Artist Stanley Meltzoff, who has spent a number of years studying saltwater gamefish—often underwater—portrays on these pages one of the most prized: the Atlantic sailfish. On Florida's east coast, this is the time of year when northwest winds blow down against the northward flow of the Gulf Stream, spuming the tops off 20-foot waves, when schools of surface bait skitter before the pursuing sails. Late January is also when the Masters Angling Tournament is held off Palm Beach. This is when the world's most dedicated big-game fishermen, bundled up against the cold, compete against the time clock from costly sportfishermen in a demanding test of technique and skill, in which he who lands the smallest fish usually wins.
MORE OF LESS IS BEST
As they have for the past 17 years, 50 big-game fishermen and 25 boats gathered last week in Palm Beach at the Sailfish Club of Florida to compete in the Masters Angling Tournament. The 25 boats were among the most beautiful and expensive sportfishermen ever built, and the captains and crews were first class. During the four-day tournament—regarded as one of the fairest tests of big-game fishing skill in the world—some 5,000 baits were rigged. 280,000 feet of pretested 20-pound mono line was wound on reels and 2,500 barbless size 7/0, 8/0 and 9/0 hooks were specially ground.
The Masters is not for the merely well-to-do. The entry fee is $900, and the contestants spend a good many thousand dollars more to support their conviction that they are better than their fellow anglers. In the Masters there is no purse; there is nothing to win but glory. This year's winner was Luis Rodriguez of Venezuela with 10 sailfish and 740 points.
The fishing grounds are in the Gulf Stream, and the contestants may range as far east as the Bahamas and however far north or south a captain prefers to go. although most fish are caught just a few miles off Palm Beach. Boats may leave the dock at 7:30 a.m., but trolling is not permitted until the signal from the committee boat on VHF radio at nine. A signal at 4 p.m. means all baits must come out of the water.
When the anglers board their boats. January temperatures even in South Florida are sometimes close to freezing, and docks and boats have been known to be covered with ice. Seawater loses heat slowly and is usually in the upper 60s. The 30� difference is enough to produce surface mist or fog. Baby thunderheads of steam curl everywhere, obscuring the sea and rising as high as the flying bridges; everyone is muffled against the damp and cold.
When the sudden sun makes the mists flush red and turns the aluminum outriggers into poles of sparkling light, the men clamber aboard. The big diesels snort to life, rumbling heavily as the boats maneuver out of the slips and head for the inlet and the rising sun. In the cockpits, anglers unsnap leather cases and take out dynamometers to set the drag on their precision-machined reels to the microgram. Mates hone hooks to needle points and rig baits. Captains on flying bridges hoot to each other on their VHF bands, threatening to blow the tuna doors off boats ahead, or to throw scud on boats being overtaken.
Anglers are assigned boats by lot—this year it was done by computer—and each fishes on a different boat with a different partner each day. Only sailfish and white marlin catches are scored, with sails outnumbering marlin by far.
When a fish is hooked, the boat's engines are thrown into neutral so that the angler is on his own with the fish. Each contestant starts with 100 points, and the captain clicks his stopwatch to record the time between hookup and landing. A fish is considered caught when the wire leader reaches the rod tip.
Every 30 seconds that a fish is on, five points are subtracted from the 100 so that at the end of 10 minutes the angler has no points left, and the mate breaks the fish off. If the angler breaks the line, he loses the points he would have gained had he landed the fish at that moment.