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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.

But the toothfish by any other  name is still an amazing frigid-water predator that grows large and will strike jigs and baits. Can you say "cool new game fish," boys and girls?

That's pretty much what Swanson told me when he called in the fall     of 2008 to say he planned to start working with an operation out of Ushuaia that would literally be fishing at the bottom of the earth for a large species never before targeted by anglers. That got my attention, and it took very little leg pulling before, well, there I was.

Ice-Water Monsters
And where I was proved to be the stuff of stalwart salts, but fortunately, like Dribbs, Brooks and Bretza, I have an iron gut and had brought plenty of warm clothing.

When Castella stopped for our first drop, my watch pegged the local time at 6 a.m., though the sun was noon-high. I let the jig start its drop to a bottom that looked crazy-rocky on the depth sounder, varying from 600 to 850 feet below. My Titus Gold two-speed held more than 400 yards of 50-pound braid, so capacity didn't concern me. Both Bretza and I hit bottom about the same time, our jigs dropping faster than the baited lines (with a welcome lack of any current).

But neither of us had really hit the bottom at all. Our jigs had been inhaled on the sink by powerful fish - big enough to make me wish I'd put on a fighting belt. These fish had no interest in coming up, and as we struggled to make headway, our stiff graphite sticks arced perilously. Meanwhile, our companions hit the same "bottom." Suddenly, four anglers had their hands full.

In just less than a half-hour, the drama played itself out this way: one fish lost, having pulled the hook en route; another fish lost after my line and that of Dribbs did a macramé dance; and two fish on deck.
And what fish they were! No doubt of the make and model; I'd studied up on toothfish before the trip, and these long, sleek, silvery black predators were the real thing. I considered Brooks' fish a beauty when Hippolito hauled it over the gunwale - had to be at least 80 pounds. But it paled next to Bretza's, which I had to help Hippolito hoist into the boat with a second gaff.

"Now that's a good toothy!" hollered Castella from the wheelhouse door. "She'll go 140 if she goes an ounce!"

About 10 minutes later, we were snapping photos of Bretza, who'd hopped onto the edge of an ice field, where he struggled to hold up his fish for the cameras.

Unexpected Threat
At that point, I found the need for some mental pinching, keeping in mind where we were and what we were doing: seeing ice floes on the horizon and fin whales off the bow - and two amazing fish on deck (with more to come, though none would top Bretza's monster).

Unlike most deepwater game fish, toothfish don't "blow up" from the rapid expansion of swim-bladder gases near the surface. They lack a swim bladder (relying on lipids to achieve neutral buoyancy), so they fight like demons from bottom to top. And no fish I've ever encountered slams a jig harder. That sort of aggression blew away my expectations. Given the near-freezing water temps, I'd expected more lethargy. That proved far from the case.

And by the way, if you think the frozen Chilean sea bass you used to buy (before it got (a) so pricey and (b) so overfished by large commercial  vessels) is tasty, trust me: The fresh toothfish that Castella cooked up in the little galley was truly mind-blowing.