Don’t fight sleep—get an early start and finish strong.
By Pat Ford
I’ve always wanted to catch a swordfish, but I have this problem—I need my sleep. The thought of leaving the dock at 8 p.m. and getting back at 5 a.m. would only interest me if the “Baywatch” cast made up the crew. For this reason I completely missed the swordfish mayhem of the 1970s, and after the longliners were run out and these magnificent fish began to reappear, I was appreciably older and even more addicted to a good night’s sleep.
Then one day Hunter Ledbetter called and asked if I wanted to join him on a swordfish trip off Miami. Hunter explained that this was going to be a unique trip. We would leave the Miami Beach Marina at 4 p.m. and fish until 10 p.m.
I’d be home by midnight at the latest. I could probably handle that “late night” experience even at my ripe old age of 64, so I agreed to go with the proviso that if we accidentally hooked a monster, I was not helping out on the rod. This was going to be Hunter’s dance and if he collapsed, it was going to be the mate’s problem. This was not a completely unrealistic concern because the captain, Bouncer Smith, had boated a 548-pound sword just a few weeks earlier. According to Bouncer, swordfish may take one hour (or longer) per 100 pounds
to land on 50-pound standup gear.
Our destination was some 15 miles off Miami Beach in about 1,800 feet of water.
Bouncer explained that daytime swordfishing is totally different than nighttime fishing. Satellite tags have shown that during daylight hours swordfish hang out around 1,800 to 2,000 feet down. After sunset they rise to between 100 and 300 feet of the surface. At dawn, they drop back down to 2,000. Everyone assumes that they are following some form of bait or that they simply don’t like sunlight. In either event the pattern is predictable.
When we arrived at Bouncer’s first waypoint, he and his mate, John Herndon, went to work. Our bait supply consisted of large squids, bonito bellies and a few blue runners. However, only one rod is used when fishing in 2,000 of water. The rod is an 80-pound custom blank made by Leward Rods and the reel is a Daiwa Dendoh Marine Power 3000. Only the Hulk could reel up 20 pounds of weight out of 2,000 feet of water and the rig goes up and down several times an outing. The reel also counts the line in meters so you know exactly how much is out. Bouncer lets the sinker and bait out very carefully with the boat in gear. He moves the boat ahead to prevent tangles, then stops the boat to let the rig sink. Once it hits bottom, Bouncer reels it up about 40 feet to avoid snags. The entire rig includes the sinker, custom-made spreader bar, a C&H Lures Mighty Light and a bunch of ball-bearing swivels—translation: expensive. Snagging bottom is not only costly but takes an hour out of your fishing day just re-rigging. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to reel everything in just to check your bait, even with the electric power.
As soon as we got everything organized, Bouncer set out the rig, baited with a slab of bonito and two 12/0 hooks. When the sinker hits bottom, he raises it into a snag-free position and then we wait. There’s only one line out so everyone’s staring at it and a strike can be detected by either the rodtip going down or going up.
Assuming a swordfish swallows the bait, it will either run away—pulling the rodtip down and line off the reel—or it will swim up, fighting the weight of the sinker which puts less pressure on the rod, causing the tip to rise. Once the battle is on, the electric reel does most of the work with the angler simply pushing a button. The real work is done by the captain maneuvering the boat. Once the weight starts coming up, it’s often hard to tell whether you have a fish on at all. Bouncer told me that one boat pulled in their line to check the bait only to find a 400-pound swordfish on the other end when it hit the surface.
There are actually two stages to fighting a swordfish on an electric reel. The first stage is to get the sinker up so you can take it off. Once the humongous sinker and Mighty Lite are removed, you are fighting the fish in a conventional manner and you have the option of turning the electric off. When Bouncer caught his 548-pound swordfish they had the sinker off in 45 minutes, then fought the fish for another 4 hours.Bouncer refers to daytime fishing as “jungle rules”—anything goes. But once the sun goes down the swordfishing is more civilized.
