Swimming deep in the offshore waters of the Northeast is a fish that relatively few anglers have had the pleasure of tangling with. Prized for their fighting ability and delicious steaks, swordfish remain an enigma to most offshore fishermen. Years ago, spotting swordfish on the surface, warming up in the sun’s rays to help digest their belly full of squid, was common. Overfishing took care of that – but conservation efforts have allowed the broadbill population to rebound, enough to make it worthwhile to target the species while overnighting in the canyons.
To “target” swords, many captains are content to set a squid bait deep while chunking for tuna, and some of them do happen across a swordfish once in a while. A few captains, however, exclusively target swords at nighttime in the canyons, passing up the chance for any other species. To do this takes patience, planning and persistence. For the captains that specialize in targeting these fish, a good night usually involves one bite, and they expect to land a swordfish every three or four trips. I have become a swordfish specialist by devoting my nights offshore to hooking these purple-colored billfish, and it has paid off with more than a dozen swords boated in my Hydra-Sports center console, TunanuT, over the past six seasons.
Swordfishing is all about structure. Keep in mind, however, that “structure” does not just refer to physical structure, but also includes temperature breaks and gradients, current direction and speed as well as depth. The more of these components you can put together, the greater your chances are at a bite.
I have had the pleasure to pick the brains of many famous swordfishermen, including the likes of Linda Greenlaw, the long-line captain, Dean Panos, Ray Rosher, R.J. Boyle, and a host of other top fishermen. While each one’s technique varies somewhat, the fundamentals are similar.
First we will discuss depth. Richard Stanczyk discovered less than a decade ago that during the daytime, swordfish, at least off southern Florida, spend most of their time in deep water. They feed primarily on squid, which during the night scatter throughout the water column. The swordfish follow the squid as they move up in the water column and spread out onto the shelf. During the daytime, the squid head right for the bottom seeking depths of 1600 to 1800 feet in the Gulf Stream. The swordfish follow the squid to the sea floor and only return to the surface to warm themselves.
A few trips swordfishing out of Miami have convinced me that this theory about swordfish movements in the water column is valid. The swordfish are so concentrated in the deep waters of the Gulf Stream off Miami that we often experience a bite every time we drop a bait! With this in mind, if all other “structure” conditions seem promising, I will set up my drift so I cover waters from the swordfish’s preferred daytime depth to the 100-fathom curve. Yes, swordfish will move onto the flats and beyond.
Then of course, there is physical structure like undersea mounts, ridges and contours. The more varied and irregular the bottom, the better. Upwelling currents can attract bait, and in turn increase your odds of catching that broadbill.
Once you choose an approximate area and establish drift direction, try to maximize your drift to spend as much time over promising areas as possible.
Water temperature and gradients should weigh very strongly in your decision on where to set up for the night. This can be your most important consideration, and when the edge of a warm-core eddy causes a break of two or more degrees – the bigger the break, the better – we will often choose this edge to drift above all others, as long as it is not too far up on the flats. Temperature breaks often hold large quantities of bait, and in turn, more fish. Swordfish can be found in waters from the high 60s to the 80s, but I prefer fishing in water that is in the low to mid-70s. If there is no significant break, look for warm, but not hot, waters off the edge and seek out other structure.
During summer months, the prevailing winds are usually from the south or west. Warm-core eddies push north, then west along the shelf. The leading edge of an eddy, which always flows clockwise, will push the current north, causing upwelling. Unless you are fishing the back edge of the eddy, your drift will be in a north or east direction more often than not. You can get an idea from looking at high-flyers, but the best way to figure it out is to set up a drift where you think you want to be and start a track on your GPS. Adjust your starting point accordingly.
So, with all these variables to choose from, look for areas where several of these conditions overlap and start there. In a perfect scenario, you would pick the leading edge of a warm-core eddy starting in about 1600 feet over an ever-changing bottom. The drift would bring you over a seamount and end up pushing you onto the edge of the canyon into a strong upwelling current full of bait.
In the Northeast, swordfish can be found within reach of sport fishermen from June to October. While theoretically, a daytime fishery is possible, most of us in the Northeast consider full darkness the best time to fish. As the moonlight draws up the squid, the swordfish follow. The moon phase is also extremely important. If you have an opportunity to fish three days either side of the full moon, this is the best possible time to go. Three years ago in Atlantis Canyon on a September full moon while shooting a TV show with On The Water TV, we got two bites and one swordfish to the boat. Two other boats out there had three fish between them.
