Techniques for Catching Swordfish Day or Night
One of the best attributes to the northern Gulf of Mexico is it’s incredibly diverse fishery. From the quiet backwaters of its estuaries and tidal creeks, to the deep, blue waters offshore, everything from speckled trout to giant bluefin tuna can be found in this angler’s paradise. Catching swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico is also a possibility.
The broadbill swordfish is hardly a new face to this scene, but only in recent years has it become the main target of what’s arguably the hottest bite in big game fishing for our area. In the past, swordfishing has generally been considered a “Plan B”, something done at night when there’s nothing else to do and is an added bonus to a trip. Many boats would send a bait or two out at night, something for a watchman to tend to as the crew slept.
Then, in the late 90s and early 2000s, more and more anglers tried their hand at targeting these amazing fish. After countless nights and key notes logged, the consistent reality of the fishery took focus. Catching swordfish at night was no longer a random bonus catch, but a planned effort.
In addition, in the last few years, daytime fishing techniques along the northern gulf coast have become a finely-tuned science. The overwhelming success rate of fishing deep during the day coupled with the extensive knowledge learned over decades of night fishing, has created a world-class, 24/7 fishery within easy reach.
They are a year-round target that offers everything you want in a big game species; reliability, size, legendary fighting abilities and top-notch table fare. Experiencing the thrill of catching these powerful fish first-hand requires a little homework first and a “tune up” in rigging.
Trial and Error
My first plunge into catching swordfish began nearly two decades ago and obviously tackle and techniques have greatly changed since then. Unfortunately, my first experience with a big sword left me heartbroken and heading back to the drawing board. These powerful fish can and will expose every weakness in your tackle.
Being a swordfish addict and a tackle salesman at Sam’s Bait and Tackle in Orange Beach, Al, it’s a never-ending work-in-progress to adapt and learn which techniques and rigging styles will produce more broadbills. This constant trial and error not only leads to higher success rates for myself, but my customers as well.
However, as with any type of big game fishing, the true key to success lies in sharing not only one’s own experiences, but by listening to others as well and then evolving from the collective pool of knowledge. With that mindset, let’s get to it and spill the swordfish facts, tips and secrets of three “swordfish junkies”.
Catching swordfish can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like it to be, but simply putting bait on a hook and dropping it down won’t yield the best results against a fish with a three foot and then some sword on its face.
Bait selection for swords is usually pretty easy with squid and strip baits of bonito and mahi bellies being top options. In hindsight, I think it’s easier for me to think of baits I haven’t caught a swordfish on, rather than picking baits I have caught them with.
Captain Adam Peeples runs One Shot Charters out of Ft Walton Beach, Fl. Peeples will use the full spectrum of bait choices but keeps no secrets when it comes to his favorite.
“I prefer a fresh bonito strip over anything. They’re extremely durable and have excellent swimming action,” he said. “Durability at depth is extremely important and a well-rigged bonito strip is a bulletproof bait” said Peeples.
Captain Shane Toole, who runs Necessity Sportfishing out of Orange Beach, echoes the importance of rigging baits for abuse and points out that while squid makes up a majority of what swordfish eat and is a top pick, it also requires extra care in rigging and proper stitching is paramount if you want to be successful.
“When your bait is a quarter-mile beneath you, you won’t want to worry if it is still intact. Taking the extra time to prep your bait for wear will ensure that your offering can withstand the abuse of repeated bill slashes,” Toole said.
When it comes to my own personal preferences for catching swordfish, I use both strips and whole squid, but a swimming Mahi strip is a huge confidence bait for me. Run the buffet of offerings and you’ll see that all of them work, but your confidence bait will generally perform best. Just make sure it’s swimming straight and not spinning.
Your bait’s success will also be determined by the piece of hardware it’s rigged on. Both Peeples and Toole favor the Mustad 7691 hook for connecting and staying tight. This particular model of hook has a closed throat and requires less pressure for penetration.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of success with the 7691 but still employ the use of circle hooks as well, with the Mustad 39948BLN being my “go-to”. This circle has a very wide gap and ensures a heavy purchase in a sword’s mouth.
Leader types and lengths will certainly vary depending on whom you ask. I prefer short, six foot leaders of 300 pound monofilament, attached to 150 feet of 150 pound wind-on leader. The long length of mono gives a tough anchor point for LED lights and floss loops used to attach weights.
Peeples also uses a long wind-on leader, but drops to 130 pound monofilament. He uses the smaller monofilament for less drag in the water column and the ability to splice directly into his main line, made of 80 pound, hollow core braid. Toole sticks with a shorter and heavier, 75 feet of 200 pound wind-on leader but also keeps a short trace leader of 250 pound monofilament. Regardless of leader style, 65 and 80 pound braided main lines are the norm for appropriate strength and their thin diameters.