As Hunter and I drifted along listening to Bouncer explain the complexities of this style of fishing, we had a bite on the electric. I can’t really say that Hunter “fought” the fish, but he did stand next to the rod, pushing the button. Hunter had caught swordfish before with Capt. “RT” Trosset down in Key West and it didn’t take him and Bouncer too long to determine that whatever they had hooked wasn’t very big. Half a mile of line later, we came up with a goofy-looking thing that Bouncer identified as a pomfret. It looked a bit like a permit in a leather suit. Bouncer had never seen one before but at least he knew what it was. Hunter and I had never even heard of it. Evidently there are very few creatures living in 1,800 feet of water that will take a bait. Other than swordfish the most common catch is an oilfish which is another mystery to me.
As the sun set we lost sight of the Miami Beach horizon and soon were engulfed in complete darkness, except for the moonlight glistening over the water. Now the real fishing started. Bouncer put out four 50-pound-class standup rods. Two had floats marked with cyalume lights and two were just flatlines. The baits were set at depths of 100, 150, 200 and 300 feet. A glow light was dropped over the side to attract whatever lights in the middle of the ocean at night attract. Mostly the waiting continued.
Bouncer explained that the cyalume/floats would start moving away if a swordfish hit the bait, while the two deep lines were simply set on freespool with the clickers engaged. If one of these rods was hit, Hunter would fight the fish standing up with an appropriate harness. We were all wearing Panther Vision hats which have lights built into the brim and are perfect for fishing at night. The magic hats allowed us to meander around the deck without breaking a toe, but once those lights were off…it was really dark!
Around 9 p.m. one of the flatlines started to scream and Hunter raced to the rod as John and I cleared the other lines. Hunter had something solidly hooked and it was working him over pretty good. At night there’s no telling what you have on, but you can pretty much count on sharks chewing through the 300-pound mono pretty quickly.
Actually, this was the first time I’d tried to take photos at night and I learned a few interesting things about my Canon camera. First of all it was so dark that as far as the camera was concerned, the lens cap was still on. It needed some light to allow it to focus and for the flash to register. After several attempts with nothing happening, I found that the lights from the hats illuminated the subject enough for the camera to function, but when the swordfish made its one and only jump, nothing registered on the camera’s sensors. I did manage a few photos of the fish next to the boat but after a quick measurement, Bouncer announced that it was two inches too short to keep and that pulling it in the boat for a photo would be seriously harmful to the fish. John grabbed the bill, removed the hooks and the first swordfish I’d ever seen swam away only slightly worse for wear. That was our only bite that night and at 10 p.m. we called it quits and headed home, which was only 20 minutes west. What a great way to spend an evening!
Bouncer feels that August through October are the best months for swordfish off Miami. Speaking with another local expert, Capt. Ray Rosher a few days later I learned that he had boated a 250-pounder just before dark that same day we were out. Man, would I like to see a big swordfish caught in the daylight—even if it does require “jungle rules.” The ablest skippers in South Florida pretty much average one swordfish per trip, up to four in one night. Hopefully next time I’ll bring up the average, not drag it down.
Day Drop Rig for Heavy Current
Fifty yards of 300-pound mono is spliced (wind-on leader style) to 2,500 yards of 80-pound Spectra braid. The sinker is a collection of brick pavers taped together that weighs around 20 pounds. It’s attached to the leader with an aluminum rod bent into an “L” shape, a spreader bar which is Bouncer’s own creation. It’s designed to keep the leader and bait from tangling with the massive weight and it is lowered into the water with great care. Bouncer puts the sinker 30 to 40 feet above the double-hooked bait, fastening the spreader with longline snaps and floss loops onto the 300-pound-test mono leader.
The crook of the L is snapped to the rod-side of the leader in a fixed position, held by a floss loop whipped into place at two ends. One arm of the L is snapped to the terminal side of the line; the other is snapped to a piece of 60-pound monofilament tied to a heavy duty wire tie attached to the taped pavers. The line-side of the L stands out at a right angle as the weight of the sinker pulls the other; this keeps some separation between the running line and the length of leader to the bait, so they won’t tangle. Also, this allows you to send that squid down in its most hydrodynamic orientation, mantle-first, avoiding damage to the bait which could result from dragging it down tentacles-first.