Many types of bait can be used when in search of swordfish. Of all of these, I have found large loligo squid to be the bait of choice. Swordfish use their bills to lash and kill their prey, often striking a bait multiple times before turning and swallowing it. A properly rigged squid will withstand this and appear natural enough for the swordfish to return and eat it. Live baits certainly will work, but hookup ratios with livies don’t seem to be as good. The Florida captains agree with this. Plus, live baits, cut baits and other fish baits like mackerel increase chances of attracting sharks. Therefore, on TunanuT, we exclusively use 12- to 14- inch squid. If you do happen to catch a small mahi-mahi or other small fish overnight, rigging it up and putting it 75 feet down off the stern is definitely worth a try.
The variety of rigs used in swordfishing seems to be endless. We’ll touch on a few, ranging from the most simple to the most complex.
At its most basic, a swordfish rig involves a 10- to 12-foot leader with a 9/0 to 11/0 J-hook, a weight and light stick or electric light attached by a black rubber band 30 feet from the bait, and a balloon attached to the line at the desired depth should do it. This is an easy rig to use, and it will produce bites. There are, however, advantages to “kicking it up a notch.”
While some use circle hooks, the most experienced swordfishermen will tell you that J-style hooks are more productive. Another consideration is the thickness of the hook. Swordfish are incredibly soft-fleshed fish. Hooks pull very easily, and thus I prefer hooks with thicker steel. Lindgren-Pitman makes very good, inexpensive commercial 9/0 black hooks that work extremely well. Also, we have had good luck with Owner Jobu hooks in 11/0 and 12/0 sizes, as well as Jobu big game hooks.
I recommend at least 300-pound-test leader material. I broke off a huge fish several years ago on 250-pound Momoi after 2 1⁄2 hours due to bill chafe, and I will never go lighter again. Smoke blue 300-pound-test Jinkai has a small diameter and should be strong enough to do the job.
For getting the bait down and keeping it there, I have found a 2-pound lead to be perfect unless the drift exceeds 1.8 to 2 knots. In this case, 3 pounds or more may be needed to keep a bait down.
A good light source is also of supreme importance. It is well known that the swordfish are usually first attracted to the light, and when they get close enough, they spy the bait. Light sticks work, and if you decide to use them, choose green as it has the wavelength seen at the greatest distance. Lindgren-Pitman Electralume lights are the gold standard. I have found that green and the “disco” multi-colored strobe work best. Small, water-activated strobes also attract fish. Squid signal each other using pulses of light, and it is thought this is why swordfish are attracted to lights.
The moon phase and intensity should dictate the distance from the light to the hook. On full moon and bright nights, the light source should be close to the bait, 20 to no more than 30 feet. On new moon, or darker nights, we place the light up to 60 feet from the bait, which will still allow enough light to illuminate the squid.
Most fishermen in the canyons use 80- or 100-pound test line on their reels. A trick I learned from Ray Rosher in Miami is to tie floss loops onto the line with half hitches at 30 and 50 feet, then a final loop at your desired depth. This allows your light, the weight, and the balloon or float to be attached using long-line clips, making removal during the fight very quick and simple. Reinforce the floss loops with glue to prevent slippage, and consider doubling the loops if using standard rigging floss. I generally set the depth of the baits on the four rods at 75, 100, 150 and 200 feet. Each rod is marked accordingly with a piece of colored tape.
Most people use balloons as floats. One trick is to use electrical tape, to tape a lightstick to the top of the balloon, or insert the lightstick inside a light-colored balloon. Try using a different color for each, to help identify them. Avoid red light, as it will tend to disappear from view quickly as they drift away from the boat.
I have developed another float that is superior to the balloon, however.