Reel selection is a matter of finding the best balance of power and speed. Many newer swordfish anglers come into Sam’s Bait and Tackle looking for suggestions on what to buy and through extensive time on the water with different brands, we try to narrow the options down for them. For Peeples, and myself, the reel of choice is the Penn International 70VIS.
This two-speed reel offers plenty of line capacity, torque and the necessary speed to stay tight on a charging broadbill. Toole prefers the lighter Shimano Talica 50II. The Talica doesn’t hold the line capacity that the beefier International does, but offers stout performance in a smaller package.
While many enjoy the sport of fighting a swordfish man-to-man, some anglers opt for electric swordfish reels to prospect the deep waters where swords lurk.
Rod choice is where the pickiest of sword hunters get even more picky and rightfully so. After all, you’re trying to find a rod that can detect the softest of strikes at depths of over 1200 feet and still have the backbone to do battle with that ridiculous swordfish speed. While some of our customers will look towards custom rod options, I’ve found a great combination of action and power in the Crowder DDS50.
This rod has all of the features to look for in a good swordfish rod with quality components and the right amount of sensitivity. Whichever route you go when catching swordfish, you’ll want your rod to possess an oversized roller tip like those made by Aftco or Winthrop Tool and sport a bent butt for maximum lift.
Don’t “Drag” it Out
One of the constant debates amongst experienced anglers is proper reel drag settings when catching swordfish. A popular mindset is that swords have soft mouths and require lighter drag settings than what you might use on marlin or big tunas. Others, like myself, have taken the stance that you either have a good hookset or you don’t, and that using light drag settings may lead to weak penetration and actually cause a lost fish.
Toole prefers starting heavy to drive the hook home and then easing a bit after the hookset, going back up if necessary.
“I set my reels at 30 pounds ‘at strike’ to make sure the hook sets firmly. After the hook is set, we start the fight at no less than 25 pounds,” Toole said.
Peeples does the opposite when catching swordfish, setting his reels at 18-20 pounds while waiting for bites.
“At this pressure, we can set a hook firmly and can always increase the drag gradually through the fight if necessary,” he noted.
I prefer my drags around the same settings as Peeples, and will continue to add pressure if the fight drags on without progress. Even with stout settings, anglers need to be ready to experience some of the most intense power in sportfishing. Swordfish will routinely take hundreds of yards of line throughout sounding runs and rapid ascent through the water column, with an occasional series of leaps. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself through the fight.
Where Do Swordfish Live
Swordfish are very wide ranging throughout the world and almost any deep, natural bottom area where bait gathers can produce one. In the northern gulf, hot spots include the Spur, Steps, Green Canyon and others. These spots are well known and feature the exact kind of bottom topography that will hold bait and trophy swordfish. You could point to many areas on the map but above all, one factor that stands above most others is finding the sword’s food source.
“Finding bait is a huge priority” says Toole, who puts his electronics to work while scouring the bottom for optimal spots. “You need a good combination of current for covering water and an ample bait source.”
Swords have very fast metabolisms and won’t stray far from what powers them. If you’re not marking bait, chances are, you’re not in an ideal spot. Peeples agrees 100% and neither will put much time into areas devoid of both current and bait.
One thing we all agree on is optimal depths to target with 1400-1600 feet being the prime zone for catching swordfish. We do catch them shallower and deeper, but the grand majority of swords harvested will come from this zone.
Deployment of Baits
Preparing swordfish bait or spread of baits is a dance best learned through many cycles of repetition. For night-time swording, I prefer to fish anywhere from three to five lines. These lines are staggered at varying depths depending on the location of thermoclines and lunar phase. On nights revolving around the full moon, I often find more success by spreading my baits deeper, from 200-500 feet and at shallower spreads of 50-300 feet during new moon periods.
Deeper baits are fished directly from rod tips next to the boat and shallower baits suspended from balloons or small buoys with the shallowest bait the furthest from the boat. Regardless of moon phases, you’ll always want to position a bait below the thermoclines.
Accurately setting baits is simple by using detachable line counters. Weight sizes from 12 ounces to two pounds hold the baits at these depths. LED lights placed at different distances along the wind-on leader attract both bait and swordfish and can be purchased in a wide range of colors.
Daytime swordfishing is a completely different ballgame. Whereas swordfish rise to the surface at night, they dive deep into the depths during the day, often suspending at depths within the lower 200 feet of the water column. For sending a bait down 1200 or more feet and keeping it tangle free, one of two methods are generally used; the troll-out method or the “sled” method.
