Deep Drop For Daytime Swordfish In The Northeast Canyons
For decades, the mentality of the Northeast canyon fishing fleet has been to troll all day long, despite the fact that the best trolling bite generally occurs during the early morning and late evening. During the heat of the day when the sun is high, the tuna bite often shuts down, leaving a random marlin or wahoo encounter the only hope for action. By borrowing tactics from bluewater anglers in Florida, Northeast captains are quickly discovering that far below the surface, in the blackest depths, there are concentrations of swordfish that can provide daytime action of the finest kind.
In 2003, Vic Gaspeny and Richard Stancyzk discovered a daytime sword fishery in Islamorada, Florida. Since that time, the practice has grown to the point that many Floridian swordfishermen eschew the nighttime drift in favor of this daylight bite. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is fish concentration. It has been shown through tagging studies that during daylight hours, swordfish spend 90 percent of their time very close to the bottom in 1600 to 1800 feet of water. The reason is likely the broadbill’s preferred food, the squid. During the night, squid rise in the water column and the swordfish follow. As a result, the fish are scattered, hunting throughout the water column. When sunlight reappears, the majority of the squid descend to depths between 1600 and 1800 feet, and the swordfish again follow the food, concentrating over the bottom, in darkness.
Though countless fish have been taken by deep-dropping in southern waters, almost no one has done it in the Northeast Canyons. This may be due to misconceptions that the stocks aren’t as high up here or that swordfish behave differently in northern waters than they do down south. Our first four drops to the bottom in June 2014, while fishing with my friend, Captain Larry Backman, yielded two swordfish bites and a 150-plus-pound broadbill in the boat.
Deep-dropping a single bait more than a quarter mile through strong current is no easy task, but it can be done with specialized equipment and techniques.
Where to fish:
Broadbills spend the majority of their day on the bottom. And they like it deep. I fish depths no shallower than 1400 feet, and no deeper than 1800 feet. Search for areas that allow for a long drift through these depths with as much varied structure as possible, including seamounts, ridge lines and uneven bottom. If the physical structure is coupled with a temperature break—where squid and other swordfish prey concentrate—watch that rod tip closely.
Most Florida fishermen who regularly deep-drop for swordfish use electric reels. The reason is simple: anyone who has tried to reel up a 10-pound weight from 1800 feet will never want to do it again!
Lindgren Pitman and the Daiwa MP 3000 are some of the most popular reels among Florida swordfishermen. Though pricey, these reels will do the job for years. The MP 3000 has a manual reel option, which allows the angler to manually fight the fish at any time during the battle. There are also a multitude of less expensive reels and power drives on the market, such as those made by Dolphin and Electramate. Smaller electric reels like the Tanacom Bull are not equipped for swordfishing. The Shimano Beastmaster 9000 appears to be up to the task, and is about half the price of one of the bigger reels.
The Reel Crankie is a drill attachment that locks onto the handle of a standard big-game reel. A heavy-duty, high-powered drill like a Dewalt 20-volt Lithium Ion is a must. Each battery lasts one to 2 retrievals. The Reel Crankie is best for checking the bait, but not for fighting a fish. That will need to be done manually.
It is important to use a rod in the 80- to 100-pound class with a soft tip. At such extreme depths, a bite is very subtle, and often barely perceptible to all but a well-trained eye. The rod must have a bent butt and be fished from a vertical swivel-holder. Unless manually fishing with a breakaway weight system, it is very important to have all ring guides and a quality sealed roller tip such as a Winthrop’s wind-on model. The electric reels used for deep dropping are wide, so if you are using roller guides, the thin braided line can chafe. Also, with the heavy weight attached, wave motion can create slack in the lines, potentially causing it to jump a roller and get caught. RJ Boyle Studios, Biscayne Rods, Chaos Rods and Blackfin all make custom rods specifically designed for deep-drop swordfishing. Avoid standard deep-drop rods with swivel tips. They are not designed to accept the large wind-ons needed for this kind of fishing.
Solid-core Spectra line like Sufix 832 or Momoi Diamond Braid are good choices. Hollow-core line doesn’t cut through the water as well because it has a tendency to lie flat. Eighty-pound test is standard, though 65-pound test slices through the water and holds bottom better.
There are two distinct rigs which can be deployed when deep-dropping for swordfish.
First is the breakaway weight rig. Using this method, the weight is designed to break off after every drop, whether setting the hook on a fish or putting the boat in gear after the drift is finished. For those fishing manual reels, this is the only way to go. For this rig, start out with a 150-foot wind-on leader of 300-pound-test monofilament. About 10 to 15 feet down from the loop end of the wind-on, directly on the monofilament, tie two floss loops about two feet apart using Gudebrod 35-pound floss. Make at least an inch of tight half hitches on either side of the loop, and Super Glue the half hitches.
Take a 16-inch length of 20-to 25-pound-test monofilament and tie each end to the leader inside each floss loop, forming a bow in the line. This must be done every drop when the bait is being let out, because the bowed loop can’t be reeled through the guides. Attach a 10-foot length of 40-pound-test mono to the 25-pound line with a snap swivel. To the other end, tie on the weight.
Between 20 and 25 feet from the hook, attach two Duralite Diamond strobes with size 24 rubber bands wrapped three or four times around the leader. This is done so the rubber bands will slide to the end of the leader when enough force is applied. At the end of the wind-on, crimp on a stout barrel swivel, then attach the terminal rig to the other end of the swivel. This short length of terminal leader allows you to fight the fish to the rod tip until it is within harpoon or gaff range.
The second rig is the non-breakaway system. There are two reasons this rig is preferred by many of Florida’s top daytime swordfish captains. First, it allows reliable bottom tending. Secondly, when a broadbill takes the bait, the weight, which is pulling down, confuses the fish. A swordfish over 150 pounds will almost always swim straight up, with the weight in tow. When it hits the surface—often with a spectacular jump—the fisherman can usually get one easy shot at the confused fish. Just make sure to make it count, or the fight will change in a hurry!
The rig is essentially the same, except there is only one floss loop 10 feet down from the loop end of the wind-on. A long-line clip is attached to the leader inside the floss loop, then a 10-foot piece of 30- to 40-pound-test monofilament is attached to the swivel on the clip. A stick weight is attached to the end of the monofilament. The standard weight used by Florida captains is 10 pounds, but I have found you can sometimes get away with 5 pounds in the Northeast.
The Terminal Rig:
The terminal rig consists of a 6-foot section of dark blue, 300-pound-test Lindgren Pitman Primeline and a 10/0 or 11/0 closed-throat J-hook—closed throat hooks result in better landing ratios.
At night I exclusively use 9/0, closed-throat J-hooks. Because I am using skirted, sewn-on baits during the day, larger hooks are necessary, and the Mustad 7691S and 7698 are good examples. I place a trimmed skirt over the bait to keep it from spinning as the boat drifts.
Swordfish are opportunistic feeders, and will eat just about anything. The preferred bait is a belly or panama strip cut from a fresh mahi, false albacore other tuna species because of its durability and shine. If these are not available, eels, blues or just about any fish may be used. Broadbills almost always slash at the bait a few times before swallowing it, so sewn-on, hearty baits are a must. While night-drifting with multiple rods, I almost exclusively use squid. This is because squid are less likely to attract sharks, show up well in the dim light, and swordfish love them! However, when deep-drop fishing with one rod, squid just don’t hold up well enough on the hook.
Tending bottom in 1500 to 1800 feet is paramount when playing the deep-drop game. You must know where the bait is at all times. This is generally easier up here in the Northeast, where currents are negligible compared to the 6-knot current of the Gulf Stream down south.
Despite having almost 150 feet between the weight and the bait, it is still easy to tangle on the drop.
One simple way to ensure a good drop is to keep forward momentum going. Start by going down-sea or down-current. While the boat is in slow gear or bumping in and out of gear, let the line out in 75- to 100-foot increments with the line trailing at about a 45-degree angle, then pause for a few seconds to let the weight catch up. This will keep the hook bait behind the leader. It will take a little practice to judge the distance to travel before getting to depth at your target designation, as well as gauging how fast you can drop without tangling.
Once 1200 to 1400 feet of line is out (using either the reel’s line counter or metered braided line), turn into the current or sea and catch up to the angle of the line. The angle should dictate which side of boat your rod should be on. Drop again in increments, with just enough pressure on the spool to keep excess slack out. Once you feel bottom, which will be a momentary slack in the line, immediately engage the reel and wind up 75 to 100 feet. After you are confident that the boat is over the line and it is straight up and down, drop again, and reel up once more. Repeat this every few minutes. You will get a “feel” and know if you are fishing. Don’t guess! If you don’t know where your bait is, the game is over.
The Miami way is quicker, but takes more practice to get it right. Start with the current, boat in gear. Move fast enough to keep the line 45 degrees from the transom while letting it out rather quickly, with some pressure on the spool. When 900 to 1000 feet is out, quickly spin the boat into the current and bump in gear, catching slowly up to the line while dropping straight to the bottom.
The Fight And The Bite:
The bite of a swordfish at 1800 feet is extremely subtle. You must continuously watch the rod tip moving up and down with the waves. Any subtle change that seems to alter that rhythm in any way should perk up all your senses. Northeast swordfisherman Jackson Parmenter recommends dropping quickly to the bottom when you detect a bite. The bait will scoot a little, then drift down. Often, this will cause the fish to pile on. I saw it work in Florida in April 2015, and it helped put a 350-pound-plus fish on the deck! If you see the bite again, or if the line goes slack, reel! When in doubt, come tight on the reel. If no one is home after reeling in 100 or so feet, drop again.
When swordfishing at night, most fishermen recommended putting no more than 12 pounds of drag on the fish. Tensions higher than that can tear the hook from the soft flesh of a swordfish’s mouth. This is not feasible when using 5 to 10 pounds of weight and dropping up to 1800 feet. With the drag set at 20 to 30 pounds, you can usually gain line. Miami Captain Dean Panos told me last year, “The fish is 1700 feet down. Would I rather fight a fish for 3 hours on a light drag and lose it at 500 feet, or put pressure on it? I can hook another fish.” That being said, he boats about 75 percent of the fish he hooks! Remember that when you have more than half of your spool of line out, the drag is much higher than when the spool is full. This means that if the drag is set at 25 pounds, you may actually be putting 40 pounds on the fish at depth. A good rule of thumb is to try to gain line with 20 pounds of drag pressure with the weight on the line, bumping up to 30 if needed. When weight is removed from the floss loop (or if the breakaway weight has popped off), lighten to as close to 12 pounds of pressure as possible while still gaining line.
When using an electric reel, if there is a manual function, I suggest switching to that mode when the wind-on leader appears. Pull off the weight by unfastening the long-line clip, and keep pressure on the fish. Reel through the strobe lights right to the swivel, and harpoon or gaff the fish off the rod tip. The cardinal sin in swordfishing is to leader the fish. The added pressure will cause the hook to pull more often than not!
There should be a minimum of two gaffs at the ready. Every part of a swordfish is soft except under the bill, under the head, and around the eyes. A gaff anywhere else can pull through the flesh.
Consider connecting your harpoon rope to another rod with the drag set at 15 to 20 pounds instead of a buoy. This allows you to fight the fish off two rods, significantly increasing your odds of landing it if the fish is out of gaff range.
Finally, at the side of the boat, someone must control the bill with two hands. Thumbs should be together, and keep control of the fish as it comes over the side, and until it has expired.
Give it a try! Once you see your first lit-up purple and silver broadbill leaping out of the bright blue waters of your favorite canyon, you will be changed forever!