Swordfish and Swordfishing
Generally an oceanic species, the swordfish is primarily a midwater fish at depths of 650-1970 feet (200-600 m) and water temperatures of 64 to 71°F (18-22°C). Although mainly a warm-water species, the swordfish has the widest temperature tolerance of any billfish, and can be found in waters from 41-80°F (5-27°C). The swordfish is commonly observed in surface waters, although it is believed to swim to depths of 2,100 feet (650 m) or greater, where the water temperature may be just above freezing. One adaptation that allows for swimming in such cold water is the presence of a "brain heater," a large bundle of tissue associated with one of the eye muscles, which insulates and warms the brain. Blood is supplied to the tissue through a specialized vascular heat exchanger, similar to the counter current exchange found in some tunas. This helps prevent rapid cooling and damage to the brain as a result of extreme vertical movements.
As opportunistic predators, swordfish feed at the surface as well as the bottom of their depth range (>2,100 ft (650 m)) as evidenced by their stomach contents. They feed mostly upon pelagic fishes, and occasionally squids and other cephalopods. At lower depths they feed upon demersal fishes. The sword is apparently used in obtaining prey, as squid and cuttlefishes commonly exhibit slashes to the body when taken from swordfish stomachs. A recent study found the majority of large fish prey had been slashed, while small prey items had been consumed whole. Larval swordfish feed on zooplankton including other fish larvae. Juveniles eat squid, fishes, and pelagic crustaceans.
Swordfishing has really seen a boon in the last few years. Boats departing form port up and down the Atlantic are experiencing a fish size of 75-100lb on average. South Florida is considered to be the swordfish nursery and anglers routinely catch "Pups", but they also get their share of markers (fish with over 100 lbs dressed weight) and double markers.
Once you are all gunned up and ready to go, it's time to take a drift out in South Florida's Gulf Stream or the Canyons of the Mid Atlantic or New England. We are going to be drifting using 4 to 6 lines. Depending on the size of your boat, the sea conditions, and your experience level, you may be able to fish 5 or even 6 rods, but 4 rods is a good starting point. This is an awesome fishery and we can sustain it as long as we don't abuse it.
Locating The Swordfish Grounds
Swordfishing takes place in the evening and at night, as they are primarily nocturnal feeders. In South Florida, most boats leave the dock in the early evening hours and coming back to the dock after midnight. Boats fishing out of ports in the middle and north Atlantic states usually swordfish at night after spending the day trolling for tunas, mahis, and other fish. Swordfishing is obviously easier when it is calm, because everything is easier to do.
In South Florida, swordfish grounds are bordered generally between longitude 79-51W and 79-44W. This is roughly 15-22 miles off our coastline. In the Mid-Atlantic and North Canyons, with such a vast area to cover, most fishermen look for a good temperature break before fishing. Sonar that can read the bottom in 2000 feet is very beneficial; as you will see the canyons and structure that you are fishing and mark them on your chart plotter. These canyons create upwellings that hold plankton and other small marine creatures that baitfish such as tinker mackerel and sardines feed on, which in turn attracts highly migratory species such as swordfish. If you want to see fish and schools of bait, set your range to 100ft and you will see any bait congregated under your boat. Where you find the bait you will find the fish. Try dropping live bait or a stick bait straight off your rod tip right into that zone (as explained later).
Once you are satisfied with your location, you want to spend the next few minutes figuring out your drift. The direction and speed of your drift is the most important aspect of swordfishing. The direction of your drift dictates which area you are going to drift over. For example, if you have heard that the bite is red hot on the 79-50W line, you want to make sure you spending most of your drift on this line. The speed of the current and the direction and speed of the wind will also affect what size lead weight sinkers you need to use to keep your baits drifting at the desired depth. A sea anchor can work to keep your baits spread out and offset the effects of the wind on your spread. Put your sea anchor out somewhere forward of midship for the best spread.
Good bait is key to any fishing. Dead bait such as Boston mackerel stick rigged to drift or a nice squid on a pin rig work great. Live bait such as goggle-eyes, blue runners, speedos, tinker mackerel work well too. You should trim the tails down on the live bait to make them easier for the swords to catch, which help your hook ups.
