Long runs pay big rewards in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
I keep telling everyone that I over-married. When my bride gave me the okay to go on a 2-day swordfishing trip the day after Christmas, I proved it. Captain Jeremy Williams was putting together an offshore trip aboard his 43-foot sportfisherman J-Hook. The game plan was to grouper fish our way southwest to and from the Steps by day, and slip a little deeper for swords by night. I joined the captain along with Mark Adams, his son Luke, Don Martin, Nick Booker and Sean Garrison.
With the air temperature hovering in the low 40s, we left Daybreak Marina in Pensacola at 10 a.m. and began the 60-mile run, stopping along the way to hit a few familiar grouper spots and do a little exploring for some new rocks that proved to be productive. Crisp winter air keeps some folks at home under the blankets and by the fire, but to me, there is no better time to be on the water. The almanac picked this day as second worst day of the month for fishing and the grouper bite backed it up, though we did manage a few decent gags for the grill.
We arrived at the Steps around dusk, and the wind was not the “variable at 5 knots” as forecasted; it was more like 15 knots and steady out of the northwest. We begrudgingly deployed the sea anchor to slow our drift, necessary due to the wind’s 3- to 5-foot seas, though it does have a way of providing an escape mechanism for savvy swordfish that can wrap your line around it. “Ninety percent of the time, we are dealing with so little current and calm seas the anchor isn’t necessary,” Williams explained. But, winter cold fronts can be more aggressive and unpredictable than the long stretches of calm seas we get during most of the summer months along the Panhandle.
As the boat came about and our drift certain, the crew was putting dinner on as Jeremy was lowering the first bait down, a large squid. This was to be a deep bait at about 400 feet, and that’s where the first fish hit. Williams knew it was a sword, because the line went slack with an 8-pound weight on it. “Two out of three swords will eat the bait and head straight for the surface,” detailed the captain. He began reeling as fast as he could until he felt the fish and began to apply pressure, careful not to set the hook. “With 6 to 10 pounds of weight on the line, swords are pretty good at hooking themselves,” he explained.
We managed to get a harness on Williams. He would fight this fish on standup gear. In just 10 or 15 minutes, we saw the blue-and-green Lindgren-Pittman light located about 12 feet above the hook, and the fish saw us. At this point the sword realized he was hooked and headed straight back down, ripping line off the 50 wide reel. Swords aren’t really fast, but this fish peeled line steadily for what seemed like an eternity, but was 8 to 10 minutes in reality. We all knew this was a good fish.
The wind and sloppy seas didn’t make fighting this fish any easier, but Williams pressed on for 45 minutes, then an hour and at the 85-minute mark, we saw the light again. The fish headed under the boat and we thought we were done, but Jeremy turned him. Then he headed for the sea anchor, but we got lucky again. He finally swam within reach for a shot with the flying gaff, and Nick made a perfect shot.
Don, Sean and Nick hoisted the fish into the boat and she lay over 10 feet long from tail to bill and would weigh 132 pounds back at the docks. She was a spectacular fish and we all high-fived and cheered; we couldn’t help thinking that Santa came a day late for us. It seemed fitting for Jeremy to catch the biggest sword of the year on the last trip of the year. He’s usually up on the bridge and when he is in the cockpit, almost always hands the rod off so that others can list a swordfish among their catches.
I did say the first fish right? At about 1 a.m., I was on watch and I saw the light on the same rod about 40 feet behind the boat before the drag started screaming, and if you’ve ever heard a Tiagra drag in the still of the night, you know it is loud. I came down from the bridge so quickly that I don’t think I even used the ladder. Sean barreled out of the cabin and got in the harness to fight this fish, which would be his first sword.
This fight wouldn’t be as long as the first, but this fish would battle for just over 30 minutes before we tagged and released it to fight another day. Even a 60-pound swordfish will put you and your equipment to the test. When it was over, Sean was running on adrenaline and grinning like a Cheshire cat. Two bites, two fish and they numbered 22 and 23 for the year, 14 of which were tagged and released. What a way to end the year.
