Warming Up to Winter Swordfish

Many of the largest swordfish of the year are caught as they migrate through our waters in winter.

Slick calm days are fewer than in summer, but the average fish is bigger. This one's 130 pounds, taken by the Three Buoys crew off Palm Beach County.

By Michael Grant

Each year as the weather turns cold, Florida east coast anglers begin targeting sailfish as they migrate south with each passing cold front. When chasing sailfish, the best fishing usually occurs on the leading edge of the cold front when the wind is blowing the hardest and the seas are rough. Between those cold fronts, when the seas calm down, sailfish can get lock-jaw or can be otherwise difficult to find. It is on those rare, calm winter days that you should not overlook one of the best times of year to catch a different kind of billfish, a trophy swordfish. Many of the largest swordfish of the year are caught as they migrate through Florida waters in the winter months while most anglers are pursuing other species.

Over the past decade, targeting swordfish has mostly transitioned from a nighttime affair to a daytime pursuit. Many articles and a few videos have discussed the basics of pursuing swordfish in the daylight, covering the basic elements and equipment such as electric reels, braided lines, heavy weights, rigged natural baits, wind-on leaders, electric light attractors and harpoons. One of the best resources for any novice daytime swordfisherman is the In the Spread video series by RJ Boyle including, “Daytime Swordfishing,” “Daytime Swordfishing Bait,” and “Closing the Deal on Bigger Swords” available at www.rjboylestudio.com.

Far left is a harpoon, and next to it, a camera on a pole. Talk about catching the action!

In this feature, we are going to delve beyond the basics and focus on a few small and often-overlooked details that will certainly increase your daytime success.

My crew’s regular daytime swordfish rig consists of 65-pound-test Sufix Performance Braid mainline, a wind-on monofilament leader, a heavy, quality Spro ball bearing barrel swivel and a short bait leader. One of the most important portions of your daytime swordfish rig to consider is the wind-on leader between your braided line and your bait. A typical wind-on consists of 100 to 150 feet of 200- to 300-pound-test monofilament line terminated at one end with a Dacron loop. The wind-on loop is attached to a Bimini twist loop in the braided fishing line with a serious of interlocking “cat’s paw” passes, with the wind-on leader passed back and forth through the Bimini twist loop.

The goal in all of your connections throughout your setup is to make the rig as streamlined as possible in an attempt to avoid line twist. That is why special attention must be paid to the characteristics of the monofilament you incorporate into your wind-on leader. You should look for monofilament that is soft and supple with low memory. That is why we use Sufix Superior or Jinkai Monofilament, as they are not as hard as other manufacturers’ and do not retain as many memory coils after being stretched out. Line with low memory allows your bait to swim naturally and reduces line twists. However, no matter what line you choose for your wind-on, it will have some memory coils if it is stored on a reel or coiler for weeks or even a few days. That is why we always make sure to cut off all terminal tackle and stretch out the wind-on behind the boat on the way to the swordfish grounds. By stretching the wind-on before you start your day, you enable your bait to swim as naturally as possible without spinning on your first couple of drops.

Longline snap at top connects weight rig to loop of waxed thread in leader.

In swordfishing, it is common to hear the phrase, “No light, no bite.” After all, we are fishing near the bottom where sunlight does not penetrate. As such, we attach one or more electric fishing light attractors to the wind-on leader. Popular lights include Lindgren-Pitman’s Electralumes and Strobe Lights and C&H’s Mity Lites. Lights are secured to the wind-on leader and locked into place with small rigging bands like the ones used to bridle live baits for sailfish kite fishing. To lock a light in place, open the band with two fingers and pass the light through the band and around the wind-on 4 to 6 times. Let go of the band with your fingers and slide both ends tight to each side of the light on the wind-on. We like to start out with two Lindgren-Pitman Strobe Lights on the wind-on leader, one directly above the barrel swivel and one locked about 12 feet up the wind-on. By using the rigging bands to lock the lights in place, you can reel straight through them with the electric reel and they will slide down to the barrel swivel. This allows one man to fight the fish all the way to the 6-foot bait leader without having to hand line or stop the reel to remove the lights.

You should experiment with the number, color and location of lights on your wind-on. If our standard two-light rig does not produce any bites after a few drops, we will change colors, add another light and stagger the lights up the wind-on leader as far as 60 feet. One of the keys to success is to always make changes to your set-up if you are not getting bites, so do not be afraid to experiment.

