new boat, the latest in a succession of Stormy Petrels. This one is a 31-foot Bertram "Moppie" and has the same hull—with a longitudinally straked, deep-V bottom—as the boats that won the last two Miami-Nassau races. Its twin 280-hp Chrysler engines drive it at speeds in excess of 40 mph with remarkably little pounding in heavy seas. "I never thought," says Gifford, with wonder, "that I'd live to see the day a boat could do the things this one does." Nor I, with equal wonder, the day I would land a sailfish. It was bewilderingly simple. Fortunately, I had the wise and gentle counsel of Mr. Charlie Dunn, whose company builds Fin-Nor reels, and, from the tuna tower as he maneuvered the boat, Captain Gifford's outraged commands. Alas, most of these were lost in the wind. I recall one: "Keep your goddam rod tip up!" Gifford claims that catching a fish is 60% angling skill, 40% boat handling. I believe the latter an understatement in my case. In his autobiography Anglers and Muscleheads, Gifford has written: "The boat to the big game fisherman must take the place of the legs of the salmon fisherman." A superb helmsman, Gifford drives a boat with as much verve and pertinent style as a scatback.
"If a man has no constructive or inventive spirit of his own," Gifford says, "how can he be called one of the top men no matter how many fish he has on his boat?" Gifford invented the outrigger, a long pole that enables an angler to skip a bait out and away from the boat's wake. Always tinkering, he has since all but abandoned outriggers in favor of a more sophisticated and productive technique, which he did not invent but perfected, called kite fishing. Gifford helped design the prototype of the celebrated Fin-Nor reel, refined the drag and constructed the first self-adjusting fighting chair. He pioneered celebrated fishing grounds: he claims to have caught the first giant tuna at Wedgeport and the first swordfish on rod and reel off Cape Breton.
Gifford's most significant contribution to big-game fishing, however, was in championing the radical theory that big fish could be brought to gaff on light tackle. This now amounts to his fire-and-brimstone religion, and he gets a big, righteous bang out of demonstrating its miracles to nonbelievers. With stern moral judgment he has divided fishermen into the damned, or muscleheads, and the saved, or sportsmen. Muscleheads, whom he scorns, fish only with "rope," or heavy tackle, for fear they will hook into "Minnie the Monster" and lose her. Sportsmen fish with nothing heavier than 50-pound test line and gain Gifford's blessings. Gifford recalls with delight a June day in 1941 when Mrs. Marian Hasler caught a 374-pound giant tuna on 15 thread (roughly comparable to 50-pound test) at Cat Cay. "We came in with a matchstick in the horn button and a great big bed sheet flying," Gifford says. "And they said there was a casket waiting for the woman who caught a giant tuna!"
Gifford's pre-eminence is obviously not a result of luck. "If you want to be better than anyone else," he has said, "you have to put so much time in. The average charter boat man spends too much time at the dock. He don't spend time thinking of ways to improve." Gifford resents those who call kite fishing and light-tackle feats stunts. Bridles Gifford: "Anything in this world that's hard to do, there's a certain bunch of lazybones who call it a stunt."
It was fortuitous, however, that Gifford was born in Long Branch, N.J. within earshot of the compelling sound of the North Atlantic surf. "I loved the sea from far back," he recalled the other day. "I'd head for school, turn around and bolt for the ocean. I loved anything that was alive in the sea, the sea itself." When he was 4 he took a dead sea robin, a particularly noisome bottom fish, to bed with him as another child would take a teddy bear. After he had cuddled the fish under the covers for several nights, it mysteriously vanished. Gifford advises parents who find a sea robin in their son's bed to chloroform the boy: otherwise he will surely grow up to be a charter boat man. "It is," says Gifford, "the business of the most work and the least money. If I hadn't been such a nut for the sea and fishing, I'd be financially stable. What the hell can I retire on? I feel like taking off somewhere and taking it easy. Jamaica is a beautiful island. I don't feel like going north every summer. It's a grind.
"Charter boating," he says in calmer moments, "is the same as any other business—another hard day at the office. You try to please the customer. A man spends a certain amount of money to go out. I like to see to it that he gets a little more than his money's worth. In 42 years of fishing, only one man has ever asked me to cheat on a fish. Every great once in a while you find someone who don't think it wrong to cheat at cards or fish. The boys in Miami go through quite an ordeal, though. Six people, all strangers, on board! A diplomat in Washington don't have a tougher job. But charter boat men are not plagued by too many troubles. If a man comes aboard my boat and starts drinking, the heavier he drinks the closer we are to home. By the time he don't know where he is, we're tied up at the dock." Gifford has written: "This, of course has contributed to my reputation as a cantankerous old bastard. I have always considered these individuals to be stupid, for they could 'charter' a hotel room for a lot less money and get drunk in comfort."
Gifford is still uncommonly devoted to fish, although he no longer shares his bed with them. He croons over their coloring, shape, movement, size, indeed their very fishiness. He impartially adores the blue marlin and a little bait-fish called a balao (pronounced ballyhoo), which he nets, contentedly scales, cleans, brines and freezes. He says they are then as good as fresh bait, and it is a Gifford canon that there is "no substitute for absolutely fresh bait," unless it's live bait. His love affair with fish, alas unrequited, shows no signs of slackening with repetition or the passage of time. "There's nothing in this world so beautiful as a ballyhoo," he said the other day, reverently holding one he had just netted. "It gives you goose bumps three-quarters of an inch high just to look at it. If I had pepper and salt, I'd eat it." He was, like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, transported by the glory of its being. Reflecting, he admitted he wouldn't eat it, even cooked. "Too oily," he said.