Let's discuss rigging your rods and reels. I use mostly 80 wides, but many of my friends use 130s after getting owned a few times by sea monsters. If you are fortunate to have a reel like an Accurate 50 with a twin drag system you could load it with over 700 yards of 150 hollow-core PowerPro braid and be able to fish their lighter rods for broadbills. Using 50s to me is not a great idea, but some people do it. You can catch a decent fish on a 50lb. reel, but when you get a nice one on, its nice to know you can have some line capacity and a drag capable of taking the heat. On most fish, fighting them between 12 and 16 pounds of drag is going to keep the hook in the fish. However, with such light drag, a large fish will be able to take a lot of line off the spool. Remember, the more line that comes off the spool, the more drag is on the fish. If you have your drag set at 16 pounds and have 400 yards of line out, you may have 25 pounds of pressure on the fish. It is very important to set your drag before you go out. Mark the drag settings on the reel with a piece of light colored electrical tape and a magic marker at each increment of the drag lever.
When you spool up, we recommend using 150 lb hollow core Power Pro as backing. On the reel we fish with, we load about 1100 yards of Power Pro as backing. This line can last an entire season, as it is less vulnerable to failure causing nicks from fish or other things (weeds, boat, etc) touching the line. Line capacity can be key to slugging it out with a large broadbill, as there is a great deal of current and deep water for the fish to sound. Power Pro's low stretch mean it is more sensitive to broadbills whacks and its small diameter means it takes less weight to fish the desired depth. After loading on a full spool of Power Pro, I finish it off with at least 100 yards of 130lb mono as a top shot. This mono allows some stretch in the system, which gives a little cushion against pulled hooks.
When spooling the reels we suggest marking each reel at a given depth. We suggest you mark the line using a Dacron loop half hitched to your line using wax line. Mark the rod with a piece of tape on the butt and write the depth on it. This will enable you to easily drop your bait to the desired depth without having to count it every time you setup. It also lets you know which rod is at which depth and allows you to cover all depths. You will use this loop to tie the balloon or jug onto the line. Make another loop using just wax floss about 20 feet from the end of your line. This will be used to attach the weight. It is very important to make sure the loop does not slip!
Your first knot that will be used on your mainline is the popular bimini twist (about 5 ft). The knot acts as a shock absorber and is very beneficial to the rig. Attach a 300 lb wind on leader using a loop to loop connection and crimp on a nice swivel.
Make sure your roller guides are in good shape, and that all your hardware is tight. Make sure you have good rod holders with backing plates; our swivel rod holders are the best.
Lets discuss your rigs. We first start out by measuring 15 feet of 200lb - 400lb mono leader. On the top end we either crimp a loop using a piece of hard plastic chafe tube so that we can attach it to our ball bearing snap swivel or welded eye swivel. On the other end, crimp an 8/0 - 11/0 hook. Make sure the hook is very sharp, if not sharpen it using a file. You should be able to press it against your fingernail and make a nice scratch. Attach your rig to your rods ball bearing swivel.
If you are fishing live bait you should place a bridle on your hook. A bridle is a loop that is about 6 inches in diameter made out of rigging floss or extra Power Pro. Attach that bridle to the hook and you are set. Pull the loop through the bait's eyes using a rigging needle and twist until the bridle is tight across the bait's head, then loop the hook under the part of the bridle that is tight on the bait's head. At the swivel top circle you want to also attach a flasher at your discretion. This helps to make your bait visible to the swordfish.
Now lets talk squid. A swordfish favorite is the squid. There are a number of ways to rig a dead squid, but the best method is to use what long line fishermen call a pin rig. A tag end or pin is used to keep the squid riding high on the hook by pinning the mantle. The rig leaves the hook exposed half way down the mantle. Make sure you size your hook to your squid. The larger the hook the more hook you will have exposed from the squid. With small enough hooks only a small part of the hook is exposed.
Get your LP electralume lights out turned on and ready. Rig some 16-32 ounce bank sinkers with rubber coated copper/telephone wire or a rubber band. Rig some balloons or jugs up. Tie a piece of wire or rubber band to the balloon or jug by wrapping it around above where your balloon knot is. If using telephone wire, wrap the line up away from the balloon, and finish it off clean so it does not pop the balloon. Attach a cyalume stick to the jug or balloon with a piece of electrical tape. Have the gaff or harpoon ready to be deployed as some days you may drop the baits right into the mouth of a hungry swordfish.
