A fishing sage once wrote something about how trolling for marlin is 98 percent boredom, followed by 2 percent pandemonium when the fish takes the bait. Drifting for swordfish can be that way, also. However, it takes only one sword-often only one bite-to make a fisherman’s night. Those thoughts were foremost in my mind when I heard my son yell:
Kyle had heard the drag when the fish hit, but when he grabbed the rod, he could not feel any tension on the rod. He waited for a second hit. It came and he set up on the fish. The 2 percent pandemonium was under way.
I rushed for my camera as he battled the swordfish. This being Kyle’s first-ever sword, I wanted a photo. As he brought the fish alongside the boat, I quickly ran to the stern to capture a shot. Just then the fish began thrashing wildly.
“Get back, quick!” yelled Kinzy Jones, our wireman for the night. “His bill is headed right at you!”
Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, I retreated, missing my opportunity. Luckily for me, the swordfish missed his, also. I could have sworn that this fish, its long, sharp rapier protruding through the water and flickering in the moonflight, was sizing me up for a sucker punch.
“Touch the leader!” Kyle yelled to Kinzy. He did and it was now the fish was a legitimate catch. To keep the fish from hurting itself-or us-as it struck the boat, Kinzy held the leader tightly and let the fish release itself. It could now grow up to be a Goliath swordfish. We watched it swim away into the night.
Returning to the famous flashing beacon at Hillsboro Inlet, I was convinced that swordfish are on the upswing in South Florida. On a previous trip, Kyle, his neighbor Al Peranio and I had fished with Capt. Casey Hunt of Pompano Beach, a local swordfish expert. That night we had boated a very respectable 160-pound swordfish, and pulled the hook on a second fish. That’s two fish landed in two trips-very respectable odds for swordfishing.
Reports from other anglers in the area seem to indicate that swordfish are slowly, but surely, making a comeback. Fishermen hope that one day soon the fishery will be restored to the heyday status of the 1970s and early ’80s. Over the intervening years, commercial longline fishing had clearly taken a heavy toll on the stocks, with the average size of fish landed (88 pounds, in 1999) falling well below the size at which female swords begin spawning (about 150 pounds). There was a tremendous problem with longline bycatch of swordfish below the legal minimum size; about 75 percent of these are thought to have died after release. Prodded by conservation groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service last year closed the waters along Florida’s entire East Coast to longline fishing-a critical step that may have saved this fishery from the brink. Now, as the fish begin to rebound, conservative sportfishing, with tackle and catch levels scaled to the swordfish population, appears poised to grow right alongside the stocks.
Swordfish are remarkable creatures, known to live as long as 25 to 30 years and attain weights of up to 1,200 pounds. Among sportsmen they are famous for their fighting ability and table quality. For many anglers today, however, swordfishing is as much a social event as it is an effort to bring steaks to the grill.
I had arrived at Kyle’s house at 3 p.m., just in time to load my gear and hop into the boat and head toward the Atlantic via Hillsboro Inlet, 15 minutes away. We wasted no time picking up some live goggle-eyes (bigeye scad) at Lighthouse Point Marina and heading 30 miles southeast to deep waters roughly due east of Bakers Haulover, a small inlet at the north end of Miami-Dade County. Swordfishing entails drifting with the northbound Gulf Stream, and thus normally begins with a late-afternoon run to the south.
We began our drift, setting out four lines. We dropped three baits down one at a time (so they would not get tangled) and attached balloons with rubber bands to the lines, holding baits at the 400-, 300- and 200-foot levels. Two of these lines had live goggle-eyes, the third a squid. We rigged them on 9/0 J-hooks tied to 300-pound-test monofilament leader and 80-pound mono line on 80-pound-class trolling reels.
At the top of each 12-foot leader, we affixed a luminous glow stick to attract baitfish and swordfish. Also, we placed glow sticks inside each balloon, so that we could see it glowing on the surface. We used 32-ounce breakaway weights to get the lines down.
We baited a fourth line with a tinker mackerel and sent it down to 60 feet. We did not attach a balloon to this line. We staggered the lines, so that the farthest balloon was barely discernible in the distance.
Although most South Florida swordfish angling is done in 1,000 to 1,500 feet of water, most of the bites come within the first 400 feet of the surface. It’s always a good idea to check your depthfinder for bottom structure. Our best luck has come in areas that have good bottom structure-peaks, canyons, steeples and other formations. Waterproof Chart #123F (Side B Southeast Florida Trolling Chart Miami and Offshore) shows some good swordfish sites with GPS numbers, including Swordfish Hill: 26-10’N Lat. and 79-53’W Long. Also, many anglers fish the general area between 25-45’N Lat. and 26-10’N Lat., bounded on the east and west by 79-45’W Long. and 79-55’W Long. Put out a sea anchor to slow your drift and to help keep your boat straight during the drift. Keep a log of bites, and re-drift productive areas.
