One of the rarest events in South Florida offshore fishing tournament history occurred two weeks ago _ with the incident documented by ESPN cameras.
Captain Norm Isaacs and his production crew were taping the second of six 2007 Billfishing Xtreme Release League shows when the winning team aboard Warren Sands' private boat Wound Up caught, tagged, and released two swordfish during the daytime in relatively shallow waters off Key Biscayne.
In the first half-hour of the tournament two Saturdays ago, Wound Up was fishing live bait from its outriggers in 180 feet of water. Captain John Louie Dudas decided not to fly kites because of a lack of wind.
"We saw a school of bait and saw a swordfish in the middle of it," Dudas said. "He free-jumped. We came up in front of it and got it to eat a herring. Freddie (Vicens) fought it for 40 minutes."
Dudas estimated the fish at 35 to 40 pounds and said it was caught on 20-pound test line. Crew members Brett Dudas and Roy Huff brought it alongside the boat, tagged it according to BXRL rules, and cut the line. It was Vicens' first swordfish.
The second daylight sword bite came about four hours later in 150 feet of water near a cluster of artificial reefs off Key Biscayne.
"We saw the fish free-jump three times," Dudas said. "We ran up to where we thought it was. Brett threw a herring to him. The fish came up and you could see him swat it with his bill. He circled around, then he ate. The fish jumped six times up off the bow of the boat. Then he went way down deep. He was wrapped in his pectoral fin. Brett babied him and we got a tag in him. He was in great shape when he left."
Dudas estimated the second swordfish at about 50 pounds, and said the fight took about a half-hour.
"You put your time in and these things will frequently happen. It was a cool deal," John Dudas said.
He said he believed a large amount of bait congregating at the edge of the Gulf Stream may have drawn the swords out of deep water.
Wound Up proceeded to catch, tag, and release 16 sailfish during the three-day tournament, topping a fleet of six boats and earning $100,000. The show - taped in South Florida and in Bimini, Bahamas - is expected to be broadcast sometime this fall on ESPN2.
Wound Up's victory was rendered even sweeter for the veteran crew because they had to follow BXRL's "xtreme" rules, which run on for nearly five pages.
Crews must tag each billfish below the dorsal fin and behind the gills. They must cut the line three feet or less from the eye of the hook. If they break a line for any reason and on any fish (even a worthless bonito), they get penalized 50 points.
Each boat is staffed with a judge - not an observer - who declares whether a tag-and-release is good or not.
"I think they're a little overbearing," John Dudas said of the rules. "But everybody has to abide by the same thing."
Said Isaacs: "What we think we've got is the right mix between conservation and having the element of sport in it."
Wound Up's usual fishing style is rapid-fire and efficient. The object is to hook and release a billfish as quickly as possible. Dudas typically backs the boat down on the hooked fish, while his brother and Huff keep kite and fishing lines from tangling.
Wound Up has been known to haul aft so quickly against the waves that it deluges the cockpit - soaking everyone - until the boat is on top of the fish. Then Huff or Brett will grab the leader, give it a yank to break it - releasing the fish - with the entire process taking as little as 30 seconds. Wound Up has finished in the money in all but a handful of tournaments this year.
For them, the BXRL was like fishing in slow motion, and with a lot of added tasks. But one tactic the rule book didn't forbid was for South Florida boats to fish in their home waters. All but one of the competitors opted to do the same thing, calculating their best chance for racking up points was in Miami-Dade County's sailfish-rich coastal waters. It was still a bit risky, however, if your boat isn't turbo-charged. The rules said lines had to be out of the water at 4:30 p.m. each day and boats had to arrive back at Bimini Bay Resort - about 50 miles away - by 6 p.m.
Wound Up accomplished all this successfully - albeit with a bit of grumbling.
Brett was overheard apologizing to a sailfish in which he had just stuck a tag. And on the final day, John cautiously backed down on a sail, which unexpectedly charged underneath the boat, got slashed by the propeller and had to be disqualified because it was mutilated. Fortunately for Wound Up, the line didn't break, so no points were docked.
In the BXRL's final round, Wound Up's crew was convinced its seven sailfish releases for the day were insufficient to top the crew of Michelob Ultra _ believed to have released 10 sails.
But arriving at Bimini Bay, Wound Up was greeted by the cheers of spectators and Isaacs and his camera crew informing them that they had, indeed, won.
At first, the crew was stunned speechless. Then they began to hug each other. Rob Ruwitch _ coming off a recent slow streak as a BXRL team owner _ was so elated, he threw himself in the water.
Sands and his team began to harbor thoughts that the Billfish Xtreme Release League might not be such a bad deal after all. The tournament will award more than $1.7 million in prize money this season.
Said Sands to Ruwitch: "We gotta talk."
Next stop: Turks and Caicos near the Bahamas from May 25-27.