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March 26, 2009

Fishing at the Bottom of the Earth

Try an Antarctic adventure for Patagonian toothfish and experience three days you'll never forget. Find out more at www.toothfishadventures.com.

"I really must be certifiably insane."

That was the kindest thing I could think to say about myself as I braced in a corner on a bench seat inside the saloon of a bright-red 40-foot converted fishing boat, the Pesca Maria.

"It might get a little rough," the skipper had warned the afternoon prior as we steamed south out of Ushuaia, at the very tip of Argentina (and reputedly the southernmost city on earth), qualifying it as a gateway to the Antarctic.

While we weren't bound quite for the South Pole, we weren't all that far and still heading south, having gone by the infamous Cape Horn during the briefly dimmed light of midnight in the Antarctic summer. Now crossing storm-swept Drake Passage, we were nearing the Diego Ramirez Islands, 100 or so miles south of Argentina, where we'd start fishing.

Fortunately, at this time of year (December), Drake Passage was at its calmest. In that context, I guess I could understand the upbeat demeanor of our captain, Yuli Castella, at facing a mere heavy sea on a 10-foot swell.

Trek for Toothfish
Fast-forward 18 hours. As six anglers neared the fishing grounds after a rocky, rolly night at anchor in the limited protection of the small islands, I busied myself inspecting my rig - at the business end of which I'd tied a 24-ounce metal jig with two large assist hooks. John Bretza of Okuma Fishing Tackle, who joined the adventure at the last minute, had rigged similarly. My longtime fishing pal Fenton Dribbs, Akron's finest, and his girlfriend, Cassandra Brooks of Santa Cruz, California, made sure their big circle hooks held plenty of squid. (These weren't little calamari squid, mind you, but huge chunks of the mantle cut from something our Ushuaia deckhand Hippolito had jigged up as we caught a few welcome hours' sleep while the Pesca Maria sat at anchor. We never got to see it, but given the thickness of what he'd kept for us as bait, it would have made a Humboldt squid seem like a minnow.)

We'd brought heavy terminal gear since Scott Swanson of www.fishquest.com, who'd talked me into this trip, had made clear that we'd be fishing 500 to 1,000 feet - without benefit of electric reels, which suited me, since one goal would be setting an all-tackle record.

So by now you must be wondering what fish, short of a grander marlin or bluefin, could possibly justify such a trip?

The answer could shock you but more likely will have you scratching your head: Patagonian toothfish.

Say what? OK, try: Chilean seabass.

That's right - the highly prized, delicately flavored, white-meated cold-water fish of the Antarctic and near-Antarctic waters that most anglers know only from ordering it at upscale restaurants or fish markets. Some enterprising seafood marketer figured out that "toothfish" isn't real appealing. Change it to "sea bass" and bingo! We have a winner.