We put out a chumbag on our last trip and chummed up schools of tinker mackerel that are great swordfish baits. In fact, that’s the bait that Kyle caught his swordfish on. We also hooked another swordfish that we didn’t slow down. It took a tinker mackerel also. I used a lightweight rod, a small hook and a small piece of squid to easily catch a dozen tinker mackerel. My advice is to take along some goggle-eyes, blue runners or squid as backup, but catch the tinker mackerel if they are around-it’s the hottest swordfish bait going.
There are two theories on fighting swordfish. The first is to keep the drag on the reel as tight as the battle will stand and to keep pressure on the fish throughout the fight. That way, the angler doesn’t spend half the night fighting a swordfish, only to lose it because it was not hooked solidly. A swordfish has a soft mouth. Also, it slashes its prey with its long bill and often gets hooked in the bill or gets foul hooked in the cheek, the side, or in some other area that is likely to pull loose after time and pressure.
The other method is to loosen the drag, take plenty of time and don’t put too much pressure on the fish, even if the battle lasts twice or three times as long. In case the fish is hooked in a soft area, the hook has less chance of pulling loose.
While many swordfish tod
ay will be in the sub-100-pound class, some big hitters are still around, according to local fishermen. Al Peranio and offshore fishing pal Pat Patterson recently helped three young anglers hoist a huge swordfish from their small boat to the scales at Lighthouse Point Marina. It weighed 425 pounds. “Each year two or three 350-pounders are caught in this area,” said Peranio.
Don’t try to boat a green fish. Also, take precautions when handling swordfish. Even with heavy gloves, it can be hazardous. Veteran angler Jack Gardner of Lighthouse Point, who has helped catch three swordfish up to 175 pounds, was releasing a swordfish when its bill penetrated his glove and sliced his hand. Swordfish have been known to spear fishermen and boats as well. He also recommends using a flying gaff if you’re going to be bringing fish aboard. “Handle them very carefully,” said Gardner. “If you’ve seen the movie Perfect Storm, you’ve seen swordfish beating the hell out of the side of the boat. They’re aggressive; they don’t give up easily.”
Proposed Recreational Swordfish Regulations
(The minimum 47-inch lower jaw to fork limit remains in effect):
1) A limit of one swordfish per boat per trip: This recreational limit will apply to all vessels, including charter fishing boats.
2) Anglers must report within 24 hours all landings of swordfish except for those reported through fishing tournaments. All it will take is a 5-minute call to this toll-free number: 1-800-894-5528 to report the size, date and place of landing. This also applies to blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish catches.
3) NMFS plans to develop an outreach program to promote the use of circle hooks within the recreational swordfish fishery to avoid injury to the fish.
4) Recreational swordfish anglers are limited to handlines and rod and reel gear.
Livebait Rigging for Swordfish
Leader Construction: Tie Bimini twist in fishing line. Attach ball-bearing snap swivel using offshore swivel knot or other. Crimp loop to top of 10- to 30-foot, 300-pound-test mono leader; crimp 9/0 slightly offset J-hook to bottom (circles are also widely used). Hook luminous light stick handle onto snap swivel, securing loose end to leader with a rubber band. Connect 24- to 32-ounce breakaway sinker to swivel by wrapping copper rigging several times to secure it enough to stay on until fish strikes.
Bridle Rig Live Bait: Tie about a 4-inch loop of dacron or rigging thread. One end of loop goes around the hook and the other end goes through the open eye of rigging needle. Go through eye socket with rigging needle. Place that end of bridle over the hook; twist hook a few times and pass the tip of the hook through the open loop between the twist and the top of the baitfish’s head. If you have too much slack, twist bridle hook a few more times and go through the bridle again.
Float Setup: Snap luminous light stick and place it inside balloon or inside half-gallon or gallon milk jug. Attach balloon to fishing line by tying a rubber band around the line so that it doesn’t slip (run the rubber band through itself a couple of times and attach it to the end of balloon). Another good way is to inflate balloon and then wrap copper rigging wire around the end of the balloon. Then, attach wire to fishing line with a rubber band. You want the balloon to burst or break loose when the fish strikes. Milk jugs are also good when tied around the handle with copper rigging wire and then attached to the line with a rubber band.
Deployment: Let lines out, staggering balloons or milk jugs at desired distance. Put out sea anchor to get a better drift. Tie chumbag near stern. Drop fluorescent (or brighter halogen) light and let it float next to chumbag. Light will attract baitfish, especially tinker mackerel, as well as swords. Keeping boat lights on during drifts interferes with anglers being able to see floats, baitfish, fish or ships heading toward you. Once the balloons or jugs are out, place your fishing rod in the holder and back off the drag so that it will click off and let the fish pick up the bait and take line. When you hear the fish taking line, pick up the rod, tighten the drag and set the hook.