No matter what type or number of lights you use, it is inevitable that you are going to twist up your wind-on between dropping to the bottom and retrieving to the surface. That is why, in between drifts, we again cut off all terminal tackle and stretch the wind-on out behind the boat while underway to reset for another drift. Again, other than proper bait rigging, stretching your wind-on in between drifts is the best way to guarantee that your bait is swimming naturally and not spinning. Also, carry extra wind-ons. If your wind-on is twisted beyond repair, switch it out for fresh new one. I recently spoke with Mercury Pro Team Member Seth Funt of Team Three Buoys, a recognized expert in daytime swordfishing, and asked him to identify his number one key to daytime success. Without hesitation he said, “Structure. Identifying and fishing the right structure is the key to putting a fish on the deck.” According to Funt, there should be no such thing as a blind drift. Time is spent pre-trip reviewing and analyzing bottom contour bathymetric charts on his chart plotter looking for canyons, mountains and humps that have sharp rises or drops. If your chartplotter does not show detailed bottom contours, you can purchase excellent charts from Waterproof Charts, Home Port Charts, or OceanGrafix. Once suitable structure is located, the boat is positioned on the upcurrent side of the structure far enough away to allow the bait to reach the bottom before the boat gets to the structure. “Sometimes if the current is moving fast (over 2.5 mph) I will start my drift 1 or 1.5 miles ahead of the structure,” said Funt. “That way I know that have time to get to the bottom and present a perfect bait over the structure. Ninety percent of my bites come within a quarter mile of the front or back of the structure. If I pass over the structure and drift more than a half a mile past with without a bite, it is time to reel up, run the boat, stretch the wind-on, and reset for another drift.”

Dolphin Electreels Mated to Penn International 130s. Note wind-on-leaders trailing astern while the captain resets the drift. This removes twist from the leaders.

Another winter-specific tip is to switch up your natural baits. Throughout most of the year squid generally get the nod for daytime swordfish. In the winter, we fish more “fish” baits like tinker mackerel, mullet, horse ballyhoo and ribbonfish. That is due to that fact that more baitfish like tinker mackerel pass through the sword grounds in the wintertime and that is what they are keyed in on.

In the end, if you pay attention to the little details and are not afraid to experiment with your setup, your chances of daytime success will greatly improve. Now pick a calm day to get out there and “Get tight!” FS

Swordfish Basics

Permits – You’ll need a vessel HMS permit from hmspermits.noaa.gov. Site also includes regulations.

Rod – 80- to 130-pound-class bent butt rod with quality roller tip that is recessed to prevent the braid from lodging between the roller and frame.

Reel – Electric with at least 1,200 yards of braided line, capable of dead lifting 20-plus pounds. Manual reel will work, if you have a crew with enough arm strength.

Line – 65- to 80-pound-test braided line. Heavy current use 65-pound , light current 80-pound.

Weight – 6 to 15 pounds of lead, concrete or bricks depending on depth of water, amount of current and braided line diameter, secured to the wind-on leader close to the braided line connection.

From left: Capt. Scott Turner, Kim Holsey, Holly Broz, Dr. Adrian Lavina and Joe Holsey with a Palm Beach Swordfish.

Hooks – 9/0 to 11/0 Mustad 7691 or 7698 Stainless Steel or similar hooks sharpened with a file.

Bait – Tinker mackerel, strip baits, horse ballyhoo, squid or any natural bait will work. The key is to rig a bait that does not spin. Watch the bait behind the boat before deploying. If it spins, do not use it.

Location– Over bottom structure between 1,200 to 1,800 feet of water. Hit bottom ahead of the structure, then reel up a sufficient amount of line for the weight to clear the structure without
snagging.

Boat Handling – Face the boat into the current and bump engine in and out of gear to stem the current and keep line vertical off the rodtip.

The Bite – Watch rodtip for taps. When you see the bite, reel up 20 feet of line after each bite until the rod loads. Or, drop back 50 to 100 feet so the swordfish
can eat the “prey” that it just stunned with its bill. If you are in an area free from snags, drop the weight to the bottom and give the swordfish time to eat the bait before re-engaging the reel.

The Fight – Once the rod loads, keep the reel in gear retrieving line with around 30 pounds of initial drag to pick up the scope in the line and set the hook. Once tight, back the drag off to 20 to 25 pounds so that the fish can stop the reel or pull off line without breaking the braided line.

Landing – As the wind-on leader comes onto the reel and the weight is quickly removed, stand ready with harpoon and/or heavy gaff. Take your shot the very first moment that the fish is in range, as most fish liven up at boatside and many get away right there.

First Published Florida Sportsman November 2013