The “troll-out” method is where, when trolling the bait out, the bait is deployed while the boat moves at a moderate speed into the current. The reel is placed just above freespool, to keep a small amount of drag on the line as it is played out. Once the desired distance is reached, the boat circles 180 degrees and outward as the bait and weight sink. The outward circle keeps the main line away from the bait and the boat is slowly backed down to position atop the bait.
For the “sled” method of catching swordfish, a stationary weight of two to four pounds is clipped approximately 75-100 feet from the bait and a large weight of rebar or concrete is attached directly to the baited hook with a piece of bent wire. The rig is then sent straight down and fast. As the weight hits bottom the bent wire will slip off of the hook bend and the bait can be retrieved upwards to the desired depth.
The Tease, The Feed, and The Hookset
The moment has come, you see a light, but distinct “tap” on the rod tip. Some anglers prefer to continue drifting without interaction and let the sword eat when he’s ready. Many, including Toole, Peeples and myself, begin the “cat and mouse” strategy of teasing the fish into eating. This involves retrieving the bait in short, upward bursts followed by freespooled drops after the ensuing strike.
The motion is to give the illusion that the sword has killed his prey at which point they will usually eat the bait as it falls. Of course, it’s not always this easy and more often than not, it will take a series of retrieves and drops to convince the sword to eat.
Once the sword takes the bait, the biggest hurdle is burying the hook. Some use the boat’s propulsion to help drive the hook home but I have found this to be counterproductive and resulting in many pulled hooks. An assertive and continuous retrieve of the handle will give the necessary power to set the hook, even at depth. The key is to continue reeling until the drag slips or stalls, meaning you’ve hit maximum pressure and the hook is set.
A properly fitted harness like the Aftco Max Force will tip the odds in favor for the angler and allow the use of their body weight to fight the fish. For anglers not accustomed to proper stand-up techniques, bent butt rods allow the angler to fight fish from the boat’s rod holders. In either scenario, the first part of the fight is a battle to stay tight as most swords rise to the surface after hookup and often at speed.
Keeping the boat moving forward helps remove slack, just be careful not to move too fast and put unnecessary strain on the angler.
Landing and dispatching a swordfish can be a dicey situation. More often than not, a harpoon is used to dart a fish as it nears the boat. This will often kill or disable a fish for safer handling boat side.
If a harpoon isn’t available, long handled gaffs get the job done, but make sure that the fish is thoroughly worn out before hoisting aboard and a couple well-placed shots with a bat will silence rowdy swordfish. Just remember, swordfish are a highly regulated species and landings of swordfish must be reported to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
For the recreational angler, broadbills can be harvested if measuring 47 inches and above, from the fork of their tail to the tip of the lower jaw (LJFL). Up to four fish may be harvested on private recreational vessels, but many are choosing a conservative approach.
“A single swordfish yields plenty of meat. Even on multiple fish trips, I generally harvest one fish” Peeples said.
In addition to guiding and helping anglers catch swordfish, Peeples is also involved in tagging and releasing them for the Billfish Foundation for research purposes and he received an award from the organization in 2020 for his efforts. As more and more anglers experience success with swords, perhaps more will turn to the option of release to protect the swordfish habitat for the future.
Fuel Up and Go
A species that was once a “bucket-list” catch is well within range of our coast. As the fishery progresses, more information and tactics are available for the average boater and with proper gear and safety measures, you too can do battle with the true gladiator of the deep.
Using Satellite Imaging to Succeed Offshore
Long runs offshore mean sufficient preparation prior. Knowing where to go is the biggest key to success and involves far more than pointing the bow and hitting the throttle. Optimal water conditions, currents, chlorophyll, surface temperatures, etc. all play a heavy hand in locating pelagic fish.
Hilton’s Realtime Navigator is a satellite imaging service that helps you answer the question of “where” so more of your time on the water will be spent catching vs fishing. Hilton’s offers the most up to date imagery as well as a large selection of viewing areas.
In regards to the service’s use in hunting swordfish, Hilton’s chart overlays allow you to view the water conditions as they relate to bottom structures you intend to fish.
“Hilton’s satellite imaging plays a huge part in my day-to-day success on the water.” says Capt. Adam Peeples with One Shot Charters in Ft Walton Beach, Fl. “Water color, current speeds and direction and altimetry are key factors I look for when swordfishing. Knowing these conditions before heading offshore removes the guesswork and leads to a better experience for my clients.”
Hilton’s offers different subscription packages based on the number of chart regions desired and there are many options available. For more information on Hilton’s Realtime Navigator and its services, as well as testimonials from top professional captains and crews, go to www.hiltonsoffshore.com
by Chris Vecsey
Sam’s Bait and Tackle
27122 Canal Rd
Orange Beach, Al 36561
One Shot Fishing Charters, LLC
850 602 2475
Hilton’s Real-time Navigator