Panhandle swordfishing is really catching on with charter guides and recreational fisherman along the Gulf Coast. Folks on overnight billfishing trips are starting to realize that just because the sun goes down doesn’t mean that the excitement has to end. And anglers are realizing that these extremely powerful fish are excellent targets to test their skill and add excitement to their forays into the Gulf.
Swords are found in the same general areas as other billfish, like the Spur, Elbow and Steps, sites for which GPS numbers are readily available on many charts. “But you want to target them along the sharpest contours, the areas that have the steepest drops to deeper water,” said Williams, “water from 500 to 3,000 feet deep.” Since you won’t be covering a lot of ground on a sword trip—sometimes you might only drift one to one-and-a-half miles in an entire night—you want to pick the sharpest contours you can find.
From Pensacola, you’re talking about a run that could be from 35 to 70 miles or better, depending on where you want to fish. Don’t be too concerned about the time of year for swordfish. “We’ve caught them in every month but February,” the captain explained proudly. “Weather makes it hard to get out during February.”
While Jeremy has been known to make long runs and fish only for swords before returning home, most trips will involve fishing your way to the billfish grounds and back. Whether you choose to bottom fish your way out and troll for wahoo, tuna and marlin on the way in, you certainly want to maximize your fishing time and have an excellent shot at a mixed bag of both meat and trophy fish.
It goes without saying that any boat venturing this far offshore should have basic safety equipment for such a trip. This includes Coast Guard-approved PFDs, EPIRB, satellite phone or single sideband radio and if you’re heading offshore in the winter, survival suits. A sea anchor is very handy, as it will steady your boat in rough weather. You’ll also want to leave a float plan with a responsible party on shore and make sure folks know when to expect you back. Satellite phones have become increasingly popular with offshore fishermen and invaluable as both a safety device and a means to brag about your catch immediately.
The same rods and reels that you would use offshore trolling for wahoo, tuna and marlin are perfect for swordfish. “Mostly 30s and 50s will work fine, but if we’re fishing really deep we’ll put out an 80,” stated Williams. “And don’t use a lot of drag with these fish, as they have pretty soft mouths. We pulled the hooks on a few before realizing that 8 to 12 pounds was plenty of drag.
“I like to use bent butt rods, because they allow you to see the weight on the tip of the rod better,” he continued. It’s important to watch the rodtips and angle of the line, because swords don’t often hit and immediately start pulling drag. If you see the angle of the line change, get ready because chances are you’ll see the light soon. “I only use high-visibility line and the most effective is Stren Gold, because we use green lights and some of the other hi-vis lines get lost in the light a bit.” And sometimes the fish will merely bounce the rodtip a couple of times before coming straight up, which causes the line to go slack. For such a strong and ferocious predator, they are stealthy when eating their prey.
A typical spread will consist of three rods, with baits deployed at staggered depths such as 100, 250 and 400 feet. “We use to use balloons to help stagger the baits, but we’ve started just varying the amount of weight on each line and it really works well.” You deploy the shallowest line, with the lightest weight first, then the second heaviest and finally the heaviest, as it will be closest to the boat on drift. To clear them or rotate out fresh baits, simply retrieve them in reverse order, with the deep line first.
If the seas are rough, Williams might just put out two rods or even one like in the opening story, if there is a good possibility that they could tangle. “I’d rather have one clean shot at a sword than two or three that might not make it to the boat,” he said.
For leaders the preferred material is extra-hard mono or fluorocarbon, ranging from 150- to 400-pound test, but the most common leader size is 300. For smaller baits on flatlines or shallower lines, you might use the lighter end of the range, 150 to 200. Williams likes 12- to 15-foot leaders, to give you plenty of room to wire the fish at the boat.
At the top of this leader, you’ll want to crimp a Caribbean or three-way barrel swivel, which is different from a regular three-way swivel. It’s basically two large barrel swivels attached together. It does a great job of allowing each swivel, the main swivel attached to the leader and the secondary or rotating swivel holding the weight, to work independently and reduce twists and tangled lines.
