An angler named Thomas Paulsen pulled off an incredibly rare feat in the fly-fishing world last week. While fishing a reef in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean, Paulsen sight-casted to a swordfish with a fly rod and landed it without the help of a boat or a gaff.
In a Facebook post he made after the catch, Paulsen called it a “one in a million” achievement. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it isn’t far off. Few anglers have ever landed a swordfish on the fly, and the vast majority of those fish are hooked from a boat while trolling in deep water. Sight-casting to a swordfish on the flats or from the beach is almost unheard of. (It’s happened once or twice, according to a few online forums, but there are no records to speak of.) And as Paulsen now knows, successfully landing a swordfish on foot with a 12-weight fly rod is a remarkable achievement for any angler.
Sticking a Swordfish on the Fly
The 48-year-old fly fisherman is based in the Maldives, a multi-island nation in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka. He runs GT Fly Fishing, a guide service that mainly targets giant trevally, which are a worthy quarry in their own right. GT’s are in the same family as jack crevalle, but they grow much larger (upward of 150 pounds). The saltwater brutes take flies aggressively in shallow water. They also have a reputation for punishing fly anglers and destroying tackle.
Originally from Copenhagen, Paulsen tells Outdoor Life that he moved to the Maldives eight years ago specifically to chase GT’s. And that’s precisely what he was doing early in the day on Feb. 13, as he waded a coral reef in the surf zone with his guide buddy Hassan Niyas. Paulsen was able to sight-cast to a big GT that morning, but he lost the fish within five minutes when it wrapped the leader around a coral head and broke him off.
“Angry and frustrated, I kept on wading along the reef,” Paulsen tells Outdoor Life. “About an hour passed when I suddenly saw water splashing further out [on the reef]. I thought it was dolphins hunting, but after a minute or two the splashing increased, and I saw a bill come out of the water.”
At first, Paulsen though it was a sailfish chasing bait, which wouldn’t have been too far out of the ordinary. He explains that the reef wall he and Niyas were on drops off to thousands of feet deep, making it an ideal ambush point for billfish and other apex predators.
“I started moving toward the fish as fast as I could in waist-deep water,” Paulsen says. “The fish was angry, and [it was] hunting something in shallow water.”
Still thinking his target was a sailfish, he watched it work toward him as he stood on the jagged coral. Once it got to a hundred yards or so, Paulsen waded out to his chest and started casting a green and black streamer tied on an 8/0 hook.
“After three or four 70-foot casts, the fish came at high speed right towards my fly,” he says. “Before I could even think to set the hook, my reel started screaming. The fish went right down alongside the reef for about 200 to 300 yards before it turned towards the reef.”
Paulsen’s 9-foot, 12-weight Winston Air was bent double as the backing peeled off his reel. But the fluorocarbon leader held fast and somehow the fish stayed hooked.
“It went crazy between some coral rocks, splashing and rolling around, before it beached itself in less than a foot of water. But the drama was far from over.”
Thrashing on the Reef
The fish thrashed and rolled in the rocky shallows, where it got tangled in Paulsen’s leader. He ran toward the fish, cranking on the reel and gaining back line as quickly as he could.
“When I was about 20 yards away, I realized it was not a sailfish, but a swordfish,” Paulsen says.
Niyas, who had seen the commotion, came running. Paulsen yelled at him to grab the fish’s tail, but as soon as Niyas got close, the swordfish lashed out with its bill. He had to jump backward to avoid getting speared. Paulsen recognized the danger they were in, and as much as he wanted to get his hands on the fish, he knew it would be too risky to try to wrangle a pissed-off swordfish as it flailed on the reef.
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So, the two anglers watched as the fish thrashed itself to death on the sharp rocks. Then they loaded it into the small skiff they’d used to reach the coral reef and made the 30-minute run back to their island headquarters. They measured the fish at just under 8 feet long, and it tipped the scales around 102 pounds.
With that weight, Paulsen’s swordfish easily falls into the world-record class. The heaviest fly-caught swordfish, according to the International Game Fish Association, is a 77-pound, 14-ounce fish caught in 2001. Because Paulsen was using 130-pound test tippet, the fish is not eligible for an IGFA record. But for a lifelong fly fisherman, that doesn’t make the accomplishment any less meaningful.
“This is without question the most insane thing I’ve ever experienced in my 40 years of fishing,” he says. “I am so grateful, and I can hardly believe what happened in front of me and my friend.”