Letting out your Spread
Drifting for swordfish is very very effective. You should stagger you baits at 150, 200, and 300. Each of these lines should have a balloon. Work another one out off the rod tip Now that you have 4 rods that are ready to be deployed, lets get some lines in the water. Once you are satisfied with the direction and speed of your drift, get the first line out. As a general rule of thumb, get your longest lines out first, meaning in this case the 150 foot deep rod. Many top captains set out the first two lines with the boat in gear driving away from the lines having the mate attach the LP Electralume, weight, and balloon as the appropriate marks in the line pass by. This often results in a faster deployment and a better spread. Once the 2nd bait is out they shift into drifting position and work out the next two.
With the first rod, attach your rig, along with your flasher on the to the swivel. Next clip on your LP Electralume using the long line clip that comes with it about 25 feet up the line. If you don't have an electric light, snap a cyalume stick on. When your wax loop for the sinker comes off the tip, attach the sinker to the wax loop using copper wire. Wrap the wire about 6 times and pull to ensure it breaks away. Put it back on and let your bait down to desired depth. The 150-foot market should appear pretty fast. Once the 150-foot marker on the line comes up, attach your jug or balloon to the Dacron or wax line loop using copper wire. You can attach the balloon or jug using telephone wire or a small rubber band. Again, test to make sure it breaks away when fish applies pressure. Let the float out about 100-150 yards from the boat.
Do the same to the second rod, but this time go to 200ft and let it out on the jug/balloon about 75 yards. Proceed with the 250 and 300-foot rods. Once you have the 4 lines out on the jugs, lets move to your tip rods. The tip rods are called tip rods because that is exactly what they are. You will see the tip of the rod bounce heavily when a sword is slashing the bait. These rods are being fished right at the boat at varying depths. We usual set these rods at 75-100 feet and 400 feet. These will be your most active rods, as they are in the direct light of the boat. You should be constantly reeling the two tip rods.
Now that you have 4 lines in the water, Turn off all boat lights and sit back and listen to your rods. Check all lines as needed. If you don't have any action within 30 minutes to an hour, start by checking your tip rods. If the baits have been slashed than bring in your balloon/jug rods and re-bait.
You can also use the 4ft green Hydro Glow light is used to attract bait and fish to your boat. Make sure you put it on the opposite side of the boat that that lines are drifting on, to avoid direct light in your eyes. The light definitely doesn't hurt. We have seen bait such as squid, mackerel, flying fish, and sardines swim through the light. I have also seen these fish come into spreader lights and I have seen them come up with no lights at all. But why not have the extra edge?
There he is!!!
If a balloon or jug comes off, or you hear the drag being taken out, or you see a fish surfacing, you want to jump on that rod fast. You should of have your drag set at practically nothing, just enough to keep line from coming off the reel. Increase the drag to an agreed upon setting (I use 16 pounds) and start cranking until you get tight on the fish. The hook should automatically set once the line is tight if your hook is sharp. It is always important to clear the sea anchor and the tip rods immediately, but sometimes if you are not getting dragged around you can leave a float line or two out in hopes for a double.
Monitor your drag carefully. Too little drag and even a small 80-pound sword may take an hour. Too much drag may cause the hook to rip from the soft mouths of these fish. Do not rush the fish. If you have a big fish on, and he starts dumping over 300 yards of line off the reel you should back the drag on the reel off to compensate for the weight of the line in the water.
Most people fight the fish out of the rod holder using a bent butt rod, but there are some lower back workout fanatics that like to fish it standup. If you want to fight it standup, you should use a harness a good fighting belt. Swordfish get in excess of 400lbs and sometimes you have to slug it out to get them in the boat.
Once the fish is at the boat, just reel take of the LP electralume and wind the swivel to the tip. This is why we also suggest using wind-on leaders. This will help avoid the dangers of hand-lining a big fish. Get ready with multiple gaffs or a harpoon and stick the fish right in the head. A swordfish has to be at least 47 inches from the fork of the tail to the tip of the lower jaw to keep, so make sure you have a measuring tape. So before hitting it with the gaff, you want to decide if you are keeping the fish or not. Always wear tough leather gloves, as the bill is very sharp.
Cleaning up (Read this article on dressing tuna and swordfish)
When you have the fish in the boat and after the high fives and pictures are taken, shorten him for easy storage and transport by sawing his bill off and cutting his head off. Once the head and gills are off, slice his belly from the anus to the collar and remove his guts. Then pack his cavity with ice to ensure the best quality steaks. Now get your lines out and do it again!