The main line is connected to the upper part of the primary swivel, and the light is attached via split ring to the bottom of the primary swivel. On bottom of the light is a small loop, where you can attach your dropper weight with a pair of rubber bands. Next, the leader is crimped to the secondary barrel swivel (at a 90-degree angle in the photo), and is allowed to rotate freely. This is important to prevent tangling—as the weight descends, the main line is held straight and your bait floats down and around, not twisting the main line. When the fight turns on, the rubber bands will often allow the weight to release so that 2 to 10 pounds of lead isn’t aiding the fish in pulling the hooks or causing tangles.
On the end of the leader, you’ll want to attach an offset J-hook, which is appropriate, since Williams’ boat is named J-Hook. After trying circles and livebait hooks of all types, the offset J-hook or longline hook has proven to be the most effective. Make sure you match the hook size to your bait.
Lights, camera, swordfish. Swordfish present the unique challenge of being nocturnal predators. So deepwater lights like Lindgren-Pittman, blue, green or combination lights and Duralite strobes are used and attached to the top of the leader. There is some debate over whether the lights attract baitfish and then the swords or if they simply help the sword find the bait you’re using. Either explanation is acceptable, as long as the fish finds your bait. Sometimes the leader will come back in and be frayed around the light, where the sword has billed the light before eating the bait.
To help attract fresh baitfish to the boat, a Hydroglow (hydroglow.com) light is deployed boatside. This tubular, green light is submerged, so that all the light is underwater and spreads out in an even pattern. It draws in fresh flyingfish, squid and hardtails among other fish, which can be scooped up with a dipnet or caught on bait rods for the ultimate in fresh bait.
Williams likes to use squid as primary bait, which may not come as a shock, but he does add a little something to the mix. He dyes the squid with deep red/purple dye, so that when they are in the water, they look like a natural squid does when it’s all lit up. “We’ll buy a flat of squid and hand pick the best baits, ones that aren’t torn, and then dye them. Then we pack four or five, flat to a gallon-size Ziploc bag and freeze them.” Fresh, live squid are always better but this bait is guaranteed, while catching bait offshore is not. Other baits that work include flyingfish, northern and Spanish mackerel, hardtails and mullet.
To rig the squid, make a small incision at the tail. Feed the hook through the tail and down through the body of the squid and out through the opening, careful not to tear or puncture the bait. The hook should be anchored in the head of the squid, between the eyes. Straighten out the bait and sew the tail of the squid to the leader with copper rigging wire. Williams likes to place a sliding crimp 8 to 10 inches above the hook, which acts as an anchor for the rigging wire and can be adjusted for the size of your baits.
Surprisingly, swordfish are generally cooperative alongside the boat. “You’ll need to be easy when wiring these fish, they do have soft mouths,” explained Williams. And make sure you have heavy leather gloves or even better, Kevlar gloves for billing this fish.
Don’t mistake their early run by the boat as an opportunity to try and gaff this fish. “Like a mako, they sometimes want to take a look at what’s got them before really fighting,” Williams said, with a look to suggest he’s tangled with green swordfish in the past.
It’s important to remember that to keep a swordfish, the regulations require a minimum of 47 inches from the lower jaw to tail fork. (Limit is 1 per person or 3 per vessel) and you’ll also need a HMS or Highly Migratory Species permit for the boat you’re fishing on. All landed fish must be reported to NOAA within 24 hours at (800) 894-5528.
Swords are usually great tag-and-release candidates but if you do take one home, you’re in for excellent tablefare. Fresh swordfish won’t taste anything like your garden variety restaurant sword. The firm, flaky flesh of this fish makes an awesome grill candidate and I like to cook mine over a wood fire, adding a little smoke flavor to it. The leftovers also make excellent swordfish salad.
If you get a chance to experience the thrill of a lifetime by catching a swordfish, you’ll never forget the first time you set your sights on this fish as it almost looks through you with its huge, penetrating eyes. They are a beautiful fish and a viable fishery along the Gulf Coast.