Swordfish: A Slice of History
The secret’s out: Swordfish are indeed making a comeback. However, anglers should not forget the long and contentious regulatory history behind our only “eating” billfish.
Although it’s hard to say when the alarm bell first sounded, surely conservation sentiments were stirring as early as 1983, when the last recreational swordfish tournament concluded off Fort Lauderdale with not a single fish landed-not even a bite. Five years before that, tournament records kept by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) seemed to promise about a fifty-fifty shot at catching a swordfish on a given night, and some by-golly big ones at that: In 1978 a 590-pounder hit the scales, anchoring an average fleetwide catch of 161 pounds.
As a commercial longline fleet moved in during these years, recreational catches and enthusiasm went down the drain. A longline consist of dozens of miles of monofilament, supported at the surface by buoys, and trailing hundreds of hooks on short leaders. Logbooks kept by these commercial fishermen became the only formal records of a fishery in obvious decline. For many years, conservation advocates insisted the federal government needed to do a better job of regulating the fishery, but it wasn’t until the close of the 1990s that the issue galvanized the public. In 1998, many chefs and restaurateurs started removing swordfish from their menus in an effort to draw attention to the dwindling stocks. A few outspoken longliners began leaving the business, appalled at watching future earnings and dead baby swordfish drift away together on the Gulf Stream. Bumper stickers even reminded us of the fact that most market swordfish never had chance to spawn.
Under pressure from virtually every marine conservation group-and stirred to action by bycatch and stock rebuilding provisions of the 1996 Congressional Sustainable Fisheries Act-the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finally took action. Effective February 1, 2001, longline fishing was outlawed year-round in waters along Florida’s East Coast out to 200 miles, and in the DeSoto Canyon area of the Gulf of Mexico; a seasonal closure was also applied to an area off South Carolina. The closures are anticipated to reduce 31 percent of dead discards of juvenile swordfish in the pelagic longline fishery. Conservationists also expect the closures will benefit sailfish, which were often incidentally hooked on longlines, and then cut loose hours later, dying if not dead already from the trauma.
The longline closed areas remain open to rod-and-reel fishermen, and, while the fishery is not out of the woods yet, it is in recovery, according to NMFS. Now that longliners are banned, recreational anglers are poised to do their part to ensure that the fishery recovers to the days when the average swordfish weighed 200 pounds instead of 60 to 90 pounds today. While it is certainly acceptable to keep a fish within the limits, a number of South Florida charterboat captains like Bouncer Smith and Ray Rosher have been releasing swords. Sadly, rumors of unscrupulous, unlicensed anglers selling swordfish to restaurants prompted NMFS regulators to draft tight restrictions, including a one fish per boat li
mit, which many feel is too conservative-especially in light of the U.S. annual quota issued by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The ICCAT is a multi-national treaty organization that sets catch levels of highly migratory species for member nations
Recently, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, American Sportfishing Association, IGFA, Recreational Fishing Alliance and National Fishing Association co-signed a letter to the chief of the NMFS Highly Migratory Species Division asserting the right of recreational fishers to land swordfish within the overall U.S. quota. The letter also underscored the likelihood that rod-and-reel catches will be more sustainable than the nonselective longlines.
Surprised by allegations (likely from disgruntled ex-longliners) that South Florida anglers had been “slaughtering hundreds of swordfish” every week, Mike Leech, president of IGFA and as well-connected to the regional sportfishing scene as anyone, conducted an informal survey of recent recreational catches.
Leech found that about 50 boats are fishing swordfish on a regular basis off Broward and Dade counties. “I’ve never seen more than 18 on a single night,” he said. “Most boats are drifting a strip 20 miles long and 2 to 4 miles wide, an area of humps, bumps and ridges, and if you get to the north end and want to run back, you can easily count all the boats by their lights.
“Out of that fleet, maybe 500 swordfish were caught in all of 2001,” he said. “Over half of those fish were released, which means about 250 swordfish were boated in South Florida last year. The average size boated was 118 pounds.”
Doing a little figuring, Leech concluded that recreational landings in South Florida are accounting for just one-half of one percent of the total annual U.S. swordfish quota-making federal efforts to restrict the fishery seem trivial at best. “You also don’t have the bycatch problem in this fishery-this is something NMFS should be encouraging,” he said, adding that longlines outside the closed areas continue to take over 90 percent of the swords allocated to the U.S. by ICCAT.
“The good news is that there are a lot of fish out there,” Leech said of South Florida waters. “I’ll be continuing to monitor it, and I expect the average size will get bigger.”