A mooring pennant with a 3- to 4-foot stick, (you can make your own using a lobster float and a driveway marker fiberglass stick from a hardware store), with the weight cut off the bottom and a long-line clip in its place, has some very major advantages over the simple balloon or milk jug. Two light sticks are attached to the stick, one at the end, and one at the base. When drifting, the weight on the line pulls down on the pennant, standing the stick straight up and down. Probably one out of every three swordfish comes toward the surface when it takes a bait. When the weight is lifted, the stick will lie flat on the water, signaling the bite. This method accounted for two swordfish for me in the past two years that I would have never known were there, had I not been watching the floats! They never took drag, and chances are we would never have landed these fish if we were forced to wait for another signal.
Many who fish the canyons anchor for the night. This can be productive when chunking for yellowfin and of course it will produce an occasional swordfish, but drifting is a far more productive way to target the broadbill – that’s how the long-liners do it. The fish are spread out, and odds of bumping into one are much better if on the move. We like to set up a drift to cover as much productive water as possible. Ideally, we will only have to make two drifts a night, covering many miles of water.
Speed is important. A drift of 1 to 1.7 knots ideal. If wind is negatively impacting the drift or seas are sloppy, a parachute, or drift-style anchor can be key. With the drift anchor out, the TunanuT usually drifts at 0.5 knots. Though that is a bit slower than my ideal drift, I have had many successful trips drifting at that pace. An added bonus of the drift anchor is that it takes wind out of the equation and pulls the bow into the waves, allowing for a much more comfortable ride. If the current is slow and the wind helps drift speed, the drift anchor is pulled in.
I generally deploy 4 rods, with the deepest the furthest from the boat, at 100 yards away, and 2 more spread out in between. The fourth rod is fished off the stern, usually at about 75 feet down.
A Hydro Glow or other bright underwater light is put into the water. This will attract life to the boat. Because current speed and direction frequently shift while drifting, swivel rod holders help. Having rod holders around the entire boat, including the bow, is helpful when rods need to be moved around the boat to keep them from tangling.
The Drag and the Fight
When hooking a broadbill swordfish, it is important to remember how soft the mouths and flesh of these fish are. When we are drifting, drags are set at about 4 pounds. This will minimize fake-outs, but let the fish strike a bait without too much resistance. Swordfish will often hit a bait several times before swallowing it, and too much resistance may cause them to shy away. When the fish starts pulling drag continuously, I will let the fish run for 30 seconds or so before pushing the drag up to strike, which should be set somewhere around 12 pounds. This setting won’t pull as many fish off. Yes, you will have to fight the fish longer, but personally, I don’t mind fighting fish for longer if it means I get more fish to the boat. Of course, it may not be possible to fight a large fish at this setting forever, and you have to use your judgment when you increase the pressure. Try to be patient.
The End Game
After hooking a swordfish and fighting it to near submission at the side of the boat, it’s time to get the harpoon ready, if you have one. Otherwise, two gaffs are a must. Baby the fish as it gets close to the boat. The leaderman must remember that if too much pressure is put on the fish, the hook may pull. I can’t count how many people have told me they lost a swordfish at boatside. It is almost always due to putting too much pressure on the fish and tearing the hook out. The rod man should remain fully at the ready until the fish is in the boat, as the game isn’t over until that time. The only hard part of a swordfish is the head. Aim the gaffs at the head only, because a body shot most certainly will not hold. Anyone that is going to try to bill the fish needs to have heavy gloves because the bill is razor sharp and will slice right through light cotton or neoprene. Once the fish is hauled on deck, someone should immediately stand on and pin the bill down until the fish weakens. Many serious injuries have been cause by a thrashing swordfish in the cockpit.
Preparing the Catch of a Lifetime
Once your fish is securely on deck, bleed it as best you can by raking the gills or making a cut into a main artery. Proceed, as you would with a tuna, by making a cut around the anus. Cut the head off with a saw and pull forward. The entrails should follow. Next, slice the belly open from the anus forward. Once this is done, remove the large bloodline along the spine inside the abdominal cavity. This can be done by scraping with a spoon or a finger. After the blood line is removed, take a spoon and scrape the slime from the entire inside of the cavity. It should go quickly. The fish should never touch fresh water – that includes ice! Rinse the fish with saltwater only, then place the cored fish in large plastic bags, wrapping tight before placing on ice. This will result in much higher quality meat for the table. I hope everyone reading this has the chance to tangle with one of these magnificent fish. You have the tools. Now, go get